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Circopedia was originally created with the support of the Big Apple Circus,
and has been inspired and funded by the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation.

In The Spotlight

Philip Astley


If the history of theater, ballet, opera, vaudeville, movies, and television is generally well documented, serious studies of circus history are sparse, and known only to a few circus enthusiasts and scholars. What little the public at large knows, on the other hand, is circus history as told over the years by imaginative circus press agents, and repeated—and often misunderstood and distorted—by writers of popular fiction, Hollywood screenwriters, and journalists too busy to investigate further. One of the most popular misapprehensions about circus history is the oft-repeated idea that circus dates back to the Roman antiquity. But the Roman circus was in actuality the precursor of the modern racetrack; the only common denominator between Roman and modern circuses is the word itself, circus, which means in Latin as in English, "circle".

The modern circus was actually created in England by Philip Astley (1742-1814), a former cavalry Sergeant-Major turned showman. The son of a cabinet-maker and veneer-cutter, Astley had served in the Seven Years' War (1756-63) as part of Colonel Elliott's 15th Light Dragons regiment, where he displayed a remarkable talent as a horse-breaker and trainer. Upon his discharge, Astley chose to imitate the trickAny specific exercise in a circus act.-riders who performed, with increasing success, all over Europe. Jacob Bates, an English equestrian based in the German States, who performed as far away as Russia (1764-65) and America (1772-73), was the first of these showmen to make a mark. Bates's emulators—Price, Johnson, Balp, Coningham, Faulkes, and "Old" Sampson—had become fixtures of London's pleasure gardens and provided Philip Astley with his inspiration. (more...)

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A Message from the Editor

CIRCOPEDIA is a constantly evolving and expanding archive of the international circus. New videos, biographies, essays, and documents are added to the site on a weekly—and sometimes daily—basis. Keep visiting us: even if today you don't find what you're looking for, it may well be here tomorrow! And if you are a serious circus scholar and spot a factual or historical inaccuracy, do not hesitate to contact us: we will definitely consider your remarks and suggestions.

Dominique Jando
Founder and Curator