Ludi circenses (longer version)
by: P. Dionysius Mus
In this essay I would like to cover the Ludi Circenses, or chariot races. Their importance in the ancient Roman society can not be underestimated. In the words of the famous Decimus Iunius Iuvenalis, writer of many satires:

Iam pridem, ex quo suffragia nulli vendimus, effudit curas; nam qui dabat olim imperium, fasces, legiones, omnia, nunc se continet atque duas tantum res anxius optat, panem et circenses.

Now that no one buys our votes, the public has long since cast off its cares; the people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions and all else, now meddles no more and longs eagerly for just two things -- bread and circuses.
(Iuvenalis, Satura X, 77-81)

The most common image we have of the Ludi Circenses is that from the magical movie Ben Hur: about ten minutes long the chariots race around the circus, the crowd cheers loud to support their favourites, drama and tension comes off the screen right into the living room, where those watching the movie are thrilled an carried away as if they were in the circus. But how true is this image? There are in fact a whole bunch of mistakes in the Ben Hur chariot race, and some can be noticed right away. First of all, the setting is wrong: the chariot race is held in the eastern part of the empire, in a Roman circus and completely in the Roman style, with the local governor Pilatus as organiser. However, a circus is typical for the western part of the empire, the eastern part only had ‘primitive’ racing tracks in the Greek style (hippodrome). And second, the main characters of the race (and the movie) would never have raced in antiquity. Messala, the Roman tribune, is a man from the nobility class, and his career and status would be ruined if he even thought of participating in such an event. And also Judah Ben-Hur himself, son of a Roman officer, would have faced the same fate. The charioteers in the Roman empire (called ‘aurigae’) were always slaves or freedmen, as we can read in Martialis’ Epigrammata:

"I am Scorpus, the glory of the clamorous circus,
your applause, Rome, and brief darling."
(Martialis, Epigr. X, 53)

As in our modern day sports events, the chariot racing also had its fans, and they can be very well compared to our current sports fans:

“The races are on, a spectacle which has not the slightest interest for me. It lacks novelty and variety. If you have seen it once, then there is nothing left for you to see. So it amazes me that thousands and thousands of grown men should be like children, wanting to look at horses running and men mounted on chariots over and over again. If it was the speed of the horses or the skill of the drivers that attracted them, there would be some sense in it--but in fact it is simply the colour. That is what they back and that is what fascinates them. Suppose half way through the race the drivers were to change their colours, then the supporters' backing will change too and in a second they will abandon the horses on which a moment earlier their eyes had been fixed and whose names they had been shouting. Such is the overpowering influence of a single worthless shirt, not only over the crowd, which is worth less than a shirt anyhow, but over a number of serious men. When I think of their wasting their time so insatiably over such tedious, repetitive inanity, I derive not a little enjoyment from the fact that such enjoyment is not one to which I am a slave. These are days which other people squander on utterly idle business but days when I am at my happiest, occupying my leisure time with the pen.”
(C. Plinius – Epistulae IX, 6)

And every one of those fans supported his own favourite team. The Ludi Circenses had in fact a few teams (called ‘factiones’), determined by the colour they wore: the two big teams were the blues (‘veneti’) and the greens (‘prasini’). There were also two smaller teams, subordinate to the big ones: the reds (‘russati’) and the whites (‘albati’). These ‘factiones’ always started with one, two or three chariots each, so a race consisted of four, eight or twelve chariots. The ‘factiones’ were only a common practice in the western part of the empire; in the east various team owners simply let their own chariot race (so any number of chariots could race, but mostly not more than twelve). It was also possible for drivers to switch ‘factiones’ during their career, but in the end they stayed with one ‘factio’ where they could win a lot of prizes. An example:

“Gaius Appuleius Diocles, charioteer of the Red faction , a Spanish Lusitanian by birth, he lived for 42 years, 7 months and 23 days. He first raced for the White faction in the consulship of Acilius Aviola and Corellius Pansa . He won his first race for the same faction in the consulship of Manius Acilius Glabrio and Gaius Bellicius Torquatus . He raced for the first time for the Green faction in the second consulship of Torquatus Asprenas and Annius Libo . He won for the first time for the Red faction in the consulship of Laenas Pontianus and Antonius Rufinus. Totals: he raced four horse chariots for 24 years, he started in 4257 races, he won 1,463 times. In the first race after the procession: 110 times, in singles , 1064 times. He won 92 major prizes. Of these, 32 were of 30,000 HS, three of them with six-horse teams; 28 of 40,000 HS, two of them in races with six horse chariots, 38 of 50,000 HS, one of these in a seven-horse chariot; 3 of 60,000 HS. In doubles he won 347 times, four of them in races with three horse teams with prizes of 15,000 HS. In triples he won 51 times. In all he won [2900 times], taking second place 861 times, third place 576 times, fourth place once for 1,000 HS, he failed 1351 times. He tied a Blue 10 times, a Green 91, two of these for prizes of 30,000 HS. He won a grand total of 35,863,120 HS. In addition, he won 3 times in races with two horse chariots for prizes of 1,000 HS. He tied a White once, a Green twice. …”
(ILS 5287 - translation by David Potter)

The public in the circus was very loyal to the various ‘factiones’, as we could already read in Plinius’ Epistula (cf. supra). The ‘factiones’ were led by members of the ‘ordo equester’, called ‘domini factionis’; they also had their own headquarters (‘stabula factionis’) on the Campus Martius in Rome, and different stables in the country. In late antiquity the ‘domini factionis’ were replaced by ‘factionarii’, appointed by the state government.

The charioteers of course could suffer serious injuries. A high risk factor for damage to life and limbs was pertinent, but compared to gladiator combats it was quite safe to be a charioteer. The high damage risk was of course much eased by the huge fortunes they could earn in the races. In Rome the prize money varied between 15000 and 60000 sesterces. Good ‘aurigae’ could earn a lot of money, like Diocles in the example above (a total of 35.863.120 sesterces). And not only the drivers, but also their horses could become famous:

"Undenis pedibusque syllabisque
Et multo sale nec tamen protervo
Notus gentibus ille Martialis
Et notus populis--quid invidetis?--
Non sum Andraemone notior caballo."
(Martialis, Epigr. X, 9)

The horses received palm branches that were attached to their harness, or they were awarded gilded 'modii' of barley. The horses were bred and trained on stud farms in the country (on farms belonging to the 'factiones', as mentioned earlier) in Northern Africa, Spain, Cappadocia, Greece and Sicily. Their size should have been between our current large ponies and small full-sized horses, and they all had hard and healthy hooves, necessary to race on the hard underground. Horses also retired after their career, as we see in these sources:

The chariots were named according to the number of horses. The most common were 'quadrigae (with four horses), but also 'bigae' or 'trigae' were used (respectively two or three horses), and sometimes even seiugae, octoiugae or decemiugae (six, eight or ten horses!). the horses were always harnessed side by side, so the difficulty level increased with the number of horses. The harness was simply a strap around the neck and a girth around the belly. Two of these girths were attached to the yoke ('iugum'), and thus the two central horses were called 'iugales'. The other horses were fixed to the left and right of the 'iugales', and they were called 'funales' (if a chariot was pulled by more horses, these were attached in between the 'iugales' and the 'funales'; a 'biga' had only the two 'iugales' attached to the yoke, a 'triga' had one horse attached and two as 'funales'). The 'iugales' were used mainly for pulling and stabilising, while the 'funales' took care of security and speed. The 'iugum' of a chariot was a transverse bar of about 1m in length, attached to a pole of about 2,3m with an upwards curve. The chariots had small wheels (Ø 65cm with 6 or 8 spokes), a small and low body (height 70 cm, width 60cm, depth 55cm) with a woven floor made of leather straps. Such a chariot weighed about 35kg, so together with the driver, the horses had to pull about 100kg. These chariots are called 'currus circensis', to distinguish them from the more elaborated 'currus triumphalis'. In the movie Ben Hur, this last type of chariot is used, most likely to add to the visual aspects, but totally incorrect as these triumphal chariots were never used to race.

The charioteers, unlike the movie Ben Hur shows us, wore protective clothing: a crash helmet (‘pilleus’), a lacing of leather strap around the torso (‘fasciae’) and wrappings of leather or linen around their legs. They also had a curved knife to cut the laces if they were dragged out of their chariot over the track. The racing techniques were in fact quite aggressive and ruthless., often resulting in very dangerous collisions and forming a determining factor for teamwork inside the ‘factiones’. The particularly critical points were of course the ‘metae’, where the chariots all had to make a 180° turn as closely to the ‘meta’ as possible (see further).

The monumental circuses as we know them, date from the late republican period on, but in the east they kept their already mentioned simple hippodromes. The best know is of course the Circus Maximus at Rome, built on an area of 4500m2 (12 times as big as the Colosseum) with a ‘cavea’ for about 150000 spectators (compared to 50000 for the Colosseum). A circus had two parallel long sides (between 244m and 580m), a width of 51m to 80m, a curved narrow side at one end and a straight narrow side with the twelve ‘carceres’ (starting boxes) on the other side. In the middle there was a double wall built in the length (‘spina’ or ‘euripus’), in the Circus Maximus 335m long and 8m wide. At both ends of the ‘spina’ were the ‘metae’, semi-circular platforms with three pillars tapering up to an egg-shaped finial. The ‘spina’ was richly ornamented and decorated, and upon it stood statues of the gods, palms and obelisks. The empty space between the two walls of the ‘spina’ was sometimes filled with water (hence the name ‘euripus’). On the ‘spina’ there were also seven egg-shaped and seven dolphin-shaped statues to count the laps (with possibly a second set of eggs at the edge of the arena for the drivers). The ‘spina’ was not built in the lengthwise axis of the arena: in the Circus Maximus there was a space of 42m at the right side of the ‘spina’, and 30m on the left side. This was of course because the drivers had to come from a starting line as wide as the whole track surface to a space only half that big.

The distance from the starting boxes (‘carceres’) to the first ‘meta’ was in the Circus Maximus 170m. They drove this only once and all the teams then came to the right of the ‘spina’ (the widest side, as noted above) to complete seven laps in anti-clockwise direction. Of course the curved line with the starting boxes was asymmetrically designed, so every team had to ride the same distance to reach the white chalk line at the first ‘meta’ that formed the starting line. The finish line was probably at the right-hand side of the track, just before the end of the ‘spina’. That was also the location of one of the two referee boxes. It is also possible that the race ended with a straight line of 170m (same as the distance from ‘carceres’ to starting line). Anyway, the total distance to be covered in a race would have been around 5km, when driving close enough around the ‘metae’. The surface of the racetrack in the arena is yet another complicated issue. In Arles it was made of stamped mud with a layer of coarse gravel (approximately 10-20cm) on top. In Sirmium there was 30cm of fine gravel over a layer of lime mortar and crushed brick. There should also have been a top layer, most likely with sand, but how much and what kind of sand is unclear. In any case, the surface must have been very well levelled, and a drainage system seems indispensable.

In the imperial period there were about 24 races a day during the Ludi, which means that with ‘quadrigae’ about 1152 horses were used on one day. However, this seems a rather large number, it is more likely that some horses were used more than once during a day, so the total number of used horses should be around 700-800. These races brought of course enormous organisational expenses, mainly on the account of the four racing ‘factiones’: the horses had to be very well prepared and groomed in the stables of the ‘factiones’, and another staff was needed at the circus to maintain the horses. The circus itself also needed a large staff: the mechanism for the starting boxes (see further) had to be maintained and serviced, the cleaning of the circus required a lot of workers, and there were also special teams available for the clearing of the track after an accident, when the wrecked chariots had to be removed (a very dangerous job, with the other chariots still racing at highest speed). There are also images of a special category of helpers: ‘sparsores’. These were young boys who needed to refresh horses and drivers during the race, running between the speeding chariots without any protection. There were also ‘hortatores’ or ‘iubilatores’ on the track. Like the ‘sparsores’, they also belonged to one of the racing ‘factiones’. Their task was probably to guide the chariots in the dust, as some sort of auxiliary. They were individual horsemen and they had protective clothing. They used their smaller size and higher speed to move between the chariots trying to find the best suitable way for their factio’s chariot. In between the races the public was amused and entertained by ‘desultatores’, acrobatic riders riding around in the circus jumping from one horse to another.

Each chariot race started with a ‘pompa circensis’ entering the circus, with the statues of the gods, followed by the participants and then the organiser in a magnificent triumphal chariot. Then the starting boxes were assigned to the participants by drawing lots. This happened publicly with numbered balls in a revolving urn. Like in modern day motorcycle races, the one who’s number came first out of the urn, could pick the starting box he wanted, and so on until every participant had his box. Then the chariots entered the ‘carceres’, which had gates (‘ostia’) about 3m to 6m wide. These gates had double swinging doors that sprung out when they were unbolted. The system was the same like that of some artillery weapons (catapult etc.). then the holder of the games gave the starting sign by throwing down a red cloth (‘mappa’); at the same time the trumpets were blown. All chariots raced out of their boxes straight to the white chalk line at the first ‘meta’. Then they chose the best racing lone possible and rode their seven laps. In the Circus Maximus a race should have lasted for about 8-9 minutes at an average speed of 35kph. After the race there was a victory celebration on a podium, and the winner could ride a lap of honour to greet the spectators.

I would like to finish this text with a rather special piece of epigraphic evidence, and a fine description of the Ludi Circenses by a fifth century author.

First we have a special piece of epigraphic evidence: a lead curse tablet from the third century found at Carthage:

Note: This spell is an example of a curse tablet inscription that tapers off and forms a triangle.

I invoke you, spirit of one untimely dead, whoever you are, by the mighty names SALBATHBAL AUTHGEROTABAL BASUTHATEO ALEO SAMMABETHOR.
Bind the horses whose names and images/likeness on this implement I entrust to you; of the Red [team]: Silvanus, Servator, Lues, Zephyrus, Blandus, Imbraius, Dives, Mariscus, Rapidus, Oriens, Arbustus; of the Blues: Imminens, Dignus, Linon, Paezon, Chrysaspis, Argutus, Diresor, Frugiferus, Euphrates, Sanctus, Aethiops, Praeclarus. Bind their running, their power, their soul, their onrush, their speed. Take away their victory, entangle their feet, hinder them, hobble them, so that tomorrow morning in the hippodrome they are not able to run or walk about, or win, or go out of the starting gates, or advance either on the racecourse or track, but may they fall with their drivers, Euprepes, son of Telesphoros, and Gentius and Felix and Dionusios "the biter" and Lamuros. For AMUEKARPTIR ERCHONSOI RAZAABUA DRUENEPHISI NOINISTHERGA BEPHURORBETH command you. Bind the horses whose names and images I have entrusted to you on this implement; of the Reds: Silvanus, Servator, Lues, Zephyrus, Blandus, Imbraius, Dives, Mariscus, Rapidus, Oriens, Arbustus; and of the Blues: Imminens, Dignus, Linon, Paezon, Chrysaspis, Argutus, Derisor, Frugiferus, Euphrates, Sanctus, Aethiops, Praeclarus. Bind their running, their power, their soul, their onrush, their speed. Take away their victory, entangle their feet, hinder them, hobble them, so that tomorrow morning in the hippodrome they are not able to run or walk about, or win, or go out of the starting gates, or advance either on the racecourse, or circle around the turning point; but may they fall with their drivers, Euprepes, son of Telesphoros, and Gentius and Felix, and Dionysius "the biter" and Lamuros. Bind their hands, take away their victory, their exit, their sight, so that they are unable to see their rival charioteers, but rather snatch them up from their chariots and twist them to the ground so that they alone fall, dragged along all over the hippodrome, especially at the turning points, with damage to their body, with the horses whom they drive. Now, quickly.
(trans. J. Gager (1992), no. 9)

In the fifth century a man named Sidonius Apollinaris wrote a letter to a certain Consentius, telling about the Ludi Circenses. Two excerpts:

"There behind the barriers chafe those beasts, pressing against the fastenings, while a vapoury blast comes forth between the wooden bars and even before the race the field they have not yet entered is filled with their panting breath...never are their feet still, but restlessly they lash the hardened timber....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 horse and men, are warmed by the race and chilled by fear....You sped straight past your swerving rival...."

"His horses were brought down, a multitude of intruding legs entered the wheels, and the twelve spokes were crowded, until a crackle came from those crammed spaces and the revolving rim shattered the entangled feet; then he, a fifth victim, flung from his chariot, which fell upon him, caused a mountain of manifold havoc, and blood disfigured his prostrate brow."

Some links, sources and literature:

Encyclopedia Romana: The Circus Maximus
Noctes Gallicanae: Circenses
Capitolium.Org: Panem et Circenses
The Roman Amphitheatre
VRoma: Leisure and Entertainment

G. BARTHEMY & D. GOUREVITCH: Les loisirs des Romains (Paris, 1975)

H.A. HARRIS: Sport in Greece and Rome (Thames and Hudson, 1972)

W.E. SWEET: Sport and Recreation in Ancient Greece (Oxford University Press USA, 1987)

J.P. TONER: Leisure and ancient Rome (Blackwell Publishers, 1995)

M.B. POLIAKOFF: Combat Sports in the Ancient World: Competition, Violence and Culture (Yale University Press, 1987)

J.H. HUMPHREY: Roman circuses, arenas for chariot racing (University of California Press, 1986)

Ancient sources:
Caius Plinius Caecilius Secundus: Epistularum Libri X
Caius Sollius Modestus Apollinaris Sidonius: Epistulae
Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus: De Spectaculis
Cassius Dio Cocceianus: Romaike Historia
Decimus Iunius Iuvenalis: Saturae
Marcus Valerius Martialis: Epigrammaton
Marcus Valerius Martialis: Liber De Spectaculis
Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus: Variarum Libri XII
Dionysius of Halicarnassus: The Roman Antiquities
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