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Roman chariot mosaic from Vienne, France - Roman chariot-racing - Circus games

Roman circus games: Roman chariot-racing mosaic from Vienne, France

Chariot-racing and gambling

In addition to gladiatorial games, people in ancient Rome also really loved chariot-racing.  Both men and women went to the races all the time. They bet on which horses would win. Chariot races were actually even more popular than the gladiatorial games.

More about gladiatorial games
History of horses
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Famous race-horses, with their names, in a Roman mosaic floor: Roman chariot racing

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


Circus: the Roman name for a racetrack

Men raced chariots all over the Roman Empire. They raced on specially built racetracks called circuses. Most good-sized towns had a circus. But 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. In ancient Rome, people called a racetrack a circus. That’s because a racetrack was like a circle – the chariots went around and around.

All about circles…

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? - Roman circus games

Roman circus games: 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?

Roman charioteers

Professional charioteers (often enslaved) drove the chariots. Charioteers who won a lot of races were very popular. So charioteers sometimes became very famous, and even rich, from the presents people gave them.

Slavery in ancient Rome
Women in ancient Rome

As far as we know, women didn’t drive chariots, though women could own chariots and horses. Chariot-driving itself was very dangerous. So 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 tried to cheat

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. Because of this, archaeologists find lots of curse tablets buried in the ground all around the big circuses.

More about curse tablets

Politics at the race-track

It wasn’t only about the races, though. The people of Rome didn’t have the right to assemble in public and protest against things their government did, the way Americans do today. If they protested, the Roman government sent soldiers to hit them or kill them. And Roman emperors didn’t appear in public very much. But they did come to the circus, to see the chariot races. A lot of people were at the circus for the races. So this was a place where people could let the Emperor know how they felt about things.

To get their message across, they all chanted together: “Give us bread!” or “Down with Sejanus!” Other times, people held up written signs. Emperors learned that these messages were important, and they listened to them, though they didn’t always do what people wanted.

Roman chariot-racing in the later Roman Empire

Chariot-racing was okay with the Christians, even though gladiatorial games weren’t. So people kept on going to the races long after the gladiatorial games stopped.

Christianity in the Roman Empire

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.  Often they got into fights with the other teams. Sometimes the teams even supported political candidates. Or they led riots against the Emperor!

The Nika riots in Constantinople

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?

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

Did you find out what you wanted to know about Roman chariot-racing? Let us know in the comments!

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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