Fast and furious: Chariot races in the Roman Empire

Constantinople‘s favorite spectator sport, chariot races at the glorious Hippodrome were at the center of life in the sixth century A.D.

The thrill of the race, captured in this first-century fresco from Pompeii. National Archaeological Museum, Naples
DEA/ALBUM

Perhaps the greatest action sequence caught on film is the chariot race from the 1959 Hollywood blockbuster Ben-Hur. Before a frenzied crowd of thousands, horse-drawn chariots hurtle around a track as each pilot tries to avoid catastrophic crashes to win the day. For all its artistic license, the movie’s creators were not exaggerating the danger of the races nor the excitement of the arena. If anything, the emotions on the big screen pale in comparison to the passions of ancient Romans.

Chariot racing stoked fanaticism in the Roman world, and fans flocked to see their favorites compete. The fervor of the races led to tensions that occasionally simmered over into full-scale revolt. From provincial outposts such as Jerusalem, the setting of Ben-Hur, to Rome—whose Circus Maximus was the biggest arena in the empire—chariot racing packed in the crowds with its spectacle. Even after Rome’s importance began to fade, the new eastern imperial power center, Constantinople, built a monumental racetrack, the Hippodrome. While not as large as Rome’s Circus Maximus, it was still huge; historians disagree on its capacity, putting it somewhere between 30,000 and 100,000.

Constantine the Great, the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, took interest in charioteering. After A.D. 330, the year he re-founded Byzantium as Constantinople, he remodeled the Hippodrome to make it one of the capital’s most prominent buildings. The Hippodrome was one of the four buildings framing the central square of Constantinople. If the Senate, the imperial palace, and the Christian cathedral stood for the legislative, executive, and religious power of the eastern Roman Empire, the Hippodrome represented the power of entertainment. To the public, circuses were no less important than bread, and the fortunes of their favorites were followed obsessively by a huge fan base.

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