NERO WAS EMPEROR and for two weeks the mob had been rioting uncontrolled in the streets of Rome. The economy of the greatest empire that the world had ever seen was coming apart like an unraveling sweater.
The cost of maintaining Rome’s gigantic armed forces, equipped with the latest catapults, ballistae, and fast war galleys, was bleeding the nation white and in addition there were the heavy subsidies that had to be paid to the satellite nations dependent on Rome for support. The impoverished government had neither the funds nor the power to stop the riots.
In this crisis, the Captain of the Shipping hurried by chariot to consult with the first tribune.
“The merchant fleet is in Egypt awaiting loading,” he announced. “The ships can be loaded either with corn for the starving people or with the special sand used on the track for the chariot races. Which shall it be?”
“Are you mad?” screamed the tribune. “The situation here has got out of control. The emperor’s a lunatic, the army’s on the edge of mutiny and the people are dying of hunger. For the gods’ sake, get the sand! We have to get their minds off their troubles!”
Soon special announcement was made by heralds that the finest chariot races on record would be held at the Circus Maximus. Three hundred pairs of gladiators would fight to the death and twelve hundred condemned criminals would be eaten by lions.
Fights between elephants and rhinos, buffalo and tigers, and leopards and wild boars would be staged. As a special feature, twenty beautiful young girls would be raped by jackasses. Admission to the rear seats, free. Small charge for the first thirty-six tiers of seats.
Everything else was promptly forgotten. The gigantic stadium, seating 385,000 people, was jammed to capacity. For two weeks the games went on while the crowd cheered, made bets and got drunk. Once again the government had a breathing space to try to find some way out of its difficulties.
The games—as these incredible spectacles were politely called—were a national institution. Millions of people were dependent on them for a living: animal trappers, gladiator trainers, horse breeders, shippers, contractors, armorers, stadium attendants, promoters and businessmen of all kinds.
To have abolished the games would have thrown so many people out of work that the national economy would have collapsed. In addition, the games were the narcotic that kept the Roman mob doped up so the government could operate.
A performer named Pylades contemptuously told Augustus Caesar, “Your position depends on how we keep the mob amused.” Juvenal wrote bitterly, “The people who have conquered the world now have only two interests—bread and circuses.”
In a sense, the people were trapped. Rome had over-extended herself. She had become, as much by accident as design, the dominant nation of the world. The cost of maintaining the “Pax Romana”—the Peace of Rome—over most of the known world was proving too great even for the enormous resources of the mighty empire.
But Rome did not dare to abandon her allies or pull back her legions who were holding the barbarian tribes in a line extending from the Rhine in Germany to the Persian Gulf. Every time that a frontier post was relinquished, the wild hordes would sweep in, overrun the area and move just that much closer to the nerve centers of Roman trade.
So the Roman government was constantly threatened by bankruptcy and no statesman could find a way out of the difficulty. The cost of its gigantic military program was only one of Rome’s headaches. To encourage industry in her various satellite nations;
Rome attempted a policy of unrestricted trade, but the Roman workingman was unable to compete with the cheap foreign labor and demanded high tariffs. When the tariffs were passed, the satellite nations were unable to sell their goods to the only nation that had any money.
To break the deadlock, the government was finally forced to subsidize the Roman working class to make up the difference between their “real wages” (the actual value of what they were producing) and the wages required to keep up their relatively high standard of living.
As a result, thousands of workmen lived on this subsidy and did nothing whatever, sacrificing their standard of living for a life of ease.
The wealthy class of Rome, living in palaces and eating banquets composed of such delicacies as thrushes’ tongues in wild honey and sow’s udders stuffed with fried baby mice, owed their riches to great factories where slave laborers produced enormous masses of goods by what we now call assembly-line methods.
The dispossessed farmers and unemployed workmen had one great cry: “Let the rich pay!” The government responded by increasing taxes year after year on the plutocrats, but there was a point beyond which they dared not go. After all, it was the taxes paid by these rich men that kept the whole system going and the government did not dare to ruin them.
