Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Chariot racing

Chariot racing was one of the most popular ancient Greek and Roman sports.

Early chariot racing

The chariot race at the funeral games of Patroclus ()

It is unknown exactly when chariot racing began, but it may have been as old as chariots themselves. It is known from artistic evidence on pottery that the sport existed in the Mycenaean world, but the first literary reference to a chariot race is the one described by Homer in Book 23 of the Iliad, at the funeral games of Patroclus. The participants in this race were Diomedes, Eumelus, Antilochus, Menelaus, and Meriones. The race, which was one lap around the stump of a tree, was won by Diomedes, who received a slave woman and a cauldron as his prize. A chariot race was also said to be the event that founded the Olympic Games; according to one legend, King Oenomaus challenged his daughter's suitors to a race, but was defeated by Pelops, who founded the Games in honour of his victory.

The Olympic Games

In the Olympics, as well as the other Panhellenic Games, there were both four-horse (tethrippon) and two-horse (synoris) chariot races, which were essentially the same aside from the number of horses. The chariot racing event was first added to the Olympics in 680 BC (but was not, in reality, the founding event). The race was begun by a procession into the hippodrome, while a herald announced the names of the drivers and owners. The hippodrome at Olympia was about 600 yards long and 300 yards wide, and up to 60 chariots could race at one time (though in practise the number was probably much lower). It was located beneath a hill, which provided standing room for possibly as many as 10 000 spectators. A race consisted of twelve laps around the hippodrome, with sharp turns around the posts at either end. Various mechanical devices were used, including the starting gates (hyspleges, sing. hysplex) which were lowered to start the race. According to Pausanias these were invented by the architect Kleoitas, and staggered so that the chariots on the outside began the race earlier than those on the inside. The race did not actually begin properly until the final gate was opened, at which point each chariot would be more-or-less lined up alongside each other, although the ones that had started on the outside would have been travelling faster than the ones in the middle. Other mechanical devices known as the "eagle" and the "dolphin" were raised to signify that the race had begun, and were lowered as the race went on to signify the number of laps remaining. These were probably bronze carvings of those animals, set up on posts at starting line.

A chariot race at the ancient
Olympic Games ()
Unlike the other Olympic events, charioteers did not perform in the nude (see nudity in sports), probably for safety reasons because of the dust kicked up by the horses and chariots, and the likelihood of bloody crashes. The chariots themselves were modified war chariots, essentially wooden carts with two wheels and an open back, although chariots were by this time no longer used in battle. The charioteer's feet were held in place, but the cart rested on the axle, so the ride must have been bumpy to say the least. The most exciting part of the chariot race, at least for the spectators, was the turns at the ends of the hippodrome. These turns were extremely violent and often deadly. If a chariot had not already been knocked over by an opponent before the turn, it might be overturned or crushed (along with the horses and driver) by the other chariots as they went around the post. Deliberately running into an opponent to cause him to crash was technically illegal, but nothing could be done about it (at Patroclus' funeral games, Antilochus in fact causes Menelaus to crash in this way), and crashes were likely to happen by accident anyway.

The chariot race was not as prestigious as the stadion (the foot race), but it was more important than other equestrian events such as racing on horseback, which were dropped from the Olympic Games very early on. In Mycenaean times the driver and owner would have been the same person, and therefore the winning driver received the prize. However, by the time of the Panhellenic Games, the owners usually had slaves who did the actual driving, and it was the owner who was awarded the prize. Arsecilas, the king of Cyrene, won the chariot race at the Pythian Games in 462 BC, when his slave driver was the only one to finish the race. In 416 BC the Athenian general Alcibiades had seven chariots in the race, one of which won; obviously he could not have been racing all seven chariots himself. Philip II of Macedon also won an Olympic chariot race in an attempt to prove he was not a barbarian, though if he had driven the chariot himself he would likely have been considered even lower than a barbarian. This rule also meant that women could technically win the race, despite the fact that women were not allowed to participate in or even watch the Games. This happened rarely, but a notable example is the Spartan Cynisca, daughter of Agesilaus II, who won the chariot race twice.

Chariot racing was also an event at other games in the Greek world, and was the most important event at the Panathenaic Games in Athens. At these games, the winner of the four-horse chariot race was given 140 amphorae of olive oil, an extremely expensive prize, as this was more oil than an athlete would ever need in his career. Most of it was probably sold to other athletes. There was another form of chariot racing at the Panathenaic Games, known as the apobotai or the anabotai. This involved jumping out of the chariot and running alongside for some distance (the anabotai); the apobotai apparently also including jumping back into the chariot after running alongside it. In these races there was a second driver who held the reins while the first driver jumped out, but of course neither of these were considered the winner.

Roman chariot racing

The Romans probably borrowed chariot racing from the Etruscans, who themselves borrowed it from the Greeks, but the Romans were also influenced directly by the Greeks especially after they conquered mainland Greece in 146 BC.

A winner of a Roman chariot race,
from the Red team ()
In Rome the main centre of chariot racing was the Circus Maximus in the valley between Palatine Hill and Aventine Hill, which could seat 150 000 people. The Circus probably dated back to the time of the Etruscans, but it was rebuilt by Julius Caesar around around 50 BC so that it had a length of about 600 metres and a width of about 225 metres. One end of the track was more open than the other, as this was where the chariots lined up to begin the race. The Romans used a series of gates known as carceres, an equivalent to the Greek hysplex. These were staggered in the same way as the hysplex, but they were slightly different because Roman racing tracks also had a median (the spina) in the centre of the track. The starting positions had to be lined up on one side of the spina, rather than across the entire track as they were in Greece. When the chariots were lined up the emperor (or whoever was hosting the races, if they were not in Rome) dropped a cloth known as a mappa, signalling the beginning of the race.

