The Roman Empire: The Popularity of Roman Chariot Racing

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome

By Gregory Aldrete, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin, Green Bay

Chariot racing was the most popular and accessible form of entertainment for the average inhabitant of the city. Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome, is believed to have started this custom in the eighth century B.C. But what were the features of these races?

View of the Circus Maximus in Rome.
The Circus Maximus is the ancient Roman chariot-racing stadium in Rome. (Image: Di Gregorio Giulio/Shutterstock)

The most common and traditional form of public entertainment in ancient Rome was chariot racing. Chariot racing was celebrated on each of the over 100 holidays per year.

The Architectural Masterpiece: The Circus Maximus

The Circus Maximus was situated in the long, narrow valley between the Palatine and Aventine hills, which formed a natural stadium. It was a third of a mile long with a potential capacity of 250,000 spectators. The Circus Maximus was so large that all segments of Roman society could attend races and the admission to the races was either free or for a nominal fee.

The stadium was an impressive building and its design had a direct impact on how races unfolded. It surrounded an oval-shaped track, and the entire structure was over 2,000 feet long and 600 feet wide. On the one end of the oval, it was flat rather than curved, and the starting gates were located along the flat side of the oval. There were 12 of these gates, called carceres; therefore, a race could have a maximum of 12 chariots. Down the center of the track was a long, narrow divider over 1,000 feet long known as the spina, meaning ‘the spine.’

Sketch of the plan of the Circus Maximus
The Circus Maximus was a large stadium.
(Image: Samuel Ball Platner/Public domain)

At each end of the spina were three cones, the metae. The metae was where the chariots turned. Located on the spina were the mechanisms that were used to mark laps. One way that a lap was shown to the audience was with large golden eggs that were lowered or raised as each lap was completed.

The Romans regarded the dolphin as the fastest creature, so this was a symbolically appropriate choice for a horse race and because of this, Agrippa had seven golden dolphins erected on the spina.  Additionally, dolphins were affiliated with the god of the sea, Neptune, who was associated with horses as well. A standard race consisted of seven laps, and as the lead chariot crossed the finish line on each lap, one of the dolphins was tipped, or perhaps lowered.

The area between the turning posts featured decorative pools of water and fountains. Painted stripes indicated the lanes and the finish line. The surface of the track was probably sand spread over a firmer substance. Some emperors had pigments added to the sand in order to create a spectacular appearance, including instances when the track was colored red or green, or when shiny rocks such as mica were mixed with the sand to produce a glittering effect. The total length of a standard race was about five miles and it probably took less than 15 minutes to complete.

This is a transcript from the video series The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome. Watch it now, Wondrium.

Factions in Roman Chariot Races

Organizations called factions trained and entered teams into the races. It seems that there were two factions originally, known as the Reds and the Whites. Later on, two more were added, the Blues and the Greens. After some time, one of the emperors tried to create two new clubs, the Golds and the Purples, but they were not successful, and for most of racing history, the traditional four factions dominated. Each driver dressed in the color of their faction for easy identification.

The factions were powerful associations; each faction owned stables and breeding farms for their horses, as well as highly organized training centers and schools for their charioteers.

There were many different types of races. One type employed two-horse chariots known as bigae but the most common and popular type of race involved four-horse chariots called quadrigae. The Romans experimented with different numbers of horses, sometimes using odd numbers, as in three-horse chariots, as well as hitching large teams of horses to a single chariot.

The factions drew lots to determine the order in which the drivers would select their starting gate. The signal for the start of the race was when the emperor or presiding magistrate dropped a cloth called the mappa.

During the chariot races, each charioteer would urge his horses to go as fast as possible, and the points of greatest tension were the turns around the metae at either end of the spina. In modern race courses, the turns are gradual, but in the Circus, each chariot had to complete a 180-degree turn. 

Learn more about the two great legacies of the Roman Empire: its art and architecture.

The Dangers of Chariot Racing

The chariot which turned closest to the metae would travel the shortest distance and would therefore have the inside track on the next straightaway. This led to the chariots bunching together, and collisions were frequent. 

The stadium actually seems to have been designed to maximize carnage, and crashes were often fatal. Many charioteers died not directly as the result of a wreck, but from being dragged around the track after one. This was because charioteers habitually tied the reins to their arms. All charioteers carried a knife which they hoped to use to cut themselves free, but this may not have been a practical solution.

In a four-horse team, the strongest horse was positioned closest to the metae since it was most able to endure the force exerted against it during turns, while the most agile was placed on the outside because it would have to cover more ground as the group spun around.

A mosaic representation of a charioteer from the White team.
Each team’s charioteers could be told apart by their distinctive clothing. (Image: Palazzo Massimo alle Terme/Public domain)

To make the races even more competitive, all the chariots from a single faction could work together as a team. To insure the victory of one chariot from the faction, the other two might sacrifice themselves by obstructing chariots from the other factions or even intentionally ramming them.  There were 24 races per day, and thus a person could spend an entire day at the Circus. Between races, brief entertainments of various types kept the crowd from getting bored.

The winning charioteers received a crown of palm leaves and prize money. These awards seem to have ranged between 5,000 and 60,000 sesterces for first place, and there were also lesser prizes for second, third, and fourth place.

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Common Questions about Roman Chariot Racing

Q: What is chariot racing in Ancient Rome?

Chariot racing in ancient Rome was a traditional form of public entertainment. During a chariot race, each charioteer would urge his horses to go as fast as possible around the arena in order to win the race.

Q: When did Roman chariot racing start?

Roman chariot racing began in the eighth century B.C. thanks to Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome.

Q: Why was chariot racing so dangerous in the Circus Maximus?

Roman chariot racing was so dangerous because the Circus Maximus was designed in such a way to maximize carnage and often crashes occurred which were fatal to the charioteers. This was due to the fact that charioteers tied the reins to their arms and at times, these chariots would overturn, dragging them behind in the wreckage.

Q: Where was chariot racing held in Rome?

Chariot racing was held in Rome in the famous stadium known as The Circus Maximus

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