Attempts were made to abolish slave labor in the factories but the free workmen’s demand for short hours and high wages had grown so that only slaves could be used economically. Also, the big factory owners were politically powerful and fought every effort to break up their holdings by bribing senators, hiring lobbyists, and securing the support of unscrupulous labor leaders.
A Roman factory owner found it far more profitable to spend thousands of sesterces in such practices rather than lose his slaves. And the Roman freeman would far rather have his dole and games than work for a living.
To the Roman mob—caught in an economic tangle it could not comprehend and was unable to break—the circus was the only panacea for its troubles. The great amphitheaters became the ordinary man’s temple, home, place of assembly, and ideal.
As the games were ostensibly pious ceremonies given in honor of the gods, they gratified his religious sense. He was able for a few hours at least to inhabit an edifice more magnificent than the Golden Palace of Nero instead of a miserable, overcrowded tenement.
Here he was able to meet with other freemen, feel a sense of unity as he sat with his faction cheering a certain chariot team, and impose his wishes on the emperor himself for, as the Romans themselves said, “In the circus alone are the people rulers.”
The Romans worshiped courage and every Roman liked to picture himself as a rough, tough fighter. In Rome, the “little guy” could identify himself with a successful gladiator as a modem fight fan can identify himself with a famous prize fighter.
There were other attractions. Betting ran so high that fortunes were won or lost in the circus within a few minutes, and only by betting could the ordinary freeman obtain wealth. Also, no matter how badly off a Roman might be, he had the satisfaction of knowing that he was superior to the poor wretches in the arena.
Although few Romans cared for the low pay and rigid discipline of the army, they could still consider themselves real fighting men as they shouted advice and insults to the struggling gladiators below. Nothing delighted the Roman mob more than to have some visiting dignitary from a satellite nation get sick during the games and have to rush from the amphitheater.
The freeman would say with great satisfaction, “Those effeminate Greeks, they can’t take the sight of blood like us Romans!” and turn to the next event with renewed relish.
The games—which eventually came to cost one-third of the total income of the empire and used up thousands of animals and humans every month started out as festivals no more bloodthirsty than the average county fair.
The first games in 238 B.C. featured exhibitions of trick riding, acrobats, wire walkers, trained animals, chariot racing and athletic events. There was boxing with soft leather straps over the knuckles that took the place of gloves. The militia staged a sham battle and the crack cavalry corps, composed of rich young men mounted on thoroughbred horses and dressed in gold and silver armor, went through a drill.
There were also horse races in which the riders had to jump from one horse to another in full gallop. Occasionally a pageant was held, such as the Siege of Troy, in which a wooden mockup representing Troy was attacked by militiamen dressed as Greek soldiers and finally burned amid much blowing of trumpets and loud applause. An admission fee was charged by whoever was producing the show.
Later this sort of exhibition got much too tame for the Romans. The only one of the events to last was the chariot racing, which, like modern horse racing, was a perfect sport for betting. However, even the chariot racing completely changed its character. Instead of being simply a race it became bloody and exciting enough to hold popular interest.
The Circus Maximus, the oldest amphitheater in Rome, was especially designed for chariot racing. Although in the early days the games were held in any open field convenient to the city and the chariots simply raced along a course marked off on the ground, I’ll describe the Circus Maximus races in about 50 A.D. to give an idea of the sport at its height.
Originally built about 530 B.C., The Circus Maxi-ntus measured 1,800 feet long by 600 feet wide—more than twice the size of the Yankee Stadium. It was shaped like a long U. At the open end of the U were the stalls for the chariots, with doors that could be thrown open at the same instant as in the start of modem horse races.
Down the center of the amphitheater ran a long barricade, called the Spine, and the chariots had to circle the Spine seven times—a total distance of about four miles.
The Spine was the show spot of the whole circus. There were statues on columns, fountains spurting perfumed water, altars to the gods, and even a small temple dedicated to the Venus of the Sea, the special patron goddess of charioteers.
The charioteers always burned incense to this Venus before beginning a race. In the center of the Spine there was an obelisk, imported from Egypt, surmounted by a golden ball. This ball gleamed brilliantly in the sun and was the most noticeable object in the circus. The obelisk, minus the ball, now stands in the center of Saint Peter’s Square in Rome, before the cathedral.
Near the ends of the Spine were two columns, each surmounted by a crossbar of marble. On one crossbar was mounted a line of marble eggs. There was a line of dolphins on the other. The eggs were the symbol of Castor and Pollux, the heavenly twins who were the patron saints of Rome, and the dolphins were sacred to Neptune, the patron of horses.
Every time the chariots circled the course, an egg and a dolphin were removed so the crowd could tell how many laps had been run. At the extreme ends of the Spine were set three cones some twenty feet high and ornamented with bas-reliefs.
These cones (called metae) acted as bumpers to keep the elegant Spine from being damaged by the chariots on the turns. Pliny says the metae looked like cypress trees.
The racing was managed by a number of big corporations that were regarded as the most important money-making enterprises in the Roman world and had thousands of stockholders. Stock in these companies was so valuable that it was carefully passed on from father to son as a priceless possession.
These corporations maintained huge offices in the heart of the business districts in all main cities as well as in Rome itself. In addition to these offices, the companies owned great blocks of buildings near the various circuses (there was a circus of some sort in virtually every town in the empire) and these buildings served as barracks and stables.
The buildings were usually set around a track for exercising the teams. The companies also owned countless stud farms and even maintained fleets of ships with built-in stalls for transporting horses from one circus to another.
The size of the stud farms may be imagined by the remark of a government agent who, in 550 A.D. when it was finally necessary to abolish the racing, was sent around to break up the farms. He said of one place: “It was already so reduced that the owner has only four hundred horses left so I decided that it was not worth bothering about.”
The number of men employed by these companies, including herdsmen, ostlers, drivers, breakers and so on, is unknown, but it is interesting to look at a partial list of the men engaged in the actual race itself.
In addition to the charioteers there were the medici (doctors), the aurigatores (the charioteer’s assistants), the procuratores dromi (men who smoothed the sand before the race), the conditores (who greased the chariot wheels), the moratores (who grabbed the horses at the end), the sparsores (who cleaned the chariots), the erectores (who took down the eggs and dolphins), and the armentarii (grooms). In addition, there were also the stable-boys, trainers, vets, saddlers, tailors, stable guards, dressers and waterers.
There was even a special group who did nothing but talk to the horses and “cheer them on as they were being led from their stalls.
The charioteers themselves were mostly slaves, although a few freemen volunteered for the job in hopes of winning fame and fortune. Slave or not, a successful charioteer was the hero of Rome and could win huge sums.
Several retired as millionaires, having either bought their freedom or been given it by a grateful master who shared in the winnings. The Emperor Caligula gave Eutychus, a famous charioteer, two million sesterces (about $85,000) as a gift. Crescens, a Negro who started racing when he was thirteen, won $75,000 before he was killed at twenty-two.
He won thirty-eight races “snatched at the post”—that is, came from behind in the last lap to win, which was considered an especially praiseworthy feat. One man won fifteen purses of gold in an hour. Although the usual sum paid to a winning charioteer was only about $2,500, he received much more in bonuses from the company, gifts from admirers, bribes from bettors who wanted tips, and concerns who wanted to use his picture on vases, trays and souvenir cameos.
Probably the most famous charioteer was a little, dark wiry fellow named Diodes. He was the first man to win a thousand races. Diodes had a passion for horses and fine clothes.
He swaggered around Rome in a silk tunic and embroidered linens, and owned his own teams—which was as unusual as for a modem jockey to have a racing stable. Juvenal wrote bitterly:
“Decent men groan to see this ex-slave with an income one hundred times that of a senator,” but Diodes was a popular idol. He had started life as a slave-groom to a Spanish nobleman, been shipped to Rome with a cargo of horses and bought by a patrician who admired the boy’s uncanny skill with temperamental thoroughbreds.
