Chariot Racing

A Day at the Races

In this section you will learn

  • what the structure of a day of chariot racing looked like
  • the parade, called the pompa circensis, that preceded the races
  • what it was like to watch as a spectator as the day unfolded
The presiding magistrate at the pompa circensis rode in a two-horse chariot; behind him are the young nobles who led the parade on horseback.

Before looking at the factions and the charioteers, it is important to know what a day at the chariot races looked like. First, it started with a procession called the pompa circensis in which the statues of the gods, statues of deified emperors, amd charioteers, horses and others took part. This made its way through the city into the Circus Maximus in a great show. (This site maps the route of the Pompa and gives more details.) The author of the following passage was a Greek who believed that the Romans were descended from Greeks, and much of his discussion attempts to prove the Romans have many elements in common with the Greeks.

Before beginning the games the principal magistrates conducted a procession in honour of the gods from the Capitoline Hill through the Forum to the Circus Maximus. Those who led the procession were, first, the Romans’ sons who were nearing manhood and were of an age to take part in this ceremony, who rode on horseback if their fathers were entitled by their fortunes to be equestrians, while the others, who were destined to serve in the infantry, went on foot, the former in squadrons and troops, and the latter in divisions and companies, as if they were going to school; this was done in order that strangers might see the number and beauty of the youths of the Republic who were approaching manhood. These were followed by charioteers, some of whom drove four horses abreast, some two, and others rode unyoked horses. After them came the contestants in both the light and the heavy games, their whole bodies naked except their loins. This custom continued even in my days at Rome, as it was originally practised by the Greeks; but it is now abolished in Greece, the Spartans having put an end to it[1]…Thus it is plain that the Romans, who retain this ancient Greek custom to this day, did not learn it from us afterwards nor even change it over time, as we have done.

The contestants were followed by numerous bands of dancers arranged in three divisions, the first consisting of men, the second of youths, and the third of boys. These were accompanied by flute-players, who used ancient flutes that were small and short, as is done even to this day, and by lyre-players, who plucked ivory lyres of seven strings and the instruments called barbita.[2] The use of these has ceased in my time among the Greeks, though traditional with them, but is preserved by the Romans in all their ancient religious ceremonies. The dancers were dressed in scarlet tunics belted with bronze ties, wore swords hung by their sides, and carried spears shorter than average length; the men also had bronze helmets adorned with conspicuous crests and plumes. Each group was led by one man who gave the figures of the dance to the rest, taking the lead in representing their warlike and rapid movements, usually in the proceleusmatic rhythms. This also was in fact a very ancient Greek institution — I mean the armed dance called the Pyrrhic[3]… But it is not alone from the warlike and serious dance of these bands which the Romans used in their sacrificial ceremonies and processions that we can observe their kinship to the Greeks, but also from that which is of a mocking and obscene nature. For after the armed dancers others marched in procession impersonating satyrs and portraying the Greek dance called sicinnis. Those who represented Sileni[4] were dressed in shaggy tunics, called by some chortaioi, and in mantles of flowers of every sort; and those who represented satyrs wore girdles and goatskins, and on their heads manes that stood upright, with other things of that type. These mocked and mimicked the serious movements of the others, turning them into laughter-provoking performances. The triumphal entrances also show that mockery and joking in the manner of satyrs were an ancient practice native to the Romans; for the soldiers who take part in the triumphs are allowed to satirise and ridicule the most distinguished men, including even the generals, just like those who ride in procession in carts at Athens; the soldiers once joked in prose as they played around, but now they sing improvised verses.[5] And even at the funerals of illustrious persons I have seen, along with the other participants, bands of dancers impersonating satyrs who preceded the bier[6] and imitated in their motions the dance called sicinnis – this particularly happens at the funerals of the rich. This joking and dancing in the manner of satyrs, then, was not the invention either of the Ligurians, of the Umbrians, or of any other barbarians who dwelt in Italy, but of the Greeks; but I fear that some readers would grow bored if I endeavoured to confirm by more arguments something generally conceded.

