Chariots were the fastest method of travel in the ancient world around the Mediterranean, so it was inevitable that they would be used for racing. A chariot is a two-wheeled vehicle with a pole sticking out of the front. Horses are harnessed on either side of the pole to make a two-, four- or six-horse chariot. The rider may sit or stand, but for racing it was normal to stand and assist in steering by leaning the chariot, as well as directing the horses.
The Ancient Greeks
Chariot racing is mentioned in several Greek myths, such as the story of Pelops, son of Tantalus: he wanted to marry Hippodameia, the daughter of Oenomaus, king of Elis. The king was a nasty piece of work, who insisted on all potential suitors competing against him and his charioteer, Myrtilus, in a chariot race (Oenomaus had a two-man chariot). If the suitor lost the race he was executed, and Oenomaus had so far sent 13 unlucky young men to their deaths. Pelops outwitted the king by cheating. By bribing the charioteer with the promise of half the king's wealth, he persuaded him to take the axle pin out the king's chariot, causing the wheel to fall off during the race. The charioteer survived but the king was killed in the crash.
A chariot race is also described in Book 23 of Homer's Iliad, one of the two oldest surviving works of Greek literature and possibly composed as early as 1000 BC. The race was held as part of the funeral of Patroclus, the charioteer of Achilles. The chariots were two-horse models, and the riders stood in them, urging the horses on with whips. This particular race was won by Diomedes, the son of Tydeus.
The Olympic Games, founded in 776 BC, didn't originally include a chariot race, but this event was added in 680 BC. The hippodrome where the chariot races took place was situated to the south of the running track, but there is no trace of it today - it has long since gone under the plough.
It wasn't only the Greeks who liked chariot racing. The sport was popular throughout the lands around the Mediterranean, but it was the Romans who really made it their own. Chariot racing for the Romans was the premier sport of the day, as exciting as Formula One and as popular as football. You may have seen the chariot race in the epic film Ben Hur. The reality was just as exciting, although they didn't have blades on the axles of the chariots. A day at the races could attract crowds in the hundreds of thousands.
In Imperial times (from the 1st Century BC onwards), the races were paid for by the Emperor and provided free of charge to the people. This was one way of ensuring the Emperor's popularity and making it less likely that the masses would be tempted to rise up and overthrow him. Romans didn't have weekends, working a seven-day week, but there were many holidays, and the holidays always featured chariot racing. At the height of the Empire there were races held on about 80 days in the year, with up to 24 races a day. Men and women were allowed in the audience, and could sit together, making it a popular family entertainment. (They weren't allowed to sit together in the theatre.) On-track gambling was extremely popular.
The Roman racing ground was called a 'circus', from the Latin word for circle, although it was not circular but long and narrow. There were a number of circuses in Rome - the biggest, the Circus Maximus, could seat about a quarter of the entire population of the city. The race was three Roman miles1 in length, and involved seven laps of the circus. There could be anything from four to 12 chariots competing in the race.
The Circus Maximus
The biggest and oldest of the circuses, this started out in the 6th Century BC as a long flat track in a valley between two hills (the Aventine and the Palatine). The spectators would sit on the ground on either side. Next, wooden seating was provided. Finally a stone building was erected. This had a track 540m long and about 90m wide - that's about the size of five football pitches laid end to end. Around this were tiered seats 30m deep and 28m high, capable of taking between 150,000 and 250,000 depending on who you believe.
The track was long and narrow with sharp curves at each end. There was a 3-metre-wide canal of water between the spectators and the track; the main purpose of this was to protect the audience when the circus was used for gladitorial shows involving wild animals, before the Colosseum was built; but the water was also used to keep the chariots cool.
Down the centre of the track was a wall known as the spina or spine, which kept the chariots that were going in one direction from colliding with the ones travelling in the other direction. The three-mile course involved seven circuits of the circus. Situated on the spine were seven wooden eggs and seven bronze dolphins. Both eggs and dolphins were used to show how many laps there were left to run - an egg was lowered each time the leader completed a lap. The dolphins were mounted on a hinged mechanism so that they could be tilted either head up or tail up. As the leader completed each lap, another dolphin would lower his head. It is not known why the Romans used both eggs and dolphins.
Also on the spina were statues of gods, heroes and emperors, and there were two giant obelisks, looted from the temples of Egypt. In full view of the people of Rome, these were a reminder to the common man of the glory of the Empire.
The whole of the western end of the track (about 100m wide) was taken up by the 12 starting gates. These were each wide enough to allow passage of a six-horse chariot. There was a mechanism for opening the 12 gates simultaneously, normally done at a signal from the Emperor, if he was in attendance. Then the race would be off, with a dash of about 200m before the track was split into two by the central spine. From here the track was only 30m wide, so the initial stage of the race would have been very exciting with everyone jostling for first place.
As well as the tiered seating, the circus also had an Imperial Box where the Emperor could attend the races. The Imperial Box was positioned so it offered a view of the start of the race and the west end turn where there were many spectacular crashes; but strangely the finish line couldn't be seen.