He drove his first race at the age of twenty-four and, being a newcomer, was illegally forced to take the outside track. Positions were supposedly chosen by lot but there was a good deal of crookedness about the selections.
To reach the rail, an outside chariot had to cut in front of the others, which meant almost certain death. Diodes didn’t try it. He tailed the others until the last lap and then by a magnificent piece of driving, passed the other three chariots to win.
It was customary for the owner of a racing stable to split the purse with the charioteer, so Diodes soon made enough money to buy his freedom. He then put his winnings into buying horses, trained them himself, and got his own chariot.
He usually drove stallions and collected over $40,000 a year for stud fees alone. In addition to his other privileges, Diodes like all famous charioteers was allowed on certain days to play April Fool-type jokes on anyone he wished, even members of the nobility.
Another lucrative source of income for Diodes was making freak runs for big side bets. Once he raced twice in one day; the first time with a six-horse hitch (swinging a six-in-hand around the ends of the Spine at full speed was a terrific feat) and won 40,000 sesterces.
Then he raced a seven-horse hitch not yoked, held only with traces, and won 50,000. Perhaps his most remarkable stunt was winning a race without using a whip, for a side bet of 30,000 sesterces. The whip was used by the charioteers not so much to beat the teams as to guide them on the turns.
While rounding the cones at the ends of the Spine at full speed, the charioteer could signal the inside horse when to turn by laying his whip on its shoulder, and if one of the other horses tried to turn too soon, the driver could check him by a light flick. The reins were tied around the charioteer’s waist so he could get more leverage on the turns but this made it difficult to control any individual horse.
The horses were extremely valuable, worth far more than slaves. Training started when the horses were three years old and was so detailed that a horse could not be raced until he was five. Some teams were so smart that they could drive themselves. One driver fell out when his team made the usual “jackrabbit” start from the stalls but the horses kept going and actually won the race.
They got the prize, too. Sculptors made statues of famous horses, some of which still remain. Under the statues are inscriptions such as: “Tuscus, driven by Fortunatus of the Blues, 386 wins,” and “Victor, driven by Gulta of the Greens, 429 wins.” Lucius Veres had a horse named Volucris who was awarded a bushel of gold pieces, after a race, and the Emperor Hadrian put up a mausoleum for his horse, Borysthenes, that still stands.
The most famous of these horses was Incitatus, belonging to the Emperor Caligula. Incitatus had a marble bedroom, an ivory manger and drank from a golden bucket. Famous artists decorated the walls of his stall and he attended state dinners where his oats and corn were served to him by his special slaves. Caligula even planned to have him made a consul.
A horse that had won over one hundred races was called a Centenarius and wore a special harness. Diocles owned nine Centenarii, all of which he had trained himself. He had one horse that had won over two hundred races.
This horse, named Passerinus, was so revered that soldiers petroled the streets when he was sleeping to keep people from making any noise. The best horse in the team was always on the near hand (left side) of the hitch and never yoked—only held by traces. On the turns, this horse was nearest to the Spine and his speed and sure-footedness meant the difference between life and death to the driver.
The second best horse was on the offside (right) of the hitch and was usually not yoked either. On the turns, he had to jerk the chariot around while the Centenarius on the inside pivoted close to the cones. The two center horses were yoked on either side of the shaft and were mainly for pulling power although the whole team had to know their jobs.
As today, there were unending arguments about the best breeds and best farms. The horses were not shod, so the condition of their feet was crucial. The Sicilian horses were very fast but unreliable, the Iberians good only for a short course (feet too soft), and the Libyan best for a long drag.
There were several breeds we do not have today; among them the Orynx, which was striped like a zebra but was apparently a domestic breed of horse.
Although there are innumerable statues of Roman charioteers in museums and although we have plenty of old records of the sport such as “Scorpus of the White Faction got first place seven times, second place twenty-nine times and third place sixty times,” I haven’t been able to find a detailed description of any single race.
