Roman Games, Chariot Races & Spectacle

Roman Games, Chariot Races & Spectacle

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If there was one thing the Roman people loved it was spectacle and the opportunity of escapism offered by weird and wonderful public shows which assaulted the senses and ratcheted up the emotions. Roman rulers knew this well and so to increase their popularity and prestige with the people they put on lavish and spectacular shows in purpose-built venues across the empire. Such famous venues as the Colosseum and Circus Maximus of Rome would host events involving magnificent processions, exotic animals, gladiator battles, chariot races, executions and even mock naval battles.


It is significant that most of the best-preserved buildings from the Roman period are those which were dedicated to entertainment. Amphitheatres and circuses were built across the empire and even army camps had their own arena. The largest amphitheatre was the Colosseum with a capacity of at least 50,000 (likely more, if one factors in the smaller bodies and different sense of personal space compared to modern standards) whilst the Circus Maximus could hold a massive 250,000 spectators according to Pliny the Elder. With so many events on such a large scale, spectacles became a huge source of employment, from horse trainers to animal trappers, musicians to sand rakers.

From the end of the republic seats in the theatre, arena and circus were divided by class. Augustus established further rules so that slaves and free persons, children and adults, rich and poor, soldiers and civilians, single and married men were all seated separately, as were men from women. Naturally, the front row and more comfortable seats were reserved for the local senatorial class. Tickets were probably free to most forms of spectacle as organisers, whether city magistrates given the responsibility of providing public civic events, super-rich citizens or the emperors who would later monopolise control of spectacles, were all keen to display their generosity rather than use the events as a source of revenue.

Chariot Races

The most prestigious chariot races were held in Rome's Circus Maximus but by the 3rd century CE other major cities such as Antioch, Alexandria and Constantinople also had circuses with which to host these spectacular events, which became, if anything, even more popular in the later empire. Races at the Circus Maximus probably involved a maximum of twelve chariots organised into four factions or racing-stables - Blues, Greens, Reds, and Whites - which people followed with a passion similar to sports fans today. There was even the familiar hatred of opposing teams as indicated by lead curse tablets written against specific charioteers and certainly bets, both large and small, were placed on the races.

Nero even raced with a ten-horse team but came a cropper as a result & was thrown from his chariot.

Different types of chariot races could require more technical skill from the charioteers, such as races with teams of six or seven horses or using unyoked horses. Nero even raced with a ten-horse team but came a cropper as a result and was thrown from his chariot. There were races where charioteers raced in teams and the most anticipated races of all, those only for champions. Successful racers could become millionaires and one of the most famous was Gaius Appuleius Diocles who won an astonishing 1463 races in the 2nd century CE.

In the imperial period the circus also became the most likely place for a Roman to come into contact with their emperor and, therefore, rulers were not slow to use the occasions to strengthen their emotional and political grip on the people by putting on an unforgettable show.

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Gladiator Contests

Just as modern cinema audiences hope to escape the ordinariness of daily life, so too the crowd in the arena could witness weird, spectacular, and often bloody shows and become immersed, even lost, in the seemingly uncontrollable emotion of the arena. Qualities such as courage, fear, technical skill, celebrity, the past revisited, and, of course, life and death itself, engaged audiences like no other entertainment and no doubt one of the great appeals of gladiator events, as with modern professional sport, was the potential for upsets and underdogs to win the day.

The earliest gladiator contests (munera) date to the 4th century BCE around Paestum in southern Italy whilst the first in Rome itself are traditionally dated to 264 BCE, put on to honour the funeral of one Lucius Junius Brutus Pera. Eventually, arenas spread around the empire from Antioch to Gaul as rulers became ever more willing to show off their wealth and concern for the public's pleasure, In Rome city magistrates had to put on a gladiator show as the price for winning office and cities across the empire offered to host local contests to show their solidarity with the ways of Rome and to celebrate notable events such as an imperial visit or an emperor's birthday.

There were slave gladiators as well as freed men & professionals, & for extra special occasions even female gladiators.

In the 1st century BCE schools were established to train professional gladiators, especially in Capua (70 BCE), and amphitheatres were also made into more permanent and imposing structures using stone. The events became so popular and grandiose that limits were put on just how many fighting pairs would participate in a show and how much money was allowed to be poured into them. Due to this expense and the additional hazard of fines for hiring a gladiator and not returning him in good condition, many gladiator contests now became less fatal for the participants and this strategy also served to add more drama to the public execution events where death was absolutely certain.