Once the race had begun, the chariots could move in front of each other in an attempt to cause their opponents to crash into the spina. The spina had "eggs", similar to the "dolphins" of the Greek races, which may have dropped into a channel of water that ran along the top of the spina to signify the number of laps remaining. The spina eventually became very elaborate, with statues and obelisks and other forms of art, so that the spectators often could not see the chariots on the other side (but they seem to have thought this was more suspenseful and exciting). At either end of the spina there were turning posts (metae), and spectacular crashes took place there as well, as in the Greek races. Crashes in which the chariot was destroyed and the charioteer and horses incapacitated were known as a naufragium, also the Latin word for a shipwreck.

The race itself was much like its Greek counterpart, although there were eventually dozens of races every day, sometimes for hundreds of consecutive days each year. However, a race consisted of only 7 laps (and later 5 laps, so that there could be even more races per day), instead of the 12 laps of the Greek race. There were four-horse chariots (quadrigae) and two-horse chariots (bigae), but the four-horse races were more important. In rare cases, if a driver wanted to show off his skill, he could use up to 10 horses, although this was extremely impractical. The Roman drivers also wore helmets and other protective gear, unlike the Greeks, and they wrapped the reins around their arms, while the Greeks held the reins in their hands. Because of this the Romans had a much harder time letting go of the reins after a crash, so they could be dragged around the circus until they freed themselves. They carried knives to cut the reins in such a situation. A famous attempt to reconstruct a Roman chariot race can be seen in the 1959 movie Ben-Hur.

Another important difference was that the charioteers themselves, the aurigae, were considered to be the winners, although they were usually also slaves (as in the Greek world). They received a wreath of laurel leaves, and probably some money; if they won enough races they could buy their freedom. Drivers could become celebrities throughout the Empire simply by surviving, as the life expectancy of a charioteer was not very high. One such celebrity driver was Scorpus, who won over 2000 races before being killed in a collision at the meta when he was about 27 years old. The horses, too, could become celebrities, but their life expectancy was also low. The Romans kept detailed statistics of the names, breeds, and pedigrees of famous horses.

Seats in the Circus were free for the poor, who by the time of the Empire had little else to do, as they were no longer involved in political or military affairs as they had been in the Republic. The wealthy could pay for shaded seats where they had a better view, and they probably also spent much of their times betting on the races. The emperor's palace was located close to the Hippodrome, and he would often watch the games as well. This was one of the only opportunities for the general population to view their leader. Julius Caesar frequently watched the races specifically so that the public could see him, although he apparently was not very interested as he usually brought something to read.

Nero was interested in the races almost to the exclusion of everything else. He was a driver himself, and won the chariot racing event at the Olympic Games, which were still being held in the Roman era. Under Nero the major racing factions began to develop. The four most important factions were the Reds, Blues, Greens, and Whites. They had existed before Nero, probably as friends and patrons of the various stables that produced the racehorses. Nero, however, subsidized them so that they grew almost beyond his control. Each team could have up to three chariots each in a race. Members of the same team often collaborated with each other against the other teams, for example to force them to crash into the spina (a legal and encouraged tactic). Drivers could switch teams, much like athletes can be traded to different teams today. Domitian created two new factions, the Purples and Golds, but by the 3rd century only the Blues and Greens had any importance.

There were many other circuses throughout the Roman Empire; there was even another major circus outside Rome, the Circus Maxentius. There were major circuses at Alexandria and Antioch, and Herod the Great built four circuses in Judaea. In the 4th century Constantine the Great built a circus in his new capital at Constantinople.

Byzantine chariot racing

Like many other aspects of the Roman world, chariot racing continued in the Byzantine Empire, although the Byzantines did not keep as many records and statistics as the Romans did. Constantine preferred chariot racing to gladiatorial combat, which he considered a vestige of paganism. The Olympic Games were disbanded by the later Christian emperors, but chariot racing continued to be popular. The Hippodrome of Constantinople (really a Roman circus, not the open space that the original Greek hippodromes were) was connected to the emperor's palace and the Church of Hagia Sophia, allowing spectators to view the emperor as they had in Rome.

The bronze horses from the Hippodrome, now in Venice ()

There is not much evidence that the chariot races were subject to bribes or other forms of cheating in the Roman Empire. In the Byzantine Empire there seems to have been more cheating; Justinian I's reformed legal code prohibits drivers from placing curses on their opponents, but otherwise there does not seem to have been any mechanical tampering or bribery.

Chariot racing in the Byzantine Empire also included the Roman racing clubs, but by this time only the Blues and Greens were important. One of the most famous charioteers, Porphyrius, was a member of both the Blues and the Greens at various times in 5th century. However, they were now more than simply sports teams. They gained influence in military, political, and theological matters, with, for example, the Blues tending towards Monophysitism and the Greens remaining Orthodox. They also developed in something like street gangs, responsible for robberies and murders. Although they had rioted as far back as the reign of Nero, the rioting throughout the 5th century and into the 6th century culminated in the Nika riots of 532 during the reign of Justinian, which began when some of their members were arrested for murder. Chariot racing seems to have declined after this incident, but they had in any case become much too expensive for the racing teams, or even the emperors, to pay for.

The Hippodrome in Constantinople remained a sanctuary for the emperors, until it was sacked during the Fourth Crusade in 1204. During the looting, the Crusaders removed a set of bronze statues of four horses, originally part of a monument depicting a quadrigae that was built by Constantine the Great. The horses still exist, but they are now at St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice.