Could the Circus Maximus audience distract the racers?

Could the Circus Maximus audience distract the racers?

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I have been trying to research about the spectators of Circus Maximus. I know there were different colored factions. But my question is; "Were spectators able to throw items at racers to hit them or distract them and make them try and fall off their chariot?"

There does not appear to be any primary source evidence of spectators throwing things at charioteers at the Circus Maximus but, given the passions and violence involved (for which we do have evidence - see below), it's quite likely that it happened.

We have evidence of people throwing things for Alexandria from the Greek philosopher and historian Dio Chrysostom. He relates how partisans there threw clothes at the competitors. On these 2nd century AD spectators he says:

When they enter a theatre or stadium they lose all consciousness of their former state and are not ashamed to say or do anything that occurs to them… constantly leaping and raving and beating one another and using abominable language and often reviling even the gods themselves and flinging their clothing at the charioteers and sometimes even departing naked from the show.

Alexandria, along with Constantinople, was in later centuries to become somewhat notorious for violence associated with the circus but there is little direct evidence for the city of Rome.

At the Circus Maximus, spectators were certainly passionate about the races, with some writing curses on lead tablets:

The curse tablets (defixiones) were lead sheets engraved with magic symbols, formulas and curses… After the tablet was activated with incantations or sacrifice, it was rolled up and buried at strategic places in the track…

One such example is cited by the article Circus Maximus

"I adjure you, demon whoever you are, and I demand of you from this hour, from this day, from this moment, that you torture and kill the horses of the Greens and Whites and that you kill in a crash their drivers… and leave not a breath in their bodies."

Pliny the Younger's comments on spectators at the Circus Maximus are noted by Sinclair Bell in Roman Chariot Racing: Charioteers, Factions, Spectators:

spectators indulge their “childish passion” in the circus. Worse still, they allow themselves to become emotional and violent, and generally lose all self-control, even though seemingly nothing is at stake.

Pliny doesn't say spectators threw things at the charioteers, but we cannot rule out the possibility that a few spectators did so at times. However, what really drew the attention of writers in Rome was not so much violence as betting. Among these writers are Juvenal and Ovid.

In addition to betting, they also mention the dating opportunities provided by the circus as the sexes were not separated, unlike at the Colosseum and in theatres. Ovid

counsels his readers to exploit their cramped quarters to pick up attractive female spectators: “Nor let the contest of noble steeds escape you; the spacious Circus holds many opportunities”

while Juvenal writes that circus spectacles

are for the young, whom it befits to shout and make bold wagers with a smart damsel by their side


Alan Cameron, Circus Factions: Blues and Greens at Rome and Byzantium

It's not entirely impossible, but consider the situation as it was in Rome. There was no public prosecutor and no police. Yes, there were the Praetorian guard and the Vigiles, but their main tasks weren't maintaining public order. The Praetorians were the emperor's guard and the Vigiles firemen. Maintaining law and order was an extra.

Justice was pretty rough back then. You had to do it yourself. Only very important cases came to court. Most other cases were handled in and by the neighbourhood. Also consider that Roman justice was, certainly compared with our system, rather harsh.

Full blown riots occurred when groups of supporters had disputes. So much so that occasionally the vigiles and or even the Praetorians were called in to quell the riots.

That's your background.

Now imagine someone throws something at one of the participants to hit or distract him. At least 1/4 of the spectators wouldn't be amused. Probably a lot more. Chances are that you'd be very clearly told not to do that. Hopefully you'd be alive after being chastised.

Chariot races were hugely popular, also by the emperors. Any idea what an emperor could do when a supporter would intentionally obstruct a race?

The Roman Empire: The Popularity of Roman Chariot Racing

The Circus Maximus is the ancient Roman chariot-racing stadium in Rome. (Image: Di Gregorio Giulio/Shutterstock)

The most common and traditional form of public entertainment in ancient Rome was chariot racing. Chariot racing was celebrated on each of the over 100 holidays per year.

The Architectural Masterpiece: The Circus Maximus

The Circus Maximus was situated in the long, narrow valley between the Palatine and Aventine hills, which formed a natural stadium. It was a third of a mile long with a potential capacity of 250,000 spectators. The Circus Maximus was so large that all segments of Roman society could attend races and the admission to the races was either free or for a nominal fee.

The stadium was an impressive building and its design had a direct impact on how races unfolded. It surrounded an oval-shaped track, and the entire structure was over 2,000 feet long and 600 feet wide. On the one end of the oval, it was flat rather than curved, and the starting gates were located along the flat side of the oval. There were 12 of these gates, called carceres therefore, a race could have a maximum of 12 chariots. Down the center of the track was a long, narrow divider over 1,000 feet long known as the spina, meaning ‘the spine.’

The Circus Maximus was a large stadium.
(Image: Samuel Ball Platner/Public domain)

At each end of the spina were three cones, the metae. The metae was where the chariots turned. Located on the spina were the mechanisms that were used to mark laps. One way that a lap was shown to the audience was with large golden eggs that were lowered or raised as each lap was completed.

The Romans regarded the dolphin as the fastest creature, so this was a symbolically appropriate choice for a horse race and because of this, Agrippa had seven golden dolphins erected on the spina. Additionally, dolphins were affiliated with the god of the sea, Neptune, who was associated with horses as well. A standard race consisted of seven laps, and as the lead chariot crossed the finish line on each lap, one of the dolphins was tipped, or perhaps lowered.