There were slave gladiators as well as freed men and professionals, and for extra special occasions even female gladiators, fighting each other. Some gladiators became heroes, especially the champions or primus palus, and the darlings of the crowd; some even had their own fan clubs. Gladiators seem also to have been considered a good financial investment as even such famous figures as Julius Caesar and Cicero owned significant numbers of them, which they rented out to those who wished to sponsor a gladiator games.

Some elite writers such as Plutarch and Dio Chrysostom protested that the gladiator contests were unbecoming and contrary to 'classical' cultural ideals. Even some emperors displayed little enthusiasm for the arena, the most famous case being Marcus Aurelius, who took his paperwork to the events. Whatever their personal tastes though, the shows were too popular to be stopped and it was only in later times that gladiator contests, at odds with the new Christian-minded Empire, declined under the Christian emperors and finally came to an end in 404 CE.

Wild Animal Hunts

Besides gladiator contests, Roman arenas also hosted events using exotic animals (venationes) captured from far-flung parts of the empire. Animals could be made to fight each other or fight with humans. Animals were frequently chained together, often a duo of carnivore and herbivore and cajoled into fighting each other by the animal handlers (bestiarii) Certain animals acquired names and gained fame in their own right. Famous 'hunters' (venatores) included the emperors Commodus and Caracalla, although the risk to their person was no doubt minimal. The fact that such animals as panthers, lions, rhinos, hippopotamuses, and giraffes had never been seen before only added to the prestige of the organisers of these shows from another world.

Triumphs, Processions & Naval Battles

Triumphs celebrated military victories and usually involved a military parade through Rome which began at the Porta Triumphalis and, via a convoluted route, ended at the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitol. The victorious general and a select group of his troops were accompanied by flag bearers, trumpeters, torch bearers, musicians and all of the magistrates and senators. The general or emperor, dressed as Jupiter, rode a four-horse chariot accompanied by a slave who held over his master's head a laurel wreath of victory and who whispered in his ear not to get carried away and allow his pride to result in a fall. During the procession captives, booty and the flora and fauna from the conquered territory were displayed to the general populace and the whole thing ended with the execution of the captured enemy leader. One of the most lavish was the triumph to celebrate Vespasian and Titus' victory over Judaea in which the spoils from Jerusalem were shown off and the whole event was commemorated in the triumphal arch of Titus, still standing in the Roman Forum. Although the emperors would claim a monopoly on the event, Orosius informs us that by the time of Vespasian, Rome had witnessed 320 triumphs.

Triumphs and lesser processions such as the ovatio were often accompanied by gladiator, sporting, and theatre events and quite often ambitious building projects too. Julius Caesar commemorated the Alexandrian war by staging a huge mock naval battle (naumachiae) between Egyptian and Phoenician ships with the action taking place in a huge purpose-built basin. Augustus actually staged a mock battle at sea to celebrate victory over Mark Anthony and another huge staged battle in another artificial pool to reenact the famous Greek naval battle at Salamis. Nero went one better and flooded an entire amphitheatre to host his naval battle show. These events became so popular emperors such as Titus and Domitian did not need the excuse of a military victory to wow the public with epic mythologically-themed sea battles. The manoeuvres and choreography of these events was invented but the fighting was real and so condemned prisoners and prisoners of war gave their lives to achieve ultimate realism.


Drama, re-enactments, recitals, mime, pantomime, tragedy and comedy (especially the Classical Greek plays) were held in purpose-built theatres, with some, such as Pompey's in Rome, boasting a capacity of 10,000 spectators. There were also productions of the most famous scenes from classic productions and Roman theatre, in general, owed much to the conventions established by earlier Greek tragedy and comedy. Important Roman additions to the established format included the use of more speaking actors and a much more elaborate stage background. Theatre was popular throughout the Roman period and the rich sponsored productions for the same reasons they patronised other spectacles. The most popular theatre format was pantomime where the actor performed and danced to a simple musical accompaniment which was inspired by classic theatre or was entirely new material. These solo performers, who included women, became theatre superstars. Indeed, in a sense great star performers like Bathyllus, Pylades and Apolaustus became immortal as successive generations of actors would take on their names.

