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So You Want to Be a Roman Charioteer…


Painting: Overhead view of an empty Circus Maximus .
Plan de Rome du Cinquantenaire à Bruxelles - Circus Maximus https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Plan_de_Rome_du_Cinquantenaire_%C3%A0_Bruxelles_-_Circus_Maximus.jpg



Welcome, thrillseeker, to the most high octane profession in all of Rome. Forget the fatality rate, you could win all the fame and fortune your heart desires. So if you think you have what it takes to win a race in the Circus Maximus, a monument as old as the city itself, here’s what you need to know...


Recruitment:


First of all, you’ll need a decent chariot and at least two thoroughbred horses, preferably four. I can already tell you can’t afford the ridiculous expense, so the best thing to do is try and get hired by a chariot-obsessed aristocrat too sensible to risk their own life and limb on the racetrack, or better still,  try and weasel your way into one of the four Faction stables.


Heading straight to Rome may not be your best bet; starting in any of the more than 50 circuses across the empire and rising up their ranks may be the better way of getting some experience under your belt away from the Caput Mundi. Faction talent scouts will be watching and snapping up anyone with potential. If you shovel enough manure, sweet talk your way into a training programme and win a few provincial races, you may just get a lucky break and a ticket to Rome. You’ll increase your odds of being scouted and recruited if you’re athletic; it isn’t just the horses who need to be at their physical peak, and you’ll all need an inordinate amount of stamina to get to the end of a race.


Anatomy of a Race:


A standard chariot race is seven laps around the track. Sounds easy enough, right? All you have to do is finish the course, which happens less frequently than you’d imagine. Helping you to do so are your horses - the better (and richer) the Faction you race for, the better the horses will be. They will have been carefully bred, selected and trained. Don’t be surprised if they receive better treatment than you do, you’re eminently more replaceable.


In your early career you will likely be racing a biga, a two horse chariot. Both horses are attached to the chariot, and you’ll have a rein for each. Once you’ve mastered the biga, you’ll graduate to a quadriga. That’s double the horses; except the horses on the outside aren’t attached to your chariot, just to the horses on the inside. The outer horses don’t make your chariot any faster, but they do make your life a lot more complicated. Double the reins to keep control of.


The trick will be to keep your horses parallel on the straight section of track, and then to make a tightly controlled turn at each end, with the innermost horse stepping short around the hairpin bend, and the outermost horse having to make really long strides in order to swing you all around. Seven counterclockwise laps mean fourteen turns - they’re difficult, tactically crucial and dangerous. Get good at them. 


The race starts when the editor or emperor drops the ceremonial white hankie. From that point on, it’s eight to twelve minutes of pure adrenaline and carnage. You’ll want to go fast, of course, but make sure you don’t tire your horses out too quickly. Driving requires skill: you need to weave in between your rivals and overtake frequently if you want to get ahead. Only the very best charioteers lead the pack for the entire race, so don’t lose hope if you start to fall back at any point. You have plenty of time to make up some ground, or for a rival to make a crucial mistake.


Besides, the crowds love a bit of drama, and a lot of money is sunk into providing it.


Of course, all of this expense isn’t poured into a single race per Games day; there will be anywhere between 10 and 22 races per day. With 66 days of the festive calendar involving Games, not to mention extra races to mark special occasions. You’ll be racing several races a day, at least once a week. Romans are insatiable for races, far more so than for any other spectacle, including the theatre or gladiators, both of which occur with far less frequency and with far smaller crowds.


The Circus Maximus is Rome, and you’ll be in the beating heart of it.  


Location, Location, Location:


There are dozens of circuses to race in across the empire, and they all follow a standard pattern: the building is an elongated U shape. The curved end is called the sphendone. In the Circus Maximus, the sphendone has a fancy triumphal arch in the centre of it. The race starts at the other end, where there are twelve starting gates, called carceres, set in a slightly curved line across the flat end, to make sure nobody has an unfair advantage; it’s the same distance to the break line for everyone. The gates work on a spring mechanism, so that everyone starts at exactly the same time. You’ll be assigned a gate at random, so it’s a good idea to be practised in starting from each.


