chariot racing

Quick Reference

A form of horse racing immensely popular in the ancient civilizations of Greece, Rome, and Byzantium, with some predecessors in the privileged cultures of earlier civilizations, such as in Syria, where chariot-based hunting parties of aristocrats offered a model for the adaptation of the chariot to the competitive racing form. In Greece, two-horse chariots were initially used. Homer dedicates almost 700 lines of the Iliad to description of the sporting contests held in mourning for the dead hero Patroclus, in the ninth year of the siege of Troy, 60 per cent of which is dedicated to chariot racing. Five competitors steered their chariots, and the organizer, Achilles, provided prizes. Chariot racing of this kind remained the preserve of a small elite, performing and competing as an enhancement of their already well-established reputations for courage, and in acknowledgement of their physical expertise, though it could generate excitement among spectators. A four-horse chariot race—the quadriga—was established in the Olympic Games in Greece in 680 bc. Four-foal and two-foal chariot races were added in the 4th century bc. The course at Olympia could take sixty or more chariots at once. The expansion of the facilities at Olympia had included the creation of a special course, the hippodrome. At one particular festival, the Panathenaea, held in Athens in celebration of the city's goddess-protector Athena, and staged on a large scale every four years, chariot races were combined with athletic feats; apobatai, drivers wearing only a shield and a helmet, would descend from their chariots and run alongside them before remounting.

Chariot racing became a major cultural event in the early Roman Empire, and races were illustrated on the walls of tombs and vases; historians claim that competitive chariot racing was brought to Rome by Etruscans who had come from eastern civilizations on the continent of Asia, where there is evidence of the embryonic sporting form. It was in purpose-built facilities such as the Circus Maximus that regular ludi circenses (games in the circus) were held as a form of popular celebration. Young riders were trained and strong affiliations emerged for particular factions, associated with one colour: red, white, blue, or green. It has been estimated by archaeologists that 300,000 Romans could get in to the Circus's 600 metre by 100 metre plus, and mile-long, elliptical space. The Emperor Augustus, from close to his house atop the Palatine Hill, could gaze down at the contests that brought together the disparate elements of the Empire in a symbol of collective expression and enthusiasm.

Chariot racing was the one sport of the ancient world to survive the collapse of the western Roman empire and civilization, prospering in the eastern empire in the 6th and 7th centuries, where, in Constantinople, an elaborate hippodrome catering for 100,000 seated spectators was constructed. This space was a focus for public protest and rioting, reflecting the deep-rooted economic, political, social, and religious tensions of the Byzantine Empire. One such set of circumstances sparked the Nika Revolt in 532, put down only at the price of 30,000 dead. Chariot races were established, nevertheless, as part of court ceremonial and as a direct expression of imperial power, and Christian attacks on the sport stopped once the emperor, who was also head of the Byzantine church, had such direct control over them. Chariot racing remained prominent in the Byzantine Empire throughout Europe's Middle Ages, until undermined by Crusaders' temporary control of Constantinople en route from Europe to Jerusalem. See also Byzantium, sport in.


Subjects: Arts and Humanities — Sport and Leisure.

Reference entries