A chariot is a two-wheeled, horse-drawn vehicle. Invented in the Near East around 2000 B.C., the chariot was used throughout the ancient world in warfare and in sport. Both the Greeks and the Romans used military chariots, and chariot races were a popular form of entertainment in Greece and Rome.
The early chariot consisted of a lightweight wooden frame with wooden wheels, a low front, and sides made of wicker or leather straps. A military chariot might be armored with metal plates, painted, or decorated with ivory, bronze, or silver. Two or four horses were yoked to a long pole that was fastened to the front of the frame. The driver controlled the horses with reins and a whip.
The chief military use of chariots was for rapid transport. Chariots carried warriors to the battle site, where they leaped from the chariots to fight on foot. Sometimes, however, specially trained warriors fought with spears or bows from moving chariots. In the 700s B.C. in Greece, warriors mounted on horseback (cavalry) replaced military chariots, although generals continued to travel by chariot.
Chariot racing was part of the funeral games that were held to honor Greek heroes who died in battle. Such races later became a major event at the public games. According to the Greek writer Pausanias, four-horse chariot races were added to the Olympic Games in 680 B.C. The race began with a signal call. At that moment, attendants ceremoniously raised a bronze eagle and lowered a bronze dolphin. The race was 12 laps, or about 6 miles. The owner of the winning chariot and horses—not the charioteer—was considered the winner of the race.
The Romans continued the Greek tradition of chariot racing during the Republic. Races were held in the Circus Maximus, a Roman landmark that was originally a grassy oval between slopes where spectators sat. By Emperor Trajan’s reign in the early A.D. 100s, the Circus Maximus had become an arena that held 170,000 people. By that time, Rome’s chariot teams had become business operations, similar in some ways to modern professional sports franchises. Four main professional organizations, or factions, controlled the teams. They identified their chariots and horses with the colors white, red, blue, and green. Each faction had its own stables and its own charioteers. Almost everyone who attended the races, including the emperors, supported a particular color.
The Roman public followed the chariot races with great enthusiasm, learning the names of the horses and placing bets on the colors of the factions they backed. A good charioteer could earn a considerable amount of money from the faction that employed him. Such charioteers became the celebrities of ancient Rome. One of the most famous charioteers of the A.D. 100s was Gaius Apuleius Diodes, who was born in Spain. He raced for about 24 years, winning 1,462 of the 4,257 races he entered. (See also Games, Greek; Games, Roman; Olympic Games.)