After these bands of dancers came a crowd of lyre-players and many flute-players, and after them the people who carried the censers in which perfumes and frankincense were burned along the whole processional route and the men who bore the show-vessels made of silver and gold, both those that were sacred owing to the gods and those that belonged to the state. Last of all in the procession came the images of the gods, carried on men’s shoulders, showing the same likenesses as those made by the Greeks and having the same dress, the same symbols, and the same gifts which tradition says each of them invented and bestowed on mankind. These were the images not only of Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, Neptune, and of the rest whom the Greeks reckon among the twelve gods,[7] but also of the son of still more ancient from whom legend says the twelve were sprung, namely, Saturn, Ops, Themis, Latona, the Parcae, Mnemosynê, and all the rest to whom temples and holy places are dedicated among the Greeks; and also of those whom legend represents as living later, after Jupiter took power, such as Proserpina, Lucina, the Nymphs, the Muses, the Seasons, the Graces, Bacchus, and the demigods whose souls after they had left their mortal bodies are said to have ascended to Heaven and to have obtained the same honours as the gods, such as Hercules, Aesculapius, Castor and Pollux, Helen, Pan, and countless others. Yet if those who founded Rome and instituted this festival were barbarians, how could they properly worship all the gods and other divinities of the Greeks and scorn their own ancestral gods? Let someone show us any other people besides the Greeks among whom these rites are traditional, and then let him criticize this demonstration as unsound.

After the procession was ended the consuls and the priests whose responsibility it was sacrificed oxen and their way of performing the sacrifices was the same as with us: after washing their hands they purified the victims with clear water and sprinkled corn on their heads, after which they prayed and gave orders to their assistants to sacrifice them. Some of these assistants, while the victim was still standing, struck it on the temple with a club, and others received it upon the sacrificial knives as it fell. After this they flayed it and cut it up, taking off a piece from each of the inwards and also from every limb as a first-offering, which they sprinkled with grits of spelt and carried in baskets to the officiating priests. These placed them on the altars, and making a fire under them, poured wine over them while they were burning. It is easy to see from Homer’s poems that every one of these ceremonies was performed according to the customs established by the Greeks with reference to sacrifices. For he introduces the heroes washing their hands and using barley grits, where he said… These rites I am acquainted with from having seen the Romans perform them at their sacrifices even in my time; and contented with this single proof, I have become convinced that the founders of Rome were not barbarians, but Greeks who had come together out of many places. It is possible, indeed, that some barbarians also may observe a few customs relating to sacrifices and festivals in the same manner as the Greeks, but that they should do everything in the same way is hard to believe.

Winner of a Roman chariot race

Now I should give a brief account of the games which the Romans performed after the procession. The first was a race of four-horse chariots, two-horse chariots, and of unyoked horses, as has been the custom among the Greeks, both at Olympia in the distant past and now. In the chariot races two very ancient customs continue to be observed by the Romans down to my time in the same manner as they were first established. The first relates to the chariots drawn by three horses, a type of race the Greeks no longer have, though it was an ancient institution of heroic times, which Homer represents the Greeks as using in battle. For running beside two horses yoked together in the same manner as in the case of a two-horse chariot was a third horse attached by a trace; this trace-horse the ancients called parêoros or “tracerunner,” because he was “hitched besides the traces” and not yoked to the others. The other custom is the race run by those who have ridden in the chariots, a race which is still performed in a few Greek states upon the occasion of some ancient sacrifices. For after the chariot races are ended, those who have ridden with the charioteers, whom the poets call parabatai and the Athenians apobatai, leap down from their chariots and run a race with one another the length of the stadium. And after the chariot races were over, those who contended in their own persons entered the lists, that is, runners, boxers, and wrestlers; for these three contests were in use among the ancient Greeks, as Homer shows in describing the funeral of Patroclus. And in the intervals between the contests they observed a custom which was typically Greek and the most commendable of all customs, that of awarding crowns and proclaiming the honours with which they rewarded their benefactors, just as was done at Athens during the festivals of Dionysus, and displaying to all who had assembled for the spectacle the spoils they had taken in war. But as regards these customs, just as it would not have been right to make no mention of them when the subject required it, so it would not be fitting to extend my account farther than is necessary.