Public Executions

Execution of criminals could be achieved by setting wild animals on the condemned (damnatio ad bestias) or making them fight well-armed and well-trained gladiators or even each other. Other more theatrical methods included burning at the stake or crucifixion, often with the prisoner dressed up as a character from Roman mythology. The crime of the condemned was announced before execution and in a sense the crowd became an active part of the sentence. Indeed, the execution could even be cancelled if the crowd demanded it.


The intellectual elite's lack of interest in spectacle has resulted in few systematic literary references to it and their dismissive attitude is summed up in Pliny's comment on the popularity of chariot teams in the circus - 'how much popularity and clout there is in one worthless tunic!'. However, the myriad of side references to spectacle in Roman literature and surviving evidence such as architecture and depictions in art are testimony to the popularity and longevity of the events mentioned above.

To modern eyes the bloody spectacles put on by the Romans can often cause revulsion and disgust but perhaps we should consider that the sometimes shocking events of Roman public spectacles were a form of escapism rather than representative of social norms and barometers of accepted behaviour in the Roman world. After all, one wonders what type of society a visitor to the modern world might envisage by merely examining the unreal and often violent worlds of cinema and computer games. Perhaps the shockingly different world of Roman spectacle in fact helped reinforce social norms rather than acted as a subversion of them.

Chariot racing

Chariot racing (Greek: ἁρματοδρομία , translit. harmatodromia, Latin: ludi circenses) was one of the most popular ancient Greek, Roman, and Byzantine sports. Chariot racing was dangerous to both drivers and horses as they often suffered serious injury and even death, but these dangers added to the excitement and interest for spectators. Chariot races could be watched by women, who were banned from watching many other sports. In the Roman form of chariot racing, teams represented different groups of financial backers and sometimes competed for the services of particularly skilled drivers. As in modern sports like football, spectators generally chose to support a single team, identifying themselves strongly with its fortunes, and violence sometimes broke out between rival factions. The rivalries were sometimes politicized, when teams became associated with competing social or religious ideas. This helps explain why Roman and later Byzantine emperors took control of the teams and appointed many officials to oversee them.

The sport faded in importance in the West after the fall of Rome. It survived much longer in the Byzantine Empire, where the traditional Roman factions continued to play a prominent role for several centuries, gaining influence in political matters. Their rivalry culminated in the Nika riots, which marked the gradual decline of the sport.

The Roman Games: Historical Sources in Translation

“This excellent book promises to be an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the violent entertainments of the Roman arena. Futrell’s collection of sources enables readers to see the broader context of the games, offering a first rate collection of material for life outside the amphitheater, as well as for events that took place within it.”
David Potter, University of Michigan

"Futrell's main purpose is to provide interesting, unusual material, and this she does . Her brief explanatory notes are insightful, learned and intended to provoke further research. Those interested in ancient Rome will welcome this fine sourcebook . Highly recommended."

"This very useful book provides a wide-ranging collection of sources of different types on this ever-popular branch of Roman civilisation, offering valuable insights into aspects of Roman public entertainment. . . a worthwhile purchase for the school library."
Journal of Classics Teaching

The Sporting Arenas: The Circus Maximus And The Hippodrome

The Circus Maximus in Rome, Domenico Gargiulo and Viviano Codazzi, ca. 1638, Museo del Prado, Madrid

Due to the sport’s massive popularity, a racetrack (named circus , due to its oval shape) could be found in all major cities scattered across the Roman empire. The biggest and most important among them was the Circus Maximus in Rome. Originally just a flat sandy track, the area gradually developed into a grandiose stadium-style building with a central divider ( spina ), and a host of accompanying structures, as well as a two-tiered sitting platform. The Circus Maximus was the largest and most expensive edifice in the capital. At its peak, during the 1st century CE, it could contain at least 150 000 spectators (for comparison, Colosseum’s maximum capacity was 50 000).

The second important sporting arena in the empire was the Hippodrome in Constantinople. Built by emperor Septimius Severus in the 3rd century CE (when the city was known as Byzantium) it got its final form hundred years later, under Constantine the Great . Following the usual rectangular shape, with an oval end, the Hippodrome was the largest building in Constantinople and the second-largest stadium after the Circus Maximus. It could house from 30,000 to 60,000 people.

