Chariot-Racing in Ancient Rome

Terracotta plaque with a chariot-racing scene

For many people the words 'Ancient Rome' conjure up images of chariot-racing in the circus. The novel Ben Hur (1880) and the various screen versions of the book are partly responsible, particularly the film made by William Wyler in 1959 starring Charlton Heston. The eight minutes and twenty seconds that Wyler's film devotes to the chariot-race have helped form a vivid, if partial, picture of the Roman world.

A poem by Sidonius Apollinaris, writing in the fifth century AD, conveys the drama and passion of chariot-racing equally well:

At last the heralds with loud blare of trumpet calls forth the impatient teams and launches the fleet chariots into the field ... The ground gives way under the wheels and the air is smirched with the dust that rises in their track....

...As for you, bending double with the very force of the effort you keep a tight rein on your team and with consummate skill wisely reserve them for the seventh lap. The others are busy with hand and voice, and everywhere the sweat of drivers and flying steeds falls in drops on to the field. The hoarse roar from applauding partisans stirs the heart, and the contestants, both horses and men, are warmed by the race and chilled by fear.
(To Consentius, Letters 13, 305-4260).