Despite the size of the building, the lack of ticket booths meant that the the circus could have numerous entrances and exits, and could be emptied within about 15 minutes. There was free food on the way out, to encourage the crowds to leave at the end of the races.
The Circus Maximus was used for more than a thousand years, right up to the 6th Century AD; the last official games were hosted in 549 AD by the Ostrogoth King Totila, who had conquered Rome. Sadly, the Circus Maximus did not survive the 1,500 years since then, and there is little to see there now except for a large open space and the remains of the circular seating at the east end. The two obelisks were removed in the 16th Century. One is now in the Piazza del Popolo and the other in the Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano. The ground level is much higher now than it was in ancient times, so it is possible that the remains of the track and spina are still there, buried about 30 feet below the present ground level.
The Circus Maxentius was built in the 4th Century AD by the Emperor Maxentius. Situated about three miles outside the city centre, along the Appian Way to the southeast of the city, it is in much better state than the Circus Maximus. The towers on either side of the starting gates, the central spina and some of the seats are still standing (although extensively restored), allowing a modern tourist to see how the circuses must have looked. The Circus Maxentius track is almost as big as that of the Circus Maximus, with space for 12 four-horse chariots. The seating capacity was much smaller, though, with seating for only 10,000 people.
Of course there were circuses for chariot racing in other places throughout the empire, although they were not as common as gladitorial arenas. One particularly fine example was in Mérida in the south of Spain; this is the best preserved Roman circus in existence.
Recently discovered (2004) is the circus at Colchester, England. This was the only circus in England, and appears to have been built in about the 2nd Century AD.
How Many Horses?
Pictures of Roman chariots, and statues of them, always show four horses. There's even a special word for a four-horse chariot: quadriga. In fact, chariot races were run about equally often with two horses and four horses. Occasionally more horses were used, including one with seven horses per chariot. (It's not clear where the 7th horse was attached.)
A two-horse chariot was almost as fast as a four-horse one, because the method of attaching the extra two horses did not allow them to provide a lot of extra traction, and two horses are much more manoeuvrable than four.
The Emperor Nero liked to think that he was the best at everything. In 67 AD, he competed in the Olympic Games. He decided that to make a particularly spectacular show, he should drive a 10-horse chariot, something which had never been tried, before or since, even though all the other competitors should only have standard two-horse models. Nero's performance was so bad that he didn't even finish the course, being thrown from the chariot, but was still declared the winner.
Racing in Rome was controlled by four groups called 'factions', and all chariots ran under their banner. The factions were simply known by their four colours: the Red, the White, the Blue and the Green. In the later years of the Empire, the Red and the White became less significant and the Blue and the Green became the only important factions, dividing the city into two sets of supporters.
This guy was the rich man who owned and managed the whole faction. He was answerable directly to the Emperor, who paid for the whole chariot racing business out of state funds.
Agitator - the Charioteer
The charioteer, or agitator in Latin, was the man who rode the chariot. He was the superstar of his day. There was great skill in this job; not only did he direct the horses, but he assisted in steering the chariot by throwing his weight around. Racing chariots were very light-weight, not at all like the ones depicted in Ben Hur. To aid in steering, most charioteers used very long reins which they wrapped around their body. Of course, if the charioteer fell from the chariot, he would be dragged along and probably killed, so he normally carried a sharp knife to cut the reins in an emergency.
Unlike modern day footballers, Roman charioteers competed in thousands of races. A milliarius was a charioteer who had won more than 1,000 races. Probably the most famous charioteer ever was Pompeius Musclosus, who won 3,559 races during his career.
Another notable charioteer was Gaius Apuleius Diocles, who not only won many races, but also kept meticulous records of everything he did, so we know a lot about him. He came from the region that is now Spain. He started his career with the White faction, then raced for the Greens and finally for the Reds where he became really famous.
Diocles raced in six-horse, seven-horse and three-horse chariots as well as the normal two and four-horse ones. In fact he was the first person ever to ride a seven-horse chariot in the circus.
He competed in 4,257 races and won 1,463 of them. Of these, 815 were ones were he took the lead at the start and kept it, proving the importance of a good clean start. Nevertheless, there was plenty of scope for catching up and passing - in 502 of his wins, Diocles snatched victory in the last lap.
Hortator - the Encourager
This guy's job was to ride around on horseback and shout encouragement at the charioteer. He also kept an eye on progress and could give status reports to the charioteer.
Sparsor - the Pit-Stop Soaker
Roman chariots had no ball bearings. The axle rubbed directly against its bearing and would get very hot. The soaker had to pour water over the axles at every opportunity to prevent the wooden sections of the wheels from catching alight! He would also soak the rider and horses if the weather was particularly hot.
Tentor - the Starting-Gate Operator
The tentor was the man who opened the starting gate at the signal from the official starter. In the early days, each stall would have a separate tentor, but in later years, a mechanism was in place which opened all the gates simultaneously.