Theodosius I and his family at the kathisma of the Hippodrome of Constantinople, Obelisk of Theodosius, 390 CE, Istanbul, via University Of Oxford

Both the Circus Maximus and the Hippodrome were more than grandiose sporting venues. As the largest edifices in the capital, they were a huge employment source, hiring athletes, managers, horse trainers, musicians, acrobats, sand rakers, and vendors. Moreover, these magnificent stadiums were the centers of the cities’ social and political life. There, people could communicate with their emperor and a good place for the ruler to solidify his position.

These grand arenas were the ultimate symbols of imperial power. Besides the monuments to charioteers and their horses, the spina was filled with statues of gods, heroes, and emperors. Both the Circus Maximus and the Hippodrome had majestic ancient obelisks brought from distant Egypt as centerpieces. In Constantinople, the carefully chosen works of art, such as Romulus and Remus with the she-wolf , and the Serpent Column from Delphi , emphasized the city’s principal status.

Roman Games, Chariot Races & Spectacle - History

Travel back in time to Rome’s great race track, the Circus Maximus and learn how to drive a four-horse chariot and compete against chariots driven by avatars in this VR action-racing game.

Highlights include:

Virtual Reality Gaming

Experience Chariot Racing with VR

Guided Tour

Explore Circus Maximus with a virtual tour

Expert Commentary

Listen to expert commentary on each stop

Choose a platform to download

Flyover Zone invites you to experience the spectacle of Roman chariot racing firsthand. Learn about the Circus Maximus and the rules of the game, then mount your chariot and compete for the glory of victory. For Romans, the race track (or, “circus”) represented the greatest source of entertainment in the empire. Of all the race tracks, the Circus Maximus in Rome was the most prominent. Roman chariot racing was known for being a brutal spectacle where drivers risked life and limb to obtain glory at all costs.

In this game you will:
-Compete in three spectacular game modes or play your own way in Custom mode!
-Represent one of four factions, each emphasizing their own unique approach to victory.
-Dive deeper into the history of the Circus Maximus with an expert virtual tour presented by Rome-based professors Crispin Corrado and Albert Prieto

Game Modes: Single User
Category: Virtual Reality Action Game
Platforms: Oculus Rift/Rift-S, HTC Vive
Languages: English
Age Rating: 4+
Copyright: © 2020 Flyover Zone Productions

The system requirements for Historical Games: a powerful graphics card (Nvidia 2060 or better) and a VR headset with two controllers (Oculus Rift/Rift-S, HTC Vive).

Requires a 64-bit processor and operating system
OS: Windows 10
Processor: Intel i5-4590 / AMD FX 8350 or equivalent
Memory: 8 GB RAM
Graphics: Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 / AMD Radeon R9 290 or equivalent
Storage: 3 GB available space

A Brief Background On The Roman Colosseum

The Colosseum was started under Vespasian’s ruling as a neophyte emperor, around 70 to 72 CE, in attempts to restore prestige and power back to the Romans after the excesses of Nero’s reign. The site originally housed a pleasure place to provide entertainment and luxury for Nero. However, Vespasian turned it into a place to house the people – scraping up the remains of the Golden House and turning it into the largest amphitheater designed to welcome Roman citizens.

After a decade of construction, the Colosseum – also touted as the Flavian Amphitheater – was dedicated by Titus in 80 CE, the successor of Vespasian. Titus celebrated the arena’s opening with a bang, focusing on hosting 100 days of games.

Roman Games, Chariot Races & Spectacle - History

An illustration of a meta, the sturdy turning posts what would have been on both ends of the spina.
Illustration: Krank-Hover, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY SA

An illustration from Panvinio’s De Ludis Circensibus which shows a chariot race in progress, and the layout of a typical Roman circus.
by Onofrio Panvinio via Villanova Digital Library -

Chariot racing was by far the most popular spectacle of ancient Rome. Attendance at the races far surpassed theater performances and gladiatorial games. The races took place in massive purpose-built structures called circuses. The Circus Maximus, the largest in all of the Roman Empire, could hold an estimated 150,000 people, the Coliseum, Rome’s largest arena could hold just 50,000. Races took place as part of festival days to honor gods or prominent men. Both Julius Caesar and Sulla declared annual race days in honor of their accomplishments. Consequently, race days were frequent, with as many as 60 or more in a given year (Meijer 2010).

