Ancient Roman chariot races were held in the Circus, such as the Circus Maximus. The festivities such as the Ludi Magni which were celebrated with the chariot races in honour of Jupiter, generally began early in the morning with a religious procession called the “pompa circensis”.
The procession included religious representatives, all the chariot racing teams accompanied by their standards, musicians, attending magistrates and workers of the Circus. Images of the gods such as the Dioscuri twins (one was a famed rider the other a boxer), Cibele mother of the gods and Neptune god of horses also accompanied the procession on little chariots of their own.
The dignitaries would take their seats and to the sound of trumpets, the chariots and competitors entered the arena from the stables called “carceres”, accompanied by their entourage of six slave assistants . The stables were situated in the flat end of the circus called the “officium”.
The Chariot Riders
The charioteers wore leather helmets, knee pads and shin pads. Their coloured tunics with sleeves were called “vestis quadrigaria”. Mosaics show us that this was covered by a sort of corset of leather bands. Even their hair had a particular curly styling. They held the reigns in their left hand and a whip in the right. A curved knife was fastened over their backs or at their waist so that they could cut themselves free in the event of a crash. The horses would also be handsomely decorated and even their manes combed and possibly threaded with pearls.
The charioteers’ tunics were coloured according to their team. There were four major teams called “factiones”: the greens (“Prasini”), the reds (“Russata”), the whites (“Alba” or “Albata”) and the sky/sea blues (“Veneti” or “Veneta”). Roman writers suggest that the colours were inspired by the colours of the four seasons of the year.
The prasini were the most popular team and there was particular animosity between their supporters and those of the veneti. Suetonius tells us that emperor Domitian added two further teams, the gold and purple, but these teams didn’t last longer than his reign.
Types of Chariot at the Races : Quadriga and Quadrigae
In Nero’s time as many as ten horses might be used and he himself is said to have driven one such “Decemjugis” at the Olympic games. Nero is also remembered for having introduced camels instead of horses to provide a little variety and the young emperor Heliogabalus tried elephants also. I dread to think what it must have been like to be run over by elephants.
The Chariot Races
The start to a race was sounded by trumpets but the excessive noise eventually lead to a handkerchief called “mappa” being dropped from the magistrate’s or imperial box. A referee would preside over the race on horse back although fair play wasn’t the norm.
Ancient Roman Circus Maximus – image of a chariot race The full race was called a “missus” and generally included seven laps (called “curricula”) around the end posts called “metae”. On occasion the races could be made shorter. Propertius tells us something of this in his verses:
Aut prius infecto deposcit preamia cursu,
Septima quam metam triveri arte rota.
What Charioteer would with the prize be graced,
When his seventh meta he has artfully rounded?
This verse also alludes to the great artistry required to steer round the bends. A single race could include as many as twelve competitors and the lack of space, the speed and need to keep tight meant that a number of the chariots were destined to skid, crash and even run over each other. These crashes could be fortuitous or caused by competitors ganging up against one another. The “murcia” bend, named after the valley in which the Circus was built, was particularly famed for causing accidents.
In order to improve turning ability, the left hand horse would be tied separately from the main tiller of the chariot so that it could be used with greater freedom. This horse would therefore act as a pilot for the other horses and be used to drive them round the bends without slowing down more than necessary. This horse was referred to as the “funalis” horse on account of the rope which tied it to the main team of horses which provided the power.
On the basis of this and of some scultpural reliefs it is probable that the driving reins were be held in the charioteers’ left hand so that the left hand horse could be controlled more directly. The bunch of reins to the horses which provided the power might be tied round the waist. The right hand would hold the whip to drive the team of horses to go faster.
Theocritus gives us a brilliant account of this (translated in the 18th century by “Mr. Creech”):
To turn, and yet not break the bending wheel,
Amphytrio kindly did instruct his son.
Great in that art; for he himself had won
Vast precious prizes on the Argive plains:
And still the chariot which he drove remains,
Never hurt in its course, although time had broke the falling reins.
Finally I have found an 18th century translation of Virgil’s Georgics chpt iii, 103 by Dryden.
Nonne vides? Cum praecipiti certamine campum,
Corripuere, ruuntque effusi carcere currus;
Cum spes arrectae juvenum, exultantiaque haurit
Corda pavor pulsans : illi instant verbere torto,
Et proni dant lora : volat vi fervidus axis.
Jamque humiles, jamque elati sublime videntur
Aera per vacuum ferri, atque assurgere in auras.
Nec mora nec requies : at fulvae numbus arenae
Tollitur; jumescunt spumis flatuque sequentum :
Tantus amor laudum, tantae est vitoria curae.
Hast thou beheld, when from the jail they start,
The youthful charioteers with beating heart
Rush to the race: and panting scarcely bear,
The extremes of feverish hopes and chilling fear;
Stoop to the reins and lash with all their force;
The flying chariot kindles in the course.
And now a-low and now a-loft they fly,
As borne through air and seem to touch the sky:
No stop no stay; but clouds of sand arise,
Spurned and cast backwards on the viewers eyes:
The hindmost blows the foam upon the first:
Such is the love of praise and honourable thirst.
Rich and Famous Charioteers
Apart from achieving love, glory and laurel crowns in the manner of Greece, the winning charioteers could make quite a monetary fortune. Reaching success would probably mean having your portrait scribbled all over the walls of the city. Each race could have huge monetary prizes and successful riders could become the Roman equivalent of millionaires. Chariot racers tended to be slaves but this didn’t prevent them from amassing huge fortunes and redeeming their freedom. The Satirist Juvenal tells us that a wealthy charioteer called Lacerta could afford as many as a hundred lawyers. I’m sure he won his freedom.
