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Circus Maximus: Rome's Astrodome

Roman charioteers vie for glory in Rome's Circus Maximus

The Super Bowl approaches. We feel justified in making a comparison to the Roman chariot races, in particular those held in the largest spectator venue ever, the Circus Maximus. A third of a mile long and 150 yards wide, the Circus Maximus allegedly held 250,000 people. The remains suggest that there may have only been 150,000 seats there; however, these people had come from all over the empire to watch these races, sometimes over great distances. To turn anyone away would surely incite a riot. Presumably a large number stood, and a greater number sat on the hills surrounding the circus. That these Romans would go so far out of their way to watch horse races begins to hint at the depths of their obsession, which, like most public obsessions, was not shared by all. Pliny the Younger offers these words:

The races were on, a type of spectacle which has never had the slightest attraction for me. I can find nothing new or different in them: once seen is enough, so it surprises me all the more that so many thousands of adult men should have such a childish passion for watching galloping horses and drivers standing in chariots, over and over again.... When I think how this futile, tedious, monotonous business can keep them sitting endlessly in their seats, I take pleasure in the fact that their pleasure is not mine. And I have been very glad to fill my idle hours with literary work during these days which others have wasted in the idlest occupations.

Sounds like us. But Pliny was missing out, because the Circus Maximus was the greatest cross-section of social gems, rhinestones, and gravel Rome had to offer. The royal family sat in the same building as slaves and artisans and the unemployed. As Robert B. Kebric describes in his Roman People,

Inside its four-story facade, the Circus was a maze of shops, rooms, stairways, and arcades. Throngs of people moved about the great interior corridor that provided access to any part of the structure. Vendors hawked their wares and sold refreshments and souvenirs; and, of course, there were always prostitutes, gamblers, pickpockets, girl watchers, and drunks.

Kebric also notes that, unlike today, the Empire had trouble conveying information to an illiterate public without mass media at its disposal. The Circus Maximus allowed emperors an opportunity to announce new laws or taxes; likewise, the populace frequently aired its dirty laundry when horses weren't running. Contemporary historian Dio outlined a typical episode in 196 A.D.: "The populace, however, could not restrain itself, but indulged in the most open lamentations... they shouted: 'How long are we to suffer such things?' and 'How long are we to be waging war?' And after making some other remarks of this kind, they finally shouted, 'So much for that,' and turned their attention to the horse race."

The wise and judicious ruler would notice that even though the public redressed their grievances, they shut up when the horses came out. Reward the restless with entertainment, and they'll leave you alone. However, never one to notice political subtleties, our friend Caligula decided that a sterner show of force was necessary. Displeased with their taxes, the crowd one day shouted their troubles to him in between races. Rather than hear them out, or even ignore them, Caligula sent out hefty chunks of the military into the crowd with orders to detain any shouting persons. He had them brought to the center of the circus, halted all racing activity, and summarily executed each one so that the bulk of Rome could see he wasn't fooling around. The historian Josephus notes "The number of persons executed... was very large." He had a way with words. As Dio's episode above suggests, Caligula should have just let them yell, and run some more horses. It works even today, we've noticed. ["Baywatch" alone seriously contributes to the stability of several Latin American countries.]

It was in the emperor's interest not to get too involved in the races, if only not to throw off the bets. Heavy favoritism towards certain racing teams or factions might influence the bookies. It was considered bad form for royalty to openly root for a certain team, and equally shoddy manners to never attend (this is probably akin to the disinterested, congratulatory phone call winning athletes receive from the President today). However disinterested the leaders may or may not have been, the public got intensely involved and tried to determining variables such as the health of the horses. Rather than talk to the stable veterinarians, they instead opted to loot the horse poop. We here at History House wonder just how much sneaking around or subterfuge was involved in acquiring this poop? Kebric suggests the dung was "in high demand", which we interpret to mean a thriving black market for the scat enthused. If you could get your hands on your favorite horse's dung, or the dung of an opponent's, you could dissect it and find out of the horse had been eating properly or was sick and alter your bets accordingly. You could get your information straight from the horse's... but we digress.

Also popular were "curse tablets", which were designed to befoul rival charioteers. Here's an excerpt from one, courtesy of Kebric:

I conjure you, holy beings and holy names; join in aiding this spell, and bind, enchant, thwart, strike, overturn, conspire against, destroy, kill break Eucherius, the charioteer, and all his horses tomorrow in the circus at Rome. May he not leave the barriers well; may he not be quick in contest; may he not outstrip anyone; may he not make the turns well; and if he has pressed someone from behind, may he not overtake him; but may he meet with an accident; may he be bound, may he be broken; may he be dragged along by your power, in the morning and afternoon races.

The charioteers themselves were a fairly rowdy bunch as well. They had gotten into the habit of poisoning each other's horses, breaking legs, and so on. Kebric reveals that "[Emperor] Nero, himself a professional rowdy and avid fan of the races, was prompted to crack down on charioteers because they molested, robbed, or beat up passersby in the streets." Later, seriously silly emperor Elagabalus corrected the charioteers by appointing one to be his police chief [imagine "Hill Street Blues" starring the Dallas Cowboys]. By the late Empire, charioteers were deemed above the law and not prosecuted for any crimes. Their raucous behavior contributed to the already declining circus crowd, and by the late 300s riots were commonplace. The races hit their low point during this period (they continued all the way till the twelfth century!), and then-living historian Ammianus Marcellinus outlined the crowd's squalor and dashed hopes:

These spend all their life with wine and dice, in low haunts, pleasures, and the games. Their temple, their dwelling, their assembly, and the height of all their hopes is the Circus Maximus. You may see many groups of them gathered in the fora, the cross-roads, the streets, and their other meeting-places, engaged in quarrelsome arguments with one another... torn by their conflicting hopes about the result of the race, the greater number of them in their anxiety pass sleepless nights.

The Super Bowl is on January 25th this year. Will you sleep soundly on the 24th?


  1. Robert B. Kebric. Roman People. Mayfield, 2000.

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