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The Romans transformed the athleticism and ritual of Greek sport into a spectacle. The Romans loved sports, some of which were quite brutal and bloody. Chariot racing and gladiator battles were fixtures of religious festivals. The huge crowds that gathered in stadiums and forums to watch sporting events screamed " panem at Colosseum !" ("bread and circuses"). Events were often sponsored by wealthy citizens as displays of their wealth. Horses and athletes were given-performance-enhancing drugs. Some racetracks were larger than NFL stadiums.

Romans appear to have been more interested in gladiator battles, chariot races and large spectacles and less interested in drama and Olympic-style sports as was the case with ancient Greeks. The Olympics, however, continued through the Roman era as a pagan festival, with Nero among those that attended, until they were shut down by the Christian Roman emperor Theodosius I, who ordered the closure of all pagan events in 393.

Sporting events in ancient Rome often got out of hand. The incidents usually began with spectators hurling insults at one another, then escalated into stone throwing melees and often ended in carnage when the combatants picked up weapons. After one such incident in Pompeii, Emperor Nero forbade all such gatherings for ten years. An even worse episode occurred at the Constantinople Hippodrome under the Byzantines when over 30,000 people were killed when a chariot race turned into riot against Emperor Justinian."*

Arenas and amphitheaters that hosted sporting events were found throughout the Roman empire. A massive oak amphitheater excavated in London had chambers for wild animals and shrines used by gladiators who prayed before their battles and possible deaths. The arena had a seating capacity of 6,000, quite large when considering that London at the time only had 20,000 residents.

Children games

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “After the games of childhood, the Roman did not, as we do, pass on to an elaborate system of competitive games. Of sport in that sense he knew nothing. He played ball before dinner for the good of the exercise. He practiced riding, fencing, wrestling, hurling the discus, and swimming for the skill in arms and the strength they gave him. In the country there might be hunting and fishing. He played a few games of chance for the excitement the stakes afforded. But there was no national game for the young men, and there were no social amusements in which men and women took part together. The Roman made it hard and expensive, too, for others to amuse him. He cared more for farces (mimes and pantomimes) than for the drama, tragic or comic; but the one thing that really appealed to him was excitement, and this he found in gambling or in such amusements only as involved the risk of injury to life and limb—the sports of the circus and the amphitheater. We may describe first the games in which the Roman himself participated and then those at which he was a mere spectator. In the first class are field sports and games of hazard, in the second the public and private games (ludi publici et privati). [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; Lacus Curtius; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; British Museum; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Books: “The Colosseum (Wonders of the World)” by Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard (Harvard University Press, 2005); “The Roman Games: A Sourcebook” by Alison Futrell (Blackwell Publishing, 2006); Cruelty and Civilization: “The Roman Games” by Roland Auguet, a French historian.

Types of Sports in Ancient Rome

Sports enjoyed in Roman times included boxing, acrobatics, tightrope walking, animal chases, animal bating and cockfighting. Boxing was popular. Some boxers were known for their skill; others were known for simply being able take punishment. Bullfights were held in the Roman theater in Arles, France. Virgil makes a reference to rowing as a sport competition around 25 B.C. in the Aeneid . Cockfighting predates Christ by at least 500 years. Believed to have originated in China or India, it was practiced by the ancient Greeks, Persians and Romans, who identified it with Eros, the God of Love and passed it on to medieval Europe.

entertainment at the Satyricon

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Public games were a major part of Roman culture, playing an important role in the social and political life of the city and its empire. Although the games had their roots in funeral or religious rites, by the late Republican period (ca. 70–31 B.C.), they had become a hugely popular form of public entertainment. They took several forms but all were essentially either races or fights. Known as ludi and munera, games could be staged in purpose-made arenas, most notably the Colosseum and Circus Maximus in Rome, either separately or combined in lengthy festivals. [Source: Jacob Coley, Department of Greek and Roman Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, September 2010, \^/]

“The oldest games in Rome were the chariot races. Typical chariots used for the races were drawn by a team of four horses (quadriga). The races required two long tracks and two 180-degree turns. Like gladiatorial shows and boxing, races were extremely dangerous, since chariots often collided or went out of control. If a driver fell out of his chariot, he could easily be dragged along or trampled to death by the horses. Nevertheless, there was no shortage of drivers, as eager young charioteers risked their lives for reward and recognition. \^/

“Roman boxing, far different than the boxing developed by the Greeks, was considered more of a gladiatorial show than an athletic contest. While the crowds were smaller than at the amphitheater and circus, boxing was an important part of public entertainment. Unlike Greek boxers, who wore leather thongs around their knuckles for protection and performed for prizes at the prestigious Panhellenic games, Romans used gloves with pieces of metal placed around the knuckles (caestus) to inflict the most damage possible. Moreover, there was no time limit or weight classification. Proclaiming a winner resulted from either a knockout or the conceding of defeat by one of the boxers. \^/

