Arts: The Art of Chariot Racing

(I, Nikitas, am a big fan of auto racing. Below is an excerpt from a nonfiction book that I am writing called Century of Speed. The book describes the march of technology throughout the 20th century that allowed auto racing speeds to go faster and faster until finally the cars were going so fast that they had to be slowed by regulation. This section discusses the origins of auto racing, in chariot racing from the ancient world.)

Today’s auto racing is simply an extension of chariot racing from ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, which was much more dangerous than car racing today. Big pileups – they were called naufragia or ‘shipwrecks’ – were common and unprotected charioteers often died.

Romans picked up the sport fanatically and loved and demanded their extravagant calendar of holidays that included it. Chariot racing became integral to their lives to the extent that the Circus Maximus has come down as one of the most memorable theaters of the empire. Founded in the 6th century BC the Circus was built, reinvented, burned, rebuilt and improved over almost 1,000 years of wheeled competition, recording its final official race in 549 AD.

The paper-clip-shaped Circus was built in a valley between the Aventine and Palatine hills of the city of Rome. Its spectators originally sat on the hills but eventually wooden grandstands were built with a seating capacity of more than 150,000, roughly the same as NASCAR’s Talladega SuperSpeedway in Alabama, USA today. The blueprint then morphed over time into an official stadium.

Starting as an informal flat dirt track with temporary markers its measurements eventually were regularized at 678 yards in length (almost 4/10 of a mile racing in each direction) and 159 yards wide. The spina marked the center of the track around which up to 12 chariots would compete. The spina became the focal point of the facility, clad in shimmering marble and featuring narrow water pools and fountains, charioteer sculptures, decorative obelisks, and lap counters in the shape of ornate eggs and dolphins that announced the progress of the competitions.

Improvements to the Circus were made over the ages and included a curved starting gate to even the positions of the competitors; arched entryways for the myriad processions that accompanied the spectacle; elaborate grandstands and commercial spaces; and expansive stables for the hundreds of horses that may have been involved in a day’s events.

Chariots had served as lightweight and highly effective military platforms going back to 2100 BC in the Sintashta-Petrovka culture of what is modern-day Russia. They proved invaluable war machines and the upkeep of chariots, their horses, and the charioteers’ arms (primarily crossbows) was a process much akin to the upkeep of Stealth aircraft in the modern American military, i.e., high priority and super secret. The Hittite (Syrian) army at the Battle of Kadesh (Palestine) in 1275 BC was said to have been engaged by 3,500 charioteers out of a force of 20,000.

The heavier and more robust military models needed to be streamlined for competition using lighter woods, more dynamic body designs, and 4-spoke wheels instead of 6. Although no blueprints exist, and although only two ancient chariots have been found (in King Tut’s Egyptian tomb), modern-day craftsmen have been able to reconstruct chariots through clues gleaned from mosaics, paintings, sculptures and writings that have come down through the ages.

Chariots were much akin to the open-wheel Indy-style race car of today, a lightweight, minimalist vehicle that lacked the stability of the heavier military models. It had a leather frontispiece stretching across a wooden frame that rose 30 inches, or roughly to the average charioteer’s thighs. Its “floor” was made of flexible leather webbing to help absorb shocks, and to form itself to the charioteer’s feet, allowing a firmer footing than a solid floor. Decorative wheel covers were painted in exotic geometric designs from concentrics to spirals to ornate floral patterns, all intended to catch the eye as do modern-day race car paint schemes.

Chariot competitions were common throughout the ancient world. Even writing in the 9th century BC Homer’s Iliad mentions chariot racing in references to alleged events several centuries previous. “And so my son, contrive a plan in your heart so that the prize will not elude you,” Antilochos’ father tells him. “…call upon the right horse by name, prick him with your goad…Let your horses graze the post…” Throughout the history of Greece chariot racing was common. It was added to the Olympics in 688 BC. The Hippodrome at Olympia, built around 600 BC, was one of the world’s best-known chariot venues.

But chariot racing truly became institutionalized in Rome with the history of the empire sprinkled liberally with the names of legendary charioteers like Diocles of Lusitania (born 104 AD, with 1,462 wins over 24 years); and Scorpus, with 2,048 victories, who died in a crash at age 26. The poet Martial wrote his epitaph: “I am Scorpus, the glory of the noisy Circus, the much applauded and short-lived darling of Rome, Envious Fate, counting my victories instead of my years, and so believing me old, carried me off in my twenty-sixth year.”