Chariot racing was already an ancient tradition by the time of the Romans. Chariots were frequently used in Greek warfare. It was also one of the principal events of the Panhellenic Games (Kyle 2007). Book 23 of the Illiad recounts the chariot race that took place at the Funeral games of Patroclus (Kyle 2007).

A Greek vase depicting a charioteer and quadriga, found in Cyrenaica (modern Lybia). This vase was made in Athens would have been a prize given to the winner of the quadriga race at the Panhellenic Games.
Photo: Carole Raddato, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY SA


All circuses consisted of an oblong race track with a long stone divider called a spina running down the center. Two large stone metae on either end of the spina served as turning markers. They were built to be sturdy, to withstand the force of any crashes. The track itself consisted of fine sand to allow for greater speed and reduce dust as much as possible during the race. Though no literary evidence attests to it, the track almost certainly would have needed to be raked in between races otherwise the uneven track would slow the racers down (Meijer 2010). Lap counters were mounted on the spina, at the Circus Maximus these were seven dolphins (each race was seven laps) that would dip down into water as the racers completed each lap (the dolphin was a symbol of Neptune who was also associated with horses and horsemanship) (Harris 1968, Meijer 2010). Unlike at gladiatorial games and theaters, seating was not segregated by gender. It was segregated by class however, and the wealthiest Roman had the nearest seats to the track.

The remains of the Circus Maximus in Rome. Notice the raised middle section where the spina was.
Photo: MarkusMark, Wikimedia Commons, image in the public domain

Horses, Chariots and Equipment

The horse trade spanned the entire Roman world, and racing horses came from as far as Turkey, Spain, and Cappadocia, but the most prized race horses came from North Africa according to inscriptions. Selective breeding was common, and the most successful horse trainers were highly sought. The chariots themselves were light, (probably weighing 25-35 kilograms) made of thin wood slats and leather. They were designed for speed, and therefore not particularly sturdy. There were two common varieties, bigae, designed for two horse teams, and quardrigae for four horse teams. Each chariot was brightly painted with the color of its faction. The charioteers wore leather helmets and padding to protect them in a crash. They usually carried a knife or dagger so that they could cut themselves free of the reigns, which they wrapped around their torso for better control, if they were being dragged behind their chariot (Meijer 2010).

Bronze statuette of a Roman Auriga driving a bigae (two horse chariot) from Lyon. The chariot is missing its vertical “breast” portion. Notice the driver’s helmet and heavy tunic.
Photo: Vassil, Wikimedia Commons, image in the public domain

An illustration of an agitator on a quadrigae, with the reigns wrapped around his torso.
Illustration: Anonymous author, Wikimedia Commons, image in the public domain


The drivers were almost always freedmen or slaves, the lowest ranks of Roman society. There were two types of charioteers: The younger, inexperienced charioteers were called auriga and raced two-horse chariots (bigae). It was the older, more experienced men, called agitatos, who raced the four-horse teams (quardigae) that were the main event of any race-day (Meijer 2010).

Charioteers could quickly gain status and wealth. Most drivers started out as slaves, and would hope to eventually accumulate enough winnings to purchase their freedom. Consistent winners, and fan favorites could become immensely wealthy. Despite the appeal and stardom of successful charioteers, they were still viewed as disreputable by Roman society. They possessed infamia in the same way that gladiators and actors did. The profession of chariot racing was closely associated with slavery, and thus somewhat disdainful to Roman citizens (Meijer 2010).


Rome had four professional racing stables called factions the Blues, Greens, Reds, and Whites (and briefly the Golds and Purples). Each faction was associated with a particular season and god. The Blues and the Greens were the largest of the racing houses, and the fiercest rivalry.

These factions were for-profit organizations, much like a modern professional sports team. Factions employed drivers and provided horses, equipment, and training in exchange for a portion of a driver's winnings. They also employed a large number of support personnel to assist the drivers, such as doctors, horse trainers, stable hands, and veterinarians (Meijer 2010).

Typically twelve charioteers competed in each race, three from each faction. It was common for racers of the same faction to work together, by maneuvering and blocking opponents, to ensure that their favored teammate won (Meijer 2010).

