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Roman Chariot Racing: a Sport for Fanatics

by June 5, 2019

By Mónica Correa, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Nowadays folks use fast cars and designer handbags to flaunt their wealth. Back in the ancient Greek world, however, owning horses was the ultimate status symbol. This tradition continued during the Roman Empire and indeed, anyone who partook in equine activities was immediately assumed to belong to the elite. Chariot racing was no exception… And while the rich got the bragging rights, it was the drivers, the horses and even the fans that took the risk.
Chariot Racing’s Unknown Origins
Chariot racing was a popular sport for centuries, enjoyed under various governments and leaders throughout the ancient world. Its exact origins, however, are unknown.
We know that the sport existed in the Mycenaean world because of artistic evidence on pottery. Meanwhile, the first literacy reference to a chariot race is in Homer’s Iliad, at the funeral games of Patroclus.
Chariot race on pottery

Chariot racing on a black-figure hydria from Attica, ca. 510 BC

According to one legend mentioned by Pindar, a chariot race was said to be the event that founded the Olympic Games. The story goes that King Oenomaus challenged suitors for his daughter Hippodamia to a race. He was defeated by Pelops, who then went on to found the Games in honor of his victory.
However, the sport was actually added in 680 BC and included both four-horse (tethrippon, Greek: τέθριππον) and two-horse (synoris, Greek: συνωρὶς) chariot races, which were essentially the same aside from the number of horses. The tethrippon was considered the most dangerous event at the ancient games and was held in the hippodrome.
While the Romans probably borrowed chariot racing (as well as the racing tracks) from the Etruscans, who themselves borrowed it from the Greeks, Roman legend tells another story. The myth says that chariot racing was used by Romulus just after he founded Rome in 753 BC as a way to distract the Sabine men.
Charioteer of Delphi

The Charioteer of Delphi, one of the most famous statues surviving from Ancient Greece

Chariot Racing’s Characteristics
Some scholars prefer to differentiate between sport, athletics and spectacle. Chariot racing is considered a spectacle because it is essentially a public performance with an audience.
It’s important to remember that chariot racing was extremely dangerous for both the driver and the horses. Driving a racing chariot required strength, skill and courage, and was rarely done by the owner of the chariot, who was not even obligated to attend to the races. Instead, the driver was usually the owner’s family member or slave. The money won by the driver went directly to the owner of the chariot, although wining could put the charioteer in a different social stratum. In fact, drivers could become celebrities just for surviving. Based on this, we can deduce that life expectancy was not very high.
Chariot Racing Sculpture

Chariot race of Cupids; ancient Roman sarcophagus in the Museo Archeologico (Naples). Brooklyn Museum Archives, Goodyear Archival Collection

Chariot Racing’s Teams and Fans
The most exciting part of the race for the audience was the turns at the end of hippodrome, which were dangerous, even deadly. The spectators (which, unlike other activities at the time, also included women) were invited to vocalize their support or disfavor at times. The group solidarity, as well as the resulting factional violence, was probably not so different from modern soccer or football.
According to Tertullian, an early Christian author from Tunisia, there were originally only two teams: Red and White, sacred to summer and winter, respectively. These were eventually doubled, the additional colors being Blue and Green. Each team could have up to three chariots each in a race.
White Team Player

A white charioteer; part of a mosaic of the third century AD, showing four leading charioteers from the different colors, all in their distinctive gear

The Blues and the Greens gradually became the most prestigious factions, supported by emperors and the populace alike. Records indicate that on numerous occasions, Blue against Green clashes would break out during the races. The surviving literature rarely mentions the Reds and Whites, although their continued activity is documented in inscriptions and in curse tablets.
Entertainment for Big Audiences
During the Roman period chariot races commonly took place in a circus. The main center, known as Circus Maximus, measured 2,037 ft. in length and 387 ft. in width and could sit 250,000 people. It was the earliest circus in the city of Rome.
Circus Maximus

The plan of the Circus Maximus

Unlike Greek chariot races, which had 12 laps, a Roman chariot race consisted of only seven turns around the circus. Once the raced started, chariots could move forward no matter what, including purposefully causing extreme crashes, called naufragia. The goal was to weaken the enemy, then beat him.
The design of the chariots was simple: wooden carts with two wheels and an open back. They also used the same style of carts that were used during wars. Unlike other contemporary entertainment activities, the charioteers were always dressed, probably for safety reasons. They wore helmets and sleeved garments that were probably white, according to paintings of the time. Roman drivers wrapped the reins round their waist, while the Greeks used to hold the reins in their hands.
Chariot racing

A chariot race during the reign of Trajan. After the painting by Ulpiano Checa, by Granger

Famous Charioteers
Throughout the history of the sport there were a few very famous drivers who achieved a level of celebrity status unparalleled even today. One such celebrity driver was Scorpus, who won over 2000 races before being killed in a collision at the meta when he was about 27 years old.
The most famous of all, however, was Gaius Appuleius Diocles who won 1,462 out of 4,257 races. At the age of 42, Diocles retired after a 24-year career and his winnings reportedly totaled 35,863,120 sesterces ($US 15 billion). This makes him the highest paid sports star in all of history.
Famous Charioteer

Gaius Appuleius Diocles (104 – after 146) was a Roman charioteer, who became one of the most celebrated athletes in ancient history.