“The most famous games were the gladiatorial shows, where armed men fought each other in violent, often mortal, combat for fame, fortune, and even freedom. The gladiators would first train at a ludus, a professional fighting school, to prepare for their debut in the arena. Originally these schools drew their recruits from among the lowest ranks of society—slaves, convicts, and prisoners of war—but by the first century A.D., contracted free men, retired soldiers , and even, on rare occasions, women participated in the fights. \^/

“The games could also be used as a form of public execution for condemned criminals, who were brought to the arena to be crucified (crucifixio), burned alive (crematio or A.D. flammas), put to the sword (ad gladium), or killed by wild animals (ad bestias). Each penalty was differentiated according to one's station and social class. The games involved animals on a massive scale. In addition to horses used in the circus and amphitheater, exotic wild animals were paraded before the public not just for the sheer spectacle but also to play an active role in the games as either the hunted or the hunter.” \^/

Ball Games in Ancient Rome

The Egyptians, Greeks and Romans played ball games. The Romans played a ball game called trugon with three players on each team. It was similar to netball and was mentioned by Martial and Horace. Haroastum was another ball game that required footwork and ball-handling skills. A 1,600-year-old fresco found at a villa in Sicily showed a pair of bikini-clad women tossing a ball.

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “Balls of different sizes, variously filled with hair, feathers, and air (folles), are known to have been used in the different games. Throwing and catching formed the basis of all the games; the bat was practically unknown. In the simplest game the player threw the ball as high as he could and tried to catch it before it struck the ground. Variations of this were what we should call juggling: the player kept two or more balls in the air, throwing and catching by turns with another player. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“Another game must have resembled our handball; it required a wall and smooth ground at its foot. The ball was struck with the open hand against the wall, allowed to fall back upon the ground and to bound, and then struck back against the wall in the same manner. The aim of the player was to keep the ball going in this way longer than his opponent could. Private houses and the public baths often had courts especially prepared for this amusement. |+|

“A third game was called trigon, and was played by three persons stationed at the angles of an equilateral triangle. Two balls were used and the aim of the player was to throw the ball in his possession at the one of his opponents who would be the less likely to catch it. As two might throw at the third at the same moment, or as the thrower of one ball might have to receive the second ball at the very moment of throwing, both hands had to be used, and a good degree of skill with each hand was necessary. Other games, all of throwing and catching, are mentioned here and there, but none is described with sufficient detail to be clearly understood.” |+|

Working Out at the Campus Martius


Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The Campus Martius, often called simply the Campus included all the level ground between the Tiber and the Capitoline and Quirinal Hills. The northwestern portion of this plain, bounded on two sides by the Tiber, which here sweeps abruptly to the west, was kept clear of public and private buildings and was for centuries the playground of Rome. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“Here the young men gathered to practice the athletic games mentioned above, naturally in the cooler parts of the day. Even men of graver years did not disdain a visit to the Campus after the meridiatio, in preparation for the bath before dinner, instead of which the younger men preferred to take a cool plunge in the convenient river. The sports themselves were those that we are accustomed to group together as track and field athletics. |+|

“The men ran foot races, jumped, threw the discus, practiced archery, and had wrestling and boxing matches. These sports were carried on then much as they are now if we may judge by Vergil’s description in Book V of the Aeneid, but an exception must be made of the games of ball. These seem to have been very dull as compared with ours. It must be remembered, however, that they were played more for the healthful exercise they furnished than for the joy of the playing, and by men of high position, too—Caesar, Maecenas, and even the Emperor Augustus.” |+|

Roman Wrestling Was Fixed

A papyrus dating from A.D. 267 found in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, when it was part of the Roman Empire, “ is the first known bribery contract for sports. In it a wrestler agreed to throw a match for around 3,800 drachmas—enough to buy a donkey. It is presumed that because the amount was relatively small and wrestling competitions were popular, other wrestlers made similar deals. [Source: Gordon Gora. Listverse, September 16, 2016]

Elizabeth Quill wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “The smackdown was set for a day in the 14th year of the Roman emperor Gallienus in the city of Antinoopolis, on the Nile: A final bout in the sacred games honoring a deified youth named Antinous featured teenage wrestlers named Nicantinous and Demetrius. It promised to be a noble spectacle—except the fix was in. This papyrus, found in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, and dating to A.D. 267, is apparently the first known bribery contract in ancient sports. In the text, recently deciphered, translated and interpreted by Dominic Rathbone of King’s College London, Demetrius agrees to throw the match for 3,800 drachmas, about enough to buy one donkey. That “seems rather little,” says Rathbone. Winning athletes would typically be greeted home with a triumphant entry and would receive a sizable cash pension. [Source: Elizabeth Quill, Smithsonian Magazine, July 2014]

“Other written accounts suggest bribery was fairly common during ancient sporting events. Fines imposed on athletes who violated the integrity of their games helped fund the construction of bronze statues of Zeus at Olympia, for example. In his writings, the Greek sophist Philostratus complains of the degeneration of athletics, blaming trainers who “have no regard for the reputation of the athletes, but become their advisers on buying and selling with a view to their own profits.”

