CIRCUS MAXIMUS

~ The Secrets of Ben Hur ~

The next evening the praetorian Caius Proculeius Rufus goes to celebrate his new, challenging post with some friends. When the bill comes the praetorian pays for everyone. And one of the coins he uses to pay is our sestertius. So, as it leaves behind the laughter of the partiers, our coin begins a new adventure. But it doesn’t go very far. At a nearby table a man with an absent look and a pointed beard is seated alone. He’s the one who receives our sestertius in his change. Where will it take us now?

A Fast-Paced Jaunt Through the Backstreets of Rome

The outstretched arm of the statue of Augustus seems to point to some far-off place in the pitch black night. Some drops of water hang suspended on the underside of the gilt-bronze limb. Indeed, it rained in Rome tonight, as we can tell from the wet roofs and from the drops that are still dripping down from the top floors of the insulae. Dawn is still a ways off, and the air is cold and humid; the few passersby, wrapped up in capes and mantles, scurry along, hugging the walls of the buildings as though they were shadows. They try to avoid the big puddles that have formed on the narrow streets, skirting around the edges or jumping over them.

Yes, in this city the puddle problem seems like it will never go away. The main streets, well paved with slabs of stone and modeled in a convex, “donkey’s back” shape to make the rain water run off to the sides, are often forced to surrender to extemporaneous dams of city trash—broken baskets, rotten fruit, rags—that create long lakes along the borders of the sidewalks. The shopkeepers and residents constantly complain, but the administration has too many problems to deal with; and actually, all it takes is a broom to put things back in order. On the back and side streets, however, there is no solution. They are unpaved, and when it rains they are best avoided because they turn into quagmires.

Our coin is now in the hands of the tall, thin man with the pointed beard who was sitting alone last night at the table next to the praetorian and his friends. From the way he’s dressed he doesn’t look to be wealthy. His cape is a hodgepodge of patches and mendings. And his cream-colored tunic is worn and frayed in a number of places. Yet he doesn’t look like a slave, or a poor person either. There’s something strange about this man. He’s walking at a brisk pace as though he were late for an appointment. He frequently steps into small puddles, the dirty water seeping into his sandals and squishing out in muddy spurts between his sandal straps and toes. But it doesn’t seem to bother him. He’s preoccupied with something, an anxiety that you can read on his face. What can it be? Why is he walking so fast?

After turning a corner the man darts suddenly into the entryway to a building, just in time to avoid a big wagon passing by on the street that misses him by a hair. It came out of nowhere.

It’s part of a fleet of wagons that drives through the city every night to resupply the stores and shops. During the day, as we have noted, the wagons are not allowed to circulate. There’s always traffic, but in daylight it’s the human kind. Walking on the main streets of ancient Rome, then, is the equivalent of walking today through a crowded Métro station at rush hour. You’re always getting bumped into; it’s impossible to walk in a straight line; you have to swerve to avoid slaves, obese men, gaggles of chattering women, litters. At night, on the other hand, the streets are nearly empty, but as we’ve just seen, they can also be dangerous.

The man has had a good scare; he was too absorbed in his thoughts, and the wagon driver had even accelerated at the intersection, yelling a curse at him after the near miss. But there’s no use getting upset with this road hog: people like him are violent and irascible. Now he’s vanished in the darkness, going through another intersection with a long shout of defiance. He drives at a breakneck pace because if he doesn’t get out of the city before dawn, he risks having to pay a big fine and maybe even having his vehicle impounded.

Our man breathes a sigh of relief and resumes his walk. If he had been run over, nobody would have come to his aid. Nobody would have stopped the wagon. At dawn he would have been just another dead man on the streets of Rome: killed in a robbery or a drunken brawl, fallen in a pitched battle between the poor and the desperate, or massacred by a band of young thugs, or a victim of hunger or cold. Night in Rome is like night on the savannah: there are lots of predators waiting to strike.

Now dawn is brightening the sky and the man has almost arrived at his destination. We’re about to discover what is making him so anxious.

He’s slowed his pace. The farther he goes down the street, the more people there are around him, almost as though he were moving through a galaxy of human beings. They are all on the move; it’s a crowd that is all heading toward the same destination, at the end of the street. It’s an unusual scene, almost biblical.

The sides of the street are no longer like the ones he walked down to get here. Not at all: dawn has not broken yet, but all the shops on the street are already open, as indicated by the lighted oil lamps bobbing up and down above their entrances. They form a long chain of points of light all the way down to the end of the street.

A lot of popinae have already opened for business. In the dim light of the oil lamps hanging from the ceiling, the man sees their customers leaning on the counters, biting into grilled sausages or focaccia buns dipped in honey. A waitress pours some steaming liquid into some terra-cotta mugs. Given the hour, coffee pops immediately into our minds, but it is completely unknown in Roman times.

Actually, in 117 CE, coffee, which will one day become a worldwide symbol of the Italian lifestyle, served as espresso or cappuccino, is still growing wild on the high plateaus of Ethiopia. It will take another fifteen hundred years before it arrives on the streets of Rome. In fact, the year 1615 is the official date of its arrival in Europe, thanks to Venetian merchants, although by then it has already been a beverage in the Islamic world and Yemen for over two hundred years. A curiosity: the word coffee synthesizes its entire history. It derives from the Turkish kahve, which in turn comes from the Arabic qahwa, which indicated a bitter beverage obtained from the seeds of the coffee plant, with such an energizing effect as to be considered a medicine.

The woman has finished filling the terra-cotta mugs, which four men are now lifting to their lips. The contents are so scalding hot that they screw up their eyebrows from pain as they take little sips in silence. If it’s not coffee that they’re drinking, what is it? We walk closer and can smell the answer: it’s wine. Served diluted with boiling water, it is reminiscent of vin brulé. None of us today would habitually drink boiling hot wine, especially not first thing in the morning or seasoned with spices that totally change its taste. No doubt about it, the wine of ancient Rome is markedly different than ours today. We have seen that repeatedly on this long journey of ours through the empire.

But there’s no time to stop here. Our man is overtaking everyone he encounters and is heading deeper and deeper into the growing crowd, provoking some protests here and there. The odors in this pressed-together mass of people are indescribable. Clothing is imbued with the smells and whiffs of the last places each person has been before coming here. And so there is the smell of oil lamps, grilled sausage, horse, burnt wood, undigested onion, rain-soaked fabric.… And then there is also the stench of unwashed skin and sweat. Nobody has gone to the baths yet today.

Everyone is pushing to get through the crowd, and we raise our eyes to get a better look at their destination. Above the crowd we can see the imposing structure of the Circus Maximus.

Where the Sabines Were Abducted

The immense arcades of the Circus Maximus seem like so many gaping jaws of some voracious monster devouring the people. This monster has eyes that make his bite even more frightening: a host of large square windows that open out from the structure’s two upper levels.

In the blue predawn light, the colors haven’t woken up yet. The whole scene is still very ghostlike. All you can see is the rigid majesty of the arcades of the Circus Maximus, alternating between dark arches and light pilasters for over five hundred yards. We have come up on the curved side of the structure, and before our eyes one whole side of it stretches out, straight, like an enormous government building.

It’s unbelievably big. How could such a mammoth structure have been built by men? We are in the heart of antiquity, and this is, and will remain, the biggest and largest-capacity stadium ever built by humans. Not even in the modern era has anything this immense ever been built.

The Circus Maximus is also intimately tied to the history of Rome. This is where the rape of the Sabine women is said to have taken place: According to legend, Romulus, first king of Rome, organized some chariot races and invited the Sabine men with the sole purpose of distracting them, and then abducted their women. Obviously, the story is not true, but the love of chariot races, on the other hand, is. Chariot races were one of Rome’s favorite pastimes from the very beginning of its history. In the eyes of the earliest Romans, this long, wide valley running between the Palatine and the Aventine hills, called the Valley Murcia, seemed like a gift from the gods, the ideal setting for their races. All they had to do was lay out the track. But there was a problem: a small body of water ran through the area. The solution was found around 600 BCE by Tarquinius Priscus, the fifth king of Rome, who channeled the stream into a canal and built the first circus for chariot and horse races.

The water from this canal fed a second canal, which ran all around the track, like the moat of a medieval castle. It was ten feet wide and just as deep. Its purpose was to keep the animals from jumping on the spectators. Actually, in the beginning, the Circus Maximus was used for all kinds of spectacles: not only horse races but also for combat between gladiators, combat between men and wild animals, theatrical performances, and so on.

Before the Colosseum and other large entertainment facilities were built, the Circus Maximus was the grand space for mass entertainment in Rome—a concept that has survived into our own age, using the stadiums of our cities to host athletic meets, football games, rock concerts, theatrical productions, political speeches, and so on. It’s no wonder, then, that this place was even more important and exciting than the Colosseum. There was always something happening here, with just a few days between one event and the next. It was the real “amusement park” of the capital of the Roman Empire.

And perhaps for this very reason, the Circus Maximus served still another purpose for the rulers and administrators of Rome. You will certainly have heard the expression panem et circenses, bread and circuses. It is a celebrated phrase of the poet Juvenal that expressed a very simple concept: “Give the people bread and races in the Circus Maximus and you won’t have problems.” The strategy of largesse and entertainment effectively created strong popular consensus and distracted public opinion from politics. And the emperors knew it well. So, that enormous structure was an important instrument in maintaining their grip on power.

