sport in Byzantium

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From the early 4th century to the crusades and the conquering of Constantinople by the Turkish Sultanate, the eastern empire of Byzantium, centred on the metropolitan capital of Constantinople, continued some of the sporting traditions of the Roman Republic and Roman Empire. The Hippodrome was a racetrack laid out at the heart of the imperial city, along the lines of Rome's Circus Maximus. Turkish baths were versions of the Roman institution, and both public and (many more) private baths were installed early in the city's history. Travel writer and popular history writer Robert Byron called the Hippodrome the ‘pivot of popular recreation in Constantinople’ (The Byzantine Achievement, 1929): ‘Sharing the central tableland of the city with St Sophia, and topping the declivity of the Great Palace, it completed the triple symbolism of Emperor, Patriarch and People at the core of the Empire.’ The Hippodrome was the focus for ‘all the passion of popular leisure’ concentrated on the chariot races and public games. Factions from the city had different levels of membership: those who paid annual subscriptions; the drivers and racing personnel themselves; and, as Byron put it, ‘the unregistered masses’. The factions were highly organized, each with ‘its president, stables, stud-farms, chariots, employees and supporters/mummers’. The factions adopted colours, and became known as the Reds and the Greens. Betting on the races was widespread, initiated in the imperial box itself. Crowds could be threatening and uncontrolled, and on one occasion rioted across the city. Within the upper levels of Byzantine society, contests took place within laid-out sports arenas—albeit on a more modest scale than the Hippodrome—within the palace precincts, where a form of polo borrowed from Persia was played.

What Byron calls the ‘cult of the stable’ reached its peak in the 9th and 10th centuries: one emperor, Michael III the Drunkard, raced chariots himself, and the Hippodrome remained fully used until the fourth crusade. It was used by the Sultans themselves for public ceremony before remaining elements of it were used in constructing the Sultan Ahmet (Blue) Mosque in 1610. The spatial scale of the Hippodrome is still clearly discernible in modern Istanbul, at the heart of the old city. See also chariot racing.

Subjects: Sport and Leisure.

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