Dionysius Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 7.72

Julius Caesar had his image added to the Pompa, where it was carried along with those of the other gods, and after this it became customary to carry the images of the deified emperors in the procession:

Despite all he did, given all his other actions and words the balance of opinion is that Caesar abused his power and was justly killed. For not only did he accept excessive honours, such as an uninterrupted consulship, the dictatorship for life, and the position of censor, as well as the forename Imperator, the surname of Father of his Country, a statue among those of the kings, and a raised couch in the orchestra; but he also allowed honours too great for mortal men to be bestowed on him: a golden throne in the Senate and when in court; a chariot and litter in the procession at the circus; temples, altars, and statues beside those of the gods; a special priest, an additional college of the Luperci, and the calling of one of the months by his name. In fact, there were no honours which he did not receive or grant at his whim.

Suetonius, Julius Caesar 76

The following was written for Consentius of Narbo (modern Narbonne) c. 460 CE, to celebrate games being raced by amateurs, rather than professionals (the rules, however, are those in for professionals and they are racing with the colours of the professional factions). It gives a sense for what it was like to sit down and watch the races as they progressed.

The Sun was beginning a new year, and two-faced Janus was bringing back his Calends, the day when the new magistrates take their seats.[8] It is Caesar’s custom to provide games (called “private”) twice in that day. Then a company of young men, all nobles, goes through a grim imitation of the field of Elis with four-horse chariots racing over the course. Now the lot demanded you and the whistling cheers of the hoarse onlookers summoned you. At this, in the part where the door is and the seat of the consuls, round which there runs a wall with six vaulted chambers on each side, where the starting gates are, you chose one of the four chariots by lot and stood in it, laying a tight grip on the hanging reins.[9] Your partner did the same, so did the opposing side. Brightly gleam the colours, white and blue, green and red, your different insignia. Slaves’ hands hold mouth and reins and with knotted cords force the twisted manes to hide themselves, and all the while they incite the steeds, eagerly cheering them with encouraging pats and instilling an insane frenzy. There behind the barriers chafe those beasts, pressing against the fastenings, while a windy blast blows between the wooden bars and even before the race the track they have not yet entered is filled with their panting breath. They push, they stamp, they drag, they struggle, they rage, they jump, they fear and are feared; never are their feet still, but restlessly they lash the hardened timber. At last the herald with loud blare of trumpet calls the impatient teams out and launches the fleet chariots into the track. The swoop of forked lightning, the arrow flying from a Scythian boy, the trail of the swiftly-falling star, the leaden hurricane of bullets whirled from Balearic slings has never so rapidly split the airy paths of the sky. The ground gives way under the wheels and the air is dense with the dust that rises behind them. The drivers, while they held the reins, whip the horses; now they stretch forward over the chariots with stooping chests, and so they sweep along, striking the horses’ rumps and leaving their backs untouched. The charioteers lie so flat you would find it hard to say whether they were more supported by the pole or by the wheels. Now as if flying out of sight on wings, you had crossed the more open part, and you were hemmed in by the space that is cramped by craft, where the central barrier has extended its long low double-walled structure. When the farther turning-post freed you all from restraint once more, your partner went ahead of the two others,[10] who had passed you so then, according to the law of the circling course, you had to take the fourth track. The drivers in the middle were intent that if by chance the first man, embarrassed by a dash of his steeds too much to the right, should leave a space open on the left by heading for the surrounding seats, he should be passed by a chariot driven in on the near side. As for you, bending double with the very force of the effort you keep a tight rein on your team and with consummate skill wisely reserve them for the seventh lap. 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 horses and men, are warmed by the race and chilled by fear. Thus they go once round, then a second time; thus goes the third lap, thus the fourth; but in the fifth turn the foremost man, unable to bear the pressure of his pursuers, swerved his car aside, for he had found, as he gave command to his fleet team, that their strength was exhausted.  Now the return half of the sixth course was completed and the crowd was already clamouring for the award of the prizes; your adversaries, with no fear of any effort from you, were scouring the track in front with no cares, when suddenly you tautened the curbs all together, tautened your chest, planted your feet firmly in front, and chafed the mouths of your swift horses as fiercely as was the habit of that famed charioteer of old when he swept Oenomaus along with him and all Pisa trembled.[11] Just then one of the others, clinging to the shortest route round the turning-post, was hustled by you, and his team, carried away beyond control by their onward rush, could no more be turned round in a harmonious course. As you saw him pass before you in disorder, you got ahead of him by remaining where you were, cunningly reining up. The other adversary, exulting in the applause, ran too far to the right, close to the spectators; then as he turned aslant and all too late after long indifference urged his horses with the whip, you sped straight past your swerving rival. Then the enemy in reckless haste overtook you and, fondly thinking that the first man had already gone ahead, shamelessly made for your wheel with a sidelong dash. 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. At this there arose a riot of renewed shouting such as neither Lycaeus with its cypresses ever raises, nor the forests of Ossa, troubled though they be by many a hurricane; such echoing roar as not even the Sician sea, rolled onward in billows by the south wind, gives forth, nor Propontis, whose wild deeps are a rampart to the Bosphorus. Next the just emperor ordered silken ribbon to be added to the victors’ palms and crowns to the necklets of gold, and true merit to have its reward; while he ordered rugs of many-coloured threads to be awarded to the defeated in their wounded disgrace.

