Gladiators fighting against each other for their lives, humorous and witty plays, suspenseful chariot and foot racing, or a relaxed bathing in a tranquil pool. These are a few of the things Romans of the old world entertained themselves with. They enjoyed what was called ludi, meaning “Roman public games.” 177 days of the year ludi was held. Often these games were played or watched on holidays throughout the year. One of the most popular if not most popular of these games was chariot racing.
The purpose of chariot racing was more than just enjoyment. Though certainly it was for enjoyment for the crowds watching on the edges of their seats, and for the thrill of the charioteers. But it was also for profit. If you were the lucky one who won the race you would get purse money from it that would go mostly to the owner of the chariot, but some of it would also go to the driver. One race won would pay as much as a whole year’s salary paid to a schoolmaster. Also for the winner there was much fame in store. He became a celebrity and when going out in public could hardly go unrecognized.
So how did chariot racing work? The race was held in what was called a circus. It was a big long low wall. This prevented chariots from cutting corners. The most famous of these circuses was Circus Maximus in Rome. It held more than 150,000 people.
At the beginning of the race all chariots were lined up at the starting point. Once the starting signal was made all of the chariots were off in a cloud of dust. Most of the time it took 7 laps- two and a half miles- to complete a race. Each time they completed one lap an official would flip over one of 7 bronze dolphins and remove a white egg.
A chariot needed to be light and small in order to be fast. It had wheels about the size of wheelchair wheels and was pulled by two, four, or sometimes six horses.
There were four teams that competed across the Empire: Reds, Blues, Whites, and Greens. Each team was run by wealthy owners because it required lots of money to raise and maintain good chariot horses and have well-made chariots. Because of this it was called the “sport of kings.”
The drivers of these chariots would often start out as slaves or as children of chariot drivers. He ran a big risk being in a race. It was a dangerous game and anyone could die. He could either crash or be trampled over and die. He also had to have skill if he wanted to have any chance of winning. He had to able to take sharp turns at breakneck speeds and had to know how to handle his horses and chariot successfully. He should also know his horses well so they would work together as one team in perfect rhythm as one horse. One famous driver was a man by the name of Scorpus. He won 2,048 victories, an outstanding score, but died in a crash when he was just 26 years old.
On the day of the race the crowds would arrive in droves and every seat possible was taken. If you attended one of these races there would be no empty seat beside you. People would bet on their favorite charioteer and they would openly participate in the game. They fought and cheered for their favorite color and traded insults with others who were for a different color.
Chariot racing was certainly a thrilling, dangerous, and popular game in the Roman Empire.