“Found in the winter of 1903-04 during an excavation at Oxyrhynchus, among Egypt’s most important archaeological sites, the contract is nearly complete, except for the right side where the second half of several lines are missing. Currently owned by the Egypt Exploration Society, it is held at the Sackler Library at Oxford University.”

Greco-Roman Chariot Races

The Olympics games often kicked off with a race involving 40 chariots flying through a course at one time with spectacular spills and frequent deaths. Often only a handful of the chariots that started made it to the finish line.

The chariots started in a staggered fashion so that those on the outside were not at a disadvantage. Competitions were held for two, three and four horse chariots, usually driven by hired professional, essentially slaves, owned by the sponsors. They lived in stables and were breed like horses from the offspring of famous charioteers. Despite their lowly background successful charioteers were celebrated heros and the best ones earned enough money to buy their freedom. [Source: “Greek and Roman Life? by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum [||]

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Winner of a Roman chariot race
Competitors were often killed. Describing an accident Sophocles wrote: “As the crowd saw the driver somersault, there rose a wail of pity for the youth as he was bounced onto the ground , then flung head over heels into the sky. When his companions caught the runaway team and freed the bloodstained corpse from his reigns he was disfigured and marred past the recognition of his best friend."

"A two-wheeled chariot," wrote journalist Lionel Cassonin Smithsonian magazine, "was light, like a modern trotters' gig, but pulled by a team of four horses that would be driven at the fastest gallop they could generate. They made 12 laps around the course — about nine kilometers — with 180 degree turns at each end. As at our Indianapolis 500 viewers enjoyed not only the excitement of the race but the titillation that comes from the constant presence of danger: as the teams thundered around the turns, or one chariot tried to cut over from the outside to the inside, crashes and collisions were common and doubtless often fatal. In one celebrated race in the Pythian games, the competition was so lethal that only one competitor managed to finish!" [Lionel Casson, Smithsonian, February 1990]

Hippodromes were where horse races and chariot races were held. Built in 330 B.C. the Hippodrome in what is now Istanbul was the largest stadium in the ancient world. Horse races and gladiator vs. animal battles were held here in front crowds so rowdy they make British soccer hooligans look like saints. During one event in A.D 532 that turned into an angry political rally against Emperor Justinian, the Byzantine army massacred 30,000 people. All sporting events were cancelled for a few years after that but when they resumed, chariot races continued for another 500 years.

Circuses: Where Chariot Races Were Held

For the Romans a circus was a spectacles for large crowds with gladiator battles and other events .Roman circuses were held in outdoor arenas such as the Circus Maximus (meaning “Biggest Circus”) in Rome. In addition to gladiator contests there were often displays of acrobatics, wrestling and horsemanship. During the gladiator battles, musicians played water organs and metal horns that looped around their heads. Some arenas could be flooded with water for mock sea battles and then emptied for mock hunts.

Circus Maximus (on the side of the Palatine Hill opposite the Forum) is the large oval grass track where chariot races, athletic competitions and mock naval battles were held. Built in 600 B.C. and large enough, according to some reports, to accommodate 300,000 people, today it resembles a cross between a big ditch and a modern athletic field. If you know where to look you can find the start and finish lines.

By some estimates 200,000 people showed up to watch chariot races at the Circus Maximus in Rome. A bunch of overturned chariots with maimed bodied and injured horses was called a shipwreck. Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The games of the circus were the oldest of the free exhibitions at Rome and always the most popular. The word circus means simply a “ring”; the ludi circenses were, therefore, any shows that might be given in a ring.” The circus is associated mostly closely with chariot races. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“For these races the first and really the only necessary condition was a large and level piece of ground. This was furnished by the valley between the Aventine and Palatine Hills, and here in prehistoric times the first Roman race course was established. This remained the circus, the one always meant when no descriptive term was added, though, when others were built, it was called sometimes, by way of distinction, the Circus Maximus. None of the others ever approached it in size, in magnificence, or in popularity.