For all these reasons—popular passion, political strategy, but also as an extraordinary machine for moving money through the economy, as we will see shortly—the Circus Maximus was used continually for centuries, even though it underwent various modifications, restorations, and embellishments. For just how long? Twelve hundred years.

The first chariot race was held in or around 600 BCE and the last in 549 CE, under the Goth king Totila. Can you imagine a stadium used without interruption for twelve hundred years? It would be like going to see a game today in a stadium built by Charlemagne and used without interruption since then.

Even these few bits of data make it easy to understand the special nature of the Circus Maximus. (But that’s not what the ancient Romans called it. For them it was simply the Circus.) And that brings us back to the crowd that is gathering under its arcades now in a freezing cold dawn. What is it that drove these people to come here at such an odd hour?

The Underworld of the Circus Maximus

The man we’re following slips into one of the arcades of the Circus Maximus. Together the arches form an incredibly long portico, identical to the ones you see in the historic centers of so many European cities. The most surprising thing is that underneath them many shops are already open, with their goods on display. It looks like a very, very long shopping center, a city within the city.

Many shops are selling food to be taken into the stands (olives, bread, cheese, pickled fish) but also cushions, parasols, capes against the cold and rain, etc. Others display goods that have nothing to do with the races: clothes, olive oil, spices, terra-cotta pots and pitchers. There is even someone hammering copper kettles and someone else selling votive statues. We are in the center of Rome and the portico opens out onto one of the busiest streets in the capital. It’s only natural, therefore, that it is also the best place to sell goods and do business of all kinds.

Leaning up against an archway, some young women are waiting for customers. They have an oriental look: dark, curly hair, dark complexion, ample hips, and elongated eyes accentuated by heavy makeup. Their veils barely cover the goods they are displaying and selling. Some men, many of whom are along in years, have stopped to talk with them and negotiate the price. They are their first customers of the day.

These Mediterranean women are very much sought after by the men of the capital. Contrary to today, there is no place in the erotic imagination of the Roman man for Nordic women, with blond hair and blue eyes; the ideal of the sensuous woman is the dark-haired woman of the eastern Mediterranean, from Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and so on.

A man in his fifties, conservatively but elegantly dressed, observes the scene from the street. His eyes fill with contempt; he makes a grimace of disgust and scribbles something down on some pages already full of notes. Then he nods to his servant to go ahead and open up a path for him in the crowd. His gaze has returned to how it was before, a bit absent with a vein of sadness. He vanishes into the crowd. This man who is apparently so normal and nondescript will go down in history as one of the most famous and biting poets of antiquity. He is Juvenal.

His acidity is renowned, as are his pessimism and his continuous references to past and, in his opinion, happier eras. Women, especially emancipated and liberated women, bear the brunt of his jibes. They, along with homosexuals, are the favorite targets of hisSatires. A few years from now he’ll even launch an attack on the next emperor, Hadrian, for his homosexual relationship with Antinous. It’s risky: it is believed that Juvenal was exiled to Egypt by Domitian, disappearing from the scene but leaving us all of his pungent critiques of Roman society.

The scene that he has just witnessed, under the portico of the Circus Maximus, will come to occupy a place in literature. His look of disgust actually gave birth to some phrases, barely sketched out in his improvised notes, that we will later read in this form.

I cannot abide, Quirites, a Rome of Greeks; and yet what fraction of our dregs comes from Greece? The Syrian Orontes has long since poured into the Tiber, bringing with it its lingo and its manners, its flutes and its slanting harp-strings; bringing too the timbrels of the breed, and the trulls who are bidden ply their trade at the Circus. (Satire 3, translated by G. G. Ramsay)

Juvenal complains frequently about this commerce in sex in the vicinity of the Circus Maximus and points his finger at immigrants, especially those who come from Syria. It is curious to note that in the Roman era, too, prostitution so often involves young women from the East forced to live on the streets—in this case, from the east of the Mediterranean.

Betting at the Circus Maximus

The shops don’t occupy all the porticoes of the Circus Maximus. Between one shop and another, two passageways open up that lead down to the grandstands. The sequence is visible even today, among the few patches of the Circus’s ruins that emerge aboveground. Beyond the shop there is an entrance corridor toward the lower tier, the one reserved for VIPs, followed by an upward-sloped entrance, with stairs leading to the Circus’s upper tiers, for the popular classes. And then the sequence is repeated with another shop, another entrance corridor, another set of stairs, and so on.

Our man is in the middle of the crowd. As we too are pushed this way and that we ask ourselves why so many people have crowded into this place before dawn. The reason is simple: entrance is free (or very inexpensive) in the popular sections, where there are no assigned seats. (Nevertheless, some historians maintain that access to events and performances in the Roman era depended on having a lusoria card similar to the one used for going to the theater. But in the crowd we’re in now nobody seems to have one.) So, prefiguring a modern habit of fans who line up for rock concerts, a lot of people prefer to get there many hours before the show in order to get a good spot with an excellent view. Since there is no system for reserving seats, it’s not unusual for people to come to the Circus even a full day before an event.

In other sectors, reserved for the wealthy and celebrities, it’s a whole different story; there the seats are assigned. The VIPs will show up considerably later, when the stands are already jam-packed, choosing the right moment for a regal entrance so they can be seen by everyone.

From this perspective, the Circus is the real stage where the people who count in Rome—the wealthy, the patricians, members of the equestrian order, and senators—love to appear and put themselves on display in an atmosphere reminiscent of Oscar night, in a frenzy of smiles, expensive clothes, and jewelry.

Our man, however, doesn’t seem the least bit interested in getting a good seat. He steps out of the crowd as it goes up the first steps of the stairway and slips into a shop under the portico. Actually, it’s a popina. In the entryway he walks by two customers who are already drunk and about to start a fistfight and makes his way at a brisk pace toward a group of people seated around a table off to the side. It’s one of the many such groups that can be encountered around the Circus Maximus.

Betting on horse races is such a flourishing business that it would be enough by itself to justify the expense of organizing these races. Perhaps even more of an indicator than the number of spectators, which is already impressive in its own right.

You might imagine such a high volume of betting taking place in big rooms outfitted with blackboards presenting all the information on the day’s races: the positions of the contestants, the names of the charioteers, in some cases the names of the horses, with continuous updates. That’s what we have been used to seeing for generations now at our racetracks. It’s possible that this setup also existed in the Roman era, but archaeologists haven’t discovered any evidence confirming the scenario.

The bookmaker is a fat man with very fair skin, green eyes, and thinning blond hair, which he keeps uselessly long on a head that has long since surrendered to baldness. He’s holding a double waxed tablet with the names of the charioteers, the distances of the races, and the odds. He’s surrounded by intensely attentive faces. Who are the bettors assembled at this table?

Looking at their faces, we see that they are ordinary people. There’s a butcher, whose tunic is sprinkled with blood stains (his wife doesn’t know he’s here—he told her he was going to the wholesaler to order some new deliveries of meat); an employee in the public administration; a short, puny, almost hairless shopkeeper; a soldier on leave; a cutler who’s missing a couple of fingers, lost, we imagine, in a work accident; and a slave in search of a big win that will enable him to buy his freedom. Next to him is a well-dressed man, apparently well-off. His sweaty hands are nervously playing with some coins, ready to be put on the table.

They are people of different social backgrounds, with different personal histories and different faces, but in their eyes they all have the concentrated and rather gloomy gaze of those with a passion for betting; a passion shared by all, rich and poor alike.

Now we can understand the tension that was driving the man whom we have been following, his fast-paced stride, his walking through puddles, his distraction that almost got him run over by a wagon. He’s got gambler’s fever. The only thing on his mind is this moment, the thrill of placing a bet. There are plenty of Romans who have ruined themselves betting in these squalid places. He is one of them. The patches and repairs on his mantle are actually the scars inflicted by his financial ruin.

The bookmaker clears his throat and goes on with the list of races. When he says the word “Sagitta,” our man nearly jumps. In Latin it means “arrow” and sums up quite well the qualities of this horse. It’s for this very horse that he’s come here today.

Indeed, the Romans talk for days on the streets and in the taverns about the races that are going to be held at the Circus Maximus. They know the names of all the charioteers and all the horses, including their pedigree. No wonder the Christian writer, Saint John Chrysostom, once complained that the inhabitants of his era, fourth-century Rome, could make a complete list of the most famous horses but didn’t know the names nor even the number of the apostles.

It’s just like what happens today with soccer or football. If you think of the banter and rivalry between coworkers or bar patrons in the days leading up to a match between crosstown rivals (or the days immediately following), you’ll have a good idea of the atmosphere surrounding chariot races in the Roman era.

Sagitta is not one of the names that was most heard these past few days on the streets of Rome. Other horses are favored. Sagitta has already had his day in the sun. At one time he was an excellent horse, but for various reasons he never recorded any great victories, just some good placements, so his odds have remained pretty long. Now even more so since he’s on the verge of being retired. Nobody believes he’s still capable of a big victory.

