A future emperor of Rome won the four-horse chariot race in the Olympic Games.
Who was he?
Intaglio of a Circus with a Chariot Race, 2nd-4th century AD
For any lover of horses, what can top the thrill of the chariot race in the 1959 movie, “Ben Hur?” Maybe the race in the 2016 version shot with GoPro cameras mounted on the racers and CGI only for the accidents? It’s easy to see why a quarter of a million people might fill the stands in Rome to cheer their favorites to victory.
Chariot racing was the most popular spectacle in Rome for hundreds of years. The Circus Maximus, first built by the Etruscan king Tarquin, was rebuilt by Julius Caesar to seat 150,000. By the time of the Flavians (Vespasian and Titus), additional seating and standing-room-only areas raised the total to more than a quarter of a million people, and the stands were close to full on race days.
Men and women both screamed themselves hoarse cheering on their favorite of the four factions, teams of professional charioteers where the superstar athlete, like a pro football player today, could earn a fortune…assuming he didn’t die in one of the all-too-common accidents that added to the heart-thumping anticipation of the crowds.
Like a college game today, the chariot races were considered an excellent place to meet members of the opposite sex. While seating in the Flavian Amphitheater was segregated by gender, all sat together in the Circus Maximus. The poet Ovid, who was banished to the northern rim of the Black Sea by Augustus for contributing to the moral decay of Rome, advised men on how to pick up women at the circus in his still-famous poem that got him banished, “The Art of Love.”
Cylindrical seal with Assyrian war chariot, 13th – 12th century BC
Chariots as Vehicles of War
Chariots were vehicles of war from the Bronze Age onward through the Iron Age. They served mainly as a mobile platform to carry a foot soldier or an archer into battle. Although eastern empires, such as Egypt and Assyria, used chariots as a major component of their battle strategies, the Romans did not use them in battle, relying instead on infantry and cavalry. Chariots required relatively flat terrain for easy maneuverability, which limited their military value in more rugged country. Romans did use chariots for travel, processions, and racing.
Chariot Racing: The sport of emperors and slaves
Like so many aspects of Roman culture, the organized Roman chariot races during the Empire were an adaptation and improvement of earlier Greek versions. From the time of the Etruscan kings to the end of the Empire, chariot racing was the favorite sport of the masses as well as the ruling elite.
Greek chariot races
Chariot racing was a standard part of regular athletic competitions in Greece. The 4-horse chariot (quadriga) was raced in the Olympic games of 680 BC. The 2-horse chariot (biga) races were added in 408 BC. Regular horseback races were standard after 648 BC.
Starting in 500 BC, the equine competitions also included mule-drawn wagon races. In 496 BC, the kalpe was added. It was a race for mares where the rider dismounted during the final lap and ran beside his horse. These were dropped from the Olympics in 444 BC, leaving only the horse-drawn chariot and ridden-horse events.
Like thoroughbred racing today, there were age categories for colts and mature horses after 384 BC. Today a male horse younger than 4 years is called a colt. The Kentucky Derby is run by 3-year olds, so they are still colts and fillies. At four years, the young male horse is at full adult strength and ceases to be a colt. It is likely the Greeks divided colts from horses at the same age.
The racetrack (hippodrome) was usually an out-and-back configuration with a tree or pole at the far end marking where the chariots had to turn. Lengths varied from 3 stades in Olympia to 8 stades in Athens (a stade = 192 meters = 210 yards), and the racecourse might serve as agricultural ground part of the year. There were named races at many locations. Two of the better known include Olympia and Delphi.
As many as 60 chariots took part in a race. One can imagine the danger as such a large field tried to make the tight turn at the end of the track. Up to 40 reportedly crashed in one race at Delphi. Greek race courses lacked the wall (spina) of the Roman circuses that separated the chariots going in opposite directions, and there were occasionally head-on collisions. To give all the teams a fair chance at reaching the starting line at the same time, the race began from an angled line of stalls (traps) where differences in start times gave all an equal chance.
The Greek races were for amateurs, and individuals who achieved fame outside racing sometimes won. The future emperor of Rome, Tiberius, won the quadriga race in the Olympics as a young man. Twenty years later, his adopted son Germanicus won as well.
Calyx-Krater with Driver, Chariot, and Three Horses, 2nd quarter 4th century BC
While no Greek or Roman racing chariots have been found, surviving paintings portray designs similar to the one found in the tomb of Tutankhamen. Spoked wheels with a thin board attached to the axle and a flimsy curved wall around the front made the entire assembly as light as possible. Homer describes a chariot race in which small bumps in the course made the chariot bounce into the air. To keep the charioteer from flying out of the chariot, clogs were built into the floor for his feet.