The area between the turning posts featured decorative pools of water and fountains. Painted stripes indicated the lanes and the finish line. The surface of the track was probably sand spread over a firmer substance. Some emperors had pigments added to the sand in order to create a spectacular appearance, including instances when the track was colored red or green, or when shiny rocks such as mica were mixed with the sand to produce a glittering effect. The total length of a standard race was about five miles and it probably took less than 15 minutes to complete.

This is a transcript from the video series The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome. Watch it now, Wondrium.

Factions in Roman Chariot Races

Organizations called factions trained and entered teams into the races. It seems that there were two factions originally, known as the Reds and the Whites. Later on, two more were added, the Blues and the Greens. After some time, one of the emperors tried to create two new clubs, the Golds and the Purples, but they were not successful, and for most of racing history, the traditional four factions dominated. Each driver dressed in the color of their faction for easy identification.

The factions were powerful associations each faction owned stables and breeding farms for their horses, as well as highly organized training centers and schools for their charioteers.

There were many different types of races. One type employed two-horse chariots known as bigae but the most common and popular type of race involved four-horse chariots called quadrigae. The Romans experimented with different numbers of horses, sometimes using odd numbers, as in three-horse chariots, as well as hitching large teams of horses to a single chariot.

The factions drew lots to determine the order in which the drivers would select their starting gate. The signal for the start of the race was when the emperor or presiding magistrate dropped a cloth called the mappa.

During the chariot races, each charioteer would urge his horses to go as fast as possible, and the points of greatest tension were the turns around the metae at either end of the spina. In modern race courses, the turns are gradual, but in the Circus, each chariot had to complete a 180-degree turn.

The Dangers of Chariot Racing

The chariot which turned closest to the metae would travel the shortest distance and would therefore have the inside track on the next straightaway. This led to the chariots bunching together, and collisions were frequent.

The stadium actually seems to have been designed to maximize carnage, and crashes were often fatal. Many charioteers died not directly as the result of a wreck, but from being dragged around the track after one. This was because charioteers habitually tied the reins to their arms. All charioteers carried a knife which they hoped to use to cut themselves free, but this may not have been a practical solution.

In a four-horse team, the strongest horse was positioned closest to the metae since it was most able to endure the force exerted against it during turns, while the most agile was placed on the outside because it would have to cover more ground as the group spun around.

Each team’s charioteers could be told apart by their distinctive clothing. (Image: Palazzo Massimo alle Terme/Public domain)

To make the races even more competitive, all the chariots from a single faction could work together as a team. To insure the victory of one chariot from the faction, the other two might sacrifice themselves by obstructing chariots from the other factions or even intentionally ramming them. There were 24 races per day, and thus a person could spend an entire day at the Circus. Between races, brief entertainments of various types kept the crowd from getting bored.

The winning charioteers received a crown of palm leaves and prize money. These awards seem to have ranged between 5,000 and 60,000 sesterces for first place, and there were also lesser prizes for second, third, and fourth place.

Common Questions about Roman Chariot Racing

Chariot racing in ancient Rome was a traditional form of public entertainment. During a chariot race, each charioteer would urge his horses to go as fast as possible around the arena in order to win the race.

Roman chariot racing began in the eighth century B.C . thanks to Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome.

Roman chariot racing was so dangerous because the Circus Maximus was designed in such a way to maximize carnage and often crashes occurred which were fatal to the charioteers. This was due to the fact that charioteers tied the reins to their arms and at times, these chariots would overturn, dragging them behind in the wreckage.

Chariot racing was held in Rome in the famous stadium known as The Circus Maximus .

10 Offbeat Circuses

I wonder if it would surprise 18th century Britons to hear circuses described as "traditional" versus "offbeat." After all, the modern circus has always been a little countercultural. While it might attract audience members from all walks of life and social statuses, it certainly showcased the kind of performers that were considered "alternative," in their times — and perhaps it still does.

The circuses we'll look at take the concept of the old Barnum-and-Bailey-Ringling-Bros. circus and either tweak it just a bit or turn it completely on its (hair-hanging, gravity-defying) head. We'll start with a circus that originated as a bit of an eccentric take, and later became one of the most popular live shows around. Step right up, ladies and gentleman, to learn all about the exotic Canadian circus that would become the Circus of the Sun. (Or something like that.)

Let's start off slow with a circus that — while maybe not a three-ring, step-right-up kind of a deal — is still a bit more on the traditional side. But the famous Cirque du Soleil really did start off as an unconventional group of theatre performers who busked in small town Quebec as jugglers, stilt walkers, dancers and fire-breathers [source: Cirque du Soleil]. In 1984, the little group took a tour of the province in honor Canada's discovery, and became a hit around Quebec.

Since then, Cirque du Soleil has become a phenomenon, albeit not as a traditional circus. Instead, the shows — which both tour and have a permanent home in Las Vegas — are widely known for their aerial acts and their amazing costumes. The shows themselves range from Michael Jackson tributes to fantastic imaginings of a carnival-like funeral (fun!). They might feel more like the theatre or a concert, depending on what you see. But they do feature live music, clowning, acrobatics and illusions that make it the most successful "offbeat" circus around.

