Chariot racing was one of the most popular sports in Ancient Rome. The Romans loved to race and races were an important part of the Games. Two-horse chariots (bigae) and four-horse chariots (quadrigae) were the most popular, but there were also 3, 6, 7, and even ten horse chariots.
The full race was called a missus. A race would last seven laps (curricula). There could be up to 25 races a day and the races might go on for months. Races were held throughout the empire, eg at Lyon (Lugdunum ) and Vienne. The Circus Maximus in Rome had a capacity of 150,000, rising to 250,000. (Image of Circus Maximus in Rome: VRoma)
Chariot racers were professional and the trade was probably taught from father to son. Racing required huge skill and courage. It was an aggressive, full-on contact sport and very dangerous. Riders could suffer severe injury or death and most riders died young. The average age of death from tombstones of charioteers is just 22. However winning charioteers became celebrities and could become very wealthy. It is likely that immense sums were bet on the outcome of chariot races and successful drivers could benefit. The charioteer Diocles earned over 35 million sestertii. Another, Scorpius, won over 2,000 races. Porphyrius was famous for his ability to win races regardless of which team he raced for.
The drivers’ fame gave them considerable power and the Emperor and senior political figures liked to associate themselves with charioteers in the hope their glory would rub off. As Chariot races were one of the few places where upper class women could mix socially with men (and lovers could sit next to one another), chariot races became important social events. Different political factions put up teams in their supporters’ colours: red, white, blue and green. There was fierce rivalry between the supporters which often led to street violence or riots. The Nika riots of 532 AD resulted in thousands of deaths. Astute emperors tried to harness this rivalry. In 379 AD, when Constantinople was threatened by the Goths, teams competed to build the city walls.
How dangerous was chariot-racing?
The races were dangerous and must have been terrifying. The race started when the Emperor dropped a cloth (mappa). The teams would race for the inner track. The winning tactic was to drive as close as possible to the spine of the circuit forcing other drivers out. The team that was on the inside turning the end posts (metae) had an advantage. This inevitably led to collisions as rivals crashed or tried to force each other out. The depiction of a chariot race in the film Ben Hur is probably accurate. Drivers raced with the reins wrapped tight around their wrists which mean that if a chariot disintegrated, the driver had to choose between being dragged to death or cutting himself free and taking his chances with the horses following behind. Charioteers carried a knife for this purpose.
Chariot racing declined with the decline of public entertainment in the sixth century, ie some time after Rome lost the western provinces to Germanic rule. The last recorded chariot races took place in 549 AD. A factor in the decline was that Christians disapproved of chariot racing because of the sport’s close associations with magic and sorcery. Many drivers used spells and incantations to improve their chances in a race and crashes and deaths were attributed to a rival’s better use of sorcery. So determined were Christians to eradicate chariot-racing that they insisted that charioteers renounced their profession before they converted.
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