The circus, with its long, narrow structure purpose-built for chariot and horse races, was an essential feature of any large Roman city. The scene on this terracotta oil lamp almost certainly represents a race in the Circus Maximus in Rome, the largest in the world, with a capacity of 250,000 people.
The lampmaker has skilfully condensed the whole event into a small space. In the centre the four-horse chariots (quadrigae) of the four factions (Reds, Blues, Whites and Greens) race around the track. Below them is the central island (spina, literally 'spine') of the circus, complete with statues, shrines, an obelisk and turning posts (metae). The starting gates and the crowd in the stands complete the scene.
Candles and lanterns were known in the Roman world, but lamps which burned olive oil were far more popular. Huge quantities of mould-made terracotta lamps were mass-produced throughout the Empire, ranging in form from animals to objects such as boats and pine-cones. The most common lamp type had a flat, circular body, decorated with a wide range of different motifs; wildlife, deities, allegorical symbols, and scenes of everyday life. The manufacturer, Saeculus, whose name is stamped on the base of the lamp, often featured gladiator or race scenes.