Cirque Berzerk is a Los Angeles outfit that is half circus, a quarter burlesque, a quarter goth Moulin Rouge — and all full spectacle. Although the acts themselves might not seem that different from a regular circus, it's a highly stylized, cool-kid version that takes on a darker, edgier look. Like a Cirque du Soleil kind of performance, Cirque Berzerk has an overarching narrative that guides the story of the performances, but each act is also pretty impressive in its own right, from fire performances to acrobatics to cheeky cabaret.

The original Cirque Berzerk started at Burning Man in 2005, the annual desert retreat for alternative communal culture [source: Cirque Berzerk]. So it's probably no surprise that Cirque Berzerk draws heavily on the counter-culture aesthetic to give its shows an edge. From costumes that are more titillating than figure skater's and music that's more punk than pokey organ, Cirque Berzerk even has an after-hours lounge for all-night drinking and carousing. In other words, this is not baby's first circus so don't go expecting goofy, sweet clowns and lovable elephants.

8: Lucent Dossier Vaudeville Cirque

Circuses, we should point out, were always a little exotic. The "modern" circus began as a strictly equestrian performance, where riders would do acrobatic tricks in a hippodrome-like ring [source: Speaight]. Clowns and acrobats were added between performances for interest, and eventually animals and sideshow performers were brought in. Of course, this transformation took place only over the course of a few decades — circuses, in other words, moved quickly to keep up with demand and forestall waning interest.

The Lucent Dossier Vaudeville Cirque is a great example of an offbeat circus that has evolved to fit more modern tastes. It's also based in Los Angeles, but will travel to events like Coachella. The circus also performs often with musical acts in concert, or in music videos. At the heart of the Lucent Dossier Vaudeville Circus is a more sensual performance: Although you may be watching acrobats and contortionists, it's a cabaret-like atmosphere that's decidedly mature [source: Lucent Dossier Vaudeville Circus]. Don't go to the Lucent Dossier Vaudeville Cirque expecting cotton candy you're more likely to be served absinthe.

Now don't you worry, we'll tumble our way down the list to a flea circus eventually. But the Insect Circus is another breed entirely. It's not about training ladybugs to jump through hoops or pushing spiders on a swing. Instead, the Insect Circus features players dressed as your favorite (or most nightmarish) creepy-crawlies, preforming various stunts and acrobatics, alongside human counterparts.

The Insect Circus also features a kind of sideshow that harkens back to the early days of the modern circus. The Travelling Museum features dioramas and working models of insects performing "tricks," all designed by Mark Copeland, the artist who founded the Insect Circus and serves as its ringmaster [source: Blustin]. The museum also serves as a kind of faux-history of the Insect Circus itself, where Copeland has created an exhaustive collection of mementos and souvenirs from the "history" of the Insect Circus Society [source: Insect Circus].

Now tongue-in-cheek circuses are all well and good, but let's rev our engines on an unusual circus that truly offers some death-defying performances.

6: Wall of Death/Car Circus

What's more dangerous than riding in a car with a lion? Riding in a car with a lion at breakneck speed around a vertical — yes, vertical — track. Yes, you might be thinking: surely that's just the fever dream of some sort of daredevil/ringmaster. Not something we would encounter as a fun weekend activity. How wrong you are.

Okay, you might be a little right. Because although the Wall of Death has been an act entertaining crowds for years (and a famous video from the Diamond Maruti Car Circus has gone viral showing the act), it doesn't generally include a lion these days [source: GTSpirit]. Nor monkeys or bears, which were the other animals that occasionally rode shotgun in the 1920s Wall of Death performances [source: Wall of Death]. And although not strictly a circus act, these car tricks are certainly part of the offbeat circus tradition. Using inertia and centrifugal force, these cars or motorcycles can seemingly climb walls, and their drivers race wildly close to spectators cheering them on.

5: Acme Miniature Flea Circus

Confession: I have no idea if the Acme Miniature Flea Circus is real. I mean, flea circuses aren't real, right? Of course not. They're just illusions and tricks performed by hucksters and swindlers.

The Acme Miniature Flea Circus has me almost completely convinced. Professor A. G. Gertsacov swears that he uses pulex irritans (human fleas, bigger than fleas on animals) and trains them to pull miniature chariots and dance on high wires [source: Viera]. (Well, high to them.) Gertsacov (not, as far as I can tell, a tenured professor but a bona fide graduate of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College) uses a magnifying glass to highlight the fleas, but most audience members over the age of 8 might be hard-pressed to confirm that they actually see them [source: Acme Miniature Flea Circus]. That doesn't stop members for excitedly rooting for Midge or Madge (the flea performers) to win a race or do an acrobatic stunt.

But who needs proof to be impressed by the illusion? Enjoy your flea circus just as much as the Victorians did, when the little bugs (or their imaginary avatars) proved popular entertainment.

Oh, I'm sorry, are you not expecting a review of a circus to have the description of "sex-obsessed" in the headline [source: Billington]? Pity for you, who clearly haven't yet fully dived into the world of offbeat circuses. If you haven't gotten the idea so far, a lot of the unusual circuses we're covering borrow heavily from cabaret and burlesque to create a more scintillating adult show, with circus-like elements. La Soirée is one of the more popular acts that presents a sexed-up version of the ring.

