Roman circuses - Ancient Rome - Chariot racing
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Roman Circuses

circus chariot race
Roman chariot mosaic from Vienne, France

In addition to gladiatorial games, Romans also liked chariot-racing. Men went to the races and bet on which horses would win.

famous racehorses mosaic
Famous race-horses, with their names, in a Roman mosaic floor

Men raced chariots all over the Roman Empire, on specially built racetracks called circuses. Most good-sized towns had a circus. These were not like our modern circuses, with elephants and clowns. They were more like modern racetracks.

circus mosaic
A mosaic from the 500s AD in Gafsa (North Africa), now in the Bardo Museum
Can you see the people sitting in the stands? The central posts to
turn around?The charioteers whipping the horses?

The chariots were driven by professional charioteers (often slaves), who sometimes became very famous, and even rich, from the presents people gave them. But chariot-driving was also very dangerous. Just as we have crashes at Nascar races, or the Indy 500, the Romans often had chariot crashes, and often the charioteers or the horses were killed.

Learn by doing: Roman games
The end of Roman games

Bibliography and further reading about Roman circuses and chariot-racing:

Spend the Day in Ancient Rome: Projects and Activities that Bring the Past to Life, Ages 8-12 by Linda Honan (1998). Chapter 10 is all about the circus. Easy reading.

Life, Death, and Entertainment in the Roman Empire, edited by David Potter and David Mattingly (1999). Good solid information from specialists, written for college students.

Roman Circuses: Arenas for Chariot Racing, by John H. Humphrey (1986). Everything you could ever want to know about the racetracks, the seats, the starting gates, and the signals, based on archaeology. By an experienced excavation director, for specialists.

Circus Factions: Blues and Greens at Rome and Byzantium, by Alan Cameron (1993). About the Byzantine political teams, by an expert.

Roman gladiators
Roman games
Ancient Rome
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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