Other famous names included Pontius Epaphroditus and Pompeius Musclosus (the muscly one?). “Maurus” managed to accumulate fifteen and a half million by the age of 22. “Scorpus”, during the reign of Domitian (AD81-96), was said to have amassed more than two thousand wins and during a round of honour was remembered for having collected more than 50 bags of gold thrown down by the spectators.
A century and a half earlier than Scorpus the Formula1 Michael Schumacher of the times was a certain Diocles. During the reign of emperor Antoninus Pius, Diocles amassed as many as 35 million Sestertii. Diocles’ admirers erected a monument in his name in AD146, possibly when he retired at the age of forty-two after twenty-four years of career (no pun meant!). He ran an average of 177 races per year which is equal to three or four on each of the 50 days of racing.
Parts of the long inscription are given below (CIL Vol VI, no. 10048):
“Gaius Appuleius Diocles, charioteer of the Red Stable, a Lusitanian Spaniard by birth, aged 42 years, 7 months, 23 days. He drove his first chariot in the White Stable in the consulship…” (in AD122)” He won his first victory in the same stable… ” (in AD 124).”He drove for the first time in the Green Stable..” (in AD 128). “He won his first victory for the Red Stable…” (in AD 131).
“Grand totals: He drove chariots for 24 years, ran 4.257 starts and won 1,462 victories, 110 in opening races. In single entry races he won 1064 victories, winning 92 major purses, 32 of them (including 3 with six-horse teams) at 30,000 serstertii, 28 (including 2 with six-horse teams) at 40,000 sestertii, 29 (including 1 with a seven horse team) at 50,000 sestertii and 3 at 60,000 sestertii.”.
Bravo Diocles! He must have been something to see! And later the inscription continues…
“He won a total of 35,863,120 sestertii”….” He took the lead and won 815 times, came from behind to win 67 times, won under handicap 36 times, won in various styles 42 times and won in a final dash 502 times”. Presumably winning in a head-to-head final sprint was something that was highly regarded. The concept of a racing handicap was obviously quite common also.
Various emperors couldn’t resist the lure of participating: Nero has already been mentioned as a lover of the sport so much so that he is said to have styled his hair in that of the charioteers. In his times there were a wide variety of games and chariot races with anything up to ten horses pulling the chariots. Nero himself enjoyed participating, as long as he was given the due advantage of course. He apparently fell off his chariot and still managed to win. Cheat.
Other emperors also joined, for example the mad Caligula, the Christian hating Domitian and Commodus the “Roman Hercules” as he loved to be called.
Horses at the Chariot Races
The charioteer Diocles’ inscription proves that careful records were not only kept of the riders but also of the horses’ performance: “He made nine horses 100-time winners, and one a 200-time winner.” A hundred time winner was commonly referred to as a “centenari”.
In fact an inscription on the mosaic of an African bath house says of a favourite horse: “Vincas, non vincas, te amamus, Polydoxe!”: Win or lose we love you Polydoxes! As they do nowadays, the horses bred for the races had pompous sounding names like “Calimorfus” or “Piripinus”. Even the satirist Martial made reference to a horse called Andremones as being at least as famous as himself.
Hooliganism at the Chariot Races
When the circus games were held the public would often go into a veritable delirium known as “furor circensis”. This was just like the football fans and hooligans of today, especially when the wine flowed freely. Fights between rival teams are well recorded, particularly one in Pompeii which caused several deaths and the teams to be disqualified for ten years (although be ban was later lifted thanks to Nero’s wife’s intercession with the Emperor). Dangerous accidents also occurred, rather like at modern football matches: on one occasion some collapsing masonry caused more than 10,000 deaths amongst the audience.
On a slightly less violent note the public once abandoned the opening of a play by the famous play write Terence in order to go and assist a particular race at the circus. Pliny the younger was incensed at the lure that a simple team colour could have on even the most educated of his peers. Throughout Roman history the circus continued to be one of if not the greatest amusement of the Roman people while theatre drama declined as quickly and suddenly as it had become all the rage.
Given that the games started early in the morning the spectators were quite capable of arriving at the circus during the night in order to claim the best seats. Emperor Caligula, who lived in his palace on the adjacent Palatine hill, was once so annoyed by the noise the crowd was making that he had them beaten and sent away. As many as twenty riders were hurt as well as women and innumerable other people.
The Chariot Races as a Society Event
The circus races were also important social events. It was one of the few places where Roman citizens could legally play betting games (although betting in any case went on in everyday life). It was also one of the only public places where men and women could freely mix and sit next to one another as we are told by the poet Ovid in his book “The Art of Love” (Ars Amatoria).
“..you should not neglect the horse races as many opportunities await you in the spacious Circus. There is no call here for the secret language of fingers and you won’t need to depend on a furtive nod. Nobody will stop you from sitting next to your belle, elbow to elbow, as close as you can; nothing impedes it, the little space forces you to press against her and to your advantage as she will have to resign herself ….”.
“Be sure to ask her whose horses are entering the track and hasten to agree with her choice….”
He then follows up with a series of suggestions like brushing off an imaginary speck of dust from her lap, or picking up the bottom of her gown from the ground in the hope of catching a glimpse of her leg.
“Light natures are won by little attentions. The clever arrangement of a cushion has often done a lover service….such are the advantages that the circus offers you when you seek a new affair.”
Chariot Races at the Circus Maximus: Ancient Roman Chariot Races | The Chariot Riders | Types of Chariot | The Chariot Races | Rich and Famous Charioteers | Horses at the Chariot Races | Hooligans | The Chariot Races as a Society Event |