And really, it's not even close to family-friendly. You might see performers wear S&M style bondage gear — and that's before they start stripping down as part of the act. The performances could be described as soft-core, with a healthy dose of audience participation. But hey, life is not all a cabaret. There are also jugglers, acrobats and clowns that populate the titillating world of La Soiree [source: Isherwood]. You can catch La Soiréeon tour, although keep in mind that it's more like a naughty bachelorette party than 9-year-old birthday celebration [source: La Soiree].

Call all the Web developers you know, and tell them that they're out of a job. The internet is officially a Finished Product, and no longer needs their attention. The best website in the world is online, and there is no reason to make any more. Behold, the power of Acro-Cats [source:].

I know what you're thinking. Isn't this just a herding cats metaphor waiting to happen? Yes, it is. But that's what makes Acro-Cats (and their friends, The Rock Cats) one of the best offbeat circuses around. You'd really think it was impossible to get train cats to do much at all, besides give you sullen stares. But the Acro-Cats run agility courses, ride skateboards and do all sorts of awesome circus tricks. Not to be outdone, the Rock Cats play instruments and give a totally no-holds-barred performance.

What's even nicer is that the cats do seem to be in charge of their own schedule. According to trainer Samantha Martin, the cats' cages are opened for the performance, and if they don't want to do the act, they stay put. Instead of cajoling them out for performance on demand? Martin simply moves on. Why waste energy trying to convince a cat [source: BBC].

So most of our offbeat circuses are much more modern takes on the old three-ring form. From incorporating strippers to throwing in a bunch of cats, the circus acts were probably not something you could catch on a weekend in, say, Victorian England.

But hair-hanging performances are actually part of a longer tradition of circus acts. Chinese circuses have been performing acts where contortionists or aerialists perform various acrobatics while hanging by their hair for nearly a century [source: Barr]. Hair hanging really came into its own during the 20th century, however, and modern circuses often employ hair hangers as performers [source: Murray]. But don't think you can simply wrap your hair around any darn thing and proceed to do somersaults 35 feet up. The braid, for one, has to be structurally quite durable, and of course the system of pulleys and cables better be highly precise.

Further, hair hanging circuses like the Finnish Capilotractées requires performers who've spent years learning — and becoming a little numb — to the act [source: Winship]. It's not just acrobatics performers in a hair-hanging circus might juggle, play with fire or even hold other performers while suspended from their hair.

Is it cheating to cite Circus Maximus, the ancient Roman races, as an offbeat circus? Hear me out:

A lot of people assume that the Circus Maximus was, in fact, the first circus. It really wasn't, in the traditional sense. There certainly weren't ringmasters welcoming ladies and gents, nor were there acrobats or clowns. But there was bloody, thrilling spectacle — which, some would argue, is exactly what audiences today are banking on seeing at circuses that promise performers cheating death or animals that could turn wild at any moment. So in a way, the competitions of the Roman Circus Maximus was its own offbeat version of the modern circus, with raucous spectators looking for some down and dirty entertainment.

Originally designed for chariot racing, Circus Maximus also hosted gladiatorial contests and "hunts" for wild animals [source: Grout]. In a way, we might think of Circus Maximus as the coming-together of several offbeat circuses we've learned about. Like certain car circuses that compete on the Wall of Death, the chariot races made one's heart pound. In the first or second century C.E., it also had a bit of provocativeness that we saw in the more adult-themed circuses: Men and women were allowed to sit together, unlike at the Colosseum or theatre [source: Grout]. And like the Acro-Cats, spectators got to sit close to the wild animals ready to spring into action. Okay, that's a bit of a stretch but you get the idea.

Author's Note: 10 Offbeat Circuses

If there's anything to learn from reading about offbeat circuses, it's that a lot of people would gladly pay good money to see some really bizarre entertainment. One is left wondering if — marketed correctly — an entire circus could be devoted to mundane tasks, done with some degree of danger or even aplomb. Step right up and watch me clean the windows wearing a skimpy costume and bending over backwards. Why not?

4. Bathing together was normal and encouraged

Most Romans bathed once or twice a week in communal baths, where they could socialize and conduct business. The baths were relatively cheap and free to use on public holidays. On entering a bathhouse, a visitor would go into either the tepidarium (warm room) or frigidarium (cold room). The frigidarium’s cold water may have also been a swimming pool. The tepidarium sometimes only had warm air, but sometimes had a warm bath to dip into, and often offered massages with oils. Next was the caldarium (hot room), a room with a very hot bath and hot air, where patrons could cleanse themselves with olive oil. Some places would also have a laconicum, a dry sweating room likened to a sauna. The tepidarium could be visited twice – once to warm up the body and the second time to cool off from the caldarium before stepping out into colder air outside.

Celebrations in the Circus Maximus

In the Circus Maximus several competitions were carried out, standing out among them chariot races, in which participants tried to complete seven laps of the Circus Maximus. The competitors, mounted in small chariots drawn by horses, gambled much more than their prestige or large prizes in the races, since many of them were slaves fighting for their liberty.

