Chariot Racing

By Night_Raider

A more humane alternative to the cruel and brutal gladitorial games of ancient Rome was chariot races. Although unlike the games, this event was popular not only in Rome, but also ancient Greece. Chariot racing was a public game in which horses pulled a two-wheeled cart that was driven by a charioteer. Charioteers would often stand rather than sit when driving the chariot. Chariot racing was the drag racing of ancient times.

Chariot Racing in Ancient Greece

Greek poet Homer wrote in the 8th century BCE about one such chariot race in his epic poem The Iliad. Five chieftains by the names of Diomedes, Eumelus, Antilochus, Menelaus, and Merione, were to drive two-horse chariots as the first event in the funeral games arranged by Achilles for his late friend, a Greek warrior by the name of Patroclus. The race was to take place in the countryside. The charioteers would all begin a predesignated spot. They would then race down a long stretch until they reached a spot marked by a tree stump and a bunch of white stones. At that point, they would then turn around and race back to the starting point. According to Homer's poem, one of the participants was warned by his father that this race would depend on not only the speed of the horse pulling the chariot, but also the skill and and craftiness of the charioteer. The race was won by Diomedes, and he recieved a slave woman and a cauldron as his victory prize.

Chariot racing was so popular among the ancient Greeks, infact, that it was often the first and most spectacular of any event in the Olympic Games, which began in 776 BCE. The course, nearly 14 km in all, consisted of 12 double laps. Victory wreaths were often the prize most charioteers were competing for. The most important of any of the races were teams of four horses controlled by one driver; this type of race was also one of the most dangerous as well. Most charioteers were nobles, although by the 7th century BCE, charioteers from the lower classes also entered the profession. Greek chariots were light-weight and two-wheeled. The charioteers drove the vehicle while standing up. Accidents happened almost every time a race occured, and the tempers of the charioteers were very hot. Pindar, a Greek lyric poet, tells of one particular chariot race in which a total of forty teams entered, but only one finished. In addition, chariot racing was popular in Greek art. It would decorate vases, sculptures, and even be printed on coins.

Chariot Racing in Ancient Rome

The Romans most likely got the chariot racing tradition from the Etruscans, who directly borrowed it from the Greeks. Beginning in the first century BCE, chariot racing became heavily commercialized in Rome; organized betting was introduced and riots often followed. Chariot racing was famed and loved by Romans all around, and even grew to rival the gladiatorial games on many grounds. Like the games, chariot races were staged in many cities across the empire. Rome, however, as always, held claim to the most spectacular staging ground for these races - the Circus Maximus. The crazed emporer Nero was a chariot racing enthusiest, and himself raced in several races. Later on, Constantinople (modern day Istanbul, Turkey) superceded Rome as the supreme center for chariot racing in the empire.

Rome was significantly different from the Greeks, and chariot races were no exception. Racing stables were symbolized by the colors that the charioteers and their horses wore. While red and white were the older colors, green and blue eventually took their place as the most common color worn. It was the color, not the skill of the driver or the beauty or quality of the horses, that held Roman interest in chariot racing. Many things eventually became attached to the colors, including things of political and even religious importance.

Much like the gladiatorial games, charioteers were commoners, freedmen, or slaves trained from boyhood. Unlike the Greeks, if a Roman was victorious, his earning could be tremendous; the Romans often awarded monetary prizes rather than the wreathes the Greeks awarded. A charioteer could earn up to, and maybe even beyond, one hundered times a lawyer's salary. The most common team was that of four horses and one driver although other teams would consist of up to ten horses or as little as two.