Chariot Racing

Imperial Fans

In this section you will learn about:

  • imperial fans of chariot racing and how they expressed their love of the races
  • emperors who raced their own chariots and how shocking that was to the Romans (or, at least, the Romans who wrote about it)

Many emperors were enthusiastic spectators of the races; some even went so far as to train as charioteers, building their own private racetracks in the city for the purpose; Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, better known as Caligula, built his own on the Vatican Hill, which stood roughly where St Peter’s now stands.

Caligula’s Circus was also known as the Circus of Nero

Caligula also gave many games in the Circus which lasted from early morning until evening; at one time he’d introduce between the races a baiting of panthers and now the manoeuvres of the game called Troy;[1] some, too, of remarkable splendour, in which the Circus race floor was strewn with red and green,[2] while the charioteers were all senators. He also started some games at random, such as when a few people called for them from the neighbouring balconies,[3] as he was inspecting the outfit of the Circus from the Gelotian house.[4]

Suetonius, Caligula 18.3

This shows the circus overlaid on the current plan of St Peter’s. This was outside the walls of Rome, although it was only the other side of the Tiber. Image from Wikimedia Commons, by José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro.

Caligula’s short reign was marked by his mental instability, and his treatment of people at the games was not consistently generous and kind:

He treated the other classes[5] with similar disdain and cruelty.  When he was disturbed by the noise made by those who came in the middle of the night to get free seats in the Circus [Maximus], he drove them all out with clubs, and in the confusion more than twenty Roman equestrians were crushed to death, with as many matrons[6] and a countless number of others. At the plays in the theatre, he scattered the gift tickets ahead of time to create animosity between the plebs and the equestrians to induce the mob to steal seats reserved for equestrians.[7]

Suetonius, Caligula 26.4

 The 2nd century CE historian Cassius Dio adds more detail to our picture of Caligula’s enthusiasm for the games:

This was the kind of emperor into whose hands the Romans then fell into. Hence the deeds of Tiberius,[8] though they were felt to have been very harsh, were nevertheless as far superior to those of Gaius [Caligula] as the deeds of Augustus were to those of Tiberius. For Tiberius always kept power in his own hands and used others as agents for carrying out his wishes; whereas Gaius was ruled by the charioteers and gladiators, and was the slave of the actors and others connected with the stage. Indeed, he always kept Apelles, the most famous of the tragic actors of that day, with him even in public.[9] So he by himself and they by themselves did without any restraints all that people like that naturally dare to do when given power.  He organized and arranged everything relevant to their art in the most lavish manner at the slightest excuse, and he forced the praetors and the consuls to do the same, so that almost every day some performance of the kind was sure to be given. At first he was but a spectator and listener at these and would take sides for or against various performers like one of the crowd; and one time, when he was annoyed with those who didn’t agree with him, he did not go to the spectacle. But as time went on, he came to imitate, and to compete in many events, driving chariots, fighting as a gladiator, giving exhibitions of pantomimic dancing, and acting in tragedy. So much for how he normally behaved. Once he sent an urgent summons at night to the leading men of the Senate, as if for some important discussion, and then danced before them.[10]


In many of the ancient discussions of Caligula’s behaviour at the games we see him publicly humiliate or harm a number of groups. Try to create a list of the different groups he humiliates and think about why he targetted them.

Yet after doing all this he later killed the best and the most famous of these slaves by poisoning. He did the same also with the horses and charioteers of the rival factions; for he was strongly attached to the Greens, which from this colour was called also the Faction of the Leek. Even to‑day the place where he used to practise driving the chariots is called the Gaianum after him.[11] He used to invite one of the horses, which he named Incitatus, to dinner, where he would offer him golden barley and drink his health in wine from golden goblets; he swore by the animal’s life and fortune and even promised to appoint him consul, a promise that he would certainly have carried out if he had lived longer.

Cassius Dio, Roman History 59

After Caligula, came Claudius, and then Claudius’ stepson Nero (of whom more can be read here). Nero was also very fond of chariot racing, even going so far as to invent a 10 horse chariot race which he competed in at the Olympics – he fell out of the chariot and had to be popped back in; although didn’t complete the race he still won. It’s good to be the emperor.

