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What Chariot Races Lead to in the Roman Empire: Speed, Glory and Politics
What Chariot Races Lead to in the Roman Empire: Speed, Glory and Politics

Chariot racing was a favorite Roman sport and socio-political event. One of the empire's racetracks witnessed one of the worst massacres in history, with dire consequences. About what actually caused the tragedy - further in the article.

For the ancient Romans, there was nothing more sensational than chariot racing. Large arenas located in major imperial cities were places of spectacular shows organized by emperors to increase their popularity and prestige among the people. The chariot drivers literally drew in and mesmerized audiences with a display of bold courage, skillful horse handling and tactical ingenuity as they pushed for victory through a combination of speed, strength and risk.

Spectacular chariot races. \ Photo:

The lucky winner could turn into a superstar, gaining fame and considerable fortune. But the grandiose racetracks weren't just sports arenas. The most famous of these, the Circus Maximus in Rome and the Hippodrome in Constantinople, were the social and political hearts of the two imperial capitals. These were places where ordinary people had a rare opportunity to see their emperor and, more importantly, to enter into a discussion with him. In the 6th century in Constantinople, one such discussion led to a conflict that resulted in a terrible massacre known as the Nika revolt.

1. Chariot Racing: Evolution

Chariot Races at the Hippodrome, Alexander von Wagner, 1882 \ Photo:

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

For the ancient Greeks, chariot racing was an important part of the Olympic Games. Chariots on two horses (biga) and four horses (quadriga), driven by amateur chariots, raced across the hippodrome, and up to sixty chariots participated in one race. This made chariot racing dangerous. One of the documented events reported the crash of up to forty chariots. The very term for wreck - naufragia (shipwreck) recalls the dangers and horrors of this sport. Later, chariot races appeared in Italy, where they were adopted by the Etruscans around the 6th century BC. The Romans, who shared the Etruscan need for speed, made chariot racing a mass spectacle.

Detail: Sarcophagus depicting chariot races, approx. 130-192 biennium n. NS. \ 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 both athletes and fans). Like modern professional soccer teams, the factions had hordes of fanatical followers, including the emperor himself. Charioteers could change factions, but fans couldn't. Pliny the Younger, writing in the first century AD, criticized this partiality and obsession of the Romans with games.The importance of chariot racing in the Roman Empire was further underlined by the grandiose arenas in which the games took place.

2. Sports arenas

Circus Maximus of Rome, Viviano Codazzi and Domenico Gargiulo, approx. 1638 \ Photo:

Due to the immense popularity of this sport, the racetrack (called the circus because of its oval or round shape) could be found in all major cities scattered throughout the Roman Empire. The largest and most important of these was the Circus Maximus in Rome. It was originally just a flat sandy walkway, but gradually evolved into a grand stadium-style building with a central divider (spina) and many related structures, as well as a two-story seating platform. The Circus Maximus was the largest and most expensive building in the capital. At the peak of its development, in the 1st century A.D. e., it could accommodate at least one hundred and fifty thousand spectators (for comparison, the maximum capacity of the Colosseum was fifty thousand spectators).

Obelisk of Theodosius, AD 390 NS. \ Photo:

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

The grand arenas were the supreme symbols of imperial power. Besides the monuments to the charioteers and their horses, the back was filled with statues of gods, heroes, and emperors. The Circus Maximus and the Hippodrome were decorated with majestic ancient obelisks brought from distant Egypt. In Constantinople, carefully selected works of art, such as Romulus and Remus with a she-wolf and the Serpent Column from Delphi, emphasized the city's main status.

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

The second important sports arena in the empire was the Hippodrome at Constantinople. Built by the emperor Septimius Severus in the 3rd century AD (when the city was known as Byzantium), it received its final form 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 Circus Maximus. It could accommodate from thirty to sixty thousand people.

3. A day at the races

Detail of a mosaic depicting horse racing at the Circus Maximus. \ Photo:

Initially, chariot races were carried out only on religious holidays, but starting from the late republic they began to be carried out on non-working days. 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 places, but all walks of life - slaves and aristocrats, men and women, gathered in one place to enjoy the spectacle.

Truly, it was a bright and breathtaking sight. The most sumptuous of all the events, the imperial games, which took place in the capital, included up to twenty-four chariot races a day. More than a thousand horses ran in one day.

Chariot Race, Ulpiano Cheki. \ Photo:

A light wooden chariot drawn by four horses and driven by a man tied to his belt to the reins and controlled by his own weight was a spectacular sight. The charioteer would have to go seven laps, rounding corners at dangerously high speeds, avoiding other chariots and the ever-present danger of accident, injury, and often death. Unsurprisingly, chariot racing created an insane atmosphere of thrill and excitement.

