Chariot racing in Rome

Who invented racing?

In a nutshell. Horses always played a huge role in the life of the ancient world. Harnessed to a chariot, they allowed not only to move around more quickly and comfortably, but also to conduct military operations more effectively and defend their territory. Being the most skilful charioteer and having the fastest horses was extremely honorable among the ancient Greek nobility. In ancient Rome, the popularity of chariot racing gained a national scale, and the race itself became a matter of state importance.

Chariot races. A painting by Jean Leon Gérôme. 1876 Art Institute of Chicago

Chariot racing was popular to varying degrees in ancient Greece, ancient Rome and Byzantium. In Homer’s Iliad, the chariot races are part of the funeral games after the burial of Patroclus. In Homer’s poem, the heroes, guests at the funeral of Patroclus, Achilles’ loyal friend, race in chariots drawn by four horses. The competition takes place on a flat plain. The competitors must reach a pillar surrounded by two white stones and go around it from the outside. To make sure that none of the riders break the rules, a referee placed between the stones oversees their actions. In 680 B.C., quadriga races – chariots pulled by four horses in a row – became part of the Olympic program. It was the most prestigious, expensive, and dangerous competition in ancient Greece. There was no separation barrier in the middle of the racing area, which increased the risk of a head-on collision. That is why noble Greeks rarely drove the horses themselves: they only claimed a chariot driven by a specially trained charioteer. Nevertheless, it was the owners of the horses and chariots and not the charioteers who were declared the winners – their presence was not even necessary In the same “Iliad” the chariots were driven by heroes themselves and not by charioteers of non-aristocratic origin. This was probably the way chariot races took place in the eighth century BC. Later the situation changed, and noble Greeks stopped driving horses during the races. Antiquity researcher David Stone Potter suggests that in ancient Greece there was no firm rule about whether the owner of the horses had to drive them himself or whether another person could do it for him. . Thus, the Spartan princess Cynisca became the first woman to win the Olympics. It was very prestigious in Ancient Greece to enter her chariot in competition – it confirmed both status and financial solvency.

Fragment of an ancient Roman mosaic depicting a chariot race. II century A.D. Lugdunum (Musée gallo-romain de Fourvière)

In ancient Rome, chariot races became popular not only among the nobility, but also among the common people, including slaves, who began to be admitted to the stands. Since the third century the competitions, which took place in circuses – as the arenas for horse races were called – became the most visited events. Gladiatorial fights, which are called the most popular entertainment of ancient Rome in vain, began much later, and finished – much earlier The first mention of gladiatorial fights in ancient Rome is dated 264 BC. In the first half of IV century negative attitude of Christian Church to these events gradually began to wane. The Colosseum held far fewer people than the Great Circus (Circus Maximus), which housed first about 150,000 spectators and then 260,000; it was the largest structure in ancient Rome. By comparison, the capacity of the Colosseum, according to various estimates, from 45 to 55 thousand spectators.

While in Ancient Greece chariot races were rather amateur, in Ancient Rome they actually became a professional sport. It was no longer individual crews that competed, but teams, or parties. Like modern clubs, they had a wealthy owner and a general manager who managed several hundred employees. These associations emerged in the second century BC, most likely after the Second Punic War The Second Punic War (218-201 BC) was a military conflict between two coalitions, led by Rome and Carthage, for hegemony in the Mediterranean. Each team had its own color – the charioteers and fans were dressed in it. There were four main parties: green, blue, red, and white. It is still unknown, by what principle the fans chose who to support, but we know that among the participants there were consuls and emperors. Nero himself was the charioteer. For the sake of his participation, the Olympic Games were transferred from ’65 to ’67. Nero drove a chariot pulled by a dozen horses. During the race he fell, not being able to reach the finish line, but he was still proclaimed the winner.

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Panathenaic amphora with a depiction of a quadriga. Black-figure vase painting. Athens, 340-339 BC. © Dave & Margie Hill / CC BY-SA 2.0 / Getty Villa

Many ancient Roman statesmen and thinkers criticized the excessive love of racing, seeing it as childish, unworthy of adult men. “It would still be understandable if they were attracted by the speed of the horses or the skill of the charioteers, but in reality all they are interested in is the colors of the party…” – Pliny the Younger wrote in a letter to a friend, Pliny the Younger. Letters. Book 9. no. 6. . Two and a half centuries later another historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, acknowledged that it was with the circus that the main hopes and enthusiasm of the commoners were connected. Even a famous catchphrase from Juvenal’s tenth satire, “Bread and circuses!” – was “Bread and circuses!”

Imperial Rome researcher Alison Futrell believes that belonging to one or another circus party during late Antiquity was indeed a “defining social identity” for many, especially given the lack of other opportunities to be involved in public life. Historian David Stone Potter notes that in the era of imperial Rome, the circus became the emperor’s main place of communication with the people. Only there could the Romans see the ruler and sometimes even voice their dissatisfaction with what was going on (although this did not always end well: the dissatisfied could be punished).

Sources from the fourth century indicate that chariot races were held in Rome 66 days a year, with 24 races on each day. We do not know how regularly these races were organized in other cities, but their geography was very wide: competitions were organized in North Africa, and in Cappadocia, and in Sicily.

Chariot races. A painting by Alexander von Wagner. circa 1882 Manchester Art Gallery

It was mainly slaves (including former ones) and foreigners who became charioteers, because if they succeeded they could eventually be set free and become celebrities close to the emperor. Along with fame came money – some racers were richer than senators by the end of their career. Not all survived to the end of their careers. Despite the fact that in ancient Rome, unlike Greece, the circus had a separation barrier, the speed of the races was such that the charioteer, going to the start, could never be sure that he would survive the race.

In the Great Circus each race usually consisted of seven laps (about five kilometers), the participants covered that distance in eight to nine minutes. The average speed of chariots – as light as possible – was about 35 kilometers per hour. On straight sections of the route (from the start to the first turn) they could reach 75 km / h. Crashes were commonplace – viewers were both afraid of them and waiting. Especially often they happened in the corners. The circus staff had less than a minute to clean up the wreckage of chariots and accident victims.

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After the division of the Roman Empire into Eastern and Western empires in 395, chariot races were popular. The spread of Christianity as the state religion in Byzantium led to the gradual displacement and prohibition of most entertainment loved by Romans, but chariot racing, oddly enough, this did not touch. Constantine I, moving the capital from Rome to Constantinople, almost immediately ordered to expand the local hippodrome – the race was held here until the XI century, if not longer. During the Fourth Crusade of 1202-1204, which ended in the devastation of Constantinople, the Grand Hippodrome was destroyed. In the Mediterranean territories, chariot races were no longer held earlier, in the VI-VII centuries.

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What chariot racing in the Roman Empire led to: Speed, glory and politics

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Chariot racing was a favorite Roman sport and social and political event. On one of the racetracks of the empire, one of the worst massacres in history took place, with grave consequences. We will tell you what really caused the tragedy in the following article.

For the ancient Romans there was nothing more sensational than chariot races. The large arenas located in the large imperial cities were places of spectacular spectacle, organized by the emperors to enhance their popularity and prestige among the people. Chariot drivers literally attracted and hypnotized spectators with demonstrations of daring courage, skillful horse handling, and tactical ingenuity as they strove for victory through a combination of speed, strength, and risk.

Spectacular chariot races.  Photo:

The lucky winner could turn into a superstar, winning fame and a considerable fortune. But the grandiose hippodromes were more than just sports arenas. The most famous of them, the Great Circus in Rome and the Hippodrome in Constantinople, were the social and political hearts of the two imperial capitals. They were places where ordinary people had the rare opportunity to see their emperor and, more importantly, to engage in discussion with him. In sixth-century Constantinople, one such discussion led to a conflict that led to a terrible massacre known as the Nicus Rebellion.

1. Chariot Racing: Evolution

Chariot races at the racetrack, Alexander von Wagner, 1882.  Photo:

The first chariot appeared in the Bronze Age as a means of warfare. Light and maneuverable, they were the most powerful unit in the armies of ancient empires like Egypt, Assyria or Persia. The Greeks, and later the Romans, did not use chariots in combat, relying instead on infantry. However, chariots retained a special place in their culture. The gods raced chariots of fire through the sky, while earthly rulers and high priests used them in religious and triumphal processions. Eventually, these imposing vehicles gained popularity at sporting events.

For the ancient Greeks, chariot races were an important part of the Olympic Games. Chariots on two horses (biga) and four horses (quadriga), driven by amateur charioteers, raced on the racetrack, and up to sixty chariots participated in one race. This made chariot racing dangerous. One documented event reported as many as forty chariots crashing. The very term for derailment, nauphragia (shipwreck), recalls the dangers and horrors of the sport. Later chariot racing appeared in Italy, where it was adopted by the Etruscans around the sixth century BC. The Romans, who shared the Etruscan need for speed, turned chariot racing into a mass spectacle.

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Fragment: Sarcophagus depicting chariot races, c. 130-192 AD.  Photo:

In imperial Rome, racing became a professional sport, and star riders and teams were funded by private owners and municipalities. Most of the athletes were slaves who could earn their freedom, fame, and fortune by winning races. All charioteers belonged to one of the four main circus factions: Blue, Green, White, and Red (named after the colors worn by athletes and fans alike). Like modern professional soccer teams, the factions had hordes of fanatical followers, including the emperor himself. The charioteers could change factions, but the fans could not. Pliny the Younger, writing in the first century AD, criticized this bias and Roman obsession with games. The importance of chariot racing in the Roman Empire was further underscored by the grandiose arenas in which the games took place.

