Chariot Racing

The Charioteers, the Teams and the Horses

In this section you will learn

  • the organization of chariot racing into four factions
  • the importance of the factions to fans of chariot racing
  • some of the famous chariot horses
From top left to bottom right, the Roman parties: the “Greens”, “Reds”, “Whites” and “Blue”

There were four racing factions in Rome: the Reds; the Greens; the Blues; and the Whites. Domitian added two more (Purple and Gold) but they did not have last long. Unlike supporting gladiators, supporting factions brought very, very strong passions to the fore. Fans were incredibly devoted to their factions, which were run as private enterprises owned by those of equestrian status until quite late, only being taken over the emperors in the 300s CE. Most races involved all four factions racing against each other either in two or four horse chariots (there could be chariot teams that had up to 10 horses, but those were not used regularly). Sometimes the factions raced pairs of chariots or teamed up against each other, racing two against two. In addition to horses there were more exotic forms of chariot racing, with animals like elephants and camels. Once, when the charioteers refused to race until they were paid more money, one aedile threatened to race dogs; two crumbled but the Blues and Greens held out. Charioteers were the superstars of the ancient sporting world – far more so than gladiators – and some earned immense sums (see, for example, Diocles’ inscription below), although they risked life and limb to do so. We are not sure when the factions started, but our first mention of them is from the 70s BCE when one of the supporters of the Reds threw himself in the funeral pyre of the charioteer Felix:

We find it stated in the Annals, that when Felix, a charioteer of the Reds, was placed on the funeral pile, one of his admirers threw himself upon the pile; a very stupid way to behave. In case, however, that this event might not be attributed to the great excellence of the dead man in his art, and so add to his glory, the other parties all declared that he had been overpowered by the strength of the perfumes.

Pliny the ElderNatural History 7.54

Like sports, factions were the sort of subject you’d talk about over dinner, as the poet Martial mentions in this invitation to a dinner party:

Everything will be seasoned with pleasantry free from bitterness; there shall be no unchecked conversation that brings regret the next day, and nothing said that we should wish unsaid. But my guests may speak of the rival factions in the circus, and my drink shall make no man guilty.

Martius, Epigrams 10.48

Ovid’s poem about supporting his mistress’s teams show a little of the enthusiasm for the various factions

I’m not sitting here studying the horses’ form: though I still hope that the one you like wins. I come to speak to you, and sit with you, in case you don’t notice how my love’s on fire. You watch the track, and I watch you: we’ll both see what delights us, and both feast our eyes. Happy the charioteer you like! What’s he got, to make him dear to you? Let it be me, flung from the starting gate, I’d be the brave driver urging the horses on, now I’d give them their heads, now touch their backs with the whip, now scrape the turning post with my inside wheel. If I caught sight of you as I rushed by, I’d falter, and the slack reins would fall from my hands. As when the Pisan’s spear nearly killed Pelops, when he glanced at your face, Hippodamia! Of course he still won because of his girl’s favour. May each of us win through the favour of his lady! Why move away, in vain? The rows force us together. The circus rules give something useful at least – but you on the right though, whoever you are, be careful of my girl: the poking of your elbow’s hurting her. You too, sitting behind us, if you’ve any shame, draw your legs up, don’t press our backs with your bony knees! But your dress is trailing on the ground too much. Gather it up – or I’ll lift it with my fingers! You’re a jealous dress to hide such lovely legs: the more you look – you are a jealous dress! Just like the legs of swift-footed Atalanta,[1] that Milanion longed to hold in his hands. Just like the legs of Diana, her dress tucked-up, chasing the wild beasts, wilder still herself. I blazed when I couldn’t see them: what shall I do now? You add fire to the fire, water to the sea. I suspect from these that the rest might please, what’s well hidden, concealed by your thin dress. Would you like a quick breeze stirred while you wait? I can make one with the programme in my hand. Or is the heat more in my mind than in the air, my captive heart scorched by love of a girl? While I spoke, a speck of dust settled on your white dress. Vile dust, away from her snowy body! But now the procession comes – silence minds and tongues! Time for applause – the golden procession comes. Victory’s in the lead, with outstretched wings – approach Goddess, and make my love conquer! Cheer for Neptune, you who trust the waves too much! No sea for me: my country captivates me. Soldiers, cheer for Mars! I hate all warfare: I delight in peace, and to find love in its midst. Phoebus for the augurs, Phoebe for huntsmen![2] Let craftsmen turn their hands to you, Minerva! Let farmers honour Ceres[3] and tender Bacchus! Boxers please Pollux: horsemen please Castor! I cheer for you, charming Venus, and the boy with the powerful bow:[4] goddess help this venture and change my new girl’s mind! Let her agree to be loved! She nodded, and gave me a favourable sign. What the goddess promised, I ask you to promise: don’t talk of Venus, you’ll be a greater goddess. I swear to you, by the crowd and the gods’ procession, I want you to be my girl for all time! But your legs are dangling. Perhaps it would help to stick your toes on the rail in front. Now the track is clear for the main event, the praetor’s started the four-horse chariots. I can see yours. Let the one you fancy, win. The horses themselves seem to know what you want. Oh dear, he’s taking the turning post too wide! What are you doing? The next chariot’s overtaking. What are you doing, fool? You’ll lose the girl’s best hopes. Curses, pull hard on the left rein with your hand! We’ve backed a nobody – call them back, Roman, everyone give the signal by waving your togas! Yes, they’re recalled! – But don’t let those togas ruin your hair, hide deep in my cloak, that’s fine. Now the starting gates are open again: the horses fly out, a multi-coloured crowd. Now take the lead, and fly into empty space! Make my hopes, and my girl’s, a sure bet! My girl’s hopes are certain, mine are unsure. He wins the palm: my palm’s still to win. She smiled, and promised something with those bright eyes. That’s enough now, pay me the rest elsewhere!’[5]

