This is disputed, as people say that circus started in the 18th century. However, they did have what they called circus in Ancient Rome.
The reason for the dispute is that Ancient Rome’s circuses weren’t the fun things we all love today. They were held in large stadiums with horse and chariot races, they even staged battles. Of course, there were gladiators, but they did have displays of trained animals. It was a spectacle, not really one for children.
It appears that modern circus was started in 18th century by Philip Astley, a cavalry officer, who on 4th April 1768, at Lambeth in London, created an amphitheatre where he put on a display of horses doing tricks. He did this in a circular performance space, an amphitheatre, allowing spectators to sit all round, which is why it was called a Circus.
Astley was so successful that he even took his Circus to France and then went on to build 18 more in venues across Europe. They were all special circular buildings, tents appeared later.
Circus crossed the pond to the United States 1793 when John Bill Ricketts opened one in Philadelphia in 1793. Again, he was so successful that he toured it across the States building circus buildings as he went. However, it took until 1825 before they used a large tent, which eventually came back over the water to England in 1838. They were attractive as they were cheaper and easier to move from town to town.
Once the big tent arrived it led to the traveling circus, the most famous of which was “The Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show On Earth”. It even came across the Atlantic and toured around Europe. Travelling circuses then became very popular in Europe, so much so that when Lenin became the head of Russia, he nationalized the Russian circuses and then even went further and opened the State University of Circus and Variety Arts, that in the end became the Moscow Circus School, in 1927.
Isn’t the history of circus fun?