The first part of the race is rushing to a white line in the sand (alba linea) that runs between the closest turning post and the high podium wall that keeps the spectators safe from the action. You’ll need to stay in your assigned lane until this line, and it’s the ideal opportunity for an explosive burst of speed to get ahead of the pack. Once past the white line there are no lane markers and a lot of jostling for a prime position on the inside of the track. Get ahead early to avoid this scrum. You’ll notice that I mentioned 12 gates, but there are only four teams. That’s because each faction can enter up to three chariots per race. You may have a lot of room before you get to the white line, but afterwards the track slims right down and gets uncomfortably crowded. Don’t worry though, it’s unlikely there will be 12 chariots remaining should you make it to the final lap.


Down the centre of the track, for most of its length, is the spina; as the name suggests it forms the ‘spine’ of the racecourse. It is the barrier around which the race runs, and is highly decorated with statues of gods and altars. Several circuses have copied the Circus Maximus in plonking a whopping great obelisk or two onto the spina. 


Greek hippodromes don’t have a spina, leading to some nasty head-on collisions between chariots charging towards each other. It’s one reason why any sane Roman wouldn’t be caught dead racing in a hippodrome. This way, you only need to worry about the chariots going in the same direction as you are. The spina is a clear, solid demarcation for your safety, just try not to accidentally veer into it.


At the curved sphendone end, one of the final decorations on top of the spina is a lap counter called the Ova. It is made of seven decorative eggs on poles, held up on a frame, and a member of staff lowers one on completion of each lap. At the carceres end of the spina is another counter, called the Delphini, and its laps are marked with carved dolphins. Charioteers can keep an eye on these counters as they whoosh past, to keep track of how many times they’ve lapped. The roar of the crowds and the din of the chariots make it impossible to hear a thing, so this is the only indication you’ll have.


At each end of the spina are the metae, the turning posts. They are massive, masonry semi circles topped with three large, shiny bronze cones apiece. You can’t miss them. You’ll want to turn as tightly as possible: staying as close as possible to the spina and metae is a good idea as it shortens the length of your race considerably. Mess up a turn and you could find yourself on the outside of the course. Chariots in the outside lane, closest to the spectators, have a much longer distance to ride. But, they won’t have to make their turns as treacherously tight, and don’t risk scraping the meta with their horses or wheels, which neither veterinarian nor wheelwright back at camp will thank you for. It’s a calculated risk, and entirely up to you.


Pick A Team:


Once upon a time, chariot racing only had two teams: the Whites and Reds. Thankfully, it didn’t take long for the Blues and Greens to be added to the roster. Domitian added the Purples and Golds as well, but they folded soon after his assassination. These four teams are known as the Factions. They each have a training complex on the Campus Martius, and are huge businesses in their own right. They’re responsible for purchasing and producing both horses, chariots and charioteers, as well as training. Let’s just say that racing has a high personnel turnover, so they’re constantly looking out for talented drivers and they’re not averse to poaching from other Factions. The Emperor funds them, and trust me, they know their worth and make sure to charge him what they deem necessary. They know he’ll pay, there would be riots if he refused and the races were to be cancelled. 


When you race, your tunic will display your Faction colour. Wear it with pride. Your Faction is your home, your family, and a great source of pride. You know, until you defect to a Faction offering you a greater share of winnings.



Small statue - a toy? - of a single horse pulling a chariot.
Photo by Alexandra Sills


Your Colleagues:


Your most important colleagues on the arena floor aren’t the other chariots in your Faction. Your most important teammates are your horses. The best are bred in North Africa, Hispania and Sicily. They’re most likely to be stallions, and are larger than horses used for more mundane purposes. They will be carefully bred and highly trained by specialists in your Faction barracks, and usually start racing aged around five. Only the strongest, fastest and tenacious horses will race in the circus. They’re worth far more than you are, and are selected with even more care than you. They’re also likely to survive far longer than you, too. Don’t be surprised when they’re treated better.


