Monday, November 07, 2011

Article: Roman Circuses

Roman Circuses | History Today

Keith Hopkins reviews an encyclopaedic work looking at the ancient archaeology of Roman sport
The Romans had a passion for chariot-races. Emperors, senators and knights prided themselves on their own skills as drivers, or fervently identified themselves with one of the four factions, the Reds, the Blues, the Whites, the Greens, which sponsored the horses and their riders. Emperors and nobles spent huge sums on organising horse races in the city of Rome: twenty-four races lasting all day on sixty-four days of the year. Huge sums were won and lost on betting. Popular excitement was increased when the emperor or the magistrate giving the games threw gifts, or tokens entitling you to gifts, into different sections of the crowd. Even without the scrimmaging, people were packed tight, men and women together. According to the love poets, race days at the Circus were a good place to pick up a girl. According to Christian preachers, the Circus was a place of the devil, as full of sin as a brothel.

Chariot-drivers were culture heroes. Young men talked about nothing else, or so a professor of rhetoric complained. One famous charioteer, whose retirement from the track at the age of forty-two was commemorated in an elaborate inscription, like an epitaph, had participated in over 4,000 races, of which he had won 1,462. His total winnings equalled the fortunes of thirty senators. Once on a single day, he had raced and won twice with six horses in hand, then raced and won with seven horses not yoked together, and then raced without a whip. Clearly, conventional four-horse chariot races were supplemented with other, novelty entertainments.