Even when Nero was very young he had a deep passion for horses and talked constantly about the games in the Circus, though he was forbidden to do so. Once when he was lamenting with his fellow pupils the fate of a charioteer of the Greens, who was dragged by his horses, and his teacher scolded him, he lied and pretended that he was talking about Hector.[12] When he first became emperor he used to play every day with ivory chariots on a board, and he came from the country to all the games, even the most insignificant, at first secretly and then so openly that no one doubted that he would be in Rome on days when races where held. He made no secret of his wish to have the number of prizes increased, and in consequence more races were added and the performance was continued until very late, while the managers of the factions no longer thought it worth while to produce their drivers at all except for a full day’s racing. He soon longed to drive a chariot himself and even to show himself frequently before the public. After a trial exhibition in his gardens before his slaves and the dregs of the people, he gave everyone an opportunity of seeing him in the Circus Maximus, one of his freedmen dropping the napkin from the place usually occupied by the magistrates.

Suetonius, Nero 21

After Nero took his show on the road, touring Greece, and competing at various games there (always victoriously, of course), he gave a show in Naples.

Bust of Nero

Returning from Greece, since it was at Naples that he had made his first appearance, he entered that city with white horses through a part of the wall which had been knocked down, as is customary with victors in the sacred games.[13] In the same way he entered Antium, then Albanum, and finally Rome; but at Rome he rode in the chariot which Augustus had used in his triumphs in the past, and wore a purple robe and a Greek cloak adorned with stars of gold, bearing on his head the Olympic crown and in his right hand the Pythian one, while the other crowns were carried before him with inscriptions telling where he had won them and against what competitors, and giving the titles of the songs or of the subject of the plays.[14] His chariot was followed by his supporters as by the escort of a triumphal procession, who shouted that they were the attendants of Augustus and the soldiers of his triumph. Then from through the arch of the Circus Maximus, which had been knocked down, he made his way across the Velabrum and the Forum to the Palatine and the temple of Apollo. All along the route sacrificial victims were killed, the streets were sprinkled from time to time with perfume, while birds,[15] ribbons, and sweets were showered upon him. He placed the sacred crowns in his bedrooms around the couches, as well as statues representing him as a lyre-player, and he had a coin struck showing the same design.

Suetonius, Nero 25.1-2

Nero committed suicide in 68 CE, and that ended the Julio-Claudian dynasty. After a period of chaos and civil wars, the Flavian dynasty under Vespasian ruled Rome.  Titus, the second emperor of the  dynasty, had also an interest in the races, but did not indulge it publicly to such a degree.

He was brought up at court in company with Britannicus[16] and taught the same subjects by the same teachers. At that time, so they say, a physiognomist was brought in by Narcissus, Claudius’ freedman, to examine Britannicus and declared most positively that he would never become emperor; but that Titus, who was standing nearby at the time, would surely rule. The boys were so friendly that it is believed that when Britannicus drained the fatal drink, Titus, who was reclining at his side, also tasted the potion and for a long time suffered from a lingering illness. Titus did not forget any of this and later set up a golden statue of his friend in the Palace, and dedicated another equestrian statue of ivory, which is to this day carried in the procession in the Circus, and he attended it on its first appearance.[17]

Suetonius, Titus 2

Domitian, Titus’ younger brother and successor (and also the final Flavian emperor), also enjoyed the chariot races and expanded their number by dropping the number of laps in a race:

He also celebrated Secular games,[18] calculating the time, not according to the year when Claudius had last given them, but by the previous calculation of Augustus. In the course of these he reduced the number of laps from seven to five to make it possible to finish a hundred races on the day of contests in the Circus.

Suetonius, Domitian 4.3

He also added two new, short-lived factions:

He also made many innovations in common customs. He did away with the distribution of food to the people and revived the custom of formal dinners.[19] He added two factions of drivers in the Circus, with gold and purple as their colours, to the four former ones.[20]

Suetonius, Domitian 7.1

Emperors and dynasties came and went, with all emperors understanding the importance of giving the people different types of spectacles, and especially chariot racing. This not only entertained people but allowed food and (sometimes) money to be distributed, but also gave emperors an unparalleled opportunity to address the people of Rome en masse.[21]. Caracalla was emperor of Rome from 198-217; he was supposed to rule with his brother Geta. He had him killed instead, which was efficient, although not an action calculated to improve family feeling. He is probably best known now as the emperor who extended Roman citizenship to all the free born men in the Roman Empire, which helped him raise the tax to build his baths (still standing in part) in Rome. He was also immensely fond of chariot racing.