The top two factions seem to have been the Blues and the Greens. Caligula was a devoted supporter of the Greens, a devotion that extended even to one of the horses in the Green stable.[6]

Caligula was so passionately devoted to the Greens that he constantly dined and spent the night in their stable, and in one of his parties with them he gave the driver Eutychus two million sesterces in gifts. He used to send his soldiers on the day before the games and order silence in the neighbourhood, to prevent the horse Incitatus from being disturbed. Besides a stall of marble, a manger of ivory, purple blankets and a collar of precious stones, he even gave this horse a house, a household of slaves and furniture, so he could entertain the guests invited in his name more elegantly – it is also said that he planned to make him consul.

Suetonius, Caligula 55.2

The Emperor Domitian added two extra (and short lived) teams to the four factions:

Statue of the Roman Emperor Domitian

However, being still more inflated in his self-importance by his folly, Domitian was elected consul for ten years in succession and censor for life, being the first and only man, whether private citizen or emperor, to be given the latter honour; he also received the privilege of twenty-four lictors and wearing the triumphal regalia whenever he entered the Senate. He changed the name of October to Domitianus because he had been born in that month. He created two more factions among the charioteers, calling one Gold and the other Purple. He used to make many presents to the spectators by means of the little balls; and once he gave them a banquet while they remained in their seats and at night provided for them wine that flowed freely in many different places. All this naturally gave pleasure to the populace, but it was a cause of ruin to the powerful. For, as he had no funds from which to make his expenditures, he murdered many men, hauling some of them before the Senate, and bringing charges against others when they were not even present in Rome. He even went so far as to put some out of the way treacherously using secretly administered drugs.

Cassius Dio. Epitome of Roman History 67.3-5

Some people thought they were above such petty concerns as the factions. Pliny the Younger wrote rather smugly to his friend Calvisius about how superior he was to the regular, faction mad members of the Circus Maximus’ audience:

I have spent the past few days among my papers with the most pleasing serenity you could dream of. You will ask how that can be possible in the middle of Rome? Why, the Ludi Circenses were taking place, a form of entertainment which does not appeal to me at all. The games have no novelty, no variety, nothing, in short, anyone would want to see again. This makes me even more astonished that so many thousands of grown men should be repeatedly possessed with a childish passion to look at galloping horses and men standing upright in their chariots. If, indeed, they were attracted by the swiftness of the horses or the skill of the men, we could account for such passions. But it is actually a scrap of cloth they favour, a scrap of cloth that captivates them. And if during the running the racers were to exchange colours, their supporters would change sides, and instantly abandon the very drivers and horses whom they were just before recognizing from afar, and loudly cheering by name. And that is the level of favour, of weighty influence, that one cheap tunic has with not only the common crowd who are more worthless than the tunics they wear, but with certain important people! When I observe such men so insatiably fond of so silly, so low, so uninteresting, so common an entertainment, I congratulate myself that I am insensible to these pleasures and am glad to devote the leisure of this season, which others throw away upon the most idle employment, to literature. Farewell.

Pliny the Younger, Letters 9.6

Bibliography and Further Reading

  • Cameron, Alan (1976) Circus Factions: Blues and Greens at Rome and Byzantium. Oxford.


  1. A mythical huntress and follower of the goddess Diana.
  2. Phoebus = Apollo, god of prophecy; Phoebe = Diana, goddess of the hunt. They were twins.
  3. The goddess of grain.
  4. Cupid.
  5. Translation adapted from that of AS Kline.
  6. See also the section Imperial Fans.


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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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