Greeks and Romans did not have horse collars, which was a great disadvantage for pulling heavy loads. Instead, they used a harness consisting of a band across the chest. A horse collar shifts the weight being pulled to the shoulder bones. That leaves the chest free to expand with the heavy breathing that is needed when pulling hard. The chest band constricted breathing when heavy loads were pulling back on it. With four horses pulling a single man and a light chariot, the individual horses were not under much pressure, and they could pull at great speed.
The bridle was the same design as today, with brow band, nose band, cheek strap, and throat latch. Bits were normally a straight bar or a snaffle bit. Barbs were added to the bit if the horse was hard to control.
Whips were used extensively during the race, which left the charioteer to control four horses with a single hand for most of the race. Presumably he used two when making the turns.
The center horses of a four-horse team were under a yoke at the end of a pole. The outer two pulled on traces but they were also linked to the yoke. Greeks and Romans differed in where they yoked the best horses of their teams. Greeks put the best horse on the outer right to help with the sharp left-hand turns. Romans put the most experienced horses in the center under the yoke.
Top-quality horses sold for exorbitant prices. Pliny the Elder remarked that racehorses were the most profitable stock to raise. The pedigree of the animal was recorded, and the stud was believed more important than the mare in predicting whether a particular horse would be a great racer.
How the Roman version differed from the Greek
Whereas the Greeks regarded sporting events as opportunities for the talented amateur to find pleasure in the sport, the Romans valued them as entertainment for the spectator. The surest way to have top-notch entertainment is to have professional athletes. Like the pro football teams of today, teams of charioteers called factions enjoyed the unswerving loyalty and even adoration of their fans.
As in Greece, there were still amateur racers. Individuals and municipalities owned the teams. Special events for amateurs were intermingled with races by the professional factions. It was an expensive hobby, and the charioteer might be the owner looking for a thrill, a slave, or a hired driver. Breeding horses to compete in the circus was another way amateurs participated.
Many of the horses were imported from distant parts of the Empire. Spain and North Africa were considered two of the best sources, but noted stud farms were also found in Cappadocia, Greece, Sicily, and southern Italy. Training was intensive and began with three-year-olds. Their racing careers started at age five. Mares were harnessed to the shaft, and stallions pulled at the outer traces. Many individual horses became famous with loyal followers who regularly bet on them winning.
There were many practical differences between Greek and Roman racing. One major difference was the number of chariots in a single race. While as many as 60 teams may have run a Greek race across an open field, the Roman racetracks allowed no more than 12.
The Greek teams were positioned in traps (stalls) along a straight line that angled away from the starting line. They were started at different times to get them all to the starting line at the same time.
The Romans had their starting positions lie along a portion of a circle with the center point of the circle being the starting point of the race. Each had an equal distance to run because they were running along a radius of the circle. Therefore, the Roman horses all started at the same time.
A fair start was assured by a clever mechanical system that opened all the gates at the same time. It was based on a catapult, and its operation has been reconstructed based on ancient gates that survived at the circus in Leptis Magna in present-day Libya.
The sponsor of the day’s races sat in a box over the gates. When he dropped a handkerchief, the gate attendant pulled a lever operating the catapult. The catapult pulled out the latches that held the two wooden gates in front of each team closed. The gates, which were kept under tension by twisted sinews attached to posts behind them, swung back to release the tension when the restraining latch was removed.
The clothing differed as well. Greek charioteers wore an ankle-length robe. Romans wore short tunics. If they drove for a faction, their tunics were dyed the faction color. Leggings encased their calves and thighs. They wore helmets, but those may have been more for adornment than protection. They raced with the ends of the reins wrapped around their waist and carried a dagger. It was for cutting the reins in the event of an accident, but many couldn’t cut free in time and were dragged to their deaths.
The Roman races were held in a well-defined racetrack called a circus. A wall (spina) separated the teams going in opposite directions, but crashes as the teams crowded together for advantage making the tight turns at the ends were common. Typically, the radius of the starting circle was 80 yards, and the center of the circle was just past the turning post and 8 yards out from the wall. The teams had to stay within lanes marked with chalk until they reached a chalked break line. Then they were allowed to leave their lanes and cut in to try for the pole position.
The standard race consisted of seven laps with thirteen tight turns around a post (meta) at each end of the spina and a final straightaway dash for the finish line. At the Circus Maximus, the number of laps completed at a given point in the race was initially displayed by sliding eggs along a bar above the spina. Later dolphins that could be tipped were added to the display.
Chariot racing, professional style
With the advent of the Empire, the sport turned seriously professional. The real excitement was in the competition between the professional racing stables, called factions, with their thousands of fanatical followers. The number of factions varied over time from two to six and back to two.
