Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Roman Chariot Racing

This carving shows us how a Roman racing chariot would have looked:-
We can see from this that the chariot is a small, light vehicle, drawn by four horses (though it might be only two, or in some cases up to ten). The horses appear to be galloping rather than trotting. The charioteer has no more protection than a leather helmet, and has tied the reins round his waist; which could lead to serious injury or even death if he failed to cut himself free in the event of a crash. He is about to make an anticlockwise turn round the spine (the "spina") running down the centre of the racetrack. One chariot is already disappearing round the turn, which is marked by columns called "metae". Races would last for several laps.
   There were traditionally four chariot-racing teams: the Greens, Blues, Reds and Whites. These teams, with their supporters' clubs, attracted violent partisanship among Romans, and at times almost acted like political parties. This all gave several words to the English language: a chariot-racing team was called a "faction", and a supporter of a charioteer an "agitator". Chariot-racing was an expensive business, requiring considerable sponsorship, and, as with horse-racing nowadays, what kept it going was, of course, the betting on the results; to which all Romans were addicted. (The man who sponsored a Roman Games, usually an aspiring politician hoping to win votes, was called an "editor"!).
   Chariot-racing was extremely dangerous. Fatal accidents were common; with crashes (nicknamed "shipwrecks") particularly likely on the difficult sharp turn round the end of the spine. Because of this, professional charioteers usually began as slaves, and many of them were killed whilst still young; but if successful they could become rich and famous, like modern football stars; and the names of some of them (and even the names of their horses!) still survive today.

The Latin word for such a racetrack was a "circus". The most famous chariot racing circuit was the Circus Maximus in Rome itself: a vast structure which was used not only for chariot races but also for gladiatorial contests and wild beast fights. Probably far more Christians were martyred here than in the Coliseum, which was a much later building. The Circus Maximus was originally a long natural valley, called the Murcia, between the Palatine and Aventine hills, which had been used for horse-racing since the earliest days of Rome. The spine was a quarter of a mile in length. Wooden seating was erected along along the valley sides, but after the disastrous fire in Rome in AD 64 it was all rebuilt in stone, and could hold a quarter of a million spectators: the biggest sporting venue in world history! Two enormous obelisks from Egypt decorated the spine, and bronze dolphins were removed from the tops of pillars were used to show how many laps remained.
 Not much is left of the Circus Maximus today, but you can still see the spine, and in the background the remains of one of the imperial palaces on the Palatine. In front of this would be the Imperial Box, overlooking the finishing line.

This is what it could have looked like in the heyday of the Roman Empire (This is from a model of the city)

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