“The second circus to be built at Rome was the Circus Flaminius, erected in 221 B.C. by the Caius Flaminius who built the Flaminian Road. It was located in the southern part of the Campus Martius, and like the Circus Maximus, was exposed to the frequent overflows of the Tiber. Its position is fixed beyond question—it was near the Capitoline Hill—but the actual remains are very scanty, so that little is known of its size or appearance. The third to be established was erected in the first century A.D. It was named after Caius (Caligula) and Nero, the two emperors who had to do with its construction. It lay at the foot of the Vatican Hill, where St. Peter’s now stands, but we know little more of it than that it was the smallest of the three. These three were the only circuses within the city. In the immediate neighborhood, however, were three others. Five miles out on the Via Portuensis was the Circus of the Arval Brethren. About three miles out on the Appian Way was the Circus of Maxentius, erected in 309 A.D. The Circus of Maxentius is the best preserved of all; a restoration and a plan of it are shown in Figures 208 and 209, respectively. On the same road, some twelve miles from the city, in the old town of Bovillae, was a third, making six within easy reach of the people of Rome. |+|

“A representation of a circus has been preserved to us in a board-game of some sort found at Bovillae, which gives an excellent idea of the spina. We know from various reliefs and mosaics that the spina of the Circus Maximus was covered with a series of statues and ornamental structures, such as obelisks, small temples or shrines, columns surmounted by statues, altars, trophies, and fountains. Augustus was the first to erect an obelisk in the Circus Maximus; it was restored in 1589 A.D., and now stands in the Piazza del Popolo; without the base it measures about seventy-eight feet in height. Constantius erected another in the same circus, which now stands before the Lateran Church; it is 105 feet high. The obelisk of the Circus of Maxentius now stands in the Piazza Navona. Besides these purely ornamental features, every circus had on each end of its spina a pedestal, one supporting seven large eggs (ova) of marble, the other seven dolphins. One of each was taken down at the end of each lap, in order that the people might know just how many laps remained to be run. Another and very different idea for the spina is shown in a mosaic at Lyons. This is a canal filled with water, with an obelisk in the middle. The metae in their developed form are shown very clearly in this mosaic, three conical pillars of stone set on a semicircular plinth, all of the most massive construction. |+|

Layout of the Circus and Arena

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “Plan of the Circus. All the Roman circuses known to us had the same general arrangement, which will be readily understood from the plan of the Circus of Maxentius. The long and comparatively narrow stretch of ground which formed the race course (harena; English, “arena”) is almost surrounded by the tiers of seats, running in two long parallel lines uniting in a semicircle at one end. In the middle of this semicircle is a gate, marked F in the plan, by which the victor left the circus when the race was over. It was called, therefore, the porta triumphalis. Opposite this gate at the other end of the arena was the station for the chariots (AA in the plan), called carceres, “barriers,” flanked by two towers at the corners (II), and divided into two equal sections by another gate (B), called the porta pompae, by which processions entered the circus. There are also gates (HH) between the towers and the seats. The towers and barriers were called together the oppidum. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“The arena is divided for about two-thirds its length by a fence or wall (MM), called the spina, “backbone.” Beyond the ends of this were fixed pillars (LL), called metae, marking the ends of the course. Once around the spina was a lap (spatium, curriculum), and a fixed number of laps, usually seven to a race, was called a missus. The last lap, however, had but one turn, that at the meta prima, the one nearest the porta triumphalis; the finish was a straightaway dash to the calx. This was a chalk line drawn on the arena far enough away from the second meta to keep it from being obliterated by the hoofs of the horses as they made the turn, and far enough also from the carceres to enable the driver to stop his team before dashing into them. The dotted line (DN) is the supposed location of the calx. |+|

“The arena is the level space surrounded by the seats and the barriers. The name was derived from the sand used to cover its surface to spare as much as possible the unshod feet of the horses. A glance at the plan will show that speed could not have been the important thing with the Romans that it is with us. The sand, the shortness of the stretches, and the sharp turns between them were all against great speed. The Roman found his excitement in the danger of the race. In every representation of the race course that has come down to us may be seen broken chariots, fallen horses, and drivers under wheels and hoofs. The distance was not a matter of very close measurement, but varied in the several circuses, the Circus Maximus being fully 300 feet longer than the Circus of Maxentius. All seem, however, to have had a constant number of laps, seven to the race, and this also goes to prove that the danger was the chief element in the popularity of the contests. |+|

The distance actually traversed in the Circus of Maxentius may be very closely estimated. The length of the spina is about 950 feet. If we allow fifty feet for the turn at each meta, each lap makes a distance of 2000 feet, and six laps, 12,000 feet. The seventh lap had but one turn in it, but the final stretch to the calx made it perhaps 300 feet longer than one of the others, say 2300 feet. This gives a total of 14,300 feet for the whole missus, or about 2.7 miles. Jordan calculates the missus of the Circus Maximus at 8.4 kilometers, which would be about 5.2 miles, but he seems to have taken the whole length of the arena into account, instead of considering merely that of the spina. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

