Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Chariot Racing in the Roman Empire by Fik Meijer

It's hard not to think about Celtic and Rangers when you read this book. Thousands of frenzied fans decked out in green and blue. Chants of hatred. Claims of bias by the authorities. Riots spilling out onto the streets. Best of all, they didn't have to watch boring old football. They got to watch the greatest sport of all time.

Chariot racing was already well established when Homer wrote about it, and it was a passion in Rome from at least the time of the kings. By imperial times it was massively popular. There were race days around twice a week - far more than gladiatoral contests. And the numbers involved beggar belief. A conservative estimate puts the capacity of the Circus Maximus at 150,000. To put that in perspective, Wembley (the English Hampden) holds 90,000. It wasn't even the only circus in Rome, and there were many others across the empire.

It sounds incredibly exciting. A very light chariot, usually with four horses, and seven laps with two long straights to get your speed up and two 180 degree turns. The reins were tied around the charioteer's waist so he could have his whip hand free. Useful, except when there was a crash and you were dragged along behind your horses. Crashes seem to have been pretty common.

The way the racing was organised is fascinating. There were stables named after colours, with the Greens and the Blues being the most prominent. Charioteers often transferred between stables, but the fans never did. The supporters were fanatical, and knew all the stats of their favourite charioteers and even horses. And it crossed all the rigid social divides in Roman society. Even emperors had a side, and were expected to by the crowd. Mostly they were for the Greens, at least in the early Roman Empire. But the reasons for supporting one stable over another are murky. We don't know if it was geographical, or possibly to do with different professions. Family allegiance presumably played a part, but it seems politics and religion did as well.

Chariot racing gradually died out when the empire's capital moved to Constantinople. But it went out with a bang. The introduction of paid "clappers" (nasty cheerleaders, presumably) for each stable saw the hatred and violence cranked up even more, as did the religious controversies of the time. Fighting between Greens and Blues under Justinian led to the destruction of much of the city. The crackdown in the Hippodrome under the legendary general Belisarius was hardcore - more than 30,000 fans killed.

There's a great description of the typical chariot hooligan of the time - a long beard in the style of ancient Persians, a mullet with shaved front and a brightly coloured cloak with gold stitching with a dagger hidden inside. They roamed in gangs attacking anyone at the slightest provocation. Presumably while looking like prog-rock bands.

The author's done a great job, considering the paucity of evidence, both written and archeological. Nice and short as well, which I like in a history. And it's strangely comforting to see such fanatical rivalry made so strange and pointless through the lens of time. What's latin for "there will always be nutters"?


Bryce said...

illic mos usquequaque exsisto rabidus populus?

Joe said...

God knows, my latin has withered and died. Although I reckon you'll need a semper.

Joe said...

Had a look into it, then just typed it into google translate and got this...

semper erunt amentes

just what I was looking for. Who needs to know anything anymore, now we've got the internet?