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Chariot Racing in Ancient Rome

Few forms of entertainment among the Romans enjoyed the extent of popular devotion or the longevity that chariot racing did. Most likely originating with pre-Roman funeral games, chariot races quickly became not only a way to honor the dead but also an opportunity to enjoy the breakneck speed and danger of racing, the skill of man and horse, and the company of friends and fellow enthusiasts. The sport connected members of society from widely different backgrounds, cultures, and ranks. Wherever the Romans went, chariot racing went, as evidenced by the tracks in North Africa, England, and elsewhere. Not surprisingly, the popular nature of the races lent a particular kind of power to the fans and an influence great enough to periodically affect the cultural and political life of Roman and Byzantine society.

Historians and archaeologists believe that the chariot, and very likely the domestication of horses, originated in what is present-day eastern Turkey. To date, literary and physical evidence suggests that the Egyptians and the societies of the Near East were among the first to use chariots around 2000 to 1000 BCE. About the same time, the chariot was used in India and significantly in Mycenaean Greece. Greek influence in Italy was strong and thus may explain the existence of chariots among the Latin peoples. The Etruscans, however, were also fond of chariots, so it is possible that the Greek and Etruscan example led to later Roman traditions of charioteering.

Like the origins of the two-wheeled conveyance itself, the date of the first chariot race is largely a matter of conjecture. Most scholars believe that chariot sports followed the use of the chariot for travel and war. The earliest depiction of the chariot is on a 13th-century-BCE amphora from the Mycenaean city of Tiryns detailing a funerary scene. The chariot played a role in the funerals of many Indo-European peoples, including the early Celts, whose chariot burials have been unearthed both in England and on the Continent. The most well-known example of that funerary custom is found in Homer's Iliad, which includes a chariot race in honor of the dead hero Patroclus. While burial practices and rites changed, the Greeks never abandoned their love of the chariot. From as early as the Olympic Games, chariot racing remained a crowd-pleaser.

In Italy, Greek colonists were not the only chariot enthusiasts. The Etruscans, given the evidence of their tombs, were just as passionate about racing. Moreover, depictions of chariots and racing have been found on Etruscan pottery, in metalwork, and in stone. The favored place that chariot racing found with the early Romans no doubt owes much to the close relationship between them and their Greek and Etruscan neighbors.

The Romans appear to have begun outfitting chariots for races beginning in the sixth century BCE. Like other peoples, it is likely that the Romans first began racing as part of burial rites. There is also evidence suggesting that races also had a role in certain religious festivals. Chariot races eventually became features of non-religious celebrations and popular events in their own right. Legend had it that King Tarquinius Priscus, the fifth king of Rome, organized races on the plains between the Aventine Hill and Palatine Hill, where the chariots made their course on sand and dirt as fans watched from the hillsides. According to the Roman historian Livy, that site eventually became the home of the Circus Maximus, which boasted starting gates by 329 BCE. A century and a half later, in 174 BCE, spectators could monitor the progress of the race with the assistance of wooden structures that served as lap counters.

The Circus Maximus was renovated several times, including once by Julius Caesar, and it became the primary venue of chariot races down to the sixth century CE. The plan of the Circus Maximus was typical of most chariot courses, though arenas differed in terms of size and decor. A semicircular track, the circus was built around a spina, or a narrow strip in the middle, and at each end stood metae, or turning posts. Up to 150,000 spectators sat on three sides of the track in stadium seating. The carceres, or the stables, housed 12 teams of horses, divided up among the various racing factions. Most races comprised seven laps around the more than 650-yard track, which could accommodate up to 12 teams, though races might consist of four, six, or eight chariots as well. Very often, each faction, or chariot-racing team, would field more than one chariot to improve its chances of winning.

The races, by all accounts, were exhilarating and extremely dangerous. Perched atop light, flimsy wooden chariots, there was little to protect the auriga, or the charioteer, from accidents or from other drivers. Much of the strategy behind racing involved cutting off other charioteers; accidents were common as a result. Most drivers were from humble backgrounds, many were slaves or ex-slaves, and like most entertainers, they were considered undesirable company. Despite such status, successful charioteers became famous and admired. One driver, Diocles of Lusitania (modern-day Portugal), won more than 1,000 races, lived to be 42 (a long time for a charioteer), and won a considerable fortune. Whether the driver was slave or free, however, the team's owner stood to make a considerable profit as long as his team won. Betting was a popular and beloved side attraction to chariot racing.

From the man on the street to the emperor, chariot racing was widely popular. A few emperors, in fact, were not only patrons, but drivers themselves. Caligula, for example, raced chariots but not in public. Nero, conversely, did race publicly, much to the displeasure of the Romans. No matter how popular drivers might be, they were still common folk, and it was viewed as unfitting for a ruler to participate in public sports.

For most of its history, chariot racing was divided into four teams or factions—the Blues, Greens, Reds, and Whites. Racing factions were often fanatically devoted to their racers in much the same way that many modern sports fans back a favorite team. Competition among them was fierce, and it was common for crowd enthusiasm to spill over into violence. Younger faction members often wore distinctive clothing or wore their hair in special ways to signify team allegiance.

In the later Roman Empire, the teams devolved into simply the Blues and the Greens, but they had become powerful political entities. Roman racing factions could serve a valuable function for the emperor as an expression of popular sentiments or concerns. Whether complaining or cheering their ruler, the crowd at the Circus Maximus or the Hippodrome (Constantinople's premier race track) provided the emperor insight into his people. For example, when an emperor made a grand entry, or adventus, into a city, very often the racing factions would be one of the official groups that met him. The racing factions started the popular acclamations for the emperor at the races. Conversely, racing factions and the violence that they spurred could prove problematic for the government. The Nika revolt in 532, for example, started in Constantinople when rivalry between fans of the Greens and the Blues spilled over into a riot. In the chaos that followed, the crowd elected a usurper as emperor and burned public and private buildings. Ultimately, the rebels were massacred by imperial troops in the Hippodrome.

The enduring and cherished sport of chariot racing brought together all manner of people in the Roman Empire. The races were attractive for the excitement of the sport, the gambling, and the close ties of factionalism that engendered a sense of belonging. Such factionalism also encompassed a social and political aspect, especially in late antiquity, when racing factions increasingly served as a means of popular expression. In the west, the last race at the Circus Maximus was sponsored by the Ostrogothic king Totila and held in 549 CE. Among the Byzantines, however, chariot racing survived well into the Middle Ages and never ceased to draw a crowd.

Jim Tschen Emmons

Further Reading
Auguet, Roland. Cruelty and Civilization: The Roman Games. New York : Routledge, 1994; Cameron, Alan. Circus Factions: Blues and Greens at Rome and Byzantium. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976; Humphrey, John. Roman Circuses: Arenas for Chariot Racing. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986; Potter, D.S., and D.J. Mattingly. Life, Death, and Entertainment in the Roman Empire. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999; Wistrand, Magnus. Entertainment and Violence in Ancient Rome: The Attitudes of Roman Writers of the First Century A.D. Goteborg, SE: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, 1992.

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