Parts of Arena Related to Horse Racing

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The Spina and the Metae. The spina divided the race course into two parts, and thus measured a minimum distance to be run. Its length was about two-thirds that of the arena, but it started only the width of the track (plus the metae) from the porta triumphalis; a much larger space at the end near the porta pompae was left entirely free. It was perfectly straight, but did not run precisely parallel to the rows of seats; at the end B in the exaggerated diagram B.C. is greater than the distance AB, in order to allow more room at the starting line (linea alba), where the chariots would be side by side, than farther along the course, where they would be strung out. The metae, so named from their shape, were pillars erected beyond the two ends of the spina and architecturally related to it, though there was a space between the meta and the spina. In Republican times the spina and the metae must have been made of wood and movable, in order to afford free space for the shows of wild beasts and the exhibitions of cavalry that were originally given in the circus. After the amphitheater was devised, the circus came to be used primarily for races, and the spina became permanent. It was built up, of massive proportions, on foundations of concrete and was usually adorned with magnificent works of art that must have entirely concealed horses and chariots when they passed to the other side of the arena. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“The Carceres. The carceres were the stations of the chariots and teams when ready for the races to begin. They were a series of vaulted chambers entirely separated from one another by solid walls, and closed behind by doors through which the chariots entered. The front of each chamber was formed by double doors of grated bars admitting the only light which it received. From this arrangement the name carcer was derived. Each chamber was large enough to hold a chariot with its team, and, as a team was composed sometimes of as many as ten horses, the “prison” must have been nearly square. There was always a separate chamber for each chariot. Up to the time of Domitian the highest number of chariots was eight, but after his time as many as twelve sometimes entered the same race, and twelve carceres had, therefore, to be provided. They were a series of The usual number of chariots had been four, one from each syndicate, though each syndicate might enter more than one. Half of these chambers lay to the right, half to the left of the porta pompae. |+|

“It will be noticed from the plan that the carceres were arranged in a curved line. This is supposed to have been drawn in such a way that all the chariots, no matter which of the carceres one happened to occupy, would have the same distance to travel in order to reach the beginning of the course proper at the nearer end of the spina. There was no advantage in position, therefore, at the start, and places were assigned by lot. They were a series of In later times a starting line (linea alba) was drawn with chalk between the second meta and the seats to the right, but the line of carceres remained curved as of old. At the ends of the row of carceres, towers were built which seem to have been the stands for the musicians; over the porta pompae was the box of the chief state official of the games (dator ludorum) ,and between his box and the towers were seats for his friends and persons connected with the games. The dator ludorum gave the signal for the start with a white cloth (mappa). One image showed a victor pausing before the box of the dator to receive a prize before riding in triumph around the arena. |+|

Seating at the Circus Arena

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The seats around the arena in the Circus Maximus were originally of wood, but accidents owing to decay and losses by fire had led by the time of the Empire to reconstruction in marble, except perhaps in the very highest rows. The seats in the later circuses seem from the first to have been of stone. At the foot of the tiers of seats was a marble platform (podium) which ran along both sides and the curved end; it was therefore coextensive with them. On this podium were erected boxes for the use of the more important magistrates and officials of Rome, and here Augustus placed the seats of the senators and others of high rank. He also assigned seats throughout the whole cavea to various classes and organizations, separating the women from the men, though up to his time they had sat together. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“Between the podium and the track was a metal screen of openwork. When Caesar showed wild beasts in the circus, he had a canal ten feet wide and ten feet deep dug next the podium and filled with water as an additional protection. Access to the seats was provided from the rear; numerous broad stairways ran up to the praecinctiones, of which there were probably three in the Circus Maximus. The horizontal sections between the praecinctiones were called maeniana. Each of these sections was divided by stairways into several cunei; the rows of seats in the cunei were called gradus. The sittings in the row do not seem to have been marked off any more than they are now in the bleachers at our baseball grounds. When sittings were reserved for a number of persons, they were described as so many feet in such a row (gradus) of such a wedge (cuneus) of such a section (maenianum). |+|

“The number of sittings testifies to the popularity of the races. The little circus at Bovillae had seats for at least 8000 people, according to Huelsen, that of Maxentius for about 23,000, while the Circus Maximus, accommodating 60,000 in the time of Augustus, was enlarged to a capacity of nearly 200,000 in the time of Constantius. The seats themselves were supported upon arches of massive masonry; an idea of their appearance from the outside may be had from the exterior view of the Coliseum. Every third vaulted chamber under the seats seems to have been used for a staircase; the others were used for shops and booths, and in the upper parts, as rooms for the employees of the circus, who must have been very numerous. Galleries seem to have crowned the seats, as in the theaters, and balconies for the emperors were built in conspicuous places, but we are not able, from the ruins, to fix precisely their positions. A general idea of the appearance of the seats from within the arena may, however, be had from an attempted reconstruction of the Circus Maximus, although the details are uncertain. |+|