Apollinaris Sidonius, Poems 23.307-427

Some people came to watch the games, others came for different reasons. Circus were also prime locations to meet women and to flirt; unlike in the theatre and the amphitheatres men and women sat together as did different social classes (the senators had reserved seating at the front but could mix with the crowd). In his Art of Love, a poetical pick up guide of the first century CE, Ovid recommends the Circus as an excellent place to meet and woo women.

Statue of Roman poet Ovid in Constanţa (ancient Tomis, the city where he was exiled).

Don’t avoid the chariots and the horse races; the circus is convenient and holds a large number. You don’t need to use your fingers to send secret messages, nor do you have to rely on nods. Sit right down next to your mistress with no one in the way; meld your side to hers as far as you can – it’s good that you are forced to sit close even if you don’t want to be because your girl must be touched by the rules of the place. Now find some reason to start a conversation and the words that will help you take first steps. Eagerly ask whose horses those are which are entering and instantly support her favourite. When the huge pompa goes by with the ivory statues of the gods applaud Venus eagerly. A speck of dust may fall into your girl’s lap; flick it away with your fingers. If there’s nothing there, flick it away anyway – pick on whatever reason you can for doing her a favour. If her cloak is dragging on the ground, gather it up and raise it off the dusty earth. If your girl allows it, you’ll get the reward for your duty – your eyes will catch a glimpse of her ankles. Look back and see who is sitting behind you so he doesn’t touch her back with his knees. Small things appeal to frivolous minds. It’s very useful to plump up her cushion with a ready hand. It’s also useful to fan her with a thin paper and to place a footrest beneath her delicate feet. The Circus brings new help for blossoming love as does the scattered sand in the grim and harsh arena – he who watches wounds being given is often wounded himself. While talking, touching hands, checking the programme, and asking as you place a bet who will win, you are wounded, groan, feel the arrow, and become a part of the show you’re watching.

Ovid, Art of Love 1.135-170; see also this passage from Ovid.


  1. Unlike the Romans, Greek athletes competed in the nude. One legend said that this started with a Spartan who believed that a naked man could run father than one in a loin-cloth; his victory in the Olympics started a trend.  
  2. A type of lyre.
  3. This was a war dance, supposedly invented by the goddess Athena herself.
  4. Followers of the god Bacchus, with human heads and legs, but with horse tails.
  5. It was traditional in the Roman triumph for soldiers to sing highly obscene songs about their commanders.
  6. The litter on which the dead body was carried to be cremated.
  7. That is, the twelve Olympian deities.
  8. New magistrates took their positions on January 1st, the Calends of the month dedicated to Janus.
  9. Professional charioteers, however, tied the reins around themselves, meaning that if the chariot crashed they were dragged with it.
  10. They were racing two teams against two other teams.
  11. Pelops, a Greek hero and the son of Tantalus, was king of Pisa, a town in Greece. This was one of the towns associated with the Olympics and this race was also part of the foundation legends of the Olympic Games.


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Spectacles in the Roman World Copyright © 2020 by Siobhán McElduff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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