But that’s exactly why the man we have followed all the way here is betting on him. He went to have a look at him when he was training (something that a lot of Roman racing fans do, lining up like hedges along the sides of the private tracks of the various stables), saw how strong he was, and especially the great experience of his charioteer, a mature man with a lot of races behind him and capable of getting every last drop of energy out of his horse. And he asked himself how it was that such an expert charioteer had chosen Sagitta, putting him in his team of four along with three other horses. Does he know something special about this steed? Impulsively, as race day drew closer, our man decided he had to bet on them. And to do it he plunged himself further into debt.

The bettors have accumulated a nice pile of sesterces on the table, regularly recorded as bets. The man we followed is the last to put his down: he pulls out our sestertius together with several silver denarii and three aurei, which shine bright as a lighthouse on a promontory. Then he puts the whole bunch of them on the table. It’s all the money he has. The bookmaker looks at the bet; it’s rather high, and unusually so for an old warhorse like Sagitta. Sure, if he actually wins, the payoff will be a real fortune, given the odds. But it’s practically impossible, considering the champions he’ll be racing against. The bookmaker stares at the man with his green eyes—the eyes of a predator with his prey in hand. And with a quick move of his hand he clutches the pile of coins and makes it disappear into the wood box that he carries tied to his belt by a chain. The metallic sound of the coins is drowned out by the sound of the lock snapping shut. Two armed slaves stand on either side of the bookmaker, staring like guard dogs at anyone who approaches.

The bet has been made. Now we just have to wait for the race …

The man who placed the bet is given a receipt: a card made of bone with some information etched on it which, together with the odds of the bet, is inscribed on a wax tablet. Then the bookmaker goes on to another race.

So our coin has changed owners once again. Will it come back into the hands of its last possessor together with a lot of others? It all depends on Sagitta.

We Enter the Circus Maximus

Our man comes out of the tavern and finally heads toward the grandstand. He has the relaxed air of someone who has done his duty. He goes up the long stone staircase together with the rest of the crowd.

The stairs are so worn from foot traffic that they are smooth and slippery. An old man loses his balance, but he’s forcefully held up and helped to climb the stairs, almost carried along by the crowd. Nobody can stop; everybody wants to go up.

The system of zigzagging stairways is extremely efficient. As we can see, the people keep on moving and nobody ever stops. The secret to managing the passage of the crowd, from the street to the stands, is very simple: there is not just one entrance but dozens of them around the whole perimeter. Furthermore, once you’ve gone through the entrance archways, the Circus Maximus becomes a veritable Swiss cheese, with an endless number of passageways and ramps that divide the flow of the crowd into a thousand streams, allowing it to move quickly. The same system is used in the Colosseum and lots of other structures for mass entertainment.

Amid the rumbling of footsteps and voices, the crowd fills the interior corridors of the first tier of the Circus, then those of the second tier as well. Then the stairways switch to wood and take people up to the highest ring, which is also made of wood. We’re almost there. Just a few more steps to climb. And then we come out into the grandstands of the Circus Maximus.

As though in a dream, the rumbling goes silent and the cool outside air envelops the spectators emerging from the entryways one by one. Waiting for them, as soon as they emerge onto the grandstands, is the rising sun, peeking out from behind the distant mountains to the east and warming their faces, still taut from resisting the cold wind of dawn.

The view is glorious. This is the Circus Maximus in all its beauty and majesty. The marble grandstands stretch out toward the horizon like so many rays of stone. It gives the impression of looking out over an enchanted valley, white as snow, arranged in ordered levels. It is a world away from the chaos of the narrow alleyways of the surrounding area, as though someone had dropped onto the city an immense set of white cliffs now being occupied by flocks of spectators. The immediate thought is that a place like this is destined to last forever.

Actually, Trajan has given the Circus Maximus a new look. Under Domitian, a huge fire had destroyed its two long sides, and the emperor had begun to rebuild it, but then he died suddenly. Trajan has finished the job, giving the structure its monumentality and the image that made it famous throughout the empire and down through the ages. Unfortunately, nobody in the modern era has ever known what the Circus really looked like; over the centuries after the fall of Rome it was pillaged and buried in sediment. Luckily, there are mosaics, coins, and even relief sculptures and tombstones that portray it (and that are the basis for these descriptions of this day at the races). Moreover, we also have some descriptions written at the time, left to us by the ancient authors, almost like emotional snapshots of this colossal construction.

The Biggest and Largest-Capacity Stadium in History

Pliny the Younger, a contemporary of Trajan’s, summed up all of its splendor in just a few words, calling it the “worthy seat of a world-conquering people.” The measurements of this monument speak loud and clear. It’s between 650 and 700 yards long and 175 yards wide. Its track occupies a surface area of more than 400,000 square feet, which is twelve times that of the arena floor in the Colosseum. Between the first row at the bottom and last row at the top, the distance is just shy of 40 yards: a long way but not too long for the hoi polloi sitting in the highest seats to be able to pick out, one by one, the “Romans who count” sitting in the first rows. But how many people can it hold?

It’s worth lingering on this for a minute because the figures help us to understand the exceptional nature of this manmade structure. Each tier of seats turns around the structure for a total of 1,550 to 1,650 yards. In other words, every row of seats is nearly a mile long. (Better not make a mistake when you’re looking for your seat.)

The total capacity of the Circus has always been a subject of heated debate. We don’t have any precise figures, but experts like Fik Meijer, professor of ancient history at the University of Amsterdam, have made some calculations.

Each spectator has at his disposal a place no more than 16 inches wide, 20 inches long, and 14 inches high. But we have to consider all of the interruptions in the rows caused by the openings of the entry and exit passages (and there are lots of them), the steps going up and down the grandstands, and then dividing walls and other structures. When all is said and done we arrive at a total capacity of 150,000 spectators.

This is an honest and conservative estimate. Let’s say it represents the minimum capacity of the structure. It may be able to hold even greater numbers of people, as would seem to be suggested by Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia, where he speaks of 250,000 spectators. In the late classical period, it was even said that as many as 480,000 people could be seated in the stands, but this is probably an exaggeration. In any event, even a capacity of 150,000 people, as estimated by Professor Meijer, is immense, almost double that of the biggest soccer stadiums in Italy: the Meazza in Milan seats a little over 80,000; San Paolo in Naples, 76,000; and the Olympic Stadium in Rome, 73,000.

And it is much greater than the capacity of the biggest stadiums in the contemporary world, from the legendary Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro (originally designed to hold 160,000 spectators but actually with a current capacity of just 95,000 seats), to the Campo Nou in Barcelona (98,000), and the Azteca in Mexico City (101,000).

Even if we consider capacity where many spectators remain standing, packed in like sardines, only very few exceptional structures can come close to the Circus Maximus: the Penn State University football stadium (107,000 seats), the Melbourne cricket stadium (100,000 seats), and the Salt Lake stadium in Kolkata, West Bengal (120,000).

All this demonstrates the exceptional place of the Circus Maximus in history. Today, despite the availability of the most advanced technologies, the highest-quality steel and concrete, the best engineering minds, and the best software, nobody in the world has built something superior to the Circus Maximus.

Perhaps it’s because there’s no reason to. Those who go to the stadium for a sporting event, a race, or a rock concert, constitute a minority of the population. There is not much use for oversized stadiums. But that is not the case with the chariot races in imperial Rome. The Circus had the capacity to hold, according to the estimates, as many as one-seventh or even one-quarter of the inhabitants of Rome.

We can begin to grasp, therefore, the Roman passion for the races and their importance to society, a concept about which relatively little has been said, convinced as we have been that the Colosseum was the real main attraction. But if we consider the capacity of the Colosseum (a “mere” 50,000 to 70,000), its role and the importance of the gladiators in the Roman mind take on much-reduced dimensions.

Where Does the Marble in the Circus Maximus Come from?

There are still a lot of unoccupied sections, and the white marble dazzles the eyes of anyone looking up and down the rows. In this moment the Circus, in the words of an old chariot-racing fan who has just sat down beside us, is “as naked as Venus taking her bath.” In a way, the scene does remind us of the candor and beauty of the marble goddess on display at the baths. And, like Venus, the stadium is gradually dressing itself in the tunics, fabrics, and colors of its spectators.

We’ll never know who supplied the marble for all the stairs and all the columns in all the capitols. But we do know where at least one of the marble suppliers for the Circus lived. Archaeologists have identified his house in Lunae (modern-day Luni), a Roman city on the coast of Liguria, near La Spezia. All that’s left of this city today are some silent ruins sticking out of the ground in the countryside, visited mostly by foreign tourists. It’s a shame because it’s a very interesting site, with the remains of an amphitheater, the forum (where recently a small treasure trove of gold coins was discovered, likely hidden before an enemy attack), and the villas of some very wealthy Romans.

The floor of one of these villas is where archaeologists have uncovered a mosaic representing the Circus Maximus, seen from above, with its grandstands and its covering. It is one of the few representations of the Circus that have come down to us from that time, and so it is very useful to scholars as an instrument of research.

The owner of the villa was almost certainly a marble wholesaler (the famous marble quarries, also used by Michelangelo, are not very far from here), and he boasted proudly that he was one of the main suppliers for the Circus—so much so that he had it represented on this mosaic. That’s not extraordinary; many wealthy Romans paid homage to the source of their wealth in a mosaic (commerce in wines, animals for the Colosseum, and so on).

