The History of Chariot Racing in Ancient Rome


Chariot racing was very big business in ancient Rome. There was a whole industry built around the factions, the four professional stables known by their team colour – Blue, Green, Red, and White –, providing all that was required for a race: horses, stable managers, blacksmiths, doctors, assistants to the charioteers, operators for the gate starting mechanisms.

Mosaic depicting a victorious charioteer called Marcianus accompanied by the wish of victory NICHA (sic)

In Rome, it was possible to have as many as 24 races in one day. Modern estimates suggest that 700 to 800 horses were required for a day's racing. 

Roman chariot drivers usually began their careers as young boys; these boys were mostly slaves bought and trained by the factions. 

The auriga was a less experienced charioteer and drove the two-horse chariot; with time and growing skill, he had the possibility of advancing to agitator, an accomplished and high-ranking driver who drove a four-to-ten-horse chariot. Fame and long careers could be achieved on the track; however, the track was also where many drivers lost their young lives.

Venue & Audience

The stables were situated about 2 kilometres away in the Campus Martius; horses, charioteers, and faction workers travelled from here into the Circus Maximus, the largest man-made structure in the whole of the Roman Empire. 

The tracks at the Circus were hazardous, with seven laps (about 5 kilometres) and 13 sharp and tight turns. 

The track had a divider, a 'euripus' or 'spina', this central barrier sometimes filled with water, stretched lengthwise to separate the 'up' and 'down' routes and to prevent head-on crashes. 

At each end of these dividers, there was a turning post. Lap markers in the shape of eggs and dolphins were turned to mark the completion of each circuit and helped make it visually possible for the audience to follow through the dust, the sun's blinding glare, and the stifling heat.

Pliny the Younger (61-112 CE) wrote of the huge popularity of the races and that he was astonished that so many thousands of men should be possessed again and again to attend the chariot races (Letters. 9.6). 

The popularity of the sport did not just confine itself to what one ancient writer described as the "innumerable crowd of plebians" who would hang out on streets having heated arguments over the teams (Marcellinus, Roman History. 14. 6. 26-7). 

It was not just the excited plebs who waited for race day, conversations could also be found at the dinner tables of the elite of Rome, where guests discussed the teams. 

A releif showing a quadriga race in the Cricus Maximus, Rome (2-3rd century); Trinci Palace, Foligno, Italy. 

Horses & Equipment

The race circuit would have been a breathtaking and thrilling eight minutes long, with the chariots reaching possible speeds of 35 kilometres per hour and up to 72 kilometres per hour on the straight, which required great stamina and strength on the part of the charioteers and their horses. The majority of horses used were stallions. 

These racehorses were bred on private and imperial stud farms in North Africa, Cappadocia, Sicily, Spain, and Thessaly. 

Racehorses were stocky in build and comparable to a large pony of the present day. Pliny the Elder notes that "...though horses may be broken as two-years-old for other services, racing in the Circus does not claim them before five " (N.H 161-162). These horses could compete on the track up to the age of 20 years before being sent to stud.

Horses underwent thorough training for the track, some of which took place on the stud farms and then continued at equestrian training grounds such as the Trigarium in Rome's Campus Martius. In a team the most important of the horses was the introiugus, the lead horse on the left side of the chariot, it was this horse who guided the team around the turns. Pliny the Elder comments that the training of the horses must have been very intense. He recounts where a team of horses had thrown their driver at the start of the race:

... his team then took the lead and kept it by getting in the way of their rivals and jostling them aside and doing everything against them that they would have had to do with a most skilful charioteer in control ... When they had completed the course they stopped dead at the chalk line (N.H. 8.159-161).

Pliny also suggests that a horse's performance could be aided by the wearing of a large tooth of a wolf around its neck, which would stave off tiredness.

The charioteers wore protective clothing of thick leather helmets and thick tunics with horizontal leather padded bands around their chests and trunk and also around their thighs. 

The chariot they drove was designed with small and light wheels to help stabilise it as it took sharp turns. The body of the chariot was built small and low – a wooden framework filled in with interwoven straps for the floor, this type of floor provided a springing base. 

The light design of these chariots meant that they could go into skids which the inexperienced auriga had to learn to skilfully control. 

Charioteer's folding knife handle with a horse. Rome, 4th century BCE. (Museum of the National Library of France, Paris)

The Race

Before the race began, a sacred procession (pompa circensis) with images of the gods paraded through the city street ending in the Circus Maximus, where it circled the track. 

