Circus Maximus: Race to the Death

Circus Maximus: Race to the Death

By Author / Illustrator

Annelise Gray


Historical Fiction

Age range(s)



Head of Zeus








Circus Maximus, the greatest sporting stage of the ancient Roman world, where the best horses and charioteers compete in a race to the death, and one girl dreams of glory.

Teaching Resources

Annelise Gray Q&A

Ben Hur meets National Velvet in the ultimate 9-12 adventure story by debut children's author, Annelise Gray.

Twelve-year-old Dido dreams of becoming the first female charioteer at the great Circus Maximus. She's lost her heart to Porcellus, a wild, tempestuous horse she longs to train and race. But such ambitions are forbidden to girls and she must be content with helping her father Antonius - the trainer of Rome's most popular racing team, The Greens - and teaching the rules of racing to Justus, the handsome young nephew of the Greens' wealthy owner.

When her father is brutally murdered, she is forced to seek refuge with an unlikely ally. But what of her dream of Circus triumphs and being reunited with the beloved horse she left behind in Rome? And the threat to her life isn't over as she faces a powerful and terrifying new enemy... the emperor Caligula.



Dido is the young daughter of the trainer Antonius. Antonius trains horses and charioteers for Rome's Circus Maximus; the greatest of all the chariot races. Dido dreams of becoming a charioteer herself, but that is impossible as girls in Ancient Rome do not take part in sport of any sort, particularly not something as dangerous as chariot racing. Then one night her world is shattered when she stumbles across something in the stables that should not be there. Helplessly she watches as her father is murdered and she runs for her life, away from Rome and everything she knew. It would seem as if her dreams of racing in the Circus Maximus are over, and just keeping safe is all she can do.

Set at the time of the emperors Tiberius and Caligula in around 37CE, Circus Maximus: Race to the Death is a gripping historical adventure, simply packed with historical details and convincing real historical figures. It is also clear that Annelise Gray is very knowledgeable about horses and this, coupled with the historical detail, makes for a very convincing and satisfying read.

Whilst Dido herself is not a real person, the events and places are, and they are clearly meticulously researched. Along with the knowledge of horses and chariot racing, this makes it a particularly believable story. I do not have any particular interest in horses, but I love a good historical novel, and this entirely fits the bill. With its striking cover by Levente Szabo, this book contains enough excitement and intrigue to satisfy anyone.

Annelise Gray has created a whole historically accurate world in her debut novel. This world is often violent, and the story does not shy away from this, hence the higher age range recommendation of 10+. It is the first book in a series, described as Ben Hur meets National Velvet. I am looking forward to the next instalment.

348 pages / Reviewed by Jacqueline Harris, teacher

Suggested Reading Age 9+


Circus Maximus: Race to the Death is a thrilling new historical adventure story by debut children's author Annelise Gray. This powerful story is immersed with revenge, redemption, survival, and hope. It is set in the Ancient sporting world of Rome, which is a world dominated by men, however a very brave young girl is trying to get a foothold into it.

Dido - a 12-year-old girl - is the main character. Her dream is to become the first girl to race chariots in the stadium of Circus Maximus. Having lost her mother at a young age, she is raised by her father who works in the stables. This is where Dido learns her love of horses and releases that she has a natural talent for riding - she is the ultimate Roman horse whisperer. Then one day her life changes when she witnesses her father's brutal death and has to run for her life leaving her beloved horse (Porcellus) behind. However, she is determined to prove her self in the brutal world of chariot racing and is even willing to risk life and upset Emperor Caligula who has taken her horse.

This richly detailed story is seeped with history from colourful markets, boisterous crowds in the stadiums to the everyday life of the working stables. They all have the to power to transport you back to an Ancient civilisation retelling cultural events from a different historical perspective. Anyone teaching Rome in Key Stage 2 would be able to use this book to aid the teaching of the curriculum. It is so meticulously researched and offers a wonderful insight into Roman culture and traditions.

Furthermore, this story would appeal to horse-loving readers because the bond between animal and human has been one that has always remained constant throughout history and this book is full of dreams rooted in a love for horse-riding.

I would also recommend this thrilling adventure story as an excellent class read because it is full of bravery, revenge, survival, and hope, which are ingredients to bring any good story to life.

348 pages / Ages 9+ / Reviewed by Hayley Summerfield, teacher

Suggested Reading Age 9+


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