To exhibit their power they also liked to commission beautiful mosaics representing some great event or spectacle that they had sponsored as a gift to the community. If, for example, they had organized an important day of combat with gladiators in the arena, they portrayed it replete with the wounded, the dead, and the names of the most famous champions. What looks to us like the scene of a massacre (would you portray on the floor of your living room the images of men stabbing each other, pools of blood, dying combatants and cadavers?) was for them a badge of honor for the family, a gift they had paid out of their own pocket for the city, obviously as a way of winning public support.

So that’s the origin of all those beautiful mosaics of gladiators that we see so often in museums. The same thing goes for chariot races. In fact, the description of the race that we are about to see is drawn from mosaics of exactly this type found in several villas, like the one in the hunting villa in Piazza Armerina in Sicily. As strange as it might seem, no complete written description of the races in the Circus Maximus has come down to us. The best evidence we have as to how these famous races were run comes to us from these “photographs in stone” (together with bas-reliefs and decorations on oil lamps, sarcophagi, etc.).

Emperors and Crowds in the Circus Maximus

With the dawning of the brand-new day, the ever more deafening noise of the mob scene in the street has moved into the stands, which are by now filled by a multicolored throng.

It’s interesting to recall that it was this very confusion, in the early hours of the morning, that drove more than one emperor into a rage. It is well known that the imperial palaces are located on the Palatine, very close to the entrance arcades of the Circus Maximus, and it’s easy to imagine how many emperors were rudely awakened before dawn by the noise, the shouting, and the uproar of the gathering crowds. Their reaction was not always very regal.

The emperor Caligula, for example, got to the point of sending in soldiers to silence and disperse the people to the tune of cudgel blows. The result was a real bloodbath. Under the blows from the billy clubs, or perhaps the crush of the crowd, dozens of men and women were killed, including many members of the equestrian order. Another emperor, Elagabalus, even made use of a system adopted during sieges, the equivalent of tear gas, but much more dangerous. He had the throng pelted with snake-filled amphoras, creating a generalized panic, the result of which was another massacre of spectators, trampled to death.

In the era we’re talking about there is no such danger. Trajan is well loved by the people and knows how to make himself so. Instead of taking his place in the pulvinar, the grand imperial tribune that rises up like a small temple over the grandstand, well separated from the general public, he prefers to sit among the spectators, exchanging comments with them in Latin with his strong Iberian accent, and the crowd feels that he is one of them. He’s not here today; he’s far way from Rome, in the east. But the inhabitants of Rome and of the entire empire love him and feel his presence, as though he were a protector of their families and their homes. They perceive him as a kind of universal paterfamilias, capable, as he in fact was, of expanding the empire as never before, giving it strength and prosperity.

The Spectacle Begins

By now almost all the seats are occupied. A small fat man is sitting near us, his double chin covered with the bristly stubble of his unshaved beard. He’s staring at the tribunes in front of him on the other side of the Circus. He turns toward us and gives us a long look, as if trying to remember where he’s seen us before. We begin to talk, and we learn that he is a retired centurion, now a doorman working at an insula in the city. Today is his day off. He offers us some wine from his leather canteen.

Our chat is interrupted to make way for two young women who need to get to their seats farther down the row. Their stolae, or long tunics, tickle our feet. They smile at us as they go by, and we are enveloped by their perfume, refreshing and inebriating. Just as soon as they sit down, not far from us, two young men start talking to them. And the two women answer. At the start they are a bit aloof, but then they seem curious and open to the advances of the young men.

Since there’s no separation between men and women in the grandstand, a lot of young men come here with the sole purpose of checking out the women. None other than Ovid himself suggests this strategy in his celebrated Ars Amatoria.

The two boys have already asked the girls which stables they’re rooting for, pretending that they are supporters too. They’re acting out a script so old that even the doorman looks over at us and smiles, giving us a wink. Back in his day he adopted the same strategy. That’s how courtship begins in the Circus Maximus.

Enter, Solemn, the Pompa Circensis

By now the whole Circus is soaking in sunlight, the track has been swept smooth, and a pair of race assistants run to get into position. These are the final touches of an organizational procedure that has gone on for days. Now everything’s ready. The crowd is buzzing; for the last several minutes the various factions of fans have been chanting the names of the most famous horses and charioteers along with slogans designed to provoke the ire of the opposing factions. And the crowd laughs. It’s amazing how much the whole scene calls to mind the pregame excitement on display in stadiums in our own time.

The start of the race is a true ceremony that follows a very rigid protocol. We could compare it to the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. The race organizer, in practical terms the man who has financed today’s races, will be the first to come around the track at the head of a long procession that will begin a long ways off, as far away as the Capitol. Like a general at the head of his victory parade, he will cross the Forum flanked by a cheering crowd on his way to the Circus Maximus for a prerace glory lap.

We can already hear the sound of ovations reaching us from outside the stadium. At first they were quite distant, but they’re getting stronger all the time, a sign that the parade is drawing close.

Suddenly, announced by a blast of trumpets, the parade appears on the track and the 150,000 spectators explode into jubilant applause. The excitement is indescribable; the noise is so loud you can’t even think, let alone hear yourself talk. Everyone directs their gaze to the majestic triumphal arch that occupies the center of the curve, sticking out like a mountain amid the stands.

It may seem odd that there’s a triumphal arch mounted in the middle of the Circus Maximus. Actually, the arch is part of the theatrical setting for triumphal marches celebrating military victories. Built by Titus, it is one of the cardinal points of the generals’ victory parades when they enter Rome. The official parade route calls for them to pass through the Circus Maximus to be acclaimed by the throng, before continuing on to the Forum and the Capitol, where they render homage to Jupiter. In essence, the military victory parades move in the opposite direction of the parade we are now watching.

The first into view are several young men on horseback. They are the scions of Rome’s most famous families. After them, some other young men, on foot. Then, in a pandemonium of acclamation, the charioteers make their entrance driving their four-horse chariots, or quadrigae. Each spectator seeks out his personal favorite, and as soon as he sees him he yells out his name. The crowd is up on its feet and the charioteers salute the crowd with broad, sweeping waves. The ovations go all the way up to the stars and can be heard throughout the city. Hundreds of thousands of Romans, busy with their daily routines, turn their heads in the direction of the Circus. For an instant, almost by magic, the Circus Maximus enters all the houses of the city, all the streets and the minds of all the inhabitants of the capital of the Roman Empire.

This is the so-called pompa circensis; the one described by Dionysius of Halicarnassus is identical to the scene we are seeing now.

Two quadrigae follow behind all the athletes involved in the other contests of the day: charioteers who will compete in the youth categories, jockeys on their steeds for the horseraces, even acrobats for the entertainments that will be staged between races. Next are dancers and musicians with lyres and flutes, dressed in purple, and porters carrying statues of divinities and ritual objects in procession.

Finally, welcomed by the jubilant cheers of the crowd, the man who paid for and organized the races comes onto the track, a thin man with white hair, standing tall in his chariot. Actually, it would be more correct to call it his quadriga. Depending on whether there are two, three, or four horses, the name of the chariot changes from biga to triga to quardriga, and so on. They got up as high as a team of ten horses, and even twenty. But these were more for exhibitions than races; it’s almost impossible to have a contest with teams that numerous—they’re practically uncontrollable.

Race Chariots, Stables, and Champions

The procession advances with a solemn air, making a lap around the track; for the longest time the cheers are deafening. Now the quadrigae are passing in front of us and we can get a good look at the charioteers. What’s really amazing are their outfits, if we can call them that; it almost seems like they’re going off to war. Each of them has a leather helmet, a chest protector fashioned out of leather strips wrapped around his torso, leg guards, and even a dagger. What do they need all of this for? For survival.

Indeed the danger of being killed in a race is very high. Often the chariots overturn, and the falls are incredibly violent. And there’s always the risk of being trampled by the team of four pulling the chariot behind you: sixteen galloping hooves are a real body grinder capable of mutilating even the most robust charioteer.

But the most feared threat is something else: to be dragged by the horses around the entire length of the track. The charioteer doesn’t hold the reins in his hands, they’re wrapped around his body like a belt, replete with belt loops. This way the charioteer can exploit his full body weight, bending right or left, to give more force to the orders he yells to the horses. It’s a little like the skipper on a sailboat leaning out over the edge of the boat.

But this means that if his chariot turns over, the horses will rip him out of his driver’s seat and carry him away with them, dragging him who knows how far. He will wind up mutilated and skinned alive. So in that case, it’s absolutely essential to cut the leather reins with the dagger that he carries in his chest protector. But will he be able to? Lots of charioteers weren’t, and were dragged to their deaths.

The chariots are very different from what we usually imagine. The bigas of the film Ben Hur would never have been able to race here. They are too big and heavy, with their high platforms, ideal for the triumphal parades of victorious generals but totally useless in a chariot race. It’s the usual Hollywood mistake. It would be as if our descendants, two thousand years from now, came up with the idea that Formula 1 car races were contests between the BMWs and Ferraris that are driven on highways. Sure, they’re fast cars, but they have nothing to do with Grand Prix racing, where the cars are light, low, and streamlined, engineered to squeeze out the smallest fraction of a second during the race.