The horses could also become celebrities, but their life expectancy was low. Just like fantasy baseball players today, the Romans kept detailed statistics of the names, breeds, and pedigrees of famous horses.
Chariot Racing’s Decline
Chariot racing faded in importance after the fall of Rome. Some records indicate that Nika riots marked the start of its decline. Eventually emperors banned specific sports, including the Olympic games and public entertainment on Sundays, as a way to suppress paganism.
Another important factor was money. With the fall of the Roman Empire, there was no money to invest and no people to entertain.
Red Team winner

A winner of a Roman chariot race, from the Red team

While Chariot racing no longer exists in any of its ancient shape or form today, the same culture of fiercely dedicated sport worship, and violence, can be seen today… Fans scream out at trained athletes who compete for honor, status and, of course, money. It shows that perhaps, deep down, the craving for sport entertainment hasn’t evolved that dramatically over time.

5 Top Ancient Greek Olympians

by February 19, 2014

By Ben Potter

In a our world where are mainstream sporting heroes are millionaires, prima donnas, sex-offenders, and drug-cheats, the Olympics, can provide countries the world over with real sporting icons, icons worthy of that over- and misused term ‘role-model’.
However, the glory that our gold-medallists enjoy nowadays pales into insignificance when compared to that of the ancient winners.
ancient-sports-starsThis was because the games were only open to those from the Greek-speaking world. Moreover, there were merely a handful, rather than hundreds, of events, and it would have been quite likely that the victors would have returned to their pre-fame lives after the games – there were no sponsorship deals on offer then!
That’s not to say the winners of the Ancient Olympics didn’t enjoy their fair share of recompense. While they were rarely entitled to anything by law, the proud polis would often honor their returning hero with money, food and other such perks.
So, who were these noble competitors who fought to be the greatest physical specimens of The Greatest Civilization? Let’s have a look at some of them, shall we?

1. Coroebus of Elis – the first

A humble cook who grew up near the sanctuary of Olympia, Coroebus was the first man whom we can definitely say was an ‘Olympic champion’. He won the only event at the very first recorded Games in 776 BC – the stadion (which was an approximately 200 meters run).

2. Leonidas of Rhodes – the most prolific

Leonidas was the most successful Olympian ever.
Ever! And I’m including the modern Olympics in that.
Leonidas won the stadion, diaulos (circa.400 meters) and the hoplitodromos (a diaulos carrying 59lbs of armour) at each of the 164 BC, 160 BC, 156 BC and 152 BC games.
These twelve individual first-place finishes (the last of which he achieved at age 36) narrowly surpasses the 11 golds of Michael Phelps. It should be noted that while Phelps did technically win more golds overall, some of those were in relays… and none while wearing battle armour.

3. Diagoras of Rhodes – the happiest

Diagoras of Rhodes VictorRhodes’ second favourite son, Diagoras, was considered not only the happiest Olympian, but the happiest man in the world!
Descended from heroic royalty, Diagoras won the Olympic boxing crown twice. As if this weren’t enough to raise a smile, his eldest son twice triumphed in the brutal pankration. On the second occasion, in 448 BC, Diagoras’ second son simultaneously triumphed in the boxing.
Hoist aloft on the shoulders of his progeny, a wag in the crowd called out “Die, Diagoras; you will not also ascend to Olympus”. The humour of which was probably only appreciated later, as Diagoras promptly dropped dead on the spot.

4. Astylos of Croton – the saddest

A runner of great renown, Astylos was a highly controversial figure.
The reason being that, after bringing honour to Croton in the games of 488 BC, he turned-coat and, in 484 BC and 480 BC, decided to run for the rival Sicilian city of Syracuse.
His statue in Croton was destroyed, his disgraced family disowned him and his former lodgings were thought unworthy of a free man and were transformed into a prison.
The greatest sprinter of the 480s died a lonely exile, far from his family and friends.

