Friday, January 15, 2010

Fun Chariot Facts

by Caroline Lawrence, author of The Roman Mysteries

1. Circus is Latin for circle. In the context of racing, it means the chariot racing-track or hippodrome. The Circus Maximus in Rome was the biggest one and seated nearly a quarter of a million* (250,000) people.

2. Unlike the heavy chariots used in most Hollywood depictions, (including all the Ben Hur films), racing chariots were very light and small. They needed to go as fast as possible, and were probably made of wicker and leather. Driving one would have been like surfing a basket on wheels.

3. Most chariots were pulled by ungelded stallions; two for a biga (2-horse chariot) and four for a quadriga (4-horse chariot). As many as 12 teams ran in each race.

Re-enactor from Nîmes should have reins round his waist
4. A charioteer would tie the leather reins around his waist and put a sharp knife in his belt. If he was thrown from his chariot he would try to cut himself free as he was being dragged along. Whenever a chariot crashed, the crowd would yell out 'naufragium!' which means 'shipwreck!' in Latin.

5. Chariots completed seven circuits, marked by dolphins (sacred to Neptune, god of the sea and also of horses) and eggs (sacred to Castor and Pollux).

Charioteer of the Blue faction from Ostia
6. Charioteers wore leather helmets and jerkins in green, blue, red or white: the colours of their factions (teams).

7. Some charioteers began training while they were still children, and many stars of the hippodrome would have been in their teens.

8. A charioteer or horse who had won over a thousand races was called a miliarius.

9. Chariot racing was the most popular spectator sport in ancient Rome – even more popular than gladiatorial combats. Races were not held every day, but only on special occasions or festival days.

10. The Circus represented the Cosmos and every aspect of the hippodrome was symbolic:

The obelisk on the spina (central island) represented the sun.
The water of the euripus (canal in the spina) represented the sea.
The race track itself represented the earth around the sea.
The 4 faction colours represented the four seasons:
(red = summer, blue = autumn, white = winter, green = spring)
The 7 laps the horses had to run represented the days of the week.
The 12 carceres (starting gates) represented the months of the year.
The 24 races held per day represented the hours of the day.
(Yes, Romans divided their days into 24 hours, too)

11. Boys called sparsores had the dangerous job of running onto the track to sprinkle water on the track to keep down the blinding, choking dust. They got the water from the central reservoir and used pots, bowls or water skins to sprinkle it. It was a dangerous job and they sometimes got trampled. 

12. Winners in a chariot race received three things: 
A palm branch to symbolise victory.
A 'crown' (usually a wreath) also standing for victory. 
A purse of money as a prize to be spent, perhaps split between charioteer and the owner of the faction. 

The title of my 12th Roman Mystery, The Charioteer of Delphi, is based on a famous statue from Greece. But it was still buried at the time my book is set, so I couldn't refer to it in the story. Instead, I tell the story of how a Greek youth from Delphi named Scopas might have become Scorpus, one of the most famous charioteers in Roman history.

You can watch modern re-enactors playing with chariots HERE.
illustration by Richard Russell Lawrence © Copyright Roman Mysteries Ltd.

*At a conference in London in June 2014, scholar Tayfun Oner says this figure is far too big. He reckons the Circus Maximus could take only 100,000 people. You can watch his visualisation of a race in the hippodrome of Constantinople HERE.

Read about the only circus found in Britain (so far) HERE.

Four factions clearly visible in this mosaic from Rome

[The Charioteer of Delphi and all the Roman Mysteries are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans as a topic in Key Stage 2. Carrying on from the Roman Mysteries, the Roman Quests series set in Roman Britain launched in May 2016 with Escape from Rome.]

P.S. This blog was updated August 2016 for the 6th screen adaptation of Lew Wallace's Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ 


  1. Anonymous6:59 PM

    Very Interesting!
    Thank You!

  2. Anonymous8:14 PM

    this is really good info but people are copy and pasting it onto other websites I use this site for my history homework

    1. The reason people copy it is because I've done so much research. But clever you for figuring out the original source: me!

  3. Anonymous4:34 PM

    thanks for letting me use your daughter came here for her homwork on chaiot racing.

  4. Anonymous7:32 AM

    thanks really helped with homework :)

  5. Anonymous4:14 PM

    do you know anything on how they kept score?

    1. It was a race so there was just a first place winner. I guess the equivalent of a photo finish would be judged by one of the officials!

  6. Anonymous4:30 AM

    Hi...I have to learn about chariot designs, do you know how the decided what to paint on them please?

    1. As far as I can see from looking at mosaics, racing chariots were not decorated apart from colour. This is because racing chariots were quite small and mainly hidden by the horses. Also the focus of attention was on the rider and horses. I think they were mainly just leather dyed the colour of the faction: blue, green, red or white!

  7. Anonymous9:54 AM

    do you know what the rules were, or was it one of those "every man for themselves" sort of sport?

    1. Yes, there were rules. For example, you couldn't switch out of your starting lane until you passed the *linea alba*, (either a white line or a white rope depending on place and time). But fouling was never allowed as far as I know!

  8. nice explanation
    helped me heaps

  9. Anonymous6:43 PM

    hey i really liked reading this and it helped a lot with my homework thanksssssssss

  10. Anonymous3:48 PM

    Very nice!