It is not clear how a person came to be a fan of a particular faction. It is likely that different factions represented certain neighborhoods or trades. Regardless of how a person chose his or her favorite team, rivalries were bitter, and often violent, both on the part of the charioteers and their fans. Some emperors are identified as fans of certain factions, particularly "bad emperors" such as Nero and Caligula. Their fervor also often resulted in violence (Meijer 2010).

Another of Panvinio’s illustrations, this one depicts the four horse quadriga, which was the main event of a race day.
by Onofrio Panvinio via Villanova Digital Library -

The Race

Typically 24 races took place in one day. Quadriga races were the main event, and constituted most of the day’s races, but there were always some bigae races as well as spectacle races. Spectacle races were typically absurd or unusual races, such as 10 or 12-horse chariot races. There were horseback races as well, but these were not nearly as popular (Meijer 2010).There were other spectacle events such as the Trojan Games, a mock chariot battle, and the pedibus ad quadrigam. The exact nature of this spectacle is unknown, but it seems to have been a duathlon style chariot and foot race. The name implies that the drives raced on foot to their chariots and then raced in them (Matz 1985).

The Romans put a lot of time and effort into making the races as fair as possible. Racers drew lots for starting positions. Starting gates were used to prevent false starts (Harris 1968). If a false start did occur, the official in charge of the races would call all the racers back to the start line, a difficult process. Racers were required to stay within their lane for two laps, after that they were free to jockey for the best position and inside track. This is the point where the race became the most dangerous, and collisions were most common (Meijer 2010).

2nd century mosaic from Lyon. The drivers wear a tunic of their faction’s color. Note the water filled spina with dolphin and egg lap counters. It is even possible to see that it is the fourth lap.
Photo: Carole Raddato, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY SA

The above illustration by Panvinio shows the chaos that can occur during a race. The four horse quadriga races (depicted) were especially prone to violent collisions because of their high speed and the large number of horses on the track. Also note the do
by Onofrio Panvinio via Villanova Digital Library -


Harris, H.A, “The Starting Gate for Chariots at Olympia,” Greece & Rome, p.113-126, vol.15. 1968.

Kyle, Donald G, Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World. Blackwell. Malden, MA. 2007

Matz, David, "'Pedibus ad Quadrigam' in Roman Chariot Racing." The Classical World p.34-36,vol.79.1985.

Meijer, Fik. Liz Waters trans, Chariot Racing in the Roman Empire. Johns Hopkins University Press,Baltimore. 2010.

Panvinio, Onofrio. De Ludis Circensibus . Venice. 1600.

Potter, David, The Victor's Crown: A History of Sport from Homer to Byzantium. Oxford University Press.New York. 2012

Rawson, Elizabeth, "Chariot Racing in the Roman Rebublic" Papers of the British School at Rome p.1-16, vol.49.1981.


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Venationes, (Latin: “animal hunts”), in ancient Rome, type of public spectacle that featured animal hunts.

Contests between beasts or between men and beasts were staged in an amphitheatre, usually in connection with gladiator shows. The men used in these exhibitions were either captives, condemned criminals, or professional animal hunters. Originating in the 2nd century bc as part of the games of the circus, such displays were immensely popular with the Roman public. Julius Caesar built the first wooden amphitheatre for the exhibition of this spectacle. The popularity of venationes became such that the world was searched for lions, bears, bulls, hippopotamuses, panthers, and crocodiles to be displayed at public celebrations and slaughtered. As many as 11,000 animals were exhibited and killed on a single occasion. Although it is uncertain how long the venationes were presented, they were still in existence after the shows of gladiators were abolished in the 5th century. Representations of venationes appear on coins, mosaics, and tombs of the period.

4. Latrunculi (Roman Chess)

Latrunculi, loosely translated to “mercenaries,” was another very popular board game in Ancient Rome. It is a game of strategy similar to chess though checkerboards were not used and the rules are not exactly known. The boards used varied in size, from 9 x 10, 8 x 8, or 8 x 7 though it is generally agreed that the size does not affect the game and neither does the material that the board is made, whether marble, stone, wood, or precious metals such as silver. The favorite material was marble. The pieces may be made from stone, ivory, glass, or metal. The less affluent would sometimes just use coins. It is generally believed that this game was based on the Greek game called Petteia in the 5th century.