Chariot Race Sponsors

Sponsors of chariot teams were called Factiones of the Circus. Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “There must have been a time, of course, when the races in the circus were open to all who wished to show their horses or their skill in driving them, but by the end of the Republic no persons of repute took part in the games, and the teams and drivers were furnished by racing syndicates (factiones), which practically controlled the market so far as trained horses and trained men were concerned. With these syndicates the giver of the games contracted for the number of races that he wanted (ten or twelve a day in Caesar’s time, later twice the number, and even more on special occasions), and they furnished everything needed. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“These syndicates were named from the colors worn by their drivers. We hear at first of two only, the red (russata) and the white (albata); the blue (veneta) was added in the time of Augustus, probably, and the green (prasina) soon after his reign; finally Domitian added two more, the purple and the gold. Great rivalry existed between these organizations. They spent immense sums of money on their horses, importing them from Greece, Spain, and Mauritania, and even larger sums, perhaps, upon the drivers. |+|

“They maintained training stables on as large a scale as any of which modern times can boast; a mosaic found in one of these establishments in Algeria names among the attendants jockeys, grooms, stableboys, saddlers, doctors, trainers, coaches, and messengers, and shows the horses covered with blankets in their stalls. This rivalry spread throughout the city; each factio had its partisans, and vast sums of money were lost and won as each missus was finished. All the tricks of the ring were skillfully practiced; horses were “doped,” drivers hired from rival syndicates or bribed, and even poisoned, we are told, when they were proof against bribes. Further, the aid of magicians was invoked to work a spell that should prevent a team from winning.” |+|

On Roman-era graffiti found at Aphrodisias in present-day Turkey, Owen Jarus wrote in Live Science: “The city had three chariot-racing clubs competing against each other, records show. “The south market, which included a public park with a pool and porticoes, was a popular place for chariot-racing fans to hang outthe graffiti shows. It may be "where the clubhouses of the factions of the hippodrome were located — the reds, the greens, the blues," said Angelos Chaniotis, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton New Jersey, referring to the namesof the different racing clubs. The graffiti includes boastful messages after a club won and lamentations when a club was having a bad time. "Victory for the red," reads one graffiti; "bad years for the greens," says another; "the fortune of the blues prevails," reads a third. [Source: Owen Jarus, Live Science, June 15, 2015]

Racing Chariots, Chariot Teams and Their Horses

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The chariot used in the races was low and light, closed in front, open behind, with long axles and low wheels to lessen the risk of turning over. The driver seems to have stood well forward in the car; there was no standing-place behind the axle. The teams consisted of two horses (bigae), three (trigae), four (quadrigae), and in later times six (seiuges) or even seven (septeiuges), but the four-horse team was the most common and may be taken as the type. Two of the horses were yoked together, one on each side of the tongue; the others were attached to the car merely by traces. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“Of the four the horse to the extreme left was the most important, because the meta lay always on the left and the highest skill of the driver was shown in turning it as closely as possible. The failure of the horse nearest it to respond promptly to the rein or the word might mean the wreck of the car (by going too close) or the loss of the inside track (by going too wide), and in either case the loss of the race. Inscriptions sometimes give the names of all the horses of the team; sometimes only the horse on the left is mentioned. Before the races began, lists of the horses and drivers in each were published for the guidance of those who wished to stake their money. |+|

Though no time was kept, the records of horses and men were followed as eagerly as now. From the nature of the course it is evident that strength and courage and, above all, lasting qualities were more essential than speed. The horses were almost always stallions (mares are very rarely mentioned), and were never raced under five years of age. Considering the length of the course and the great risk of accidents, it is surprising how long the horses lasted. It was not unusual for a horse to figure in a hundred victories (such a horse was called centenarius); Diocles, who was himself a famous driver, owned a horse that had won two hundred (ducenarius).” |+|

Chariot Drivers

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The drivers (agitatores, aurigae) were slaves or freedmen, some of whom had won their freedom by their skill and daring in the course. Only in the most corrupt days of the Empire did citizens of any social position take actual part in the races. The dress of the driver is shown in Figures 220, 221, and in the frontispiece; especially to be noticed are the close-fitting cap, the short tunic (always of the color of his factio), laced around the body with leather thongs, the straps of leather around the thighs, the shoulder pads, and the heavy leather protectors for the legs. Our football players wear like defensive armor. The reins were knotted together and passed around the driver’s body. In his belt he carried a knife to cut the reins in case he should be thrown from the car, or to cut the traces if a horse should fall and become entangled in them. The races gave as many opportunities then as now for skillful driving, and required even more strength and daring. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“What we should call “fouling” was encouraged. The driver might turn his team against another, or might upset the car of a rival if he could; having gained the inside track, he might drive out of the straight course to keep a swifter team from passing his. The rewards were proportionately great. The successful auriga, though his social station was low, was the pet and pride of the race-mad crowd, and under the Empire, at least, he was courted and fêted by high and low. The pay of successful drivers was extravagant, since the rival syndicates bid against one another for the services of the most popular. Rich presents were given the drivers when they won their races, not only by their factiones, but also by outsiders who had backed them and profited by their skill. |+|

