Book Review: Chariot Racing in the Roman Empire

Chariot Racing in the Roman Empire

By Fik Meijer

Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press (2010)
Price: £19.79

Reviewed by Sandra Alvarez

In preparation for an upcoming issue on chariot racing in the ancient world, I read Fik Meijer's Chariot Racing in the Roman Empire. This short, 185-page book provides a concise overview of the politics, logistics, and rise and decline of Rome's most popular sport.

Meijer begins the book by launching right into one of the most dramatic sporting tragedies in history: The Nika Riot of AD 532, an event that left thirty thousand people dead after a week of skirmishes between various chariot fan factions turned into a brutal slaughter in the Hippodrome. Why start there? The event occurred during a time when chariot racing was past its heyday, but it highlights most of the key elements Meijer discusses throughout the rest of the book: a sport that was thoroughly enmeshed with politics in the empire.

After an intense start, Meijer moves into a traditional chronological retelling of how chariot racing came to be after chariots ceased to be used in battle. Chariots were initially used for warfare in ancient Egypt and Bronze Age Greece. Around 1100 BC, along with the collapse of Bronze Age society, warfare charioteering subsided. The chariot was relegated to a mode of transportation for elites to the battleground, but it was no longer a part of the action.

Chariots racing was first mentioned in Homer‘s Iliad, and according to the second-century writer Pausanias, it became an official sport in 680 BC. What’s interesting about the sport is that it seemed to be the one thing that both elites and commoners enjoyed together – it crossed all social strata. It was also a unique space where slaves and common men could become heroes; their low status temporarily transcended as the chariot thundered around the arena.

Meijer goes onto discuss the differences between Greek and Roman chariot racing. Early Greek chariot races were for elites and had simple tracks.  As Romans took to chariot racing, it became popular, cheap entertainment for all levels of society. First, being associated with ludi, festivals that were of a religious nature and contained racing during their last few days, eventually, this religious aspect was removed, and chariot racing was commercialized. At this point, it came time to build suitable grounds for the races to take place, which leads to the next chapter devoted to the most famous race track: The Circus Maximus. This section also discusses the logistics of the track, how to run races smoothly, other Roman racetracks, and attendee numbers. He then moves onto the organization of the races: the growth of professional stables, charioteer selection and training, and how money and fortunes changed hands. In the chapter on heroes, we see the meteoric rise of the charioteer, a quasi-celebrity who, at the top echelons of the sport, could easily out-earn a senator! In another chapter, he touches on the spectators and the intense fervour of fan factions - which could easily rival those of the most ardent football fans today. Some of the biggest super-fans were emperors, whose factions were supported and patronized to ridiculous lengths, and who could, and did, cause political turmoil off the track. Meijer shows the importance of chariot racing to various emperors, who often attended to gauge the political temperature of the populace, and how the racetrack became a place where people could safely voice their disapproval of the current ruler. The book ends with a chapter touching on the allure of chariot racing on the big screen, and of course, what caused chariot racing's rapid decline in the sixth century.

The intensity of chariot racing makes this book a fascinating read. It is compact but offers a solid introduction to anyone interested in learning more about ancient chariot racing and just how much it touched Roman life. It's aimed at a general audience and provides a decent overview of the basics of the sport.

Stay tuned for our exciting upcoming issue on Chariot Racing! In the meantime, if you love all things Roman and want to learn more about ancient history, subscribe to our magazine! 

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