During the public games, equestrian exhibitions, known as "Ludus Troiae", also took place. These were a simulation of various famous battles carried out by young Roman aristocrats. There were also foot races that lasted for several hours. The spectators would bet on the winners, making the competitions even more exciting.

Roman Games, Chariot Races & Spectacle

If there was one thing the Roman people loved it was spectacle and the opportunity of escapism offered by weird and wonderful public shows which assaulted the senses and ratcheted up the emotions. Roman rulers knew this well and so to increase their popularity and prestige with the people they put on lavish and spectacular shows in purpose-built venues across the empire. Such famous venues as the Colosseum and Circus Maximus of Rome would host events involving magnificent processions, exotic animals, gladiator battles, chariot races, executions and even mock naval battles.


It is significant that most of the best-preserved buildings from the Roman period are those which were dedicated to entertainment. Amphitheatres and circuses were built across the empire and even army camps had their own arena. The largest amphitheatre was the Colosseum with a capacity of at least 50,000 (likely more, if one factors in the smaller bodies and different sense of personal space compared to modern standards) whilst the Circus Maximus could hold a massive 250,000 spectators according to Pliny the Elder. With so many events on such a large scale, spectacles became a huge source of employment, from horse trainers to animal trappers, musicians to sand rakers.


From the end of the republic seats in the theatre, arena and circus were divided by class. Augustus established further rules so that slaves and free persons, children and adults, rich and poor, soldiers and civilians, single and married men were all seated separately, as were men from women. Naturally, the front row and more comfortable seats were reserved for the local senatorial class. Tickets were probably free to most forms of spectacle as organisers, whether city magistrates given the responsibility of providing public civic events, super-rich citizens or the emperors who would later monopolise control of spectacles, were all keen to display their generosity rather than use the events as a source of revenue.

Chariot Races

The most prestigious chariot races were held in Rome's Circus Maximus but by the 3rd century CE other major cities such as Antioch, Alexandria and Constantinople also had circuses with which to host these spectacular events, which became, if anything, even more popular in the later empire. Races at the Circus Maximus probably involved a maximum of twelve chariots organised into four factions or racing-stables - Blues, Greens, Reds, and Whites - which people followed with a passion similar to sports fans today. There was even the familiar hatred of opposing teams as indicated by lead curse tablets written against specific charioteers and certainly bets, both large and small, were placed on the races.


Different types of chariot races could require more technical skill from the charioteers, such as races with teams of six or seven horses or using unyoked horses. Nero even raced with a ten-horse team but came a cropper as a result and was thrown from his chariot. There were races where charioteers raced in teams and the most anticipated races of all, those only for champions. Successful racers could become millionaires and one of the most famous was Gaius Appuleius Diocles who won an astonishing 1463 races in the 2nd century CE.

In the imperial period the circus also became the most likely place for a Roman to come into contact with their emperor and, therefore, rulers were not slow to use the occasions to strengthen their emotional and political grip on the people by putting on an unforgettable show.

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Gladiator Contests

Just as modern cinema audiences hope to escape the ordinariness of daily life, so too the crowd in the arena could witness weird, spectacular, and often bloody shows and become immersed, even lost, in the seemingly uncontrollable emotion of the arena. Qualities such as courage, fear, technical skill, celebrity, the past revisited, and, of course, life and death itself, engaged audiences like no other entertainment and no doubt one of the great appeals of gladiator events, as with modern professional sport, was the potential for upsets and underdogs to win the day.

The earliest gladiator contests (munera) date to the 4th century BCE around Paestum in southern Italy whilst the first in Rome itself are traditionally dated to 264 BCE, put on to honour the funeral of one Lucius Junius Brutus Pera. Eventually, arenas spread around the empire from Antioch to Gaul as rulers became ever more willing to show off their wealth and concern for the public's pleasure, In Rome city magistrates had to put on a gladiator show as the price for winning office and cities across the empire offered to host local contests to show their solidarity with the ways of Rome and to celebrate notable events such as an imperial visit or an emperor's birthday.


In the 1st century BCE schools were established to train professional gladiators, especially in Capua (70 BCE), and amphitheatres were also made into more permanent and imposing structures using stone. The events became so popular and grandiose that limits were put on just how many fighting pairs would participate in a show and how much money was allowed to be poured into them. Due to this expense and the additional hazard of fines for hiring a gladiator and not returning him in good condition, many gladiator contests now became less fatal for the participants and this strategy also served to add more drama to the public execution events where death was absolutely certain.

There were slave gladiators as well as freed men and professionals, and for extra special occasions even female gladiators, fighting each other. Some gladiators became heroes, especially the champions or primus palus, and the darlings of the crowd some even had their own fan clubs. Gladiators seem also to have been considered a good financial investment as even such famous figures as Julius Caesar and Cicero owned significant numbers of them, which they rented out to those who wished to sponsor a gladiator games.

Some elite writers such as Plutarch and Dio Chrysostom protested that the gladiator contests were unbecoming and contrary to 'classical' cultural ideals. Even some emperors displayed little enthusiasm for the arena, the most famous case being Marcus Aurelius, who took his paperwork to the events. Whatever their personal tastes though, the shows were too popular to be stopped and it was only in later times that gladiator contests, at odds with the new Christian-minded Empire, declined under the Christian emperors and finally came to an end in 404 CE.


