Chariot racing in ancient Rome

Chariots often crashed making a turn.Chariots often crashed making a turn. Chariot races were held in the town’s circus, a large, oval-shaped arena with a stone barrier down the middle, called a spina. The races were very dangerous. The drivers raced their horse-drawn chariots at top speed round the arena. They were allowed to ram and bump into each other, and chariots often overturned, resulting in what the Romans called a naufragia, or shipwreck. Even though drivers wore protective clothing, they were often killed.

Model of ancient Rome, with Circus Maximus in frontModel of ancient Rome, with Circus Maximus in front

The circus course

The course was a long rectangular shape with rounded corners. There was a central barrier, called a spina, running down the middle, around which the chariots raced. At either end of the spina was a three-pillared turning post, called a meta. On top of the spina in the Circus Maximus in Rome there were statues of various Roman gods and an Egyptian obelisk, a tall, thin stone monument with a small pyramid at the top.

Also on the spina were counters to show how many laps had been run. A large wooden egg was removed from a column and a metal dolphin was turned over every time a lap was completed. Each race usually lasted about eight or nine minutes.

The race

Chariot races were the most important events to take place at the circus. Up to twelve chariots could take part. Each was drawn by a team of four horses. Chariot-drivers belonged to one of four teams: red, blue, white or green. Each race was seven laps of the circus.
The charioteers career around the meta.The charioteers career around the meta.At the blast of trumpets, starting gates at one end of the track opened and the chariots charged out on to the course. The drivers whipped the horses to make them go faster. They hurtled round the track in an anticlockwise direction. Chariot racing was highly dangerous and there were few rules. Rounding the tight corner at the end of the track, while trying to stay as close as possible to the spina, often resulted in the most spectacular crashes.

A modern re-creation of a chariot raceA modern re-creation of a chariot race

The audience

There were sometimes as many as 24 chariot races a day. The best chariot drivers had an enthusiastic following from their supporters. People placed bets on their team before the race began and cheered them on noisily. Sometimes fights even broke out between rival fans. Unlike at the gladiator games, men and women could sit together in the circus. The marble seats at the front were reserved for senators. 

People went to the races with their families and would arrive at dawn to be sure of getting a good seat. The emperor would often be seen attending the races. He sat in a special imperial box. He might even start the race himself.

Chariot racers did not usually survive past their 20s.Chariot racers did not usually survive past their 20s.

Chariot drivers

Most chariot drivers were slaves, but some, like gladiators, were volunteers who were paid to race. Even though the drivers wore protective clothing, many were injured or even killed during a race. Winners were guaranteed fame and riches, but, because the races were so dangerous, their lives were often short.

Circus Maximus

The Circus Maximus in Rome todayThe Circus Maximus in Rome todayThe largest race track was the Circus Maximus in Rome. The track measured 620 metres (2034 feet) long and 118 metres (387 feet) wide. Races were held there from the earliest days of the city of Rome, but stone seating was not constructed until 190 BC. Roman citizens had 120 public holidays each year and spent many of them at the races.

Consultant: Philip Parker

There is evidence that spectators buried lead tablets enscribed with curses around the stadium. The tablets cursed the team opposing the one they were supporting.

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