The same can be said for the chariots. Archaeologists have never uncovered a racing chariot. There were very few of them, too light to hold up through the centuries, and even back then they were short-lived; they were dismantled after the races or ended up demolished on the track. Exactly like what happens to Formula 1 race cars, in fact: it will be tough in two thousand years to find one still intact. It’s much more likely that future archaeologists will turn up a Ferrari built for highways and city streets. And that’s what has happened in classical archaeology; what has been found in Etruscan tombs are the remains of bigae or quadrigae for parades, but never Roman racing chariots.

So what did the racing chariots look like? There’s one passing right now in front of where we’re sitting. It’s quite different from what we’d expect after the depictions in films. The platform is very low, about halfway up the charioteer’s thigh; it’s made out of a solid wood baluster with a painted and decorated leather protector tied to the front. The wheels are amazingly small; the diameter of a tray and no more. And then they’re not located at the center of the chariot but much farther back, almost at the back end, so the chariot leans forward, a trick to keep the center of gravity low and the chariot glued to the ground on the curves.

Just as there are the Formula 1 stables for Ferrari, Williams, McLaren, and Lotus, so there are teams in chariot racing. In the time of Trajan there are four of them, called factions, each one with its specific colors. Or better, they are called by their colors: there is the green team (prasina), the red one (russata), white (albata) and blue (veneta). And the charioteers have uniforms the same color as their team, again exactly like Formula 1 drivers.

Another surprising thing is the horses. They are not tall, by any means. Often they are shorter than five feet, and to us they almost seem like ponies. But that’s the way it was throughout the ancient world. The horses are small everywhere, even in the legions. They don’t tire so easily, and they are more agile on rough terrain.

The most prized horse is the getulio, or Numidian Berber horse, from North Africa, probably an ancestor of our Arabian horses. But also much appreciated are the horses from Cappadocia in present-day Turkey, as well as horses from Spain and Sicily. Hanging from their harnesses are glinting good-luck charms made of bronze. One of the most common is a half-moon with the ends pointing down, the lunula, a true talisman also used by Roman women.

A “Museum” for a Partition

Now the pompa circensis parade is leaving the arena, following the long dividing wall in the middle of the track, the spina; it’s covered with different kinds of precious marble, especially the green-toned serpentine marble. On top of the wall are statues, small temples, and fountains. But the most surprising thing is an enormous Egyptian obelisk, eighty-five feet high. Built in Egypt by Ramses II, it was brought to Rome under orders from Augustus.

We can also see a lap-counting mechanism for the races; it looks like a canopy with seven statues of gilded pairs of dolphins. The whole thing resembles an enormous skewer of shrimp. After each lap a dolphin will be rotated downward, pouring an enormous amount of water out of its mouth. In this way, the entire arena will be able to keep count of the laps completed and how many are left to run. In future eras, the dolphins will be replaced by seven golden eggs, which, after each lap, will splash down into a tub of water. The contestants have to complete seven laps of the track, running counterclockwise, for a total of almost 5 kilometers, or 3.1 miles. The race is over in a little less than ten minutes.

The parade has vanished behind the starting gates. Now the races are set to begin.

The Great Race

The races have been inflaming the crowd in the Circus for hours. There have been some spectacular accidents and surprising victories. The program calls for some twenty-four races interspersed with feats of athletic skill, acrobatics on horseback (much applauded), and challenges between the winners of different races. In other eras, under Vespasian and Titus, there were as many as forty-eight races, and under Domitian even a hundred, just to demonstrate the Roman passion for horses.

The voice of the announcer is a kind of sing-song introducing the various races. In the meantime a lot of spectators have left their seats to fetch a snack, or they have left the stadium altogether.. But the bet-making man that we followed here hasn’t moved. He’s glued to his seat, watching every race, waiting nervously for Sagitta to make his entrance. And it’s almost time.

Up to now the races have been between bigae and trigae, horses with jockeys, and even a strange contest consisting of a race between quadrigae whose drivers, once over the finish line, jump off the chariot to continue on foot for another few laps. This race, calledpedibus ad quadrigam, is the ancient equivalent of our triathlon. If you’ve ever watched a triathlon race or an Ironman contest, with athletes stretched to the limit swimming, riding bikes, and then running for miles and thought you were seeing a bizarre phenomenon of the modern fitness-obsessed world, a pedibus ad quadrigam race should be enough to convince you that the triathlon rage is really nothing new. It’s the umpteenth resemblance between our world and the world of the ancient Romans: a race that combines a wheeled vehicle and the strength of human legs (although there’s no swimming, because in the Roman era, almost nobody knows how to swim).

Our doorman observes the man for a while, taking it all in, and turns toward us shaking his head: “Another gambling addict, eh?”

He doesn’t have time to say any more before the millionth trumpet blast sounds and our man jumps to his feet. It’s time! The voice of the announcer (there are probably several in various points around the Circus, given its huge size) announces the start of the quadrigae races. It’s the moment that all the spectators have been waiting for, and they welcome the news with a deafening racket. A lot of them stand up.

They all turn their eyes toward the far end of the Circus Maximus, to the caceres, the starting gates lined up under the arcades of a long, low building.

The race assistants have smoothed the track by dragging heavy leather mats over it. They have outlined the starting lanes with chalk. The holes made by the crashing pieces of demolished chariots have been repaired. The congealed blood of a charioteer still stains the marble facing of the spina. Nobody has had time to wash it. By now everyone’s attention is concentrated on those wooden gates that will be thrown open at any moment.

Everything’s Ready in the Boxes

Right now, behind the gates, the charioteers and their teams of horses are getting ready. It’s a different world in there. There is a large open space full of frenetic activity. Stable boys are scurrying to and fro, leading horses by their bridles. Some of the quadrigae are moving into position behind the gate. Others are standing still, waiting expectantly. One of the charioteers is busy putting on his leather helmet, while just beyond him another is listening for the thousandth time as his superior explains the stable’s race strategy. Just as in Formula 1 races, various technicians in the box are making their final checks; some of them make sure the bridles and belts are well fastened, others lift up the chariots to spin the wheels and look for wavering or telltale friction.

Two quadrigae approach each other head-on and their horses, stallions, get all riled up, forcing the men into a struggle to pull the two chariots away from each other. The tension of the horses is in contrast to the extreme calm of a lot of other horses that are tied to a long wall. These are the reserve horses.

Every stable, in fact, has to have dozens of horses available for the various races, including some reserves to replace ones that get hurt or injured. And the stables also maintain a small army of servants and assistants ready to repair, replace, or fasten every last part of the quadriga, overseeing the horses and the charioteer to transform all the various parts of the team into a single victory machine.

The morators are key figures; these are the stable masters who direct all the operations, caress the horses to keep them calm—even sleep with them. They are easy to recognize in this paddock because they are always right next to the horses, down to the last second: they pick up their legs to check their hooves (a crucial detail because horseshoes haven’t been invented yet) or keep a tight hold on the horse’s muzzle, whispering reassuring words in its ear. The horses are like their children.

Our attention is drawn to a man covered in gold rings, dressed in a luxurious outfit, and followed by an entourage of attentive lackeys. He’s chatting with a charioteer, who is listening with his head bowed and his helmet in hand as a sign of deference. The man with the golden rings is the dominus factionis, the boss: every faction has one. We might compare him to the owner of the football team or the F1 racing team. As suggested by Fik Meijer in his book Chariot Racing in the Roman Empire, he is a man who is used to managing money (today we would call him a savvy entrepreneur), with powerful economic interests behind him. Besides holding the reins of the stable, he’s able to exercise strong influence over the organizer of the races, demanding large sums of money to assure the participation of his team. But this is just one of the many deals that are part of the racing environment, plenty of which are under the table and involve only the charioteer and the men of his staff.

Rules, Fixes, and Secret Agreements

Before the quadrigae even leave the gate, another contest takes place that nobody sees. This is “the fix,” the secret deal, the negotiation of an alliance to ensure a victory for one charioteer or one faction … or, on the contrary, to make sure one of them doesn’twin.

All of this is reminiscent of the atmosphere at the Palio in Siena. Here, too, the neighborhoods, or factions, are intensely competitive, and so are their fans. Here, too, secret agreements are worked out and called off at the last minute. And the audience at the Circus knows it. They know that there are sneaky deals and dirty tricks, charioteers that sell out, others that pretend to sell out only to then favor another opponent who offers a higher price. And all of this makes the races even more exciting.

Down on the track, in fact, the charioteers are ruthless. Any kind of dirty tactic is fine: pushing an opponent to make him crash into the wall is not a crime; it’s something that everybody is waiting to see. (The notorious “Greek wheel” in the film Ben Hur, however, with its hub outfitted with blades that cleave through the wheels of his adversaries, doesn’t exist. It’s another Hollywood invention.)

In order to prevent disasters from happening even before the race begins, the places at the starting gate are chosen by lottery. Marbles matching the colors of the factions are drawn by chance to decide the order of the chariots at the starting gate.

The Race Begins

This is it. It will be the organizer of today’s races, a magistrate, to give the signal to start. When he appears with his violet toga atop a special tribune above the starting gate, the screams of the crowd grow louder and louder. The signal to start will be a white cloth (mappa) that will be unfurled and allowed to drop.