Roman chariot racing was a public spectacle that was separate and more popular than horse racing, as auto racing today is much more widely known than the equine variety. It even is reputed that the modern-day use of flags to signal auto races originated in Roman times when the Emperor Nero, a spectator who was consuming his meal with impatient hordes demanding the start of the races, dropped his white napkin to signal that he indeed was finished and that the time for the chase was at hand. Nero is said to have been so envious of the adulation of the charioteers that he mimicked them in many ways, almost as if a modern American president took to wearing baseball uniforms to imitate great players. But actual participation in the spectacle was limited to slaves and was disdained by the powerful classes, although the charioteer was idolized by spectators at every level of Roman society.

Chariot racing was exploited relentlessly by politicians for its potential for public outreach, and deployed as part of an array of diversions from other public assemblies… like riots (thus the phrase “bread and Circus” representing that which will distract the masses from their misery).

It was linked to a vastly higher fervor than even modern auto racing, even a supernatural one at times with “curse tablets” hexing doom and destruction onto charioteers (“I adjure you, demon, whoever you are… that you torture and kill the horses of the Greens and Whites…”); with betting a thousand-year addiction (betting on auto racing is virtually nonexistent); with blessings openly sought or offered to assure victory; while parades for pagan gods and goddesses were part of every pre-race pampa (procession). Reports of poisonings and dopings of opponents’ horses, and even of their charioteers, by charioteers themselves, teams and outside forces were hardly unheard of. Sabotage was common.

Charioteers started life as slaves, just like gladiators. Boy slaves started their careers as young as 9. It was a hard and dangerous life. Few lived long enough, or were good enough, to be greatly acclaimed, but when they were they bought their freedom and ended up heroes like today’s rock stars and superathletes. They then became spoiled and licentious, engaging in rowdy and even illegal activity, certainly out of a sense of entitlement that resulted from their exalted status.

Most charioteers’ lives were notoriously truncated by the fact that they employed little safety gear – just lightly padded helmets – while they wrapped tight around their torsos their horses’ reins in order to exert maximum control. The naufragia plagued the competitions in cracklings of wood and bones and in the braying of fallen horses particularly as the chariots rounded the turns at the ends of the central spina (see photo below, and note the feet of the monumental sculptural deity at the turn). Charioteers frequently were dragged and trampled to death, unable to cut themselves free quickly enough with the daggers that they packed in their waistbands.

The best charioteer was strong, because he needed to control two, three or four powerful horses by manipulating the reins, while muscular legs were necessary to maintain tension and the critical balance of the lightweight chariot to keep up speed, to negotiate the turns, and to pass competitors. Like modern racers in technologically advanced cars the successful charioteer had to know when to hold back and when to push forth. Tactical skills were crucial and learned through experience. It was said that he must have eyes in the back of his head to watch the competition behind him as well as that ahead.

Horses were treasured by their owners as great horses are today, and pampered throughout their lives. Stud farming was a thriving and lucrative business. Iberians (Spain) were chariot racing fanatics and had 22 tracks and many stud farms. A great horse was worth the equivalent of millions of dollars in today’s money. But like the charioteers themselves, horses were badly injured and killed with alarming frequency. A horse with 100 victories was titled centunarius but few made it to that stage.

Looked down upon by Roman intellectuals and later by Christians as a barbarian passion – just as intellectuals today are disdainful of auto racing’s popularity – chariot racing was as much of a business and entertainment juggernaut in the Roman Empire as auto racing is today, with Europeans fanatical about Formula One competition. Teams, or factiones, were connoted by the colors Red and White, then later Green and Blue, and are the equivalent of auto race teams today. They vied for the services of legendary charioteers whose wealth and fame matched that of 21st century competitors. Scorpus is said to have garnered 15 bags of gold in a single hour.

The Blues were the richest and most successful. Their season was autumn and they were represented by the sky and the sea. Fans of the blues wore a particular hairstyle.

The Whites were represented by winter, and by the god of the west winds. They were most respected by their fellow charioteers and were best represented by Constantine, one of the legends of the spectacle.

The Reds marked summer, the sun, and Mars (the god of war). Their following was small and devoted. The great Diocles raced for the Reds.

The Greens stood for Spring, earth, Venus (the goddess of love) and flowers. They were the biggest and rowdiest group and stood for the common people. Nero loved the Greens.

Horse diets were closely monitored for purity and quality. Large, well-paid, highly-trained staffs were maintained in order to assure victory to the most important factiones.

The Circus Maximus was only the best-known of the circuits in the Roman Empire. There were hundreds of arenas in cities and towns large and small throughout the Empire, of simpler designs and sometimes featuring makeshift spinas and temporary seating.

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