Most of the time you’ll be dealing with four of them. The horse on the left is the introiugus. This is the best horse on the team, and will likely be a celebrity itself. He’ll be the one guiding you round those high-stakes turns. The introiugus isn’t actually connected to the chariot in any way, neither is the horse on the far right. They’re funales, they’re not yoked but attached to the inside horses by reins at their head. The inside horses are the iugales, and they are firmly yoked to the chariot shaft. They’re less manoeuvrable but are doing all the hard pulling work.


You control them through reins, a set for each horse. Make sure to keep a tight rein on your introiugus on turns, whilst giving your rightmost horse much longer rein, otherwise you’ll hurt his mouth. You could control the reins with your hands, but most Roman charioteers prefer to wrap them around their waists and control the horses by moving their hips and leaning to one side. That leaves a hand free for whips, or for making crude gestures to your rivals.


Your Factionmates might decide, ahead of the race, to race tactically. The fastest of you races to win, and your mates race to cause as much distraction and destruction to the other Faction chariots as possible. The winnings are then shared amongst you. Swerving around is an option, but note that spectators don’t like full-on ramming that much. Lastly, your Faction will have an auxiliary rider on horseback, whose job is to warn you of pile ups, risky overtaking or dirty tactics. He’ll offer you encouragement and advice; buy him a beaker of wine or six if you end up winning. 


Your Vehicle:


A racing chariot is nothing like the large, grand ceremonial chariots you’ll see in triumphs and the like. It’s a small platform with a panel at the front coming up somewhere between your knee and mid-thigh. The wheels are quite small and on an axle. Protruding from the front is the shaft to which the horses are yoked. It is fixed in place, so you’ll need to factor this in when judging how much room you need for a turn. On the other hand, at least you can’t jack-knife it.


The chariot, made of wood and leather, is as light as possible to help you reach those high speeds, but they are not for the faint of heart. By the end of your career your knees will crunch like gravel, even if you master the wide, slightly crouched stance that gives you the best balance. However, it’s the lightweight, minimal engineering that will allow you to reach speeds of 20-25 miles per hour. It’s also sturdy - seven laps is about 3-3.5 miles* of constant racing, depending on how tightly you stick to the spina, and your chariot is designed to withstand a lot of rough and tumble. It’s the product of centuries of trial and error, and is engineered to perfection. 


Spectators:


The fans of the Faction you race for will cheer for you, admire you, love you. You’ll get drunk on the adoration. Unfortunately, 75% of 150,000 Circus Maximus spectators will be actively hoping that you lose, or even better, get injured or die. Most of them will be placing bets on you or against you (even if they’re not technically supposed to), and the entertainment you provide, either by winning or dying dramatically, provides them with a sliver of excitement in their otherwise humdrum lives. They take this seriously, memorising equine bloodlines, debating tactics, and starting the odd riot. Talk about dedication! They’ll be as likely to buy a souvenir lamp or statuette of you as they are to scratch out a curse tablet asking for a god to rot your genitals off. We do it for the fans.



An oil-lamp with an inscribed image of four teams of chariots.
Photo by Christina Hotalen


Money, Money, Money:


Now, don’t get me wrong, you’ll be working hard throughout your entire career, with a punishing schedule and great risk to your health. You might get famous, but fame doesn’t pay the rent. You will become infamous; along with gladiators, actors, funeral directors and sex workers you’ll be condemned to a nebulous social status where you’re adored but stripped of civic rights. Thousands will scream your name, but they wouldn’t be seen dead inviting you to a dinner party. So, is there a more tangible benefit to being a charioteer? 