The earliest reference to a chariot race in Western literature is an event in the funeral games of Patroclus in the Iliad. [4] In Homeric warfare, elite warriors were transported to the battlefield in two-horse chariots, but fought on foot the chariot was then used for pursuit or flight. [5] Most Bronze Age chariots uncovered by archaeology in Peloponnesian Greece are bigae. [6]

The date at which chariot races were introduced at the Olympian Games is recorded by later sources as 680 BC, when quadrigae competed. Races on horseback were added in 648. At Athens, two-horse chariot races were a part of athletic competitions from the 560s onward, but were still not a part of the Olympian Games. [7] Bigae drawn by mules competed in the 70th Olympiad (500 BC), but they were no longer part of the games after the 84th Olympiad (444 BC). [8] Not until 408 BC did bigae races begin to be featured at Olympia. [9]

In myth, the biga often functions structurally to create a complementary pair or to link opposites. The chariot of Achilles in the Iliad (16.152) was drawn by two immortal horses and a third who was mortal at 23.295, a mare is yoked with a stallion. The team of Adrastos included the immortal "superhorse" Areion and the mortal Kairos. [10] A yoke of two horses is associated with the Indo-European concept of the Heavenly Twins, one of whom is mortal, represented among the Greeks by Castor and Pollux, the Dioscuri, who were known for horsemanship. [11]

Horse- and chariot-races were part of the ludi, sacred games held during Roman religious festivals, from Archaic times. A magistrate who presented games was entitled to ride in a biga. [13] The sacral meaning of the races, though diminished over time, [14] was preserved by iconography in the Circus Maximus, Rome's main racetrack.

Inscriptions referring to the bigarius as young [15] suggest that a racing driver had to gain experience with a two-horse team before graduating to a quadriga. [16]

Construction Edit

A main source for the construction of racing bigae is a number of bronze figurines found throughout the Roman Empire, a particularly detailed example of which is held by the British Museum. Other sources are reliefs and mosaics. These show a lightweight frame, to which a minimal shell of fabric or leather was lashed. The center of gravity was low, and the wheels were relatively small, around 65 cm in diameter in proportion to a body 60 cm wide and 55 cm deep, with a breastwork of about 70 cm in height. The wheels may have been rimmed with iron, but otherwise metal fittings are kept to a minimum. The design facilitated speed, maneuverability and stability. [17]

The weight of the vehicle has been estimated at 25–30 kg, with a maximum manned weight of 100 kg. [18] The biga is typically built with a single draught pole for a double yoke, while two poles are used for a quadriga. [19] The chariot for a two-horse racing team is not thought to differ otherwise from that drawn by a four-horse team, and so the horses of a biga pulled 50 kg each, while those of the quadriga pulled 25 kg each. [20]

The models or statuettes of bigae were art objects, toys, or collector's items. They are perhaps comparable to the modern hobby of model trains. [21]

In his Etymologies, Isidore of Seville explains the cosmic symbolism of chariot racing, and notes that while the quadriga, or four-horse chariot, represents the sun and its course through the four seasons, the biga represents the moon, "because it travels on a twin course with the sun, or because it is visible both by day and by night — for they yoke together one black horse and one white." [22] Chariots frequently appear in Roman art as allegories of the Sun and Moon, particularly in reliefs and mosaics, in contexts that are readily distinguishable from depictions of real-world charioteers in the circus. [23]

Luna in her biga drawn by horses or oxen was an element of Mithraic iconography, usually in the context of the tauroctony. In the mithraeum of S. Maria Capua Vetere, a wall painting that uniquely focuses on Luna alone shows one of the horses of the team as light in color, with the other a dark brown. It has been suggested that the duality of the horses drawing a biga can also represent Plato's metaphor of the charioteer who must control a soul divided by genesis and apogenesis. [24]

Greek and Roman art depicts deities driving two-yoke chariots drawn by a number of animals. A biga of oxen was driven by Hecate, the chthonic aspect of the Triple Goddess in complement with the "horned" or crescent-crowned Diana and Luna, to whom the biga was sacred. [25] Triptolemus is depicted on Roman coins as driving a serpent-drawn biga as he sows grain in response to Demeter's appeal to him to teach mankind the skill of agriculture, such as on an Alexandrine drachma, see .

Biga of Artemis drawn by hinds (Boeotian red-figure kylix, 450–425 BC)

Watch the video: Roman Chariot Race (August 2022).

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