Wild Animal Hunts

Besides gladiator contests, Roman arenas also hosted events using exotic animals (venationes) captured from far-flung parts of the empire. Animals could be made to fight each other or fight with humans. Animals were frequently chained together, often a duo of carnivore and herbivore and cajoled into fighting each other by the animal handlers (bestiarii) Certain animals acquired names and gained fame in their own right. Famous 'hunters' (venatores) included the emperors Commodus and Caracalla, although the risk to their person was no doubt minimal. The fact that such animals as panthers, lions, rhinos, hippopotamuses, and giraffes had never been seen before only added to the prestige of the organisers of these shows from another world.

Triumphs, Processions & Naval Battles

Triumphs celebrated military victories and usually involved a military parade through Rome which began at the Porta Triumphalis and, via a convoluted route, ended at the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitol. The victorious general and a select group of his troops were accompanied by flag bearers, trumpeters, torch bearers, musicians and all of the magistrates and senators. The general or emperor, dressed as Jupiter, rode a four-horse chariot accompanied by a slave who held over his master's head a laurel wreath of victory and who whispered in his ear not to get carried away and allow his pride to result in a fall. During the procession captives, booty and the flora and fauna from the conquered territory were displayed to the general populace and the whole thing ended with the execution of the captured enemy leader. One of the most lavish was the triumph to celebrate Vespasian and Titus' victory over Judaea in which the spoils from Jerusalem were shown off and the whole event was commemorated in the triumphal arch of Titus, still standing in the Roman Forum. Although the emperors would claim a monopoly on the event, Orosius informs us that by the time of Vespasian, Rome had witnessed 320 triumphs.


Triumphs and lesser processions such as the ovatio were often accompanied by gladiator, sporting, and theatre events and quite often ambitious building projects too. Julius Caesar commemorated the Alexandrian war by staging a huge mock naval battle (naumachiae) between Egyptian and Phoenician ships with the action taking place in a huge purpose-built basin. Augustus actually staged a mock battle at sea to celebrate victory over Mark Anthony and another huge staged battle in another artificial pool to reenact the famous Greek naval battle at Salamis. Nero went one better and flooded an entire amphitheatre to host his naval battle show. These events became so popular emperors such as Titus and Domitian did not need the excuse of a military victory to wow the public with epic mythologically-themed sea battles. The manoeuvres and choreography of these events was invented but the fighting was real and so condemned prisoners and prisoners of war gave their lives to achieve ultimate realism.


Drama, re-enactments, recitals, mime, pantomime, tragedy and comedy (especially the Classical Greek plays) were held in purpose-built theatres, with some, such as Pompey's in Rome, boasting a capacity of 10,000 spectators. There were also productions of the most famous scenes from classic productions and Roman theatre, in general, owed much to the conventions established by earlier Greek tragedy and comedy. Important Roman additions to the established format included the use of more speaking actors and a much more elaborate stage background. Theatre was popular throughout the Roman period and the rich sponsored productions for the same reasons they patronised other spectacles. The most popular theatre format was pantomime where the actor performed and danced to a simple musical accompaniment which was inspired by classic theatre or was entirely new material. These solo performers, who included women, became theatre superstars. Indeed, in a sense great star performers like Bathyllus, Pylades and Apolaustus became immortal as successive generations of actors would take on their names.

Public Executions

Execution of criminals could be achieved by setting wild animals on the condemned (damnatio ad bestias) or making them fight well-armed and well-trained gladiators or even each other. Other more theatrical methods included burning at the stake or crucifixion, often with the prisoner dressed up as a character from Roman mythology. The crime of the condemned was announced before execution and in a sense the crowd became an active part of the sentence. Indeed, the execution could even be cancelled if the crowd demanded it.


The intellectual elite's lack of interest in spectacle has resulted in few systematic literary references to it and their dismissive attitude is summed up in Pliny's comment on the popularity of chariot teams in the circus - 'how much popularity and clout there is in one worthless tunic!'. However, the myriad of side references to spectacle in Roman literature and surviving evidence such as architecture and depictions in art are testimony to the popularity and longevity of the events mentioned above.

To modern eyes the bloody spectacles put on by the Romans can often cause revulsion and disgust but perhaps we should consider that the sometimes shocking events of Roman public spectacles were a form of escapism rather than representative of social norms and barometers of accepted behaviour in the Roman world. After all, one wonders what type of society a visitor to the modern world might envisage by merely examining the unreal and often violent worlds of cinema and computer games. Perhaps the shockingly different world of Roman spectacle in fact helped reinforce social norms rather than acted as a subversion of them.

Could the Circus Maximus audience distract the racers? - History

Chariot racing on a black-figure hydria from Attica, ca. 510 BC

The Charioteer of Delphi, one of the most famous statues surviving from Ancient Greece

Chariot race of Cupids ancient Roman sarcophagus in the Museo Archeologico (Naples). Brooklyn Museum Archives, Goodyear Archival Collection

A white charioteer part of a mosaic of the third century AD, showing four leading charioteers from the different colors, all in their distinctive gear

The plan of the Circus Maximus

A chariot race during the reign of Trajan. After the painting by Ulpiano Checa, by Granger

Gaius Appuleius Diocles (104 – after 146) was a Roman charioteer, who became one of the most celebrated athletes in ancient history.