Following the gods, and included in the procession, were the magistrates, athletes, dancers, attendants and the charioteers, "some of whom drove four horses abreast, some two, and others rode unyoked horses" (Dion. Hal. Ant. Rom. 7.70–3). For certain races, the Circus track was sprinkled with a bright red pigment, minium, and green carbonate of copper to create the faction colours of red and green.

Placards with the names of each charioteer and horse were carried before them, increasing the anticipation as the spectators recognised the drivers. 

In advance of the race, and before the teams had entered the stalls, a draw was held to determine which stall each team would occupy. 

The lots were rolled in an urn attached to a crossbar which revolved with balls falling from the device as it was operated. 

The tension in the Circus would have been incredibly high with "the eyes of the spectators rolling as if with the lots" (Tert. De Spect.16). The lot, which was drawn from the urn, gave the charioteer the choice of which lane he wanted to enter for the race.

Once in their stalls, the nervous and charged horses hit madly at the gates with their hooves and their heads, "They push...they drag...they rage..." (Sid. Apoll. Poems 23. 334). 

The victorious charioteer was saluted and called by the trumpeter to collect his prize; the palm of victory and the purse. 

On the early 3rd-century CE Severan Marble Plan, a representation of the Circus Maximus indicates a structure built into the seating area which is connected to the arena by a wide staircase which allows access to the track. 

The winning charioteer may have climbed up these stairs to be met and congratulated and crowned by the Roman emperor or the patron of the games. The charioteer in all his glory then made the lap of honour around the track as excited spectators threw small coins or flowers at him.

Mosaic depicting a charioteer and horse from each of the four circus factions (Red, White, Blue, and Green), 3rd century CE (Palazzo Massimo all Terme, Rome).

Life & Death on the Track

Charioteers' honorific and funerary inscriptions mark their successes and provide details and valuable insights into their lives. Florus was an auriga, a low-ranking and less experienced driver. His funerary inscription reads:

I, Florus, lie here, a child driver of a two horse chariot, who while I wanted to race my chariot quickly, quickly fell to the shades... (CIL. 6.10078)

Sextus Vistilius Helenus was an auriga, and his funerary inscription informs us that he had been transferred to the Blue faction where he was being coached by Datileus when he died at the tender age of 13. 

Crescens, another young driver, was a charioteer for the Blue faction; he was from North Africa and was probably brought to Rome as a slave. 

He was 13 years old when he won his first race in 115 CE. He would have been driving chariots for at least a year before that, making him 12 when he began his training. 

Crescens won his first race with a four-horse chariot driving the horses, Circus, Acceptor, Delicatus, and Cotynus to victory. 

His career lasted nine years, in which he won 1,558,346 sesterces (a soldier during this period was paid 1200 sesterces per year.) Crescens died at the age of 22.

The famous charioteer, Polynices had two sons who were also charioteers; Marcus Aurelius Polynices won 739 victory palms in his career, three purses worth 40,000 sesterces, 26 purses worth 30,000, and eleven purses of gold. 

Marius had driven six-, eight-, and ten-horse teams. He was 29 years old when he died. Polynices' other son, Marcus Aurelius Mollicius Tatinus, won 125 victory palms and won the 40,000 sesterces prize twice, he was just 20 years old when he died.


Despite the hazards of the track and the real threat of death, many of these young boys showed reckless bravado with the hope of winning great fame and glory as charioteers. 

For those young slaves brought from the provinces, chariot racing offered the prospect of success and financial stability, and for some, widespread acclaim. 

Since most of these young charioteers were slaves, being successful and winning races could ultimately mean that they could also gain their freedom. Cassius Dio (c. 150-235 CE) records one such race where the crowd shouted their demand that a favourite charioteer should be given his freedom (Rom. Hist. 69.12-15).

Many charioteers would have competed as relative unknowns, and many died prematurely. However, for drivers who had outwitted death at the Circus, there could be life after the tracks. 

Charioteers who had finished their racing days could take up one of many positions in the factions, young men like Aurelius Heraclides, who had been a charioteer for the Blues, became a trainer for the Blues and Greens. 

By the late 3rd century CE, retired charioteers had greater prospects with the opportunity of becoming faction managers, a position which was once held by those of the equestrian order.


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