Chariot racing has a long heritage going back into the Greek past. It was a feature of the heroes’ seasonal games in Homer and the ancient Olympic Games. The Romans, in their inimitable fashion, took this habit and turned it into the most popular of the mass entertainment staged spectacles in ancient Rome.
Chariot Racing in the Circus Maximus
The circus was a specific arena, shaped like a bullet, for the staging of chariot races, the largest of these was the Circus Maximus in Rome. Circus Maximus means “Biggest Circus.” It was an enormous structure, standing four stories in height, half a Roman mile down each side, with a central large spine up the center of the racing arena where the chariots raced around. It could seat about 200,000 people, making it the largest sporting arena ever erected anywhere at that point in human history.
The chariot races were immensely popular, and historical accounts tell us that the city would be virtually deserted when they would take place. Generally, the format had 12 chariots racing in teams. There were four teams, often called factions, which were identified by their colors: blue, green, red, and white. The fans followed the team color more than they followed the individual drivers or horses, similar to modern sports.
This is a transcript from the video series The History of Ancient Rome. Watch it now, on The Great Courses.
If you had 12 chariots racing, that would mean you would have three chariots from each team that would be fielded for a typical race. For each chariot, the normal number was four horses. We do hear of two-horse and even six-horse chariot racing on occasion, but that was quite rare. Imagine trying to control six galloping horses. Trying to control four is hard enough; six would be stretching it.
The most popular seats were at the curved end of the bullet shape of the arena, since that is where most of the crashes took place.
The chariots would break out of the starting gates at the one end. In the Circus Maximus, there were 12 starting gates, and the chariots would come out with the drivers wrapped up in leather and with their team colors on. They would do the circuit of the circus seven times, seven laps being required to complete the race.
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Shipwrecks in the Arena: Chariot Crashes in Ancient Rome
The most popular seats were at the curved end of the bullet shape of the arena since that is where most of the crashes took place. The slang for a chariot crash in Roman times was a “shipwreck.” They liked to watch the shipwrecks—tangled masses of horses and drivers and wood—that would careen off the corner.
Of course, the rules were pretty minimal. You could whip and lash your opponents and try to pull them out of their chariots if that is what you wished. These were violent spectacles, not just spectacles of skill and entertainment. After the time of Augustus, the race laps were marked with little golden dolphins that were tipped as each lap was finished. Betting was widespread, and one of the chief advantages and pleasures of going to the races would have been to bet on teams or individual drivers.
The enormous popularity of the games was reflected in several sources, including the Roman poet Juvenal, who wrote on one occasion, “All of Rome is in the circus today.” There were even instances when the circus races were going on that Augustus took to stationing groups of soldiers at various points around the city to prevent looting and other ruffians from taking advantage of the practically deserted streets.
The poet Ovid gives an entertaining account of a visit to the races, where he goes not so much to look at the chariots but to look at the girls and try to pick them up as they are being jostled by the crowd. The whole sense of his poem is about the packed nature of the crowd and excitement of the occasion, and he is trying to be Mr. Charming, the knight in shining armor to a girl who has been jostled around; ultimately it was all a ploy on his part.
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Superstars of Ancient Rome Chariot Racing
We also hear from inscriptions of the enormous popularity of individual charioteers, who often became the superstars of their day. By far the most famous and successful charioteer raced during the reigns of Hadrian and Antoninus Pius in the 2nd century AD. His name was Gaius Appuleius Diocles, and we have his gravestone on which he claims that he raced for 24 years, mostly for the red faction, and he won almost 35% of his races, placed second in a further 33% (this is an extremely impressive record), and only failed to place in 32% of his races. He was an immensely popular and immensely wealthy man at his death.
Another charioteer mentioned in historical sources was a young man called Scorpius, who seemed to have a great career ahead of him for the green faction when, unfortunately, he crashed into the finishing post, and his career came to a swift end at the end of the 1st century AD.
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Fanatical Fans of Ancient Chariot Racing
In the end, the emperor had to send in the troops, with the result that 7,000 people were killed in the ensuing chaos. The support of the charioteers for their faction was noticeable.
All kinds of underhanded stories are told of charioteers poisoning other charioteers or trying to poison their horses so they would perform poorly the next day. The fanatical support of the mob for their individual factions is commented on again and again in the sources.
We hear that in AD 390 one charioteer from one of the factions in Thessalonica in Greece made a sexual advance on a Roman general in the area, and he was ordered to be arrested. When word got out, the supporters of his faction rioted, lynched the general concerned, broke their charioteer out of jail, and, continuing to riot, burned down the center of the city of Thessalonica.
In the end, the emperor had to send in troops, with the result that 7,000 people were killed in the ensuing chaos. The support of the charioteers for their faction was noticeable.
The following curse survives from an inscription in which a person who hates the green and white factions calls down the following curse upon their horses and drivers. The curse reads:
I call upon you, oh demon, whoever you are, to ask that from this hour, from this day, from this moment, you torture and kill the horses of the green and white factions and that you kill and crush completely the drivers Calrice, Felix, Primulus, and Romanus, and that you leave not a breath in their bodies.
Such was the fanaticism of the charioteer supporter.
Common Questions About Chariot Racing
Chariot racing was extremely dangerous, as the driver could be thrown from the open chariot and trampled or dragged to death after getting caught in the reigns.
In addition to entertainment for the masses, chariot races took place in the Byzantine and Roman empire for social status and political reasons, often used as a proxy for skirmishes.
It is believed by historians that chariots were first made around 2,000 BCE in a grassy area of Central Asia, running from Hungary to China by what are known as the people of the steppes.
The most famous chariot racer raced during the 5th and 6th centuries CE. He was a Roman named Porphyrius the Charioteer.