A winner of a Roman chariot race, from the Red team

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The most famous chariot race of all is the one in the movie Ben-Hur. That took a long time to film, but it is spectacular on screen.

Also, we have something similar today with auto racing. NASCAR fans show up to cheer their favorite drivers every week.

An excellent article! Like most people interested in classical culture I knew about chariot races but this article added quite a bit to my knowledge of them. The extent of their importance and interest in classical times I was unaware of, seeing them as mostly an elite form of entertainment. Comparing them to modern sport spectacles brought home the reach of just how many classes of society followed them closely. The photos added greatly to the articles appeal, helping to flesh out what was being told. A concise and very informative article which I very much enjoyed reading.


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Hippodrome, ancient Greek stadium designed for horse racing and especially chariot racing. Its Roman counterpart was called a circus and is best represented by the Circus Maximus (q.v.). The typical hippodrome was dug into a hillside and the excavated material used to construct an embankment for supporting seats on the opposite side. In shape the hippodrome was oblong, with one end semicircular and the other square it thus resembled a U with a closed top. Seats ran in tiers the length of the arena and along the curve, while at the straight end dignitaries occupied seats above the arena’s offices. A low wall called a spina ran most of the length of the stadium and divided the course. The spina was decorated with monuments and had sculptures that could be tilted or removed to keep spectators informed of the laps completed by the racers. Because as many as 10 chariots raced at one time, the breadth of the course was sometimes as much as 400 feet (120 m) the length was about 600 to 700 feet (180 to 210 m).

The largest hippodrome of the ancient world was that of Constantinople (now Istanbul), which was begun under the Roman emperor Septimius Severus in ad 203 and completed by Constantine in 330. In this hippodrome much of the seating was supported on tiers of great vaults instead of the more usual embankment. The stadium could house more than 60,000 spectators, and because of its ample accommodation, it was the scene not only of sports events but of imperial ceremonies, military triumphs, political demonstrations, and public executions. Of the dozen or so monuments that originally adorned the spina of the Hippodrome, only an Egyptian obelisk, a memorial column, and the famous bronze serpent tripod from the Oracle at Delphi now remain on the site. The spina’s decorations also included the four bronze horses later taken by the Venetians in the Fourth Crusade (1204) that now decorate the facade of St. Mark’s in Venice. The Ottoman Turks used the Hippodrome as a source of building stone after capturing Constantinople in 1453.

This article was most recently revised and updated by Mic Anderson, Copy Editor.

Rome’s Chariot Superstar

Around Easter there are always a lot of television shows about Jewish history, Jesus, or ancient Rome in general. This past Easter on April 21, 2019, the Smithsonian Channel presented Rome’s Chariot Superstar, and from the ads it was unclear if this was a documentary or a docudrama. The two-part show looks at the life and career of Flavius Scorpus, the most successful charioteer we know from the ancient Roman world. Scorpus was a slave, which was true of the vast majority of sports or entertainment figures in the Roman world. Yes, they were quite famous, but they were slaves all the same. Through his life, Smithsonian also shows us the world of first-century Rome. Today on Rome Reborn ® we are going to review each of the two episodes.

Episode 1, “Slave to Star,” has a slightly misleading title, because it suggests that the status of slave was different from that of star they were not necessarily different at all. Most “stars” of entertainment and sports in ancient Rome were slaves and remained slaves until they died, no matter how many mentions we have of them in literature or graffiti. How does this show address the modern disconnect between slave and star when that was not the case in the ancient world?

Immediately, the show addresses our popular understanding of Roman sports and corrects it. As big as the Colosseum was, it was not the largest arena in Rome the Circus Maximus held that honor. As important as this information is, it feels out of place, given that the next episode is titled “Circus Maximus.” We meet several historical experts, and I recognize some of them from other documentaries and historical reenactments concerning ancient Rome. Recreations of ancient Rome are interspersed with the ruins of today, where we see experts telling us or actors showing us what happened. Disappointingly, the episode dives right into the background of the facilities, not the charioteer, as I had hoped given the episode’s title, but it does eventually get around to Scorpus.

The program recounts Scorpus’s life through multiple pieces of evidence, including inscriptions, literature, and visual evidence. It also uses data about slaves and other charioteers for comparison. While the charioteers were, of course, popular, it is somewhat surprising to learn that their horses were often named in inscriptions and artwork, too. Records indicate that both racers and horses could come from around the world, but some locales were more famous than others for their skills and talents. Scorpus was likely born into slavery in the eastern part of the empire. He was probably bought to work in stables or with charioteers while still a child. At some point, he must have proven his skills and talents with horses and been given a chance to learn to become a charioteer. Charioteers had a short lifespan, averaging around 25 years of age at death. Why would a slave risk his life? The show touches on the reasons but does not expand upon them as much as I think it should. Even though a slave would most likely always retain that status no matter what he did, there were certain activities where success brought a greatly improved style of life. Of course, some slaves were so admired that their masters even granted them their freedom. This did not mean the former slave could go anywhere or do anything he wished. We know that most freed charioteers stayed in the racing field as trainers.