After this[22] Antoninus [Caracalla] ruled alone; nominally, it is true, he shared it with his brother, but in reality he ruled alone from the first days. He drew up treaties with the enemy, withdrew from their territory, and abandoned the forts; as for his own people, he dismissed some, including Papinian, the prefect, and killed others, among them Euodus his tutor, Castor, and his wife Plautilla, and her brother Plautius. Even in Rome itself he killed a man who was renowned for no other reason than his profession, which made him very conspicuous. I refer to Euprepes the charioteer. He killed him because he supported the opposite faction to the one he himself favoured. So Euprepes was put to death in his old age, after having won the crown in a vast number of races; for he had won seven hundred and eighty-two races, a record equalled by no one else.

The emperor [Caracalla] himself kept spending the money upon the army, as we have said, and upon wild beasts and horses; for he was for ever killing vast numbers of animals, both wild and domesticated, forcing us to supply most of them, though he did buy a few. One day he killed a hundred boars at one time with his own hands. He also used to drive chariots, wearing the Blue costume. In everything he was very hot-headed and very erratic, and he furthermore possessed the craftiness of his mother and the Syrians, to which race she belonged. He would appoint some freedman or other wealthy person to be director of the games in order that the man might spend money in this way also; and he would salute the spectators with his whip from the arena below and beg for gold pieces like a performer of the lowest class. He claimed that he used the Sun god’s method in driving, and prided himself upon it. To such an extent was the entire world, so far as it owned his sway, devastated throughout his whole reign, that on one occasion the Romans at a horse-race shouted in unison this, among other things: “We shall do the living to death, that we may bury the dead.”

Cassius Dio, Epitome of Roman History 78

See also the section on emperors and the games.


Media Attributions

  1. This, the lusus Troaia, was a complicated set of equestrian manouvers by aristocratic youths. It usually took place on the Campus Martius and sometimes resulted in major injuries.  
  2. To match the colours of the Red and Green teams respectively.
  3. Referring to the buildings surrounding the Circus Maximus.
  4. Located on the Palatine Hill. It was originally a private house owned by a wealthy freedman of Augustus, called Gelos, but was incorporated into the imperial palace at some point.
  5. Previous to this Suetonius had been talking about his treatment of the elites.
  6. In other words, women considered respectable by the Romans.
  7. Tickets were normally tossed out to the crowds during the course of events, a bit like t-shirts are now. Some tickets could be for huge prizes, and quite naturally if the poorer folk came in first and saw tickets on the seats kept for the elite, they would rush to sit in those sits and ignore any security trying to get them out.
  8. The previous emperor, who was not well liked.
  9.   The modern cult of celebrity makes this seem innocuous, but in Rome actors were infamis, that is they were not at all respectable company for a senator, let alone an emperor. Not that that really stopped most people.  
  10. Whenever I try and visualize this words fail me.
  11. Originally, an open racetrack it became a circus and was known as the Circus of Gaius or the Vatican Circus.
  12. The mythical Greek hero Achilles dragged Hector’s body behind his chariot after he had killed him at Troy, an episode that is recounted in Homer's Odyssey, which was a text elite Romans read as part of their education.
  13. All Greek games – the Olympics, the Pythian, the Nemean, and so forth – were held in honour of different gods, hence they were called sacred.
  14. Some Greek games, like the Pythian, included artistic competitions, which Nero competed in. In others which did not have this component, like the Olympics, he just added them in. And he rearranged the entire circuit of the games so that all the major games were held in the same year so he could win them all in one go. Again, it is good to be the emperor.
  15. People released birds as he went through town, like they sometimes do at weddings now. They did not throw birds at him as he went by.
  16. The Emperor Claudius’ son, poisoned by Nero at a dinner party.
  17. It is entirely possible that all of this is true. It is also true that commemorating his friendship with Britannicus was politically very convenient after Nero's death and disgrace.
  18. The Ludi Saeculares were celebrated by Augustus in 15 BCE; as they were supposed to be held only every 110 years so the next time they should have been held would have been 94/5 CE. However, Claudius said that Augustus had wrongly calculated and held them during his reign. Domitian insisted Augustus had been right and so held the games according to the schedule set up by Augustus. Basically these games were extra special and being able to throw them for the people would bring great popularity.
  19. That is, instead of giving them food that they might have to go away and cook themselves, he set up mass dinners for the people where it was served cooked to them. (Many Romans did not have access to cooking faciilties in their residences, so they would have to take meat to be cooked somewhere.)
  20. These new factions appear to have been very short-lived.
  21. With no PA system available, information could also be relayed by cards or announcers.
  22. The death of Septimius Severus in 211; Severus took power after the assassination of Commodus. Caracalla ruled until 217; the Severan dynasty ruled (with interruptions) until 235). 


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