On 9th January 1768 the first modern circus was ever staged by Philip Astley in London. It featured trick riders, acrobats, clowns, trained animals and other familiar exhibits you would be likely to see now if you visited a modern-day circus. Astley discovered that if he galloped in a tight circle, centrifugal forces allowed him to perform seemingly impossible feats on a horse's back, and on January 9 he invited the public to see him wave his sword in the air while he rode with one foot on the saddle and one on the horse's head.
In 1770 Astley built a roof over his ring and named it Astley's Amphitheatre. In 1772 Astley performed his show in front of King Louis XV, and set up a permanent show in France in 1782. That same year a competitor in London set up The Royal Circus just down the road from Astley's ring. By the time of Astley's death, in 1814, he had set up 18 other circuses in cities across Europe.
The name 'circu's was derived from the Roman name for the circular theatres where chariot races were held and was adopted as the generic name for this form of entertainment in the 19th Century.
In 1792, English John Bill Ricketts opened the first American circus in Philadelphia and later opened others in New York City and Boston. President George Washington reportedly attended a Ricketts circus and sold the company a horse. Smaller traveling circuses arose in Europe in the early 19th century, visiting towns and cities that lacked elaborate permanent shows. Larger traveling tent shows evolved in the 1820s. In 1859, the Cirque Napoleon in Paris offered the first "flying trapeze" act, which remains a popular component of the modern circus.
In 1871, William Cameron Coup and showman P.T. Barnum opened an enormous circus in Brooklyn that they dubbed "The Greatest Show on Earth." Ten years later, Barnum went into business with James Anthony Bailey; the "Barnum and Bailey" circuses were so large they required simultaneous performances in three rings.
In 1884, the five Ringling brothers staged their first circus, and they soon were buying out other circus companies, including Barnum and Bailey, which they purchased in 1907. During the next three decades, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows grew into the largest touring organization in the world, with hundreds of tents and an army of workers and performers. The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey downsized after World War II but continues to tour today. Canada's Cirque du Soleil, which gave an artistic sensibility to its acrobatic acts while shunning the use of animals, was an innovative circus development of the late 20th century.