Is it cheating to cite Circus Maximus, the ancient Roman races, as an offbeat circus? Hear me out:
A lot of people assume that the Circus Maximus was, in fact, the first circus. It really wasn't, in the traditional sense. There certainly weren't ringmasters welcoming ladies and gents, nor were there acrobats or clowns. But there was bloody, thrilling spectacle — which, some would argue, is exactly what audiences today are banking on seeing at circuses that promise performers cheating death or animals that could turn wild at any moment. So in a way, the competitions of the Roman Circus Maximus was its own offbeat version of the modern circus, with raucous spectators looking for some down and dirty entertainment.
Originally designed for chariot racing, Circus Maximus also hosted gladiatorial contests and "hunts" for wild animals [source: Grout]. In a way, we might think of Circus Maximus as the coming-together of several offbeat circuses we've learned about. Like certain car circuses that compete on the Wall of Death, the chariot races made one's heart pound. In the first or second century C.E., it also had a bit of provocativeness that we saw in the more adult-themed circuses: Men and women were allowed to sit together, unlike at the Colosseum or theatre [source: Grout]. And like the Acro-Cats, spectators got to sit close to the wild animals ready to spring into action. Okay, that's a bit of a stretch but you get the idea.