2. Sports arenas

The Great Circus in Rome, by Viviano Kodazzi and Domenico Gargiulo, c. 1638 г.  Photo:

Because of the enormous popularity of the sport, a hippodrome (called a circus because of its oval or circular shape) could be found in all the major cities scattered throughout the Roman Empire. The largest and most important of these was the Great Circus in Rome. Originally it was just a flat sand track, but gradually it developed into a grand stadium-style building with a central divider (spina) and many related structures, as well as a two-tiered seating platform. The Great Circus was the largest and most expensive building in the capital. At its peak, in the first century AD, it could hold at least a hundred and fifty thousand spectators (by comparison, the maximum capacity of the Colosseum was fifty thousand spectators).

Obelisk of Theodosius, 390 AD.  Photo:

Both the Great Circus and the Hippodrome were more than grandiose sports facilities. As the largest buildings in the capital, they were a tremendous source of employment, employing athletes, managers, horse trainers, musicians, acrobats, sand cleaners, and vendors. Moreover, these magnificent stadiums were the centers of social and political life in the cities. There people could mingle with their emperor and a good place for the ruler to strengthen his position.

The grandiose arenas were the ultimate symbols of imperial power. In addition to monuments to charioteers and their horses, the back was filled with statues of gods, heroes, and emperors. The Great Circus and the Hippodrome were adorned with majestic ancient obelisks brought from distant Egypt. In Constantinople, carefully selected works of art, such as Romulus and Remus with the she-wolf and the Serpent Column from Delphi, emphasized the city’s major status.

Great Circus (Circus Maximus) in Rome, reconstruction.  Photo:

The second important sports arena in the empire was the Hippodrome at Constantinople. Built by Emperor Septimius Severus in the third century AD (when the city was known as Byzantium), it got its final shape a hundred years later, under Constantine the Great. Following the usual rectangular shape, with an oval end, the Hippodrome was the largest building in Constantinople and the second largest stadium after the Great Circus. It could accommodate from thirty to sixty thousand people.

3. A day at the races

Detail of a mosaic depicting horse racing in the Great Circus.  Photo:

Originally chariot races were held only on religious festivals, but beginning in the late Republic they began to be held on non-working days as well. On such occasions the games were sponsored by prominent Roman dignitaries, including the emperor himself. Unlike modern sporting events, admission to the spectacle was free for the common people and the poor. The elite had better seats, but all walks of life-slaves and aristocrats, men and women-gathered in one place to enjoy the spectacle.

Truly, it was a vivid and breathtaking spectacle. The most magnificent of all events, the Imperial Games, held in the capital, included up to twenty-four chariot races a day. More than a thousand horses raced in one day.

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The chariot race, Ulpiano Checa.  Photo:

A light wooden chariot harnessed to four horses and driven by a man tied by the belt to the reins and driven by his own weight was a thrilling spectacle. The charioteer would have to complete seven laps, rounding corners at dangerously high speeds, avoiding other chariots and the ever-present danger of accident, injury, and often death. Not surprisingly, chariot racing created an insane atmosphere of thrill and excitement.

Chariot race.  Photo:

Chariot racing was a sport in which both athletes and spectators participated. During the races a huge crowd roared at the charioteers, creating a cacophony that literally drove them mad. Running out onto the field to interrupt a game sounds pretty trivial compared to throwing nail-strewn cursing signs on the track in an attempt to incapacitate their champions’ opponents. Dirty tricks were encouraged by the obsession and excitement on the part of athletes and spectators alike, who could win or lose an impressive fortune betting on their favorites.

4. Charioteers: The Superstars of the Ancient World

Mosaic depicting a charioteer belonging to whites, first half of the 3rd century AD.  Photo:

Mosaic depicting a charioteer belonging to White, first half of the 3rd century AD. Photo:

Chariot racing was an extremely dangerous sport. Ancient sources are filled with records of famous riders who fell on the track during the show. Even off the field, sabotage was commonplace. However, if a charioteer was lucky enough to win, he could get a decent sum of money. If a charioteer survived many races, he became an ancient superstar, rivaling senators in wealth, and a living god, inspiring legions of his admirers.

Appuleius Diocles.  Photo:

The greatest charioteer of the ancient world and the richest athlete ever was Gaius Appuleius Diocles, who lived in the second century AD. Diocles won 1,462 of 4,257 races and, more importantly, retired in good health, which was a rarity in this dangerous sport. When he retired, Diocles’ total winnings amounted to nearly thirty-six million sesterces, a sum sufficient to feed the entire city of Rome for a year or to pay the Roman army at its height for a fifth of a year (an unofficial estimate today is equivalent to fifteen billion dollars). Not surprisingly, his fame put the emperor’s popularity to shame. Flavius Scorpus (Scorpius) was another famous charioteer whose brilliant career of 2,048 victories was cut short by disaster when he was only twenty-six years old.