5. Milo of Croton – the most impressive

Unlike Astylos, Milo was someone of whom Croton could really be proud.
Milo of CrotonMilo won five Olympic wrestling crowns consecutively between 536 – 520 BC.
Amazingly, these gongs may not represent the greatest achievements of Milo’s life.
He was said to have led a successful military assault against Sybaris in 510 BC and to have saved the life of Pythagoras (yes, THAT Pythagoras) by holding up the roof of a collapsing building. Consequently, he was given the mathematician’s daughter’s hand in marriage.
Less important, but no less impressive, are his alleged feats of strength and appetite.
He was said to have carried a bull on his shoulders before killing, cooking and eating the entire beast. Though this was perhaps excessive, his normal daily diet was 20 lbs of meat and 20 lbs of bread all washed down with 12 bottles of wine.
And completely uselessly, though again impressively, he was able to burst a headband simply by swelling the veins on his temple.
Death of Milo of CrotonAs so often happens with a unbelievable life, Milo suffered a unbelievable death, he was eaten alive by wolves because his hands were stuck in a tree trunk.
There is something deeply impressive and stirring about the achievements of all these citizens. They pushed their bodies to the extremes for the guarantee of no more corporeal gain than a crown of olive leaves.
However, like gallant generals, evocative poets and quixotic politicians, what they were truly yearning for was neither gold or even praise, but immortality. And although such a thing cannot realistically be attained by any man in any field, the fact that their names ring clear and true 2800 years after the event means their ‘athl’, their labours and suffering, cannot be said to have been in vain.

Pankration (Greek Martial Arts)

by October 1, 2013

By Jakob Renner
Ancient Greece is famously known for its rich culture, especially with regards to philosophy, art and noted intellectuals, but it is their sport with which we are interested in today.  In particular, the often unrecognized Greek contribution to the world of martial arts, a discipline known as the Pankration.
Jim Arvanitis, a renowned member of the Martial Arts Hall of Fame, states that Pankration is the first type of mixed martial arts of which we know. The origins and exact age of this fighting form, however, are hard to determine.
Vase showing PankrationLegend says that Hercules developed Pankration in order to become more formidable in wrestling tournaments. Another origin story by Plutarch is that Theseus created the Pankration in his battle with the Minotaur. While these are just myths, the fact that Pankration is connected to these revered heroes shows its importance to Ancient Greek culture. All the more evidenced by the fact that Pankration was one of the main events of the ancient Olympic games.
But what exactly is Pankration? And how was this martial art practiced?
To begin with, Pankration means “all power”. It was known in ancient times for its ferocity and allowance of such tactics as knees to the head and eye gouging.  
One ancient account tells of a situation in which the judges were trying to determine the winner of a match. The difficulty lay in that fact that both men had died in the arena from their injuries, making it hard to determine a victor. Eventually, the judges decided the winner was the one who didn’t have his eyes gouged out. Over time, however, maneuvers like eye gouging were discouraged to prevent such unpleasant incidents.
While Pankration may seem from these stories to be little more than a brutal free for all, it did have its formal stances (Stasi), punches (Efthia), kicks (Laktismata), and blocks (Apokrousis).
The only rules that were enforced by referees, with beating sticks in hand, was no gouging (eventually) or biting. This meant that competitors could be very creative with their attacks and defense, resulting in a plethora of options. Indeed, describing every Pankration movement would require writing a complete book.
Attic black-figure skyphosIn the end of the day though, the main goal in a match was to get your opponent to submit by raising an index finger in the air as a yield signal. The most common way to get this submission was a movement called a “choke”. This could be done with a front grip, where the trachea and windpipe are squeezed, or with a rear choke, where the caryatid arteries are closed by a forearm from behind.
Aside from chokes, an array of kicks, punches and blocks were used. Artist depictions on pottery show kicks to the stomach and shins. Punches had the best range of options from jabs to uppercuts and hooks. While blocking involved a key principle that is still taught by martial artists today, adapting to your opponent and looking for opportunities to counter their movements.
An example of this would be when your opponent is throwing a hook punch and your elbow point is used to absorb the impact of the knuckles. Then, while your opponent’s arm is extended, you punch the bicep and forearm crease with your free limb – effectively immobilizing your opponent’s remaining arm.
Panathenaic prize amphoraThis type of movement shows an interesting similarity to techniques found in Eastern martial arts, such as Kung Fu, Karate and Muay Thai.
But maybe this isn’t surprising at all… especially when you consider that Alexander the Great was a noted Pankration fighter. The famously ruthless Macedonian could have brought the martial art as far as his conquests in the Indus Valley, where cultural exchange could have allowed Pankration to spread to China and South East Asia.
While we we’ll never know for certain, perhaps in this way Pankration may very well be the mother of all martial art forms. The ancient Greeks left a tremendous legacy that is regularly represented by their art, literature and philosophy, but it is often overlooked that they did likewise in the field of fighting as well.