Death, glory and chariot racing

Sports fans today, and particularly football fans, treat their favourite sport almost like a religion. Stars are upheld as heroes and team rivalries can result in fighting and violence. However, this ‘hooliganism’ and extreme dedication is not a recent phenomenon at all; in fact, ancient Roman chariot racing attracted even more extreme reactions from its followers.


It’s difficult to imagine just how central chariot racing was to life in the Roman Empire. It was more than a fun pastime, or somewhere to take the family, it had roots in the very foundations of Rome itself. Although the sport had actually been stolen from the Greeks and Etruscans, the legend was that Romulus, one of the founders of Rome, used chariot races to distract the local Sabine tribe. According to the story, the Sabine men were so engrossed in the race they didn’t notice Romulus and his men carrying off their wives, who then became the first Roman wives. It’s unsure how this message of ‘watch the sport and you’ll lose your wives’ prompted such a following, but nevertheless, Chariot racing became a major part of life in Rome.


Chariot racing involved everyone in the capital. The rich would sit in the high seats, shaded from the harsh sun, the emperor had his own designated seating and even the poor, who had little else to do, could sit in the stadium for free. The stadium, known as a circus, was pretty much the only place in Rome where people from every section of society would gather together. However, it was far from a peaceful event – chariot racing was one of the most dangerous sports of all time.




Almost all of the chariot racers were slaves, if they won they received a little money, and if they earned enough victories they could buy their freedom. Because of just how deadly the sport was, the charioteers became famous simply by surviving more races than others. Unlike the Greeks, the Roman chariot racers tied the reigns around their wrists. This meant if a chariot crashed, they couldn’t simply let go, and were dragged behind. Each rider carried a knife to cut themselves free should this happen, but the likelihood of them being able to actually use it was low. There was also the chance that the other team would gang up on a racer and smash him into the spina, a space in the middle filled with stone columns. One of the most famous charioteers was Scorpus, who managed to win at least 2,000 races before he was killed at the ripe age of 27. The most famous, however, was Gaius Appuleius Diocles, who won more than a quarter of the 4,257 races he took part in. When he retired aged 42, he had winnings equivalent of $15 billion, making him the best-paid sportsman of all time.


Although there were individual stars, there were four main teams named after the colours they wore – the Reds, Whites, Blues and Greens. The loyalty to these teams dwarves the commitment to today’s football clubs. Spectators were actually encouraged to sabotage the opposing teams by throwing lead amulets studded with nails at the racers. Basically anything went at chariot races, and clashes between supporters of opposing teams was pretty much expected. Some of these were even arranged, away from the stadium, at specific times and places so the supporters could really let it all out. In one instance, a Red supporter threw himself on the funeral pyre of his favourite player. Rivalry between the Greens and the Blues was especially fierce, and they eventually became the two prominent teams.




A White chariot racer.


This team commitment was more than just sporting fun and games. Because the circus was one of the rare occasions where the emperor showed himself to the public, it became a very political affair. The spectators would use this rare chance to yell their opinions concerning policies at the emperor, attempting him to change the law. A day at the races was a very good way to judge the general’s public affection, or lack thereof, for their current emperor.


The idea of chariot races being used for political gain only grew during the Byzantine period. The dedication to teams reached a height and wearing the respective colours of your team became an important part of Byzantine dress. The emperor himself was required to support either the Blues or Greens, and this could have huge consequences depending on the outcome of the race. Support of the ‘team’ overtook support of particular stars, as charioteers could change factions, much like modern football players, but the fans would remain loyal to their chosen colour. The fans, usually young and male, would sport flamboyant hairstyles, facial hair and clothing that very distinctively linked them to their teams, and gang warfare erupted on the streets. Teams not only represented their sporting prowess, but also particular political and religious views.




All this violence and tension reached a climax during the reign of Justinian I. Even the Imperial Guards couldn’t maintain order at races, and after one particularly violent post-race fight, several fans of both the Greens and Blues were arrested for murder. Although they were due to be hanged, two of the men, a Blue and a Green, managed to escape and sought sanctuary in a church. An angry mob, comprised of both Greens and Blues, surrounded the church. Justinian was already busy attempting to make peace with the Persians, and wanted to avoid any conflict in his own home. In order to ease the situation, he proclaimed that there would be an extra chariot race, and rather than killed, the two men would be imprisoned. The crowd was not impressed – they wanted their fellow fans set free.


On the day of the race, tensions were high. The Hippodrome where the race was to take place was, unfortunately for Justinian, right next to the palace. Although the fans began by supporting their teams, the cheers of ‘Green!’ and ‘Blue!’ suddenly changed to ‘Nika!’ which meant ‘win!’ For the first time, the two rival teams were united against a common foe – the emperor. The furious men attacked the palace and held it under siege for the next five days with the emperor trapped inside. Fires raged out of control and destroyed most of the city.


Justinian I reigned for 38 years


Several of the senators saw the anarchy as the perfect chance to overthrow Justinian and grab a little power for themselves. The rioters now had clear political aims and demanded Justinian reduce his new taxes and dismiss the man responsible for tax collecting. They even declared a new emperor, Hypatius. Justinian knew a loss when he saw one, and was all too ready to flee, however, his wife, Theodora, saw it differently. An immensely proud woman, she declared that she would never live a day where she was not called empress. Although Justinian did have an escape route across the sea, he listened to his wife and remained in the city.


Justinian still held a trump card. He was a chariot race supporter, of the Blues in particular, and he thought of a clever way to play the two factions off against each other. He sent a eunuch called Narses into the rebel headquarters in the Hippodrome with a large bag of gold. Narses went to the supporters of Justinian’s favourite team, the Blues, and reminded them of the emperor’s support. He also casually informed them that their proposed new emperor, Hypatius, was a Green. Of course, the gold was also very convincing. Midway through crowning the new emperor, the Blues did an about turn and left the Hippodrome. The Greens were completely shocked and had little chance to defend themselves as the imperial troops stormed in and killed anyone who remained behind – some 30,000 rebels.


These bronze horses were originally displayed at the Constantinople Hippodrome.


Support for chariot racing did gradually fizzle out over the next few centuries, and the Blues and Greens played less of a political and more of a ceremonial role. Thankfully, the violence of the factions also reduced, but they continued to play a role in the imperial court during the 12th century. By the 15th century, the Hippodrome was a rundown, derelict site, however, as we all know, fervent and passionate support for teams and players in sports continues to this day.


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  • How To Win A Roman Chariot Race, Jane Hood
  • Roman Circuses: Arenas For Chariot Races, John F Humphrey