With two degrees in history, I enjoy researching and writing about historical events that the history books tend to gloss over.
It's A Race!
Today, many people are familiar with the gladiatorial games of ancient Rome. However, less well remembered are the chariot races, but in ancient Rome, they were quite popular. So popular in fact that stadiums could seat well over one hundred thousand spectators and even more stadiums had to be built. The races always preceded the gladiatorial matches. The chariot races usually consisted of seven laps and last about fifteen minutes, demonstrating how fast the charioteers were going. Due to the speeds, chariot racing was a very dangerous sport, but also very profitable not only for the successful charioteer, but also for those gambling as well as sponsors. So popular was chariot racing, like gladiators, images were added to everyday objects, such as a vase from 575 BC Etruia in which all sides depicted spectators watching charioteers. In ancient Rome, chariot races were just as popular as Gladiatorial matches.
A Day At The Circus (Maximus)
During Etruscan rule of Rome, Tarquinius commissioned the hippodrome, the pre-cursor to the Circus Maximus, to be built to host chariot racing and gladiatorial events. Eventually, a pulvinar, or empty seat reserved for a deity, and raised seats for spectators were built in order to better view the racing and other events which were held at the hippodrome. A circus designates a circle or course for chariot racing, much like the NASCAR tracks of modern times in America. “The Circensian games were shows exhibited in the Circus Maximus, and consisted of various kinds: first, chariot and horse-races, of which the Romans were extravagantly fond.”
Within the Circus Maximus, the starting gates were at the far end, with six on either side of the starter's box and flanked by two towers. So important were the chariot races, that the pulvinar would hold a dominant position in the stands and, the emperor's palace would overlook the Circus from the Palatine Hill. At the closest end of the circus, along the curved end of the stadium, stood a triple arch. The steps in front of the arch were positioned so that the procession of magistrates and charioteers, entertainers and priests had to enter the Circus by way of the starting gates as if making a grand entrance.
A Team Player
“All Rome to-day is in the Circus. A roar strikes upon my ear which tells me that the Green has won; for had it lost, Rome would be as sad and dismayed as when the Consuls were vanquished in the dust of Cannae.” Chariot racers were split into teams, or factions, designated by the colors red, blue, white, or green. While fans may cheer for an individual gladiator, they cheered for charioteer teams in much the same way as modern sports enthusiasts cheer for their favorite football team. “The spectators, without regarding the speed of the horses, or the skill of the men, were attracted merely by one or the other of the colors, as caprice inclined them.” A charioteer had to be skilled in coaxing his horses to run faster as well as impeding his rivals. As most charioteers, like gladiators, were slaves or from poor families, this skillset was vital, as with each success, the charioteer could earn more money and eventually become very wealthy. Such high stakes lead to thrilling shows which packed the circus for every race.
As Suetonius said of the Emperor Domitianus, “He frequently entertained the people with most magnificent and costly shows, not only in the amphitheater, but the circus; where, besides the usual races with chariots drawn by two or four horses a-breast, he exhibited the representation of an engagement between both horse and foot, and a sea-fight in the amphitheater.” The popularity of chariot racing expanded from the general citizenry to the elite. Although chariot racers were either slaves or from poor families, at times an emperor in a fit of thrill seeking, would take the reins. “Nero himself was exhibiting, in Rome or some of the provinces, such scenes of extravagance as almost exceed credibility. In one place, entering the lists amongst the competitors in a chariot race.” The races were important social events due in part because men and women were allowed to sit together, but betting was also permitted.
Still Racing Today
In ancient Rome, chariot races were just as popular as Gladiatorial matches. A grand amphitheater was constructed specifically for the races with a seat of honor reserved for deities. The races were so popular that the imperial palace overlooked the Circus Maximus. Spectators packed the seats to root for their favorite teams and decorated home goods with images from the Circus. Just like modern sporting fans, fans of chariot racing in ancient Rome would proudly, and vociferously cheer their teams on to the finish line. This was one sporting event that appealed to all citizens, men, and women alike. While today, gladiator matches are remembered as the main sporting event in Rome, they shared the spotlight with chariot racing. Today, horse racing is still a very popular sport as well as NASCAR, a modern “chariot race”. However, gladiator matches have long since disappeared.
Ames, Cody Scott. “Rome’s seat of passion: An assessment of the archeology and history of the Circus Maximus.” Cogent Arts & Humanities (2016): 3
Juvenal. Satire XI. Translated by G.G. Ramsay. http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/juvenal_satires_11.htm
Suetonius. Lives of the Twelve Caesars. Loeb Classical Library. Perseus website. https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Suetonius/12Caesars/Domitian*.html
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on April 07, 2021:
I've watch both the chariot race and the gladiators fight it out in films. The former has all the more fun. Thanks for sharing.