“Famous Aurigae. The names of some of the victors have come down to us in inscriptions composed in their honor or to their memory by their friends. Among these may be mentioned: Publius Aelius Gutta Calpurnianus of the late Empire (1127 victories); Caius Apuleius Diocles, a Spaniard (in twenty-four years 4257 races, 1462 victories; he won the sum of 35,863,120 sesterces, about $1,800,000); Flavius Scorpus (2048 victories by the age of twenty-seven); Marcus Aurelius Liber (3000 victories); Pompeius Muscosus (3559 victories). To these may be added Crescens, an inscription7 in whose honor (found at Rome in 1878). |+|

““Crescens, a driver of the blue syndicate, of the Moorish nation, twenty-two years of age. He won his first victory as a driver of a four-horse chariot in the consulship of Lucius Vipstanius Messalla, on the birthday of the deified Nerva, in the twenty-fourth race, with these horses: Circius, Acceptor, Delicatus, and Cotynus. From Messalla’s consulship to the birthday of the deified Claudius in the consulship of Glabrio he was sent from the barriers six hundred and eighty-six times and was victorious forty-seven times. In races between chariots with one from each syndicate, he won nineteen times; with two from each, twenty-three times; with three from each, five times. He held back purposely once, took first place at the start eight times, took it from others thirty-eight times. He won second place one hundred and thirty times, third place one hundred and eleven times. His winnings amounted to 1,558,346 sesterces [about $78,000].”

Nero, the Great Charioteer

Suetonius wrote: “From his earliest years, he had a special passion for horses and talked constantly about the games in the Circus, though he was forbidden to do so [By his guardians and teachers]. Once, when he was lamenting with his fellow pupils the fate of a charioteer of the "Greens," who was dragged by his horses, and his preceptor scolded him, he told a lie and pretended that he was talking of Hector. At the beginning of his reign he used to play every day with ivory chariots on a board, and he came from the country to all the games, even the most insignificant, at first secretly, and then so openly that no one doubted that he would be in Rome on that particular day. He made no secret of his wish to have the number of prizes increased, and in consequence more races were added and the performance was continued to a late hour, while the managers of the troupes no longer thought it worthwhile to produce their drivers at all except for a full day's racing. [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.) : “De Vita Caesarum: Nero: ” (“The Lives of the Caesars: Nero”), written in A.D. 110, 2 Vols., translated by J. C. Rolfe, Loeb Classical Library (London: William Heinemann, and New York: The MacMillan Co., 1914), II.87-187, modernized by J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton]

“He soon longed to drive a chariot himself and even to show himself frequently in public; so after a trial exhibition in his gardens before his slaves and the dregs of the populace, he gave all an opportunity of seeing him in the Circus Maximus, one of his freedmen dropping the napkin [the signal for the start] from the place usually occupied by the magistrates. Not content with showing his proficiency in these arts at Rome, he went to Achaia, as I have said, influenced especially by the following consideration. The cities in which it was the custom to hold contests in music had adopted the rule of sending all the lyric prizes to him. These he received with the greatest delight, not only giving audience before all others to the envoys who brought them, but even inviting them to his private table. When some of them begged him to sing after dinner and greeted his performance with extravagant applause, he declared that "the Greeks were the only ones who had an ear for music and that they alone were worthy of his efforts." So he took ship without delay and immediately on arriving at Cassiope made a preliminary appearance as a singer at the altar of Jupiter Cassius, and then went the round of all the contests. “To make this possible, he gave orders that even those which were widely separated in time should be brought together in a single year, so that some had even to he given twice.

On the parade Nero ordered up himself after his victories at the Olympics, Suetonius wrote: “Returning from Greece, since it was at Neapolis that he had made his first appearance, he entered that city with white horses through a part of the wall which had been thrown down, as is customary with victors in the sacred games. In like manner he entered Antium, then Albanum, and finally Rome; but at Rome he rode in the chariot which Augustus had used in his triumphs in days gone by, and wore a purple robe and a Greek cloak adorned with stars of gold, bearing on his head the Olympic crown and in his right hand the Pythian, while the rest were carried before him with inscriptions telling where he had won them and against what competitors, and giving the titles of the songs or the subject of the plays. His car was followed by his clique as by the escort of a triumphal procession, who shouted that they were the attendants of Augustus and the soldiers of his triumph. Then through the arch of the Circus Maximus, which was thrown down, he made his way across the Velabrum and the Forum to the Palatine and the temple of Apollo. All along the route victims were slain, the streets were sprinkled from time to time with perfume, while birds, ribbons, and sweetmeats were showered upon him.He placed the sacred crowns in his bed chamber around his couches, as well as statues representing him in the guise of a lyre-player; and he had a coin, too, struck with the same device. So far from neglecting or relaxing his practice of the art after this, he never addressed the soldiers except by letter or in a speech delivered by another, to save his voice; and he never did anything for amusement or in earnest without an elocutionist by his side, to warn him to spare his vocal organs and hold a handkerchief to his mouth. To many men he offered his friendship or announced his hostility, according as they had applauded him lavishly or grudgingly.”