Morator - the Horse Holder
More important than he sounds, the horse holder could make or break a race. He had to hold the reins of the horses until the starting gate was opened, and then release them cleanly so that the race got to a good start. Although the charioteer got all the credit for winning the race, many races were won in the first few seconds, because whoever took the lead tended to keep it. The humble horse holder was therefore crucial in getting the chariot to take the lead right from the start.
There was a huge business in providing horses to the circus. The army insisted on mares and geldings, while the circus insisted on stallions, so the same stables could provide both army and circus. With 24 races in a day and 48 horses per race, the Circus Maximus alone could use more than a thousand horses in a single day, although the same horses could of course run again another day. The stable workers were an essential part of this business, although their names are not now remembered.
Of course, the stars of the show, second only to the charioteers themselves, were the horses. These were all stallions, and were given impressive names such as Compressor, Victor, Germinator and Incitatus. This last horse was so popular that the Emperor Caligula had a marble stall built for him, and planned to make him a consul.
We know from the records of Diocles that horses were worked hard: nine of his horses won 100 races and one of his horses won 200 races.
A good team of horses was nearly as important as a good charioteer. There's a story of one team who were used to winning. The charioteer fell out of the chariot, but the team went on to take the lead, dodging other chariots, cutting in in front of rivals; they won the race and after stopping at the finish line, went on to do a lap of honour, all without their charioteer!
Racing in Byzantium
When the capital of the Empire was moved by Emperor Constantine to Byzantium (Constantinople - modern Istanbul), the city already had a small chariot-racing arena called the Hippodrome. By now, the Red and White factions had become unpopular and were absorbed into the other two factions. The Blues took over the Reds, and the Greens took over the Whites. So everybody supported either the Blues or the Greens. The factions of Blue and Green were brought to Byzantium along with all the other trappings of chariot racing.
Constantine had the Hippodrome rebuilt to be much bigger - the track appears to have been smaller than the Circus Maximus, with a track length of about 400m, but this was still a huge stadium - there was seating for at least 100,000 people. On the spina were three monuments which can still be seen today: two obelisks from Egypt and a twisted bronze pillar now known as the Serpentine Column. This was originally known as the Tripod of Plataea, and featured three bronze snakes twisted to make a single pillar. It was supposedly made from the shields of the defeated Persians at the Battle of Plataea (479 BC), and had been offered to the Oracle at Delphi, a reminder to the world that the nobody could conquer the Greeks because the Persians had tried and failed. Constantine had it brought to Byzantium and displayed in the Hippodrome as a reminder that the Romans had conquered the Greeks.
The Hippodrome was the social centre of the city of Byzantium, and so it was also the social centre of the Roman Empire. The Emperor and his wife or mistress would attend most of the games. The Imperial Box was linked by a special private staircase and corridor to the Imperial Palace so that they could come and go as they liked.
The Nika Riots and Beyond
The factions had a lot of political clout and tried to control the Emperor by getting the spectators to put pressure on him. Frequently, at the behest of the factions, the spectators would chant a slogan requesting some favour from the Emperor. Things came to a head in the reign of Justinian, when the Blues and Greens combined in their dislike of the Emperor and ran rampage through the city for five days, in the incident known as the Nika riots. Eventually the army pushed the rioters back into the Hippodrome, where the doors were shut and they were all slaughtered to a man.
We know that chariot racing was still popular in 900 AD in Byzantium. An important Muslim visitor, Harun ibn Yahya, was shown around the city at that time and was taken to the Hippodrome. He describes 'two men dressed in gold, each driving a quadriga of four horses, how they enter and race three times round the place of idols and statues'.
Mounted above the starting gates in the Hippodrome was a statue of a quadriga, a four-horse chariot. In 1204, crusaders captured and sacked the city. Among lots of other treasure, four copper horses were taken by the crusaders and brought back to Venice. They were mounted on the front of St Mark's Basilica in the centre of the city, where they stood for seven and a half centuries, until the 20th Century when they were moved indoors to be replaced by replicas. It is generally assumed that these horses were from the statue in the Hippodrome, although records do not confirm it.
The Decline of Chariot Racing
There are no records of chariot racing after the city was sacked in 1204 AD. It is possible that it still took place, but it is unlikely that it was a big deal, as the Empire was much smaller by then and would not have had the resources to supply the large number of horses necessary. Entertainment events were still held in the Hippodrome: a Spaniard visiting Byzantium reported as late as the 15th Century that the Emperor and Empress still attended events in the Hippodrome together. But chariot racing itself had probably run its course by then and become unpopular.
The Hippodrome building is gone, but you can still see the shape of where it was in Istanbul in Sultanahmet Square. The obelisks and the Serpentine Column that stood on the spina are still there in the park. The top of the Serpentine Column is gone, having been attacked in the 17th Century by a drunken Polish officer. One of the obelisks had its metal casing stripped off when crusaders sacked the city in 1204. Still, the shape of the ancient chariot racing track is still visible, and we can think back to when 100,000 people would cheer for blue, green, red or white.
- Working IX to V - Vicki León
- Oxford Archaeological Guides: Rome - Editor Amanda Claridge