The factions were private business ventures that provided horses, drivers, and all necessary equipment to the sponsor of a day’s races. In Rome, each had its own stables in the southern part of the Campus Martius near the Tiber. The factions also operated branches in many of the major cities of the empire that had their own hippodromes. One can imagine that these provincial teams functioned like the farm clubs of professional sports today, where their most talented charioteers might end up driving for their faction in the Circus Maximus in Rome.
In the 30s AD, the factions were the Reds, Whites, Blues, and Greens. By the 150s, the Blues had absorbed the Reds and the Greens the Whites. The primary teams from a stable wore blue or green, and the secondary teams wore red and white.
In a 12-team race, three teams from each faction would run. All the teams of same faction worked together, with junior teams trying to impede the lead chariot of another faction so their own could win.
Racetracks were found in many Roman cities. Herod the Great build four hippodromes himself in the province of Judaea: in the Roman capital city of Caesarea Maritima on the coast, in Jerusalem, in Jericho, and in Torichaeae on the Sea of Galilee about 4 miles from Tiberias. Three cities where the tracks remain in largely original condition are Byzantium (now Istanbul), Tyre, and Alexandria. Too many stones were harvested from the Circus Maximus to build newer buildings, but its former magnificence is still apparent.
At the western end of the oval track, the magistrate sponsoring the races sat above the stalls (carceres) where the teams waited before the race began. On the eastern end stands the triumphal arch of Titus that celebrated his conquest of the Jews in the Jewish Revolt of AD 66 to 73. The circus was 600 by 200 meters and seated more than 250,000 people by AD 100.
Julius Caesar had replaced wooden seating with seats carved in volcanic tuff. Claudius replaced the tuff with marble. Augustus brought the obelisk of Ramses II from Egypt and built the imperial enclosure so racegoers could view their emperor as well as the races. Julius Caesar also installed a moat (euripus) around the edge of the racetrack so wild-animal events could be staged without endangering the spectators.
Under Augustus, a full day of races was twelve. Under Caligula, that number doubled to twenty-four. Between races were displays of horsemanship, like performing acrobatic tricks on horseback or jumping between running horses. They were similar to horse acts in circuses today except at much higher speeds.
Charioteers: the superstars of Roman sport
The best charioteers (aurigae, agitores) became sports superstars with huge fan bases and fortunes earned by winning. Even modestly successful charioteers celebrated their careers upon retirement (or death) with stone monuments carved with their personal statistics. These included number of starts and wins, places raced, money won during their career, and sometimes the horses they drove. Those who won more than a thousand races had a special name: miliarius.
Many charioteers started as slaves and were freed as a reward for many wins. The best could demand high salaries, moving from faction to faction if that was what it took to get a raise. They also received rewards from the magistrates and emperors hosting the games.
One charioteer of Spanish origin, Gaius Apuleius Diocles, retired in AD 150 after a racing career spanning 24 years. Diocles raced 4,257 times, won 1,462 times, and retired having made 35 million sesterces (8.75 million denarii). Not bad for someone whose name suggests that he probably started driving as a slave and was freed by Gaius Apuleius. Another notable driver was Pompeius Muscosus, who won 3,559 races and probably amassed a huge fortune as well.
Not all were as fortunate. Funeral monuments reveal that many died in their early twenties in one of the frequent wrecks. Still, the Romans considered it a glorious way to live and die, and poets often memorialized them in verse.
Gambling on the races
There was more than the thrill of the race that drew the crowds. Gambling was the point of it all for many, and the rich might stake a fortune in a wager (sponsio) on a favorite charioteer.
There were Roman laws against many forms of gambling in public. A Senate decree allowed betting money on athletic events “which are done for virtue,” but not on other games. Horse racing was allowable under that category.
Many lost more than they could afford, and the sponsors of the races often gave free items to tamp down any discontent that might lead to a riot. These included after-race banquets, money, or food thrown into the stands. Imperial sponsors like Nero and Domitian had raffle tickets that might win a farm, a house, or a ship tossed into the stands. Since the races were paid for out of the personal resources of the magistrate in charge that day, the political necessity of sponsoring races and games in the amphitheaters limited political careers to those wealthy enough to afford them.
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Carcopino, Jerome. Daily Life in Ancient Rome: the People and the City at the Height of the Empire. Edited by Henry T. Rowell. Translated by E. O. Lorimer. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1968.
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Humphrey, John H. “Roman Games” in Civilization of the Ancient Mediterranean: Greece and Rome, Vol II. Edited by Michael Grant and Rachel Kitzinger. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1988.
Images of the Roman Intaglio, Assyrian cylinder seal, and Greek calyx-krater are from the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD