Roman chariot-racing – the Circus

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Roman chariot mosaic from Vienne, France

Roman chariot mosaic from Vienne, France

In addition to gladiatorial games, Romans also liked chariot-racing. Both men and women went to the races. They bet on which horses would win. The races were actually even more popular than the gladiatorial games.

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

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

Men raced chariots all over the Roman Empire. They raced 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. People sat around the sides, the way they do at a racetrack today.

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?

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?

Professional charioteers (often slaves) drove the chariots. These charioteers sometimes became very famous, and even rich, from the presents people gave them. As far as we know, women didn’t drive chariots, though they may have owned the chariots and horses. Chariot-driving was 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.

Gamblers who bet on the races and wanted to win tried all kinds of ways to make sure their chariot would win. Some of them offered presents to charioteers. Or sometimes gamblers wrote curses on pieces of lead and buried them in the ground. Archaeologists find lots of curse tablets all around the big circuses.

Chariot-racing was okay with the Christians. So people kept on going to the races long after the gladiatorial games stopped. In the later Roman empire, in Constantinople, the charioteers formed teams that were known by their colors (Red, White, Green, and Blue). People rooted for their team, and often got into fights with the other teams. Sometimes the teams even supported political candidates. Or they led riots against the Emperor!

This is what the Circus Maximus looks like today.Can you see where the people sat, on the sides?

This is what the Circus Maximus looks like today.Can you see where the people sat, on the sides?

Here’s a video of people racing chariots in the Roman circus at Jerash in modern Jordan:

Learn by doing: Roman games
More about the gladiatorial 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.

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By | 2017-09-01T22:48:36+00:00 September 1st, 2017|Games, Romans|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Roman chariot-racing – the Circus. Quatr.us Study Guides, September 1, 2017. Web. December 11, 2017.

About the Author:

Karen Carr

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, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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