A Guide to Roman Chariot Racing - Ideal for Primary Schools
Updated: Jul 24
The Romans loved watching chariot racing. In fact, that’s an understatement, let’s try that again: THE ROMANS LOVED CHARIOT RACING!!! (caps lock makes everything better).
In Ancient Rome there was a humongous stadium where chariot racing took place, it was called the Circus Maximus. Old wrinkly dude Dionysius of Halicarnassus wrote that the Circus Maximus was so massive it could seat 150,000 Roman citizens. For comparison, Wembley Stadium has a maximum capacity of ‘only’ 90,000 people.
However, the Circus Maximus may have been even bigger than Dionysius’ estimates. Pliny the Elder (author, naturalist, and naval commander) thought that the arena could accommodate a stonking 250,000 Roman bottoms (and hopefully the rest of their body parts too). The fact that the arena would be filled, with hundreds of thousands of people cheering on their favourite team, makes clear how popular chariot racing was in Rome.
What was a Roman Chariot anyway?
Think a horse and cart but much more awesomer! Pulled by a team of either two or four horses, Roman Chariots could be yoinked up to an astonishing 40 mph. The chariots themselves were pretty puny, little more than a wooden cab and wheels, with the single charioteer clinging on for dear life as their vehicle hurtled down the 2000-foot-long track before they attempted to take the dangerously sharp corner awaiting them at the end.
OK, so what was the Chariot Race like?
The track of the Circus Maximus looked like this:
Charioteers would have to complete seven laps of the course. The idea was to get as much speed as possible down the straight part of the track, before slowing just enough to take a hard left and get around the bend and zoom down the second straight. Like with Formula 1, the spectators' favourite bit was when the Chariots had to make the turn, as this is when they were most likely to have an epic, spectacular - and often deadly - crash.
But it wasn’t just on the bends that accidents could occur, being a circular(ish) track, the fastest route was on the inside lane, meaning Charioteers would smash, jostle, and thwack into each other to get into that position. Being a good Charioteer required strength, skill, and a whole lot of bravery.
Sounds dangerous, was it worth the risk?
Sure, for some. Successful charioteers could become super-famous and rich; like the professional footballers of today. Most charioteers were either slaves, freed slaves, or non-citizens, so winning lots of races gave them an opportunity to make their fortune. Take Gaius Appuleius Diocles, who over his 24-year career won 1,462 races and earnt himself an impressive 35,000,000 sesterces (or around £13 million in today’s money). Though Gaius Appuleius Diocles was the exception, many charioteers would just end up horribly injured – or worse! And, like with most sports, it was the owners of the chariots and the teams who actually made all the big money.
Did you mention teams before? Like Football teams?
Kind of, but they did not have exciting names like Manchester United or Blackburn Rovers (yeah, those are the only two football teams I’ve heard of. Sue me). Instead, there were four teams (or factions) unexcitingly named after colours: Red, White, Blue, and Green. That was it, for hundreds and hundreds of years there were only four teams. Sure, Emperor Domitian tried to add two new teams (purple and gold) but no one really cared and the teams were disbanded soon after the Emperor's death.