Nero at the Olympics

Suetonius wrote: “He introduced a musical competition at Olympia also, contrary to custom. To avoid being distracted or hindered in any way while busy with these contests, he replied to his freedman Helius, who reminded him that the affairs of the city required his presence, in these words: "However much it may be your advice and your wish that I should return speedily, yet you ought rather to counsel me and to hope that I may return worthy of Nero." While he was singing no one was allowed to leave the theater even for the most urgent reasons. And so it is said that some women gave birth to children there, while many who were worn out with listening and applauding, secretly leaped from the wall, since the gates at the entrance were closed, or feigned death and were carried out as if for burial. [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.) : “De Vita Caesarum: Nero: ” (“The Lives of the Caesars: Nero”), written in A.D. 110, 2 Vols., translated by J. C. Rolfe, Loeb Classical Library (London: William Heinemann, and New York: The MacMillan Co., 1914), II.87-187, modernized by J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton]

The trepidation and anxiety with which he took part in the contests, his keen rivalry of his opponents and his awe of the judges, can hardly be credited. As if his rivals were of quite the same station as himself, he used to show respect to them and try to gain their favor, while he slandered them behind their backs, sometimes assailed them with abuse when he met them, and even bribed those who were especially proficient. Before beginning, he would address the judges in the most deferential terms, saying that he had done all that could be done, but the issue was in the hand of Fortuna; they however, being men of wisdom and experience, ought to exclude what was fortuitous. When they bade him take heart, he withdrew with greater confidence, but not even then without anxiety, interpreting the silence and modesty of some as sullenness and ill-nature, and declaring that he had his suspicions of them.

“In competition he observed the rules most scrupulously, never daring to clear his throat and even wiping the sweat from his brow with his arm [the use of a handkerchief was not allowed; see also Tac. Ann. 16.4]. Once, indeed, during the performance of a tragedy, when he had dropped his scepter but quickly recovered it, he was terribly afraid that he might be excluded from the competition because of his slip, and his confidence was restored only when his accompanist [the "hypocrites" made the gestures and accompanied the tragic actor on the flute, as he spoke his lines] swore that it had passed unnoticed amid the delight and applause of the people. When the victory was won, he made the announcement himself; and for that reason he always took part in the contests of the heralds. To obliterate the memory of all other victors in the games and leave no trace of them, their statues and busts were all thrown down by his order, dragged off with hooks, and cast into privies. He also drove a chariot in many places, at Olympia even a ten-horse team, although in one of his own poems he had criticized Mithridates for just that thing. But after he had been thrown from the car and put back in it, he was unable to hold out and gave up before the end of the course; but he received the crown just the same. On his departure he presented the entire province with freedom [That is, with local self-government, not with actual independence], and at the same time gave the judges Roman citizenship and a large sum of money. These favors he announced in person on the day of the Isthmian Games, standing in the middle of the stadium.


Other Shows of the Circus

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The circus was used less frequently for exhibitions other than chariot races. Of these may be mentioned the performances of the desultores, men who rode two horses and leaped from one to the other while they were going at full speed, and of trained horses that performed various tricks while standing on a sort of wheeled platform which gave a very unstable footing. There were also exhibitions of horsemanship by citizens of good standing, riding under leaders in squadrons, to show the evolutions of the cavalry. The ludus Troiae was also performed by young men of the nobility; this game is described in the Aeneid, Book V. More to the taste of the crowd were the hunts (venationes); wild beasts were turned loose in the circus to slaughter one another or be slaughtered by men trained for the purpose. We read of panthers, bears, bulls, lions, elephants, hippopotamuses, and even crocodiles (in artificial lakes made in the arena) exhibited during the Republic. In the circus, too, combats of gladiators sometimes took place, but these were more frequently held in the amphitheater. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“One of the most brilliant spectacles must have been the procession (pompa circensis) which formally opened some of the public games. It started from the Capitol and wound its way down to the Circus Maximus, entering by the porta pompae (named from it), and passed entirely around the arena. At the head in a car rode the presiding magistrate, wearing the garb of a triumphant general and attended by a slave who held a wreath of gold over his head. Next came a crowd of notables on horseback and on foot, then the chariots and horsemen who were to take part in the games. Then followed priests, arranged by their colleges, and bearers of incense and of the instruments used in sacrifices, and statues of deities on low cars drawn by mules, horses, or elephants, or else carried on litters (fercula) on the shoulders of men. Bands of musicians headed each division of the procession. A feeble reminiscence of all this is seen in the parade through the streets that for many years has preceded the performance of the modern circus. |+|

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|; BBC Ancient Rome ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

The Roman Games: A Sourcebook by Alison Futrell (Blackwell Publishing, 2006)

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