Chariot racing

Chariot racing (Greek: harmatodromia, Latin: ludi circenses) was one of the most popular ancient Greek, Roman, and Byzantine sports. Chariot racing was often dangerous to both driver and horse as they frequently suffered serious injury and even death, but generated strong spectator enthusiasm. In the ancient Olympic Games, as well as the other Panhellenic Games, the sport was one of the most important equestrian events.Each chariot was pulled by 4 horses. In the Roman form of chariot racing, teams represented different groups of financial backers and sometimes competed for the services of particularly skilled drivers. These teams became the focus of intense support among spectators, and occasional disturbances broke out between followers of different factions. The conflicts sometimes became politicized, as the sport began to transcend the races themselves and started to affect society overall. This helps explain why Roman and later Byzantine emperors took control of the teams and appointed many officials to oversee them. The sport faded in importance after the fall of Rome in the West, surviving only for a time in the Byzantine Empire, where the traditional Roman factions continued to play a prominent role for some time, gaining influence in political matters. Their rivalry culminated in the Nika riots, which marked the gradual decline of the sport. In the ancient Olympic Games, as well as the other Panhellenic Games, there were both four-horse (tethrippon, Greek: ?) and two-horse (synoris, Greek: ?) chariot races, which were essentially the same aside from the number of horses.[4] The chariot racing event was first added to the Olympics in 680 BC with the games expanding from a one-day to a two-day event to accommodate the new event (but was not, in reality, the founding event).[5] The chariot race was not as prestigious as the stadion (the foot race), but it was more important than other equestrian events such as racing on horseback, which were dropped from the Olympic Games very early on.[6] The races themselves were held in the hippodrome, which held both chariot races and riding races.[7] The hippodrome was situated at the south-east corner of the sanctuary of Olympia, on the large flat area south of the stadium and ran almost parallel to the latter. Until recently, its exact location was unknown, since it is buried by several meters of sedimentary material from the Alfeios River. In 2008, however, Norbert Muller and staff of the German Archeological Institute used radar to locate a large, rectangular structure similar to Pausanias's description. Pausanias, who visited Olympia in the second century BC, describes the monument as a large, elongated, flat space, approximately 780 meters long and 320 meters wide (four stadia long and one stadefour plethra wide). The elongated racecourse was divided longitudinally into two tracks by a stone or wooden barrier, the embolon. All the horses or chariots ran on one track towards the east, then turned around the embolon and headed back west. Distances varied according to the event. The racecourse was surrounded by natural (to the north) and artificial (to the south and east) banks for the spectators; a special place was reserved for the judges on the west side of the north bank.[8] The Charioteer of Delphi, one of the most famous statues surviving from Ancient Greece. Like modern jockeys, chariot racers were chosen for their lightness, but also needed to be tall, so they were frequently teenagers. The race was begun by a procession into the hippodrome, while a herald announced the names of the drivers and owners. The tethrippon consisted of twelve laps around t

e hippodrome,[9] with sharp turns around the posts at either end. Various mechanical devices were used, including the starting gates (hyspleges, singular: hysplex, Greek: ?-?) which were lowered to start the race.[10] According to Pausanias, these were invented by the architect Cleoitas, and staggered so that the chariots on the outside began the race earlier than those on the inside. The race did not actually begin properly until the final gate was opened, at which point each chariot would be more or less lined up alongside each other, although the ones that had started on the outside would have been travelling faster than the ones in the middle. Other mechanical devices known as the "eagle" and the "dolphin" were raised to signify that the race had begun, and were lowered as the race went on to signify the number of laps remaining. These were probably bronze carvings of those animals, set up on posts at starting line.[11] In most cases, the owner and the driver of the chariot were different persons. In 416 BC, the Athenian general Alcibiades had seven chariots in the race, and came in first, second and fourth; obviously, he could not have been racing all seven chariots himself.[12] Philip II of Macedon also won an Olympic chariot race in an attempt to prove he was not a barbarian, though if he had driven the chariot himself he would likely have been considered even lower than a barbarian. However, the poet Pindar did praise the courage of Herodotos of Thebes for driving his own chariot.[13] This rule also meant that women could technically win the race, despite the fact that women were not allowed to participate in or even watch the Games.[14] This happened rarely, but a notable example is the Spartan Cynisca, daughter of Archidamus II, who won the chariot race twice.[15] Chariot racing was a way for Greeks to demonstrate their prosperity at the games. The case of Alcibiades indicates also that chariot racing was an alternative route to public exposure and fame for the wealthy.[16] The charioteer was usually a family member of the owner of the chariot or, in most cases, a slave[17] or a hired professional (driving a racing chariot required unusual strength, skill, and courage). Yet, we know the names of very few charioteers,[18] and victory songs and statues regularly contrive to leave them out of account.[19] Unlike the other Olympic events, charioteers did not perform in the nude, probably for safety reasons because of the dust kicked up by the horses and chariots, and the likelihood of bloody crashes. Racers wore a sleeved garment called a xystis. It fell to the ankles and was fastened high at the waist with a plain belt. Two straps that crossed high at the upper back prevented the xystis from "ballooning" during the race.[20] The chariots themselves were modified war chariots, essentially wooden carts with two wheels and an open back,[21] although chariots were by this time no longer used in battle. The charioteer's feet were held in place, but the cart rested on the axle, so the ride was bumpy. The most exciting part of the chariot race, at least for the spectators, was the turns at the ends of the hippodrome. These turns were very dangerous and often deadly. If a chariot had not already been knocked over by an opponent before the turn, it might be overturned or crushed (along with the horses and driver) by the other chariots as they went around the post. Deliberately running into an opponent to cause him to crash was technically illegal, but nothing could be done about it (at Patroclus' funeral games, Antilochus in fact causes Menelaus to crash in this way[22]), and crashes were likely to happen by accident anyway.