The book channel /

Annelise Gray – Circus Maximus

Tagged , ,

Annelise Gray was born in Bermuda and moved to the UK as a child. She grew up riding horses and dreaming of becoming a writer. This ambition was fulfilled with the publication of a nonfiction book for adults, a history of the women of the Roman Empire, followed by a crime novel set in the Roman Republic. Her first novel for children, Circus Maximus, a story set in Rome during the days of the Roman Empire, partly inspired by her long-held dream of seeing a female jockey win the Grand National, was published in 2021. A sequel, Circus Maximus: Rider of the Storm is published this month. We invited Anneliese to tell us about the inspiration behind the Circus Maximus series.

My early childhood reading obsessions were mostly with books about ponies. I had a whole shelf devoted to them – the Jill series by Ruby Fergusson, an assortment of titles by the prolific Pullein-Thompson sisters. Pride of place, though, was given to a dog-eared copy of
National Velvet by Enid Bagnold, the tale of a girl who wins a wild horse in a village raffle and dreams of riding him to victory at the Grand National.

It now has a home on the shelf above my writing desk, a tribute to its role in inspiring my Circus Maximus series, which
follows the exploits of a horse-mad Roman girl called Dido, whose dream is to break into the all-male world of charioteering and compete at the Circus Maximus, the greatest sporting stadium in the ancient world.

Next to National Velvet lives my other literary lodestar – Rosemary Sutcliff’s classic
The Eagle of the Ninth. As well as being a riveting adventure story, I’m in awe of the way
Sutcliff brings the bleak landscape of Roman Britain to life but in a way that never feels like
she’s borrowing on cliched tropes about the ancient world. Plenty of research underpins the
Circus Maximus novels, but I hope the reader never feels they’re having a history
lesson. Instead, I want them to feel as if they are right there beside Dido, smelling the same
scents in the air, feeling the thrum of noise as the Circus crowd roars.

To conjure up that febrile atmosphere, I draw from a tapestry of different sources. Written eyewitness accounts provide a glimpse into the build-up to a race – the charioteers drawing lots to see which of the Circus’s twelve starting gates they will be allocated; stable-
hands plaiting manes and trying to soothe their four-legged charges, the horses’ hot breath puffing through the gates. No actual Roman racing chariots have ever been excavated, but there are toy-sized model replicas which assist with their reconstruction and demonstrate
how small, difficult and dangerous they would have been to drive. Lead curse tablets, buried at the site of ancient circuses and etched with spells wishing a gruesome death on particular drivers and horses, demonstrate how fierce the rivalries were between supporters of the
four racing teams – Blues, Greens, Reds and Whites.

Of all the evidence I have come across, my favourite is the set of games tokens found in the grave of a young Roman girl from the fourth century. Six little ivory discs, with an image of a horse on one side and a victorious charioteer on the other, they were
buried with the girl alongside a doll with jointed arms and legs and plaited hair. One theory is that the tokens were keepsakes from a day at the races, and it’s a poignant image, the idea that maybe this girl loved going to the Circus, and that’s why her family buried her with
those precious items. From my point of view, it’s always seemed unlikely that amongst the
quarter of a million people who could fit into the Circus Maximus on race day, there weren’t
at least a handful of girls – young Velvet Browns of the past – who longed to be down on
that great track themselves, competing for glory, hearing their name on the crowd’s lips.
That’s an image I always hold in my head as I write Dido’s story.

Circus Maximus: Rider of the Storm is published by Zephyr and available from our partner bookseller Best Books for Schools

Listen to Anneliese talking with Nikki Gamble In the Reading Corner.

If you are looking for books about the Romans and Romans in Britain, take a look at the collections on our partner website bestbooksforschools,com

A selection of the Romans topic books available on