For the ancient Greeks and Romans, chariot racing was one of the most popular sports beloved by the masses. Although it was a dangerous sport with frequent serious injuries and deaths on both horse and driver, it was a huge draw for spectators who came in droves to watch the spectacle.
The origin of chariot racing is not clear, but evidence from pottery during the Mycenaean Age and a literary reference described by Homer suggests very early beginnings. Chariot racing became one of the more important equestrian events when it was added to the Olympic Games in 680 B.C. Though not as highly esteemed as the foot race, it surpassed racing on horseback which was eventually discontinued.
The races in ancient Greece were held in a stadium called the hippodrome. Ten or more chariots could run at a time. The horses ran around a stone or wooden barrier called an embolon that divided the elongated racecourse. There were two-horse and four-horse chariot races consisting of twelve laps around the hippodrome.
Before each race the names of the drivers and owners were announced during a procession. The chariots lined up alongside each other and waited for the gates to open to start the race. Chariot racers needed to be tall and light, so teenagers were frequently chosen to be drivers.
The chariot owners were not the charioteers. Drivers were usually slaves and considered lower than a barbarian. Women were completely excluded from participation in the Olympics. Even though women couldn’t even watch the games, they could train and own horses. The Spartan daughter of Archidamus II named Cynisca, who owned and trained horses, employed men and entered her team at the Olympics. She won the four-horse chariot races twice in 396 B.C. and again in 392 B.C. She was the rare exception during those times.
The Greeks used chariot racing as a way to show off their prosperity and for the wealthy to seek fame. Although the charioteer was usually a slave or a hired professional, they could also be a family member of the chariot owner. The drivers themselves remained quite anonymous with no fanfare lavished on them in the form of statues or victory songs. The charioteers did not race in the nude as was the common practice in other Olympic events.
The Romans liked to include chariot races as part of their religious festivals. The Greek influence was strong and races run in much the same way with some exceptions. Chariot races in ancient Rome took place in a circus called the Circus Maximus that could seat 250,000 people. Their racing tracks had a median called the spina in the center of the track, and the race didn’t begin until the emperor or host dropped a cloth called a mappa signaling the gates to open.
The Romans hired professional racers and betting was prevalent among spectators. Unlike the Greeks who held the reins in their hands, the Roman drivers wrapped the reins around their waist, making them more vulnerable to injury and death should they crash and be dragged around the track. For this reason the charioteers wore helmets, protective gear, and carried a curved knife called a falx should it be necessary to cut the reigns and free themselves.
Unlike the Greeks, Roman charioteers were considered the winners and could achieve fame simply by surviving long enough. They also received money and a wreath of laurel leaves when they were victorious. If they were slaves, they could buy their freedom by winning a lot of races.
Roman racing clubs were distinguished by the color-coded clothing of the drivers. There were four main factions represented by their color named the Red, White, Green, and Blue. Rivalries developed between the teams which often erupted into gang warfare and increased street violence. Eventually the sport of chariot racing faded in importance after the fall of Rome and declined in popularity during the 7th century as economic and political problems plagued the Empire.