Meanwhile, in the starting boxes the roar of the crowd is muffled, just as the sunlight is filtered by the ironwork of the gates, projecting an unusual play of light and shadows onto the horses and charioteers. Every charioteer has his whip held high like a sword, ready to give the horses the first violent blow. Their eyes are fixed on the morator in charge of the gate. Getting a good start will depend on his expertise and timing. Beads of sweat pearl up on the foreheads of the charioteers. The horses can feel the tension too, and they puff and rear their heads up, scraping the ground with their hooves.

Several feet above their decorated manes, the magistrate’s arm is unbending and the clamor of the crowd pumps up into a crescendo, almost like a drum roll. For an instant everything seems to have become frozen in time.

Then the sudden flash of the white cloth dropping from the magistrate’s hand causes the whole Circus to explode. In a fraction of a second, the race assistants throw back the bolts and the gates spring open. Like a sudden breach in the wall of a dam, a wave of blinding sunlight washes over the horses and the charioteers. The men close their eyes, start yelling at the top of their lungs, and cut the air with violent lashes of their whips. The chariots lunge forward and vanish into the light. The arena has swallowed them up.

The crowd sees the horses breaking out of the archways; for a second they look like the flames of an explosion that shoots the colorful chariots out of the gates. The stadium crowd is delirious. Everyone sharpens their gaze to see which team has gotten off to the best start. A good start is essential to making sure the chariot gets to the first curve in a good position. In fact, passing is prohibited at the beginning and you have to maintain your lane in the first phase of the race. Later, anything goes.

Our man who made the bet is on his feet, screaming, cheering on his quadriga from the blue team. Sagitta got off to a good start, but is in the middle, not in the lead. On the first straightaway the red team manages to place two of its chariots in the lead. It’s a good down payment on victory because the two chariots will be able to execute a team strategy, but you never can tell. Every faction has three chariots in the race—the main one will be protected by the other two, which will block the passing lanes or try to make the opponents crash.

At this instant twelve quadrigae are hurtling down the straightaway headed into the first curve. It’s clear that there won’t be room for them all on the curve, but nobody gives way and the crowd can see right away that a collision is inevitable. Our friend the doorman realizes it too and his eyes widen.

When they reach the curve the first two chariots (reds) manage to get the best trajectories amid the screams of the crowd lined up like a thick hedge along the bend.

Immediately after them come three quadrigae that try in vain to pull in close to the wall to make the turn better. On the inside the red one seems to have a good chance, but the green one pushes it up against the wall in an attempt to block his move, and in a last desperate move he cuts in front of him just a few yards from the curve. The horses start pulling away from each other, maybe because they’re the first to realize the imminent tragedy. The ones closest to the wall, tight against the barrier, lose their heads and jump at the green chariot. For an instant the two teams of horses are all mixed up: It’s all one big tangle from which one of the two chariots suddenly emerges straight up, its rudder snapped. It’s the chariot of the red team. The crowd gets a good look at the charioteer clinging desperately to the baluster, his face frozen in a grimace of terror, then, like a ship going down at sea, he disappears into the roiling bodies of the horses.

It’s a high-speed collision and the entangled mass of horses and chariots hurls forward on its fatal course. The green charioteer is unable to free himself and his chariot is dragged along diagonally, making a deep groove in the track with its only wheel still in contact with the ground, while the other one, high above, spins in slow motion in the void. Everyone is on their feet, and they all realize that something is about to happen, even the charioteer himself who is desperately trying to cut the reins with his dagger. Then in an instant the wheel on the ground, which is supporting the entire weight of the chariot, snaps in two; the quadriga grinds to a halt, turns over, and starts rolling over itself at an amazing speed. The green charioteer is smashed by his chariot and lies motionless on the ground.

The oncoming quadrigae manage to avoid the accident. None of the charioteers even deign to look at their colleague on the ground. That’s one of the risks. All they’re thinking about is getting on with the race.

The rest of the chariots all get through the first curve without incident, and they head down the second straightaway. The cheering ratchets up another notch.

We note another curiosity. We expect the charioteers to be standing in their chariots they way we’ve seen them depicted in films, leaning forward with the reins in hand in the position of someone hanging out over a balcony shaking a sheet. In reality, their position is much farther back, reminiscent of a surfer trying to keep his balance, with one leg forward and one back. The necessity of maneuvering the reins with their bodies forces them into different positions, similar to a boxer moving his head to avoid his adversary’s punches.

Now on the straightaway the speed of the chariots approaches a remarkable forty miles an hour. It’s no wonder that the wheel hubs overheat. Each team has technicians (sparsores) positioned along the straightaway with cone-shaped buckets and amphoras to throw water on the chariot wheels to cool them down … and of course they always splash the charioteers, too.

On the curves, the chariots slow down, but their speed always fluctuates between twenty and twenty-five miles per hour. Actually, it’s on the curves that the worst accidents happen. Everyone knows it. Now the chariots move into the curve, their wheels sending up little fountain-spurts of sand. All the charioteers lean to the inside, like motorcycle drivers sliding to the side on their saddles.

The small wheels allow for tight curves because they keep the chariot’s center of gravity low, but the real secret for taking the curves well are the horses. And we can see that very clearly.

The four horses are not all the same; they have different characteristics. The two horses on the sides (called funales) are the chariot’s real steering wheel. The innermost horse has to be able to make the curve really tight. The one on the outside is forced to run a greater distance and has to do it perfectly, maintaining its alignment with the others. It takes years of training. Sometimes the steeds come from distant provinces, having been scouted by experts from the various stables for their abilities, exactly like what happens today with baseball players or other athletes from abroad.

Whipping the Eyes of Your Opponent’s Horses

A roar from the crowd brings our attention back to the race. Two chariots from the middle of the pack are bumping and pushing each other. One of the two charioteers is even whipping his opponent’s horses, which is allowed. The only rule is that you can’t whip your opponent himself. Just imagine, the veterinarians who work for the competing teams keep as many as fourteen different creams and lotions just for treating abrasions of the horses’ eyes caused by whip lashings.

These horses are trained not to be distracted, but the charioteer who is using his whip has noticed that his opponent’s outside horse is nervous, and he keeps on whipping it viciously, until the horse gets out of step with the rest of the team, causing the chariot to lose speed and then go into a swerve just ahead of the curve. Out of control in the most delicate part of the race, the chariot loses its trajectory. In an instant it turns over and all the horses fall or “sit down” on the track, just in time for an oncoming quadriga to bash into them. The chariots coming from behind are forced into a sudden swerve and lose speed.

The charioteer who caused the accident can’t resist the temptation, and he turns his head to look back at the chaos he has created. He smiles and shouts in satisfaction as the tangle of horses, chariots, and men disappears behind the curve. But those few seconds of distraction are fatal. Materializing just ahead of him are the ruins of the chariot that crashed at the start of the race. The race assistants haven’t managed to remove all the broken pieces. A collision is inevitable. The crowd leaps to its feet and accompanies the moment of impact with a loud roar. The horses manage to jump over the remains of the ruined quadriga, but the chariot slams right into them; the terrorized charioteer clings to the platform. Thousands of spectators look on as the wheels jam and the chariot suddenly stops. The impact is amazing. The chariot snaps in two like a piece of kindling wood. The sound can be heard all the way up to the top of the grandstands. The charioteer flies out of the chariot, ripped from his place by his four steeds who haven’t realized what has happened, and, feeling the sudden loss of weight, they lengthen their stride. The charioteer is dragged along the track, raising a billowing cloud of dust. He tries desperately to get a hand on his dagger, but he can’t find it. The horses don’t stop and every few feet a new wound opens up on his body. His prostrate body gets dragged through the entire straightaway and then on the curve he tumbles in a series of somersaults, losing his helmet, which goes crashing into the wall on the outside. The horses head down the second straightaway and are not stopped by the race assistants from their stable until they come to the ruins of the incident that their charioteer had provoked. As for him, he’s not moving anymore; he’s out cold.

From one of the side doors (painted to match the colors of the four stables) some men come running out carrying a stretcher. There’s no time to try to bring him to, the other quadrigae are coming on fast. They dump him onto the stretcher. His body, covered with blood, doesn’t move. As they carry him off, his arm dangles lifelessly over the side of the stretcher. Will he survive? We don’t know. One thing is certain: his career is probably over.

What we’ve learned up to this point is that in the case of a serious accident nobody interrupts the race. The race assistants go out on the track to help the injured and carry off the bodies, but they have to hurry because nobody slows down.

Duel for Victory

The man in charge of the lap counter turns the next-to-last dolphin. There haven’t been any other accidents.

The two red chariots are now way out in front, and the pack has broken up. The blue chariot with Sagitta has been running last for most of the race, throwing the bettor into a panic. He has remained seated, in silence, almost petrified. Maybe the bookmaker had called it right: Sagitta is at the end of his career; what can you expect from a horse on the verge of retirement? Now, though, for the last couple of laps, his chariot has been moving up impressively. The blue team’s charioteer has been deliberately holding his horses back, and now he loosens up on the reins to unleash their pent-up energy and make his move. It’s a tactic that’s used a lot in the Circus Maximus. The whole crowd has figured it out and salutes every pass with a loud cheer. Now the blue chariot forces the white one to the outside and passes it, moving steadily closer to the two red chariots in the lead.

