Ludi circenses (short version)
by: P. Dionysius Mus
In this essay I would like to cover the Ludi Circenses, or chariot races. Their importance in the ancient Roman society can not be underestimated. In the words of the famous Decimus Iunius Iuvenalis, writer of many satires:

Iam pridem, ex quo suffragia nulli vendimus, effudit curas; nam qui dabat olim imperium, fasces, legiones, omnia, nunc se continet atque duas tantum res anxius optat, panem et circenses.

Now that no one buys our votes, the public has long since cast off its cares; the people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions and all else, now meddles no more and longs eagerly for just two things -- bread and circuses.

(Iuvenalis, Satura X, 77-81)

Chariot racing originated probably from the Etruscans and Greeks. But the Romans developed it as a really spectacular sport, and they also developed the Greek hippodrome into the mighty circus. The greatest of them all was of course the Circus Maximus in Rome, originally a U-shaped sand track between the Aventinus and Palatinus hills (so the spectators could sit on the hill slopes to watch the race). This sandy track gradually developed into a large stone building with a seating capacity of ? 250.000 people:

On a reconstruction of the Circus Maximus we see the big U-shaped sand track, around it the seats for the spectators with on the left the imperial seats (directly connected to the imperial palace on the Palatinus, to the left). In the lower left corner of the image we see the boxes where the chariots started the race (see further), and opposite we see the entrance for parades etc. in the middle is the ‘spina’, a wall decorated with statues of gods and goddesses. On each side of the wall is a fortified turning post.

The race itself was fairly simple: twelve chariots waited in their boxes and when the organising magistrate (‘editor’) dropped a white handkerchief (‘mappa’), the rope before the boxes was pulled away and off they went. They had to race seven laps, symbolised by seven dolphins with seven eggs on the ‘spina’. Each time a lap was completed, one egg was taken away. During the race anything was possible: they tried to push each other against the 'spina', or they could race onto each other, but they could also use their whip to hit each other instead of their horses. This way there were many accidents, and most chariot drivers did not enjoy a very long life.

The drivers and spectators were divided into 'factiones' (teams). Most common were Red ('russeus'), Blue ('venetus'), White ('albus') and Green ('prasinus'). Everyone in the circus also supported their own colour with flags and cheers. The wonderful atmosphere and drama that came with these races, is very well recreated in the movie Ben Hur (1959).

As in all sports then and now, the Ludi Circenses also had their own 'hall of fame':

CIL VI, 10063: Musclosus: 682 victories (672 for Red, 5 for Green, 3 for White and 2 for Blue)

CIL VI, 10049a: M. Aurelius Polynices (died at the age of 29): 739 victories (655 for Red, 55 for Green, 17 for White, 12 for Blue), also 3 victories in a seiugis (span with six horses), 8 victories in an octoiugis (with 8 horses) and 9 victories in a decemiugis (with 10 horses). He gained about 1.000.000 sesterces (about the same amount in $ and €).

All evidence points to the immense popularity of the Ludi Circenses: a giant race stadium to be filled with an immense crowd, big prizes and enormous wealth for successful drivers, etc. And compared to the gladiatorial games, the Ludi Circenses were much more civilised, less bloodier and filled with as much tension and drama.

Some links to useful internet sites (also used as sources here):

Encyclopedia Romana: The Circus Maximus
Noctes Gallicanae: Circenses
Capitolium.Org: Panem et Circenses
The Roman Amphitheatre
VRoma: Leisure and Entertainment


G. BARTHEMY & D. GOUREVITCH: Les loisirs des Romains (Paris, 1975)

H.A. HARRIS: Sport in Greece and Rome (Thames and Hudson, 1972)

W.E. SWEET: Sport and Recreation in Ancient Greece (Oxford University Press USA, 1987)

J.P. TONER: Leisure and ancient Rome (Blackwell Publishers, 1995)

M.B. POLIAKOFF: Combat Sports in the Ancient World: Competition, Violence and Culture (Yale University Press, 1987)

J.H. HUMPHREY: Roman circuses, arenas for chariot racing (University of California Press, 1986)
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