If you win a race, there is an enormous lump sum of money coming your way. A legionary may earn 900-1400 sesterces a year. A tradesman was expected to feed and house a family for a year on around 1,000. But in the Circus Maximus, victors can claim prizes of around fifteen to twenty times those yearly wages in ten minutes. Scorpus won 2,048 races during his career, becoming obscenely wealthy. Unfortunately, he died during a race aged 27, before he could enjoy a luxurious retirement. Think about that, he won enough to pay an entire Roman legion for at least 6 years. Diocles won even more; his total winnings were 35,863,120 sesterces over a 24 year career. He retired, aged 48, richer than most senators, and perhaps even the richest athlete in all of history. That’s worth considerable risk…


Health and Safety:


I mentioned that not all charioteers finish all seven laps of a race… that’s because the circus track is one of the most dangerous workplaces in the empire. A race is loud and fast, the track is crowded. Your competitors may try to distract you, or even knock you off course. You are hurtling around the course at incredible speed, and it won’t be the smoothest ride you’ve ever had, even with the most cutting edge vehicles your Faction can provide.


The first challenge is to stay on the chariot. Should you fall off, there are 24 wheels and 192 hooves ready to trample you into sweet oblivion. If you’re one of the charioteers who like to tie the reins around your waist to leave your hands free, you may well find yourself being dragged along the course for metre after excruciating metre, bouncing off the track, shredding your skin like a sandy cheesegrater. Or, if you screw up a turn, you may be one of the unlucky victims of a naufragia, or shipwreck, the amusing and not at all morbid nickname for a chariot crash. You’ll find yourself catapulted into the solid stone podium wall, smashing your skull like a soft boiled egg, or squashed beneath panicked horses, breaking every bone in your body. If it’s any consolation, the spectators think that shipwrecks are ever so exciting, and seats around the sphendone, the most dangerous part of the course, are highly coveted. 


The good news is, we have health and safety measures in place. Track staff are on hand to remove broken chariots, loose horses and the odd, pulped corpse from the course, eliminating as many obstacles as possible as you complete your laps. Try not to run them over, they’re doing good work. As for you, you have the immense protection of a leather cap and some padding. Don't you feel safer now? And you’ll have a handy knife with which to cut yourself free from any reins yanking you along the sand. If you don’t immediately get flattened by a competitor (which you probably will), get to safety as fast as you can, and hope your boss gives you a chance to race again and redeem yourself. 


Jobs with Less Maiming:


Of course, if you’re obsessed with chariot racing but like your limbs less mangled, there are plenty of jobs for the risk averse. Each faction is a complex industrial machine. The drivers may get the glory, but each faction needs grooms, a medical team for both humans and horses, blacksmiths, carpenters, leather workers, cooks, accountants, trainers and more. In Rome, each Faction had a staff of over a thousand, meaning that the Circus Maximus employs about 0.4% of Rome’s urban population, and that’s not counting the 50+ provincial circuses that all needed personnel. 


Jobs with More Maiming:


If you can’t decide which you want to be more, a charioteer or a gladiator, I have good news; just be both! The essedarius is a class of gladiator that fights from a chariot. You’ll be launching spears at each other from a moving vehicle, before jumping off for a bit of hand to hand combat. Ironically, you’re probably more likely to survive the Colosseum than you are a five chariot pile-up, even as a combatant. At least gladiators are shown mercy from time to time. Besides, you’ll find the change of pace from a couple of races a week to a couple of fights per year much relaxing and you don’t have to drive yourself. Result!




Relief of a chariot turning at the ova
Photo by Alexandra Sills







*Seven laps of the Circus Maximus is longer than the Kentucky Derby, Pontefract racecourse, the Melbourne Cup, and Royal Ascot. Neither modern jockeys nor horses are expected to race more than once a day.


Whilst perhaps a little OTT, the race from BenHur is a fairly good representation of a race, including duration:






Further Reading:


  • Sinclair Bell "Horse Racing in Imperial Rome: Athletic Competition, Equine Performance, and Urban Spectacle." 2020 Available here ( OPEN ACCESS!)

  • Elizabeth Rawson “Chariot Racing in the Roman Republic” 1981 https://www.jstor.org/stable/40310870

  • Donald G Kyle “Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World” 2015

  •  Fik Meijer (translated byLiz Waters) “Chariot Racing in the Roman Empire” 2010

  • Alison Futrell “The Roman Games: Historial Sources in Translation” 2006

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