Chariot racing. \ Photo:

Chariot racing was a sport in which both athletes and spectators participated. During the races, the huge crowd roared at the charioteers, creating a cacophony that literally drove you crazy. Running out onto the field to interrupt the game sounds pretty trite compared to throwing nail-studded curse boards onto the track in an attempt to incapacitate rivals of your champions.Dirty tricks were encouraged by obsession and excitement from both athletes and spectators, who could win or lose an impressive fortune by placing bets on their favorites.

4. Chariots: Superstars of the Ancient World

Mosaic depicting a white charioteer, first half of the 3rd century AD NS. \ Photo:

Chariot racing was an extremely dangerous sport. Ancient sources are filled with records of famous racers who died on the track during the show. Even outside the field, sabotage was common. However, if the driver was lucky enough to win, he could get a decent amount of money. If the charioteer survived many races, he became an ancient superstar rivaling senators for wealth and a living god inspiring legions of his fans.

Appuleius Diocles. \ Photo:

The greatest charioteer of the ancient world and the richest sportsman ever was Guy Appuleius Diocles, who lived in the second century AD. Diocles won 1,462 of 4,257 races and, more importantly, retired in good health, a rarity in this dangerous sport. When he retired, Diocles' total winnings were nearly thirty-six million sesterces, enough to feed the entire city of Rome for a year or pay the Roman army at its height for a fifth of the year (an unofficial estimate today is equivalent to fifteen billion dollars). Unsurprisingly, his fame disgraced the emperor's popularity. Flavius ​​Scorpius (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 Porfiry, erected by the Green faction at the Hippodrome, 6th century AD NS. \ Photo:

The most famous charioteers were honored with monuments erected on the ridge after their death. This was not the case with Porfiry, a charioteer who raced in the 6th century CE. NS. Porfiry continued to race into his sixty years and is the only known charioteer to whom a monument was erected during his lifetime. Seven monuments were erected in his honor at the hippodrome. Porfiry is also the only known charioteer to have raced for opposing circus factions (Blues and Greens) 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 horsemen dressed in the colors of the circus factions, early 4th century AD. NS. \ Photo:

At the beginning of the 2nd century AD, the poet Juvenal mourned how the attention of the Roman people was easily distracted 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 rare public appearance of the emperor to express their opinion or ask the ruler for concessions. 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 assess public opinion.

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

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

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

On January 13, 532, a crowd gathered at the Hippodrome appealed to the Emperor Justinian to show clemency to members of the factions who had been sentenced to death for their crimes during the previous riot.When the emperor remained indifferent to their cries, both the Blues and the Greens began to shout: “Nika! Nika!" ("Win!" Or "Victory!").

Usually it was a greeting addressed to the driver, but now it has turned into a battle cry against the emperor. Five days of violence and looting followed as 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 own candidate for the throne.

According to Procopius, the situation was so desperate that Justinian planned to flee the city, but his wife, Empress Theodora, dissuaded him. Finally, his generals devised a plan to restore order and control the city. Emboldened, Justinian sent his troops to the Hippodrome, which quickly dealt with the assembled crowd, leaving up to thirty thousand people, both Greens and Blues, on the floor of the arena. From now on, Blues and Greens will retain only a ceremonial role.

6. Influence of chariot racing

Scene from the movie Ben Hur, 1959. \ Photo:

The Nika riot crushed the power of the circus factions. A century later, the popularity of the sport declined. Occupied by Persian and then Arab invaders, the emperors found it increasingly difficult to finance the games at the hippodrome. Public events, including executions and festivals (and even Western-style knightly tournaments in the 12th century) continued until 1204, when the city was sacked during the Fourth Crusade. The conquerors plundered the city, including the vaunted monuments of the Hippodrome. The gilded bronze quadriga that 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:

Chariot racing was a sport unlike any other in the Roman world. It was a spectacular sight that attracted all social classes, from slaves to the emperor himself. Large arenas like the Circus Maximus or the Hippodrome were centers of social life and sources of pleasure for people who fervently supported their favorite factions. Experienced charioteers have overcome many dangers, and if successful, they could turn into superstars rivaling the glory of the emperor. But chariot racing was not 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. Racing also served as a source of distraction, preventing potential riots. Ironically, this was one of the games that sparked the worst riot in the history of the empire and ended chariot racing.

And in the next article you can find out about what secrets are kept in the oldest rotunda in Greece and why it is called the lesser pantheon.

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