A man on horseback comes out of the boxes. He’s wearing the colors of the red stable. The rules allow the stables to send in riders (hortatores) to keep the charioteer informed about the positions of his opponents, a bit like what happens in cycling with the team cars or, in Formula 1, with the signs displayed in the boxes.

The rider quickly reaches the two red chariots, which have been leading the race since the start. He shouts the stable’s orders to them. The blue chariot is coming up fast; they’ll have to act together to keep it from taking the lead. Then the rider breaks away and heads back to the box.

By now the blue chariot is right behind the red one that’s in second place. Every time it tries to pass, the red one cuts him off. It’s a real duel that excites the crowd. When they head into the curve, however, the red chariot makes a mistake. The blue charioteer, in fact, drawing on all his experience accumulated in years of racing, has faked a pass to the outside, forcing his adversary to follow him. Then he suddenly switches to the inside and moves up beside him. The two chariots remain side by side for the whole curve around the meta, or turning post. But by the end of the curve the blue chariot is ahead. The crowd goes into an uproar. And our bettor has jumped to his feet, cheering. The doorman smiles and remains unfazed.

Now the race is really up for grabs. The whole Circus is absorbed by the duel, shouting out the names of the two rival stables. The blue charioteer keeps his horses charging and is getting closer and closer to the lead chariot. The red charioteer who’s driving it still has a good lead, but he also has the disadvantage of not being able to see his adversary except for quick glances procured at the cost of turning his head. They are both expert drivers, which fuels the enthusiasm of the crowd even more.

A roar follows in the wake of the passing quadrigae. Whole sections of the grandstands jump to their feet, creating an ancient version of the wave. But the crowd never cheers all together. Every time the chariots disappear around the curve, the spina hides them from the view of the spectators on the opposite side. For them, it’s like a long eclipse. And this, according to the ancient authors, only serves to increase their enthusiasm; when the chariots reemerge around the opposite curve, half of the Circus explodes in a roar, while the other half falls silent.

Drama on the Final Curve

Sagitta is the outside horse of the team of four. At every curve, therefore, he has to run a greater distance than the other horses of the team, but he does it with a power and ease that are truly impressive. His mane, decorated with blue knots and bows, waves like a flag with every stride. The crowd is fascinated by him; he’s a beautiful horse, in the fullness of his maturity. With harmonious strides, he leads the quadriga around every curve, putting it into the perfect trajectory for the straightaway. He moves in total unison with the blue charioteer, man and animal bonded together instinctively. The crowd loves come-from-behind victories, and by now almost everyone is cheering for this chariot, which nobody considered before the start of the race.

We’re coming down to the wire. The last dolphin has been turned. The waterfall that flows out of its head is colored red to signal the start of the last lap. The two chariots grow closer together as they prepare to confront the next to last curve. The blue chariot again feints a passing move to the outside to draw his opponent out and then move up on the inside. But the red charioteer senses the trick and doesn’t fall into the trap. He stays glued to the inside wall and slows down a little, to force the blue charioteer to move out of his trajectory and head straight into the curve. He’s a sly old fox too.

But the blue driver has a flash of intuition: to go ahead with the passing move to the outside, taking a much wider route around the curve. Sure, it means covering a greater distance, but his horses still have energy to burn. Suddenly the two quadrigae are neck and neck as they start into the curve. All the spectators are back on their feet again.

Sagitta instinctively realizes what he has to do. He gallops even faster, and forcing himself beyond the limit, he lengthens his stride again to keep in line with the others. For the entire curve the two chariots remain neck and neck. Their wheels touch, the horses bump up against each other. They are so close together that when the two quadrigae come out of the last curve they look like a single chariot with a team of eight horses.

But then comes a bitter surprise. The struggle between the chariots bringing up the rear has caused an accident. Two chariots have overturned; the horses are all mixed up together and they’re jumping around like crazy. None of the race assistants down on the track have managed to make it to the scene of the naufragium. One of the charioteers (the white) is trying to calm the horses. The other, from the blue stable, is lying on the ground, unconscious. Then he raises his head, shaking it a little. He’s coming to his senses. But peering through his sand-filled, painful eyes, he glimpses the two oncoming quadrigae charging toward him. He only has time enough to cover his helmet with his hands. The blue charioteer recognizes his stable-mate and he pulls so hard on the reins that Sagittaalmost chokes. But he obeys. The chariot charges past the man on the ground, missing him by a hair.

The red driver, however, has no such scruples. Suddenly he sees some daylight open up in front of him, an unhoped-for opportunity. The crowd watches him snap his whip on the back of his horses and looks on aghast at the tragedy. The fallen charioteer is trampled by the horses. The red chariot bounces over his body and goes on with the race, leaving the man facedown on the track. His fellow driver from the white stable rushes to his aid. He gets down on one knee and pulls him up, removing his helmet. His face is a mask of blood. But he’s still alive.

The whole crowd whistles and protests, while the fans of the red stable cheer. Their chariot is back in first place and has opened up a wide lead.

All the fans of the blue stable are shouting out their desperation and our man with the bet is back sitting down with a lost look on his face. The doorman, on the other hand, is on his feet, shouting insults at the red driver.

That’s when Sagitta pulls out his master stroke. He lengthens his stride once again, forcing the rest of the team to do the same. In a dramatic charge the blue chariot pulls even with the red. Once they’re paired, Sagitta leans a little to the inside, squeezing the opponent against the wall. The blue charioteer immediately catches on to the horse’s strategy and follows his lead, pulling the reins to the inside. The maneuver works: the red chariot bangs into the marble wall, the inside wheel running up the side,

“If he keeps that up he’ll turn over!” the centurion yells, jubilant. The red chariot brakes to avoid the tragedy, bringing his chariot back into equilibrium. By now the two quadrigae are neck and neck coming down the final stretch.

The two drivers whip the horses savagely, but the sound of the whips is drowned out by the roar exploding from the grandstands. The crowd is on its feet, cheering wildly. Only a few hundred yards to the finish line.

The red driver makes one last try: he whips the horses of the blue chariot. He aims directly for the eyes of the nearest horse: he hits them again and again, but the horse doesn’t give in. Sagitta rabidly puts even more force into his stride, dragging the rest of the team and the chariot behind him as they gradually move ahead of their red rival.

The red driver realizes that his victory is slipping away and he starts whipping his opponent with all the strength left in his body. His lashes are powerful, cutting blows that lacerate the skin and score the leather helmet. The whole Circus is up in arms.

Like two streaking meteors, the chariots go whizzing by the imperial tribune. This is it, they’re down to the wire. Just a few yards left … and here they are, over the finish line. The blue chariot that crosses the line first—not by much, but clearly in the lead. Sagitta might actually have been the first across.

The crowd is delirious. Our man the bettor is beside himself with joy: he thanks the gods one by one and hugs everybody around him, including the centurion, who stands there stiffly and then pushes him away with severity. The Circus Maximus looks to be a single living being, shouting, shaking, waving, and exulting. In some sections of the stands entire groups of fans start punching each other. They’re acting just like today’s hooligans, confronting each other in violent battles in soccer stadiums. The authorities do what they can to prevent such outbursts but, just like today, it’s difficult to control these conflicts, which often degenerate into riots with injuries and even deaths.

The Well-Deserved Prize … in Sesterces

Down on the track the atmosphere is very different. The men from the blue stable have come out en masse and are celebrating with their victorious charioteer. The stable masters untie the horses and rub them down. The charioteer takes off his helmet, his face radiant, and looks contemptuously at the red quadriga as it slinks out of the arena, disappearing under the arcades of the starting gate, where he had started out so sure of victory.

The race officials scrupulously record the results of the race, and next to the name of the blue charioteer they write erupit et vicit, meaning, in essence, “he won at the wire with a last-second lunge.” Every victory has a brief but effective description to be left to posterity in the annals: successit et vicit (“after a long time in the back of the pack he overtook the leader to win”) or occupavit et vicit (jumping to the lead at the start he stayed in first place all the way to the end”).

So what happens to the winner now? There aren’t any shared podiums; only the winner is celebrated. Second is as good as last, even though he receives a small prize. Now it’s time for the winning quadriga to take a victory lap, to receive the applause and ovations of the crowd. The charioteer has won what might be the most satisfying victory of his whole career. And as the winning drivers often do, he takes his lap on the back of his best-performing horse, usually an outside horse. And the choice today, obviously, is Sagitta.

So horse and rider are both out on the track again, and the crowd is throwing flowers and strips of blue cloth, singing victory marches, and chanting the names of both charioteer and steed. Our betting man is crying profusely. He’s overwhelmed with emotion. He’s now going to pocket a sum the likes of which he has never seen before. Behind the man on horseback some race assistants are already repairing the track for the next race. They fill in the holes, sweep the track smooth with big mats, remove the fragments of broken chariots that might hurt the horses.