However, there are many scattered references to incidents in the races, and it is possible to imagine what a race was like. Let’s picture a race during the Ludi Magni (great games) with Diodes one of the drivers.
For weeks, virtually the only topic of conversation in Rome had been the race and the betting odds. Peo-pie paid huge sums for hot tips, which were usually unreliable. Seneca, the great Roman philosopher, exclaimed:
“The art of conversation is dead. Can no one today talk of anything except the skill of various charioteers and the quality of their teams?” Diodes was such a heavy favorite that a senator remarked, “If Diocles loses, it will do more to upset the national economy than a major military defeat.”
But a few days before the race, the betting odds suddenly altered. All sorts of rumors were sweeping the city. A man had it on the authority of one of the conditores who kept the chariots greased that Diodes had been heavily bribed to throw the race.
A tavern keeper had overheard two members of the Praetorian guard say that the emperor, who was backing another team, had arranged with the sponsor of the games to start the race again if Diodes was ahead.
The madman of a brothel had it from one of her girls who had entertained the valet of a prominent politician that two of the opposing charioteers had sworn a sacred oath to get Diodes by catching his chariot between them and wrecking it.
A man who had a cousin who knew a vet had been told that Diodes’ Centenarius, Passerinus, had been doped. People hurried to the stable to taste Passerinus’ dung to see if the story was true. So the odds went up and down according to the latest rumor, many of them deliberately spread by heavy bettors who were speculating on the event.
The four corporations who controlled the races were known as the White, Red, Green, and Blue, and the charioteers wore tunics of their corporation’s color like a jockey’s racing silks. All Rome was divided into these four factions—in fact, our word faction originally meant a group supporting a chariot team.
People wore colored flowers, ribbons or scarfs to show which team they were backing. So devoted were the people to their faction that they often had it engraved on their tombstones: “Memmius Regulus was a good man, a devoted husband and a staunch supporter of the Reds.”
Nero, who always backed the Greens, had the arena sand dyed green to honor them and the Emperor Vitellius had fifty people killed because they booed the Blues.
On the day of the race, the city was almost deserted, nearly everyone being at the Circus Maximus. Troops had to patrol the empty streets to prevent looting by thieves. The races began at dawn and lasted until sunset.
First there was a procession around the arena, led by the editor (the man giving the games), who was usually a politician running for office and needing votes. The editor rode in a chariot dressed in a purple toga as though he were a member of the nobility.
Only as an editor of games could an ordinary man wear the purple. Around the chariot walked the editor’s wardheelers in white robes carrying palm branches and after him rode a group of young aristocrats to show that men of wealth and breeding were also supporting the editor.
Then came a long procession of priests carrying images of the gods on litters, swinging incense burners and chanting hymns. The crowd had been given handkerchiefs or placards with the editor’s political slogan stamped on them (“Vote for Eprius Marcellus, the people’s friend”) and claques had been organized under cheer leaders to shout a slogan together.
As the editor made the rounds, bowing and smiling, the claques all gave their cheers and the rest of the crowd stood up and waved the handkerchiefs or placards and shouted.
When the procession was over, the crowd sat down to study their racing forms and make last-minute bets with the bookies who ran up and down the aisles. Some of the forms, engraved on ivory or brass for the use of the nobility, are still in existence.
Although the stalls from which the chariots started were all equidistant from a point midway between the stands and the end of the Spine, the charioteer who had the left-hand stall had an advantage, being able to go straight to the Spine and thus gaining the inside track.
The stalls were numbered from one to four and charioteers picked their number out of a bowl. Diodes drew the third stall from the left.
Slaves were out watering the track to keep down dust, raking the sand and making sure no one had thrown any empty wine skins or gnawed bones on the track. A trumpet was blown and the track was hurriedly cleared.
Meanwhile in the paddock behind the stalls the charioteers were getting their teams ready, The men wore short tunics that left their arms bare, heavy leather caps like crash-helmets, and each carried a knife in his belt so that in case of an accident he could cut himself free of the reins tied around his waist.
