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The Furious Circle of the Ancient Horse Race

The ever-competitive nature of man would suggest that from the time there were two charioteers, they were probably pitted against each other in a race. Chariot races were a central event in the earlier Olympics in Greece. It was the Romans, however, who brought chariot racing to its zenith of popularity. When it came to chariot racing, the Romans were fanatics.

One-third of a mile in length, the stadium of the Circus Maximus was built during the second century BCE in a valley between the Capitoline and Aventine Hills in Rome, which had been used by the Etruscans for horse racing. Julius Caesar once held a mock battle there with 1,000 foot soldiers, 600 cavalry, and 40 elephants. After being destroyed by fire, it was reconstructed in 200 AD and had a capacity for 250,000 spectators. Races were held there until 549 AD

A Day at the Track

In many respects the atmosphere of a race day at the Circus Maximus was similar to a modern harness race track. Programs were sold to patrons in the stands, and there were usually twelve races with four chariot teams. The entrants represented various teams, each with its own color: white (winter), green (spring), red (summer), and blue (autumn). These colors were the predecessors of modern racing “silks.” Each team had its own breeders, drivers, and veterinarians.

Under the Flavian emperors (69 – 96 AD), chariot racing grew even larger. Spectators would often spend the entire day at the track where the number of races held numbered no less than one hundred! In order to get race results to off-track betters, bookmakers’ agents kept carrier pigeons which were released after each race.

The Charioteers

The chariot driver was similar to the modern harness driver. He wore a coat with his team’s colors, a helmet made of leather, a corselet to protect his ribs, and carried a whip. To protect his legs he wore leather leggings, and he carried a dagger to cut himself free of his reins in case of accident. The latter was necessary since the drivers wrapped the reins around their waist to insure greater leverage when leaning back to slow the horses for a turn. The great drivers became rich men, some having won over 3,000 races. They were richly rewarded with money and sometimes houses or farms. But these rewards were won only at the daily risk of the drivers’ and horses’ lives.

The Race

The race proceeded counter-clockwise, and the near-side horses were trained to slow rapidly and hold their position while the outside horses flew around on the outside. If the chariot came too close on the turn, it would crash. If it went wide, it risked being hit by other chariots. The number of laps completed in the race was measured by a rack of dolphins which would tip once a circuit was made. (The dolphins represented Neptune, the Roman equivalent of Poseidon, who created the horse.)

The Horses

At one time the Romans maintained up to 14,000 horses for chariot racing, and there was always a demand for more. Horses began training as two-year olds, were put into training harness at three, but were not raced until they were at least five years old. They received only the very best care by skilled grooms and trainers. To insure the horses’ tranquility before a race, the Praetorian Guard (the elite guard of the Roman emperors) were instructed not to sound their trumpets so that the horses would not be disturbed.