The Roman Empire - In The First Century
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Chariot Races
Chariot racing arena
Less violent than the gladiators, chariot racing was still an extreme, dangerous sport, in which drivers could die.

The teams attracted fierce passions from their supporters.

The Circus Maximus

Chariot races took place in the Circus Maximus, a huge, oval shaped stadium that could seat nearly 200,000 spectators. The stadium had two long parallel sides and one rounded end with seating all around. The other end was filled with stables and starting boxes.

Down the center of the racecourse ran a low wall, or spina, which contained decorative sculptures that would be tilted to let spectators know how many laps had been completed.

Rough and raucous

Races were rough and raucous – they lasted seven laps and would include as many as 12 chariots at any one time. To be as fast as possible, the chariots had to be very light, which made them very dangerous for their drivers, who were usually slaves or freedmen.

Many drivers were thrown from a broken or overturned chariot. They could then be trampled and killed by the charging horses, or get caught in the reins and dragged to their deaths.

Given the dangerous nature of the sport, chariot racing was very expensive. However, its popularity meant that it was also very profitable, and over time, it became highly organized into an early form of show business.

Chariot teams

Chariots were organized in four main teams – Red, White, Blue and Green. Each team had its own scouts for finding talented riders and horses, and each team was passionately supported. Like sports fans throughout history, a team’s fans were fiercely partisan and would hope for rival teams to fail. This became so common that curse tablets were made to spook the opposing teams.

But not everyone was such a fan. Like the gladiators, chariot races were popular sports for the Roman masses, not the social elites, who disliked the mob behavior of the fans and found the sport unremarkable and childish.

Imperial passion

One exception was the Emperor Nero. He was passionate about horses and even drove his own chariot. Nero’s enthusiasm for such a lowly sport scandalized Rome's elite, but endeared him to the masses. The historian, Tacitus, sneered at the mob for this: "For such is a crowd — eager for excitement and thrilled if the emperor shares their tastes." However, like gladiators, it would take more than disapproval from educated elites to put an end to the sport and chariot races survived for centuries to come.

Where to next:
Emperors - Nero
The Social Order in Ancient Rome – Slaves and Freedmen

Related Links:

Gladiators   Gladiators
Life in Roman Times   Life in Roman Times
The Roman Empire

Republic to Empire

Age of Augustus

Years of Trial

Empire Reborn


Social Order

Life in Roman Times
- Family Life
- Weddings, Marriages and   Divorce
- Home Life
- Baths
- Gladiators
- Chariot Races


Enemies and Rebels


The Roman Empire - In The First Century