Most of the drivers had coated themselves with boar’s dung in the belief that the odor kept horses from stepping on a man if he was thrown from his chariot.
The racing chariots were very light, made of wood with bronze fittings. They were lower and had a wider wheel base than the ordinary chariot. When the trumpet sounded to clear the track, teams were led out by their handlers and hitched up. There were several types of hitch used.
Although the most unusual was to have the two outside horses* on traces, sometimes a driver would have only his left-hand horse on traces. On rare occasions the entire team might be on traces to give them greater maneuverability. The horses’ tails were always tied up so they wouldn’t foul the reins.
The hitching-up must-have been quite a sight—the horses pawing the ground and snorting, their manes studded with pearls and semi-precious stones. They wore breastplates bung with gold and silver amulets and each horse had a broad ribbon the color of his racing stable around his neck.
The Romans claimed that chariot racing improved the breed of horses but actually these animals were so inbred and temperamental that they were unfitted for anything except this breakneck dash around the arena at top speed.
Another trumpet sounded, the drivers took their places in the gleaming chariots and the grooms led the teams into the stalls, entering them from the rear. Then the grooms got out of the way—fast. A moment’s pause.
The editor of the games rose in his box and dropped a handkerchief. The gates of the four stalls were thrown open at the same instant and the chariots were off.
Every driver tried to reach the inside track around the Spine. As a result, there were usually so many crack-ups in this first wild rush that a special gate had to be constructed under the stands near the starting point where the arena attendants could drag out the smashed chariots, dead men and horses so they wouldn’t block the course when the rest had circled the Spine and started the second lap. Sometimes the race never got going at all—all the chariots ending up in a pile at this point.
To solve this problem, a white rope called the Alba Linea was stretched from Spine to the stands, just high enough to trip a galloping team of horses. A judge who was stationed in a box could drop this rope if he decided that it was a fair start.
If the chariots didn’t get away together or if there was too much jostling and fouling at the start, he left the rope up and then the race had to start over again.
This rope posed a very critical decision for the charioteers. If a driver went all out to reach the preferred inside track around the Spine and the rope wasn’t dropped in time, he and his chariot went wheels over shaft If he held back too much and the rope was dropped at the last instant, some other driver got ahead of him.
It helped to know the judge’s prejudices If he was a secret supporter of the Blues and the Blue chariot was left at the post, he’d keep the rope up. If Blue was ahead, he’d drop the rope no matter what.
In this race, we’ll suppose that all the chariots got away to an even start and the rope was dropped as the foremost chariot approached it. We can be pretty sure that this foremost chariot wasn’t Diodes.
He was famous for holding his team back until the last lap and then coming from behind to win. Diodes might even have been running last as the four chariots swept around the cones at the far end of the Spine on their first turn.
The basic strategy of all charioteering was to take the turns as tight as possible, but there were many other tricks. If ahead, you tried to block the others so they couldn’t pass. If you were in the middle, you cut in front of the other chariots on the turns to force the drivers to rein in.
If you got the chance, you hooked your wheel inside the wheel of an opposing chariot and then suddenly swung your team out. If properly done, it could jerk your opponent’s wheel off the axle and put him out of the race.
We’ll suppose that by the end of the fifth lap, Orestes, a Greek driving for the Reds, is ahead of Diocles, driving for the Greens, just behind. Diodes is using his whip only on three of the horses, controlling Passerinus, his inside horse, by voice alone.
Orestes is a skilful driver and as they go into the sixth lap, he manages to block Diodes on the turns so the Spaniard can’t pass him. Then the two chariots level out for the rush down the lefthand side of the Spine. In spite of everything Orestes can do, Diodes pulls up alongside of him—but on the outside.
They still have one more turn around the end of the Spine, and Orestes cuts in as close as he dares—Diodes turning with him.
As they spin around, Orestes slackens his reins to much while his team is making the swing. His axlerod hits one of the cones and breaks. Orestes is thrown out and as he falls, he tries to jerk out the knife in his belt to cut himself free of the reins. He can’t get it free in time.
