Chariot Racing

The most popular sport in Rome was chariot racing. It was so popular that larger and larger stadiums had to be built. It is claimed that the Circus Maximus in Rome had room for more than 350,000 spectators.

Chariots were usually pulled by four horses but it could be by as few as two or as many as ten. Four rival groups (Romans called them factions) took part. These factions were known by the colours that their drivers wore (white, green, blue or red). The Romans would support these factions in the same way as people today support rival football teams.

This rivalry sometimes resulted in fights between spectators. On one occasion, Emperor Vitellius, who was a strong supporter of the Blues, had several spectators executed for shouting out rude comments about his team.

The race was made up of seven laps (8.4 kilometres) and usually lasted about fifteen minutes. Each lap was marked by the lowering of an egg from a platform. Each faction would provide one, two or three chariots for every race. If more than one from each faction was used, the drivers raced as a team rather than as individuals.

There were twelve starting-boxes and the drivers would draw lots to decide where they started from. The best draw was on the rails as it was the shortest way round. However, it was also the most dangerous because if the chariot hit the spina (a long thin island in the middle of the arena) the driver was in danger of being thrown out into the path of the other teams.

Horses had to be very brave to run so close to the walls of the spina and the most important horse was the one at the front on the left. The best horses were imported from Africa and Hispania. The lead-horse would be named on the racecard, and during the race the crowd would chant the name of this horse, the driver or the faction.

Tomb of a Roman official and his wife showing a chariot race (c. AD 130)
Tomb of a Roman official and his wife showing a chariot race (c. AD 130)

Before the race started the driver would wrap the reins around his waist and then hold them with his left hand. In his right hand he would carry his whip. The successful charioteer was not only able to persuade his horses to go fast but was also skilled at impeding his rivals. As the race neared its end the tactics became more violent. The charioteers would try to 'shipwreck' the leader by whipping their horses into the back of his chariot. Another tactic was to try and break your rival's axle by driving your chariot into his wheels. If he was 'shipwrecked', the charioteer had to quickly draw his dagger and cut the reins wound around him. If he failed to do this he would be dragged along the floor by the horses and was likely to be killed or seriously injured.

Charioteers were usually slaves or from poor backgrounds. However, if they were successful they could become very rich. One charioteer, recruited from North Africa, is reported to have received over a million and a half sesterces in fourteen years. A good charioteer would offer his services to the faction that paid the highest amount of money and often changed the team that he drove for.

All the stables had an apprenticeship scheme to train good drivers. They also employed talent-scouts who would search the Roman Empire looking for potential stars.

Up to 24 races took place at each meeting. In between races, men on horses would give acrobatic displays. Wild animals - were paraded and sometimes they performed tricks such as allowing young boys to dance on their backs.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Juvenal, Satire XI (c. AD 125)

All Rome is in the Circus today. The roar that assails my eardrums means, I am pretty sure, that the Greens have won... The races are fine for young men: they can cheer their fancy and bet at long odds and sit with some smart little girl-friend. But I'd rather let my wrinkled old skin soak up this mild spring sunshine than sweat all day in a toga.

(2) Pliny the Younger, letter to a friend (c. AD 105)

The races are on, a spectacle which has not the slightest attraction for me. It lacks novelty and variety. If you have seen it once, then there is nothing left for you to see. So it amazes me that thousands and thousands of grown men should act like children, wanting to look at horses running and men standing on chariots over and over again. If it was the speed of the horses or the skill of the drivers that attracted them, there would be some sense in it - but in fact it is simply the colour. That is what they back and that is what fascinates them.

(3) Ovid, A Lover at the Races (c. 15 BC)

It's no thoroughbred horse I come to see.

The horse you favour is the horse for me...

You watch the horses while I'm watching you:

I wish us both a satisfying view.

(4) Virgil, Georgics I (c. 30 BC)

As when the chariots burst from the stalls and meet on the course, the driver, vainly seeking to hold back his team, is carried away by them and the chariot heeds not the reins.

(5) Procopius, letter to a friend (c. AD 450)

In every city the population has been divided for a long time past into factions... So there grows up in them against their fellow men a hostility... And even women join with them in this unholy strife... I, for my part, am unable to call this anything except a disease of the soul.

Questions

1. Which source in this unit helps to explain which horse in the chariot team was the most important?

2. Comment on the views expressed by Juvenal, Pliny the Younger, Procopius and Ovid on chariot racing. Do you think most Romans would have agreed with them?

3. What kind of sources would you need to look at if you wanted to find out about the popularity of chariot racing? Explain why you have chosen these sources.