Four horse chariot race: the Formula 1 of the ancient world

The four horse chariot race at the ancient Olympics, and later at the circus maximus in Rome, was the Formula 1 of the ancient world: fast and dangerous.

The chariot races were the first major event on the schedule of the ancient Olympics. The Greeks liked to start things with a bang. Unlike modern races, the chariots did not race in an oval. They went about two turning posts, more like a modern yacht race since everyone had to squeeze around the same post at about the same time. Given the width of four horses, this added to the chaos and the danger.

The turning post at the east end had a special name. It was called taraxippus, the Horse-Terror, because this was where most crashes occurred. The reason for the particular danger was said to be the nearby altar, under which was buried either King Oenomaus or his groom Myrtilus, depending which version of the legend you believed. The fact that at the taraxippus the drivers had to stare into the sun probably helped too.

Crashes were frequently fatal. When the drivers lined up for the race, they would have looked left and right at their fellows, and known that at least a few of them would be dining in Hades that night.

Roman chariot drivers wrapped the reins about their arm or body, so if the chariot disintegrated beneath them then they were dragged. Roman drivers carried a sharp knife to cut the reins, but that of course required being conscious. Greek drivers on the other hand held the reins only by hand and therefore could let go.

I am most indebted to Meghan for saving me from error here. In the original version of this post I had both Roman and Greek drivers wrapping reins, which is totally wrong. I'm very lucky to have such knowledgeable readers. Thanks Meghan!

The Romans put a solid spine down the middle of the track, whereas the Greeks had open area between the turn poles and were exposed to head on collisions. Which didn't necessarily make the Roman track all that much safer. In Ben Hur during the famous chariot race, one chariot bounces off the central spine with disastrous results.

The first official semi-pseudo-mythical chariot race in the Olympic area was between King Oenomaus and his future son-in-law, King Pelops (for whom the Peloponnese is named). This race ended in a negative experience for Oenomaus. Weirdly, and this is how I managed to get it wrong in the original, not that it's an excuse, most accounts of King Oenomaus have him being dragged to death by his horses. Maybe in the early bronze age they wrapped the reins and then the fashion changed? Or maybe, like me, later writers transposed the Roman practice into early Greece?

The location of the Olympic hippodrome is unknown today. The athletics stadion remains but the hippodrome was washed away in a major flood in mediaeval times. My guess is it was to the south, and perhaps slightly to the east, of the stadion. There's a a nice large unoccupied space there that would have been about right.

The chariot was light, barely strong enough to carry a man. There really were four horses hitched in a row.

The chariot race from Ben Hur is relatively accurate, especially the way they race from end to end. Whipping one's opponents was totally within the spirit of things. The modified wheels designed to wreck opponents in the movie would have been cause for instant disqualification, at the Olympics at any rate. And of course, the Olympic race was far more utilitarian than the ornate affairs at the circus maximus.

The starting line as in Ben Hur is totally wrong for the Olympics. The Olympics had the first mechanical starting gate in history, which was designed to make sure everyone had an even start. It was called the Hippaphesis. But I'll save that remarkable device for another post.





And if you think it can't be that wild and dangerous these days, I can't resist adding this clip from the Formula 1 race at Valencia this year.





I watched this race as it happened, and when the car went airborne I was sure I was about to see someone die. But Mark Webber walked away with only a few bruises! The engineers who make these cars could teach the commercial manufacturers a thing or two about how to design for safety by default.

The winner of the chariot race was not the driver, but the owner of the team. Rather like today there is a constructor's championship for the organisation which makes the F1 car which wins the most points. Also like today, owning and running a four horse chariot team was every bit as expensive as modern cars. You had to be the equivalent of a multi-millionaire to even think about entering. Alcibiades, the second cousin of Pericles, in 416BC entered an incredible 7 teams, which would have bankrupted some entire cities. He scored first, second and fourth.

Because the winner was the owner and not the driver, the first woman in history to win at the Olympics in any event was Cynisca, the daughter of King Archidamus of Sparta, who won the chariot race not once, but twice.

10 comments:

Amalia T. said...

The image of these guys with the reins wrapped around their arms and bodies is striking to me. I'm not sure why.

do you suppose that chariots were ever sabotaged to ensure that someone was killed or the right person won?

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Great post! Amalia, given the myth of Pelops, who messed with the another's axle to win an important race, I'm guessing sabotage (or attempts at it anyway) were fairly common. I've also ready about curses being buried beneath the track sand, though I can't remember where. Gary probably knows!

Meghan said...

"Drivers carried a sharp knife to cut the reins, but that of course required being conscious"

That is so interesting-I have nearly 100 books on Ancient Greece and Persia and never remember reading that! Can I ask about your souce? That's sooo good to know. :D

Loretta Ross said...

Fascinating! And your timing is eerie. Just a couple of hours ago a friend was telling me there are going to be "bull chariot races" at the rodeo next weekend.

Speaking of car racing, btw, in late May a friend of mine lost her son, who was apparently quite a successful racer. I understand he raced in Australia every year as well, and was fairly well known there. Just out of curiousity, ever heard of Jesse Hockett?

Gary Corby said...

Meghan, the reason it isn't mentioned in any of your 100 books on Greece is that I screwed up!

Let me try again...

Roman chariot drivers wrapped the reins and could be dragged to death. Roman drivers carried the sharp knife. Olympic drivers held the reins only by hand and therefore could let go. Conversely the Roman put a solid spine down the middle of the track, whereas the Greeks had open area between the turn poles and therefore were exposed to head on collisions.

Weirdly, and this is how I managed to get it wrong, not that it's an excuse, most accounts of King Oenomaus have him being dragged to death by his horses. Maybe in the early bronze age they wrapped the reins and then the fashion changed? Or maybe, like me, later writers transposed the Roman practice into early Greece?

I've fixed this in the main post. Thank you so much for challenging me on that. If you hadn't, that would been an error in my third book for sure. You saved me!

Gary Corby said...

Hi Loretta, no hadn't heard of Jesse but I just looked him up. He was racing in Perth in Western Australia, which is on the other side of the continent to me.

I see he died at home in an electrical accident a mere 3 months after getting married. How awful for his poor wife.

Gary Corby said...

Amalia, Vicky's quite right. The first official/mythical chariot race involved sabotage. I probably should post that story...

Vicky, I haven't heard of Greek curse tablets under a hippodrome, but I wouldn't be surprised if someone found some. Roman Empire period for sure, in North Africa and Britain, and probably everywhere else too.

Meghan said...

Gary--

It was such an interesting tidbit I just had to ask about it because it was so exciting. I was certain you had a book on Ancient Greece I that didn't and was going to hound you for a copy. :P

And you should totally do a post on the first chariot race. Exiciting stuff!

Gary Corby said...

Thanks again for fixing my errors Meghan.

The story of the chariot race coming up, after this break from our sponsors...

dipylon said...

Myrtilus did not remove the lynchpins, he replaced them with waxen ones. This gave Oenomaus the