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Rome Italy - Chariot racing at Circus Maximus

Deanna Keahey  ·  Nov 22, 2008  ·  18 Comments

What if you could travel back in time to witness Roman chariot racing at the Circus Maximus in ancient Rome?

The Ancient Romans knew how to make their politicians work for THEM, and often demanded "bread and circuses" from political candidates.  Gangs were seen rioting through the streets in celebration of their favorite charioteer's victory.  Fights broke out between the fans of victors and losers.  Sound like modern day fans at the Super Bowl?  No, these sports fanatics were celebrating the victorious Roman chariot racing at the Circus Maximus about 2,000 years ago. The races took place on either side of a brook that ran between the Aventine and Palatine hills.

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Circus Maximus

Circus Maximus in ancient Rome

Circus Maximus in ancient Rome

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Latin for "greatest circus", the Circus Maximus was the first and largest circus in ancient Rome, and it could seat about a quarter of the entire population of the city. Most Romans did not have weekends off, working seven days a week.  However, there were many holiday breaks featuring chariot racing.  Men and women were allowed in the audience, making it a popular family entertainment.

The Roman racetrack was called a "circus", from the Latin word for circle. The Circus Maximus was around 2000 ft long and 625 ft wide. That is about the size of five modern football fields laid end to end.  At its largest, the stadium had three tiers of seating and an estimated capacity of up to 270,000 spectators!

The antagonism that existed between rival camps often ended with bloody results. On a lighter note, there was free food on the way out, to encourage the crowds to leave at the finish.

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Chariot racing

Chariot racing was an extremely dangerous sport, frequently resulting in spectacular crashes and the death of many of the contestants.  Think of it as the NASCAR of the ancients. Roman spectacles, in which bloodshed and brutality were common, generated strong spectator enthusiasm, and chariot racing was no exception.  In the ancient Olympic Games, chariot racing was one of the most important events.

A triumphant charioteer

Victory! A triumphant charioteer

The chariots started from twelve gates, six on either side of an entrance. Above sat the presiding official whose white flag signaled the races to begin. At either end of the racetrack were the turning posts, around which charioteers raced their steeds at break-neck speeds. There were thirteen turns, for seven laps, a distance of five miles, twice that of a modern track.

Up to twelve teams of horses thundered onto the track.  There could be anywhere from four to 12 chariots competing in the race. As the race progressed, passions flared both on and off the track.  Teams represented different groups of financial backers and competed for the services of particularly skilled drivers.  Although most Roman charioteers began their racing careers as slaves, those who were successful could buy their freedom.

Charioteers wrapped the reins tightly around their waists, using their body weight to control the horses. Unable to let go of the reins in a crash, they would be dragged around the circus until they were killed or they freed themselves.

A number of teams would cooperate by ganging up on opponents, forcing them out of the preferred inside track, making them lose concentration, causing accidents and injury.  And the crowd goes wild!

The once popular sport declined in importance after the fall of Rome.  But talk about history repeating itself. . .  There is a plan in the works to reintroduce Roman chariot racing at the Circus Maximus.  You may be able to watch this ancient spectacle yourself! :-)

Find out more at: Ancient times: Chariots to race once more at circus

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The trip to Rome we'd planned for 2009 is on "recession hold" right now, as we work on more domestic women's trips in 2009 instead.  We'll be back in Rome again someday before long, though!  It's an amazing city, and a great item for your bucket list.
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Categories: Destination tidbits · Italy
Posted from:   Phoenix, AZ       Photo credit:   Laurent Nguyen (mosaic is from ancient Rome)

18 responses so far ↓

  • 1 ed // Nov 22, 2008 at 9:02 pm

    It must have been an incredible spectacle watching the chariot teams race to the death in the circus maximus. They need to make a really good movie about the chariot races.

  • 2 Nekka // Nov 22, 2008 at 10:12 pm

    This is a great article!! I have always been interested in events of Greek history and I love that way you referred to the Chariot Races to NASCAR! This is a great find. Thanx

  • 3 Deanna Keahey // Nov 23, 2008 at 4:39 pm

    Hi Ed - I'm sure you're right, that it was an incredible spectacle! In fact, just the sight of that many people watching it would have been a spectacle in itself -- it's a huge number!

