Dazzling, clamorous and exotic, the circus is a theatre of the improbable and impossible. From the days of travelling troupes of acrobats and jugglers to the grand spectacle of the Cirque du Soleil, the circus has exerted an indelible fascination. Of all our myths of reinvention, rebirth, second acts and new identities, running away to join the circus has a special allure. In this book Linda Simon asks why we long to soar on the flying trapeze; to ride bareback on a spangled horse; to parade through city streets in costumes of glitter and gold. Why have artists and writers repeatedly or obsessively taken the circus as their subject? What does the circus offer us that we think we so desperately need? The Greatest Shows on Earth takes us from eighteenth-century hippodromes in Britain to intimate one-ring circuses in nineteenth-century Paris, where Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso became enchanted by aerialists and clowns. We meet P. T. Barnum, James Bailey and the enterprising Ringling Brothers, who created the golden age of American circuses. We explore contemporary transformations of the circus, from the whimsical Circus Oz in Australia to New York City's Big Apple Circus.Circus people are central to the story: trick riders and tightrope walkers, sword swallowers and animal trainers, contortionists and clowns - these are the men and women who create the sensational, raucous, titillating and incomparable world of the circus. Beautifully illustrated, rich in historical detail and full of colourful anecdotes, Linda Simon's vibrant history is as enchanting as a night at the big-top itself.