Chariot racing stirred up both love and hate in ancient Rome

The fastest sport on two wheels thrilled fans in packed arenas across Roman lands, while the elite condemned—and exploited—the passions of the crowd.

The thrill and danger of a chariot race in Rome’s Circus Maximus is captured here in Alexander von Wagner’s 1882 painting. Manchester Art Gallery, England
BRIDGEMAN/ACI

Thundering hooves, spinning wheels, a cheering crowd: Envisioning an ancient Roman chariot race is easy, but many 21st-century notions of the sport come from the writings of the 19th. Adapted several times for the big screen (the 1959 film is perhaps the best known), the 1880 novel Ben-Hur climaxes with a thrilling chariot race. American author Lew Wallace meticulously researched classic texts to make his book as authentic as possible, but his passion for chariot racing comes shining through: 

Can we accept the saying, then these latter days, so tame in pastime and dull in sports, have scarcely anything to compare to the spectacle . . . Let the reader try to fancy it; let him first look down upon the arena, and see it glistening . . . let him then, in this perfect field, see the chariots, light of wheel, very graceful, and ornate . . . let him see the drivers—in their right hands goads . . . in their left hands held in careful separation, and high, . . . the reins . . . let him see the fours, chosen for beauty as well as speed . . . 

Wallace adored chariot racing, but ancient Rome’s relationship to it was more complicated. The spectacle, as described by Wallace centuries later, was indeed intoxicating, but some Roman elites looked upon racing with disapproval. These same elites funded the construction of massive venues for racing, such as the Circus Maximus in Rome and the Hippodrome in Constantinople. Chariot racing’s popularity only grew as the Roman Empire expanded. New stadiums were built in other cities, and racing became an obsession there. 

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