    Hi Nekka - Thanks! It does seem a lot like a Nascar equivalent, doesn't it? :-)

  • 4 claire valenti // Nov 24, 2008 at 5:12 am

    to those who will inspired to visit Rome after reading this article I suggest to look into vacation rentals in rome to start planning your trip and booking an accommodation on line....ciao

  • 5 Green Yak // Nov 25, 2008 at 12:03 am

    You make it sound so exciting -- very Ben Hur!

    I can't believe that they're thinking of bringing back an event that's so dangerous, though. What do you think about the danger vs. the fun of it?

    (also, it's hilarious that they had to offer up free food to get people to leave! most places now offer free food to get people in the doors :-D)

  • 6 Deanna Keahey // Nov 26, 2008 at 10:41 am

    Green Yak - That is funny about the food, isn't it? :-)
    You're right about the danger aspect. I haven't read any specifics on that, but surely they must have different safety rules than the ancient Romans did! (And how many experienced chariot drivers are there in the world now??)

  • 7 Rome » transport: Transport minister delays train strike. - Wanted in ... // Dec 9, 2008 at 5:48 am

    [...] Rome Italy - Chariot racing at Circus MaximusRome Italy - Chariot racing at Circus Maximus. Deanna Keahey Nov 22, 2008 6 Comments. What if you could travel back in time to witness Roman chariot racing at the Circus Maximus in ancient Rome? The Ancient Romans knew how to make … [...]

  • 8 zander // Jan 25, 2009 at 1:57 pm

    wat were the rules ???

  • 9 livi // Jan 28, 2009 at 6:24 pm

    yo. no rules involved.
    has any of you guys done a written report on ancient rome? need help.

  • 10 Deanna Keahey // Jan 28, 2009 at 8:04 pm

    Livi - Sorry, no written reports here. Best resource I could suggest is wikipedia. They should have a ton of info on ancient Rome. Good luck with it! :-)

  • 11 Raven Wooton // Mar 11, 2009 at 8:02 am

    hello there has to rules of some kind involved!!!!!
    I need to know for school
    HHHHHEEEEELLLLLLPPPPPPP ME Please!!!!!

  • 12 Deanna Keahey // Mar 11, 2009 at 12:22 pm

    Hi Raven - I'm afraid there really weren't many rules. There was a fixed track with no lanes, and the first one to go around the track 7 times won. In between the start & finish, it was basically "anything goes". Here's a link where you can find some more info on it:

    http://www.roman-empire.net/society/soc-games.html

    Good luck! :-)

  • 13 ty // Jun 10, 2009 at 7:13 pm

    i got a lot of information from this site thanx

  • 14 Racing Nacar // Mar 7, 2010 at 7:04 am

    found your site looking for some racing info, great site, not quite what i was looking for, but great site:)

  • 15 Rome, Italy: Some favorite things about Rome // Jun 5, 2010 at 11:06 pm

    [...] Ancient Ruins - Reminders of ancient Rome are everywhere, and one thing that becomes clear when you visit them is how much the ancient Romans seem to resemble us. For example, it’s easy to imagine watching a football game inside the Colosseum – although the ancient Romans enjoyed far bloodier sports than that! The Forum was the political center of ancient Rome, where the rich and powerful congregated.  Then there’s the Circus Maximus, site of great Roman chariot races. [...]

  • 16 Why did the romans enjoy chariot racing? // Nov 21, 2010 at 10:14 am

    why did the romans enjoy chariot racing?

  • 17 Deanna Keahey // Nov 23, 2010 at 5:07 pm

    Why do people today like watching Nascar racing? That's our modern equivalent. People find it exciting to watch the speed and skill, and the element of danger.

  • 18 Karen // Mar 2, 2011 at 5:01 am

    Whoa, a bloody fight after the race? There's no way I'd go! On the other hand, they didn't have TVs then.. I'd be surely missing a lot if I lived during those times. :(

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