Surprisingly, the only study of what the composition of the track surface might have been was the one done for the film Ben Hur. It was determined that a packed-earth surface threw up too much dust. After countless tries, they came up with the best possible solution: several layers of gravel, with the roughest layer on the bottom, gradually getting finer and finer up to the top layer of sand. But what was the real track of the Circus Maximus made of? The answer to this little enigma lies some twenty-five feet under the present surface where tourists walk or joggers go for runs. Drilling samples have revealed a bottom layer of big pieces of broken pottery to drain off rainwater that otherwise would have turned the track into a swamp, and then, moving upward, finer and finer layers of crushed pottery. In reality, this layered structure is very reminiscent of the Romans’ road-building technique. The track of the Circus was probably inspired by the Romans’ experience as road builders.

Now the charioteer on horseback has completed his victory lap, and he stops near the finish line. To his right is the pulvinar, where, in the absence of Emperor Trajan, the race organizer will present him with his prize. Amid the acclamation of the crowd, he dismounts from Sagitta and slips into a doorway leading to the stage. When he reappears he approaches the man with the purple toga, who smiles at him.

With a regal manner and solemn gestures he pronounces some ceremonial phrases and offers him the prize: a palm branch and a laurel wreath, which he accepts with his head bowed, sweaty and dusty. Her also receives a hefty prize on the order of tens of thousands of sesterces (between 30,000 and 50,000, or more). If our theoretical exchange rate of $2.50 per sestertius is right, his prize is worth between $75,000 and $125,000! Considering that the races are held at least twice and often four times a month (and probably even more frequently), it’s easy to figure out that the charioteers really lived on a whole different planet from ordinary Romans.

Now the charioteer makes his exit amid slaps on the back. And a lot of looks, which leave no room for interpretation, on the part of many of the women in the crowd.

How Much Do Charioteers Make? And Who Are They?

In the Roman era, just like in motorcycle and auto racing today, there are some great champions. Some of their names have come down to us, such as Calpurnianus with his 1,127 wins, and Gaius Appuleius Diocles, who won one-third of his races, coming in first 1,462 times. Their victories brought them vast sums of money. The former earned more than 1 million sesterces, the latter an astonishing 36 million, or about $90 million. An outrageous sum for the time considering that a legionnaire earned the equivalent in sesterces of less than $250 per month.

But exactly who were these champions of the Circus Maximus? What did they look like? We know some of their faces, thanks to some extraordinary renderings on display in a room of the National Roman Museum in Palazzo Massimo in Rome. They are the marble busts of seven famous chariot-racing champions, the equivalents of our Mario Andretti, Michael Schumacher, and Ayrton Senna from Formula 1, or even better, the great champions of horseracing, Bill Shoemaker, Eddie Arcaro, and Laffit Pincay. These busts were rediscovered in a small temple dedicated to Hercules during the excavations for the Trastevere Station in Rome in the nineteenth century. The charioteers themselves commissioned their marble portraits to be displayed in the temple, perhaps to thank Hercules for their victories.

The temple soon became a sort of Hall of Fame of the era, a place where generations could admire the faces of the champions who thrilled the crowds at the Circus Maximus. They lived at different times in the span of the 120 years between Nero and Marcus Aurelius. In their busts some are young and others more mature, evidently some of the handful who reached the end of their career in good health. Some of them have beards in line with fashion at the time of Hadrian. We don’t know their names, but we can guess the origins of some of them. One in particular has some features that betray his probable roots in Egypt or the Near East. He was young and very focused on his appearance. It’s surprising, in fact, to see the almost maniacal precision of his hairstyle: an infinite series of curls placed in orderly rows. The busts confirm that after chalking up a certain number of victories these charioteers became real stars: rich, celebrated, capricious, and always in line with the latest trends in fashion.

It’s tempting to compare them to a lot of the champions in modern sports. Some lived in luxurious villas and could afford all the comforts they wanted, just like the patrician class. So they were envied by the more humble classes but also looked on with contempt by the intellectual and cultivated classes for their crassness and vulgarity.

In reality, the life of a professional charioteer wasn’t fit for a citizen of Rome. Racing was considered an activity for social rejects; for the most part they were slaves or men from the poorer rungs of society seeking vindication or freedom (purchased with their winnings). So they were almost always men who were uneducated, often vulgar, blessed with sudden wealth and status. Even though they were sports champions, they couldn’t hide their humble origins and were looked down on despite their fame and wealth.

The Circus Empties Out

The crowd streams down the grandstands and out of the stadium. There’ll be another day of racing before too long, but it’ll be tough for it to be as thrilling as the one they’ve just seen. Today’s race will be talked about for a long time to come. On the streets and in the taverns, as well as at the banquets of the rich or in the Forum, Sagitta’s name will be on everyone’s lips. The centurion comes down the steps and slips into the corridors, blending into the crowd. He pushes some slow movers out of his way and then, finally, with a look of relief on his face, he stops near a wall and leans his forehead up against it (the wall is black from all the men who have done this same thing before he arrived). What for? Then two people move out of the way and we can see the scene: it’s a urinal, one of the many distributed throughout the Circus. It’s a kind of vertical canal dug into the wall; it comes from the floor above and continues down to the floor below. This tells us that the various urinals are arranged in columns and that they’re connected. There’s no need to flush, a continuous stream of water flows down the whole column to carry away the urine and the foul smell. Off to the side there’s a kind of washtub or fountain; we can’t see it very well because of the crowd in the corridor, where lots of people are drinking, washing their hands, or splashing some water on their faces.

These are latrines for the popular classes. The wealthy, the senators, and the VIPs sit in their own special sections and naturally their toilets are separate from those of the Circus crowd. They’re the same kind that you can see at a lot of archaeological sites: a long stone bench with a row of holes that people sit over. The privacy of modern times doesn’t exist, but people use their clothes to conceal their private parts. As for the rest—grimaces, smells, grunts, and other noises—well, it’s all in the public domain.

Despite these habits and behaviors that seem rather distant from western society, the circulation of water in a structure as gigantic as the Circus underscores the grandeur of this masterpiece of ancient civil engineering.

We make our way out. Some pigeons fly over our heads, with one wing painted blue. Something invented by the fans to celebrate? No, an unusual system for communicating as quickly as possible who won. It’s an idea that was thought up a long time ago by, it seems, a resident of Volterra in Tuscany (a certain Cecina), in order to shorten the anxiety of his fellow citizens who had bet on the race. Instead of waiting a long time to hear the result, they will know in just a couple of hours because of the pigeons. Evidently, this old system is still in vogue under Trajan. We don’t know where the pigeons are headed, but one thing is sure: the passion for betting on chariot races is universal throughout the empire.

Whatever happened to our betting man? He’s gone to collect his winnings. We see him walking by with a big bag under his arm, which, unbeknownst to us, is full of gold aurei. Another bag, almost the same size, is full of sesterces. For security reasons as well as health reasons, he left the building where the payment was made, by a side door. He practically cleaned out the betting table. Now, incognito, he makes his way through the unknowing crowd, his eyes staring at the ground, obviously in shock. Who knows what he’ll do now. How will he spend all his money—on more bets? Or maybe after this win he’ll straighten himself out. We’ll never know. But we will see how he’s going to spend at least one of the coins he won.

Still distracted, he’s about to cross an intersection of streets, but he stops to let by a yellow litter with red decorations. While he’s waiting a hand grabs his elbow. He immediately turns to defend his money, but there’s no need. It’s a beggar, a man with hollow cheeks and a beard. His eyes have a gentle look to them, instinctively kind. And above all they’re bright and penetrating. The bettor stares at him. He doesn’t know why, but he understands that he has to help him. Maybe he feels like he owes a debt to fate, or maybe he sees the beggar as a sign from the gods, a request for an offering in return for the good fortune that some divinity sent his way. He sticks his hand into his bag and pulls out a sestertius. A significant sum for a beggar. He thrusts it into his palm and closes his hand over it with a smile. Then he walks off, vanishing into the crowd.

The beggar opens his hand and looks, amazed to see a beautiful coin with an engraving of Trajan’s great victory in Mesopotamia. It’s our sestertius changing hands once again. The beggar heads on his way and goes to spend it to buy as much food as possible to allow his destitute family to survive another day.

The Circus Maximus disappears behind the beggar, among the houses and the alleyways, almost like a transatlantic cruise ship tied up at the dock of an ever more distant port. The stage set of power, the pulsing heart of the life of Rome, the driving force behind the financial and economic success of thousands of people, from the stable masters, to the bettors, to the salespeople in the stores—it will go on for generations, the roar of its crowds echoing through the capital of the empire.

The fate of the Circus Maximus will be inevitably tied to the fate of the Eternal City. Its last races will be run more than four hundred years from now under the Goth king Totila, more than a century after the fall of the empire. Then the whole area will become a swamp and the structure will be looted and plundered. Later on, under Charlemagne, water mills will be built to exploit the same stream used by the Romans to wet down the track and cool the hubs of the chariot wheels. In the end, the Circus will be totally stripped of its marble and even its obelisks, which the popes will recycle, moving them to the Piazza del Popolo and the Piazza San Giovanni, in the heart of Rome.

Today the Circus Maximus has gone back to attracting crowds, but for other reasons: rock concerts, speeches, protest demonstrations, victory celebrations (for instance, the celebration of Italy’s 2006 World Cup victory). New pages of history silently superimpose themselves over earlier pages, written with the faces of the emperors, the charioteers, and the anonymous crowds of ancient Rome.

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