Monument to Porphyry erected by the Greens faction on the Hippodrome, 6th century AD.  Photo:

Monument to Porphyry erected by the Green faction on the Hippodrome, 6th century AD. Photo:

The most famous charioteers were honored with monuments erected on the ridge after their deaths. This was not the case with Porphyry, a charioteer who raced in the sixth century A.D. Porphyry continued to race in his sixties and is the only famous charioteer to have a monument erected during his lifetime. Seven monuments have been erected in his honor on the racetrack. Porphyry is also the only known charioteer who raced for opposite circus factions (Blue and Green) on the same day and won on both occasions. His fame and popularity were so great that both factions honored him with monuments.

5. Nick’s Rebellion.

A panel depicting a charioteer with riders dressed in the colors of the circus factions, early 4th century CE.  Photo:

A panel depicting a charioteer with riders dressed in the colors of the circus factions, early 4th century AD. Photo:

In the early second century A.D., the poet Juvenal lamented how the attention of the Roman people was easily diverted from important matters by “bread and circuses. This sounds familiar, since modern sports arenas also serve as a source of distraction. But for many ancient Romans, chariot racing was an integral part of political life. People could use the emperor’s rare public appearance to express their opinions or ask for concessions from the ruler. For the emperor, a day at the races was an opportunity to show his favor and increase his popularity, as well as a good place to gauge public opinion.

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The political dimension of chariot racing increased even more in the later empire as emperors spent most of their time in their new capital, Constantinople. The hippodrome was directly connected to the Great Palace, and the ruler directed the races from a specially designed private lodge (kafizma).

Mosaic depicting Emperor Justinian and his retinue, 6th century AD.  Photo:

The political role of the circus factions also increased as people chanted their demands during the races, while blue-green rivalries could often escalate into gang warfare and street violence. One such incident led to the worst massacre in the history of chariot racing, known as the Nick Riot.

On January 13, 532, a crowd gathered on the Hippodrome appealed to Emperor Justinian to show mercy to the faction members sentenced to death for their crimes during the previous riot. When the emperor remained indifferent to their cries, both the Blue and the Green began to shout, “Nika! Nika!” (“Victory!” or “Victory!”).

Normally this would have been a greeting addressed to the charioteer, but now it turned into a battle cry against the emperor. Five days of violence and looting followed while the city burned. Besieged in the palace, Justinian tried to reason with the people and failed. To make matters worse, some senators who disliked the emperor took advantage of the chaos to install their candidate for the throne.

According to Procopius, the situation was so desperate that Justinian planned to flee the city, but was dissuaded by his wife, Empress Theodora. Finally, his generals devised a plan to restore order and take control of the city. Courageously, Justinian sent his troops to the Hippodrome, who quickly dispersed the assembled crowd, leaving up to thirty thousand men, both Green and Blue, on the floor of the arena. From now on, the Blue and Green would retain only a ceremonial role.

6. The impact of the chariot races

A scene from the movie Ben-Hur, 1959.  Photo:

The Nick’s Rebellion crushed the power of the Circus Factions. A century later, the sport’s popularity had declined. Occupied by Persian and then Arab invaders, the emperors found it increasingly difficult to finance the hippodrome games. Public events, including executions and festivals (and even Western-style jousting tournaments in the 12th century), continued until 1204, when the city was sacked during the Fourth Crusade. The conquerors sacked the city, including the lauded monuments of the Hippodrome. The gilded bronze quadriga, which once crowned the monumental entrance to the great arena of Constantinople, was taken to Venice, where it can be seen today in the Basilica of San Marco.

St. Mark's horses, also known as the Triumphal Quadriga, 2nd or 3rd century AD.  Photo:

St. Mark’s Horses, also known as the Triumphal Quadriga, 2nd or 3rd century AD. Photo:

Chariot racing was a sport unlike any other in the Roman world. It was a spectacular spectacle that attracted all social classes, from slaves to the emperor himself. Large arenas, such as the Great Circus or the Hippodrome, were centers of social life and sources of pleasure for people who fervently supported their favorite factions. Experienced charioteers overcame many dangers, and if successful, they could become superstars to rival the glory of the emperor. But chariot races were more than just a sport. They played an important role in the political life of the empire, providing him with a rare opportunity to communicate with his people. The races also served as a source of distraction, preventing potential unrest. Ironically, it was one of the games that caused the worst revolt in the history of the empire and put an end to chariot racing.

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