Diodes has had to throw all his weight back on his reins to keep from being entangled in the wreck ahead for the pull of the dragging axle-bar has swung Orestes’ team in front of him. Orestes is dragged along by his frantic horses; one moment he’s half standing and then he’s feet uppermost.
The other two chariots following the leaders see their chance and try to pass, but Diodes shouts to his team and gives them their heads. They plow through the wreckage of Orestes’ chariot, trampling the Greek underfoot. Passerinus trips and almost falls but Diodes grabs the stallion’s reins in both hands and keeps his head up.
Now they’re through the wreckage and in the dear. One final burst of speed and they cross the finish line while the crowd goes wild. Orestes’ corpse is so trampled that, as a contemporary writer remarked after the race, “His best friend couldn’t have identified the body.”
Diodes retired at forty-two with a fortune of 35 million sesterces (about $1,800,000). We know so much about him because he published a book of memoirs, ghost-written by a contemporary sports writer.
Diodes claims to have been the greatest charioteer of all time (he was undoubtedly the most successful financially) although he admits some other drivers won more races than he did. “But what kind of races?” he asks. “On some provincial track running against a lot of plugs.
Now, I was always in the big-time events at the Circus Maximus, running against stiff competition. No other driver ever won a thousand races under those conditions.”
Very few charioteers were as lucky at Diodes. Fus-cus was killed at twenty-four after only fifty-seven wins. Aurelius Mollicus, judging from bis double name a freeman, not a slave, was killed at twenty after a hundred and twenty-five wins.
However, all these men had statues made in their honor with glowing inscriptions which were intended to, and have, made them immortal. The inscriptions read: “Never lost the lead at the Ludi Plebei!” “Came from behind to win at the Ludi Apollinares.” “An unknown who really fooled the wise ones.” And so on.
There they stand in museums for the benefit of tourists, good-looking men most of them, with powerful forearms and tremendous shoulders. They lived high, wide and handsome and their end generally came under the flashing hoofs of horses while the crowd yelled with excitement or thought: “There go my ten sesterces.”
It was often said: “The great spectacle at the circus is not the game but the spectators.” The games were the great emotional outlet for the mob and they made the most of it. During a race the crowd literally went mad. Women collapsed or had sexual orgasms.
Men bit themselves, tore their clothes, did mad dances, bet until they ran out of money and then bet themselves to a slave dealer to raise more. One man fainted when the White team fell behind. When the Whites came forward to win in the last lap, the man had to be revived to be told of his good luck.
Travelers approaching Rome could hear the roar of triumph when the race was over before they could see the city towers. If a faction thought that its team had got a raw deal. they staged a riot—on one occasion setting fire to the Circus Maximus and burning it to the ground.
It was after that a law was passed saying that all amphitheaters had to be built of stone, although the upper tiers were still frequently made of wood.
This mania even had a name—it was called Hippo-mania: horse-madness. When Felix, a famous charioteer for the Reds, was killed in a race and his body burned on a funeral pyre, a man threw himself into the flame so he could perish with his idol.
A nobleman’s little boy, when asked what of all things on earth he wished as a gift, asked for the tunic worn by a famous charioteer for the Greens. When the Germans were attacking Carthage, the people refused to defend the walls—they were busy watching a chariot race.
When Treves was burned by the barbarian hordes, the city council pointed out that the disaster had its good side.
“Now we’ll have room to build a really fine chariot course in the middle of the city,” the governor pointed out.
To show how the passion for chariot racing grew:
In 169 B.C. there was one race a day during the games, held late in the afternoon as a climax to the sport. Under Augustus Caesar at the time of Christ, there were twelve races a day. Under Caligula forty years later, there were twenty-four races a day.
Two more racing corporations were formed so that six chariots competed instead of the usual four. Later, the number was increased to twelve and even sixteen chariots, but by then the mob had lost all interest in real driving and only wanted to see a lot of smash-ups.