This first episode spends a good chunk of time on what chariots were and how people came to use them around the Mediterranean world first for warfare and then for racing. To figure out what Scorpus’s chariot looked like, historians have used toy chariots surviving from the period, because they seem to have functioned as souvenirs bought by fans of the races. The episode compares mosaic images of chariots to the toys. From those two types of evidence, engineering experts drafted plans and built a chariot to be tested using techniques and materials that would have been available in the first century. Then experts in chariot use tested the chariot with two- and four-horse teams in a smaller scale arena. Two-horse teams were common, but not as popular in the Roman world, so one part of the testing focused on why that was the case. Four-horse teams required more money, time, and talent. Ultimately, the experts suggest that their popularity could have been about speed, skill in overcoming challenges, and an increased possibility for causing the driver’s death. In other words, four-horse racing created a more engaging show for the audience, if that audience liked violence, blood, and destruction.

This first episode also examines the popularity and business of chariot racing. At the time in question, the first century, there were four factions, or professional teams: red, blue, green, and white. Looking into the factions’ huge stables, with dozens of slaves, freedmen, and owners to oversee the horses and charioteers, is much like looking into the facilities of the biggest sports teams today.

Scorpus, we are told, raced for the Green Faction. He raced at arenas around the empire and won most of his races. He became popular enough that he was able to come to Rome to race on the world’s largest track for the largest audience of all: archaeologists estimate that the Circus Maximus might have accommodated as many as 250,000 spectators. Certain details are missing from the TVaccount– was Scorpus owned by a particular person or by the faction? The reenactments show him walking through the streets alone, but that seems unlikely for a slave who was also a rising star. Before it can reveal any more information, the episode abruptly ends.

Episode 2, “Circus Maximus,” looks at Scorpus’s move from the minor arenas into the major arena at Rome. We get more information about the training facilities for charioteers in Rome and how few racers would make it to the Circus Maximus. The reenactment suggests that Scorpus may have come to the attention of the emperor Domitian before he had ever raced in the main arena, but the program does not pin this down with evidence. Domitian’s love for chariot racing is well known, and this episode does a good job of looking at why he was interested and how he promoted the events. There is an inconsistency in the episode: at one point it is claimed that Domitian sponsored 30 annual races during his reign, yet at another point that he held 60. Which is it?

A lot of time in this second episode is spent on the Circus Maximus itself. We see a unique mingling of the sexes in the audience. The program shows ancient spectators wearing bright colors, which is an anachronism: while it is true that they might have shown support for their favorite factions by wearing their colors, most people could not afford, nor were they allowed to wear, much blue or red even white was a challenging color to create. I also found it annoying that several clips showing the audience were reused throughout the hour of this episode.

A lot of this episode looks at the history of the Circus Maximus as a structure during the first century, when Scorpus raced. It does mention that the facility changed over time, but I think it needed more models to show us that change. The facilities for the audience were rather modern, with public bathrooms on the different levels of seating as well as a shopping mall beneath the lowest seating level. The businesses included bakeries, laundries (probably using urine from the bathrooms), taverns, brothels, butchers, and many other types of shops. The program discusses the function of the spina, the median strip down the center of the arena, as well as the maintenance of the field using modern and ancient evidence for horse and chariot racing.

Slave racers were rented out for specific races. This meant that they tended to race for different colors, yet Scorpus is only known to have ever raced for the Greens. We learn that he won races for the Greens over a 10-year period and that he died at the age of 26, meaning that he started when he was 16, if not younger. Racers won money when they won a race, but since they were slaves, a large percentage went to the faction for which they raced. At some point Scorpus bought his freedom but kept racing, probably because he could keep a larger percentage of the winnings. All that is interesting, but why didn’t Scorpus race for other factions? The program doesn’t even attempt to guess the reason, and I found that disappointing.

Racing was big business. Fans might offer money or gifts to racers they might also offer bribes to lose races. Factions staked out areas around the racetrack and would attack anyone from a rival faction who ventured into their area. There is evidence of magic being used, in the form of purchased blessings or curses engraved on lead scrolls none yet found happen to have Scorpus’s name on them.

I liked that the show talked about how restricted Scorpus was even after buying his freedom. His continued racing may have made him rich, but he would not have been welcomed among the elites as anything other than another thing they could show off to friends, colleagues, and rivals. The reenactments suggest that he lived a lonely life. There isn’t even mention of his burial site, though the Roman poet Martial did write about him and his death. Given that we have burial inscriptions for other entertainment stars, why does the best charioteer simply disappear from all records?

If a viewer was hoping for more docudrama than documentary, this show would be disappointing. It was far more educational than entertaining. For educators or history lovers, though, this program is a great balance of facts, interpretation, and then reenactments. There is a lot here for history and technology geeks, and also, needless to say, sports fans. The commercial breaks are a bit annoying, but there is the paid Smithsonian Channel service if you want to view it ad-free.

Rome’s Chariot Superstar is a Smithsonian Channel original documentary and originally aired on their cable TV station in the USA on Easter, April 21, 2019. That channel will replay the two-part miniseries several times over the next month, so check your local schedules. You can stream it on your cable TV’s on-demand service or through the Smithsonian Channel Plus service.

Photo: A Roman Charioteer Racer. Copyright 2019 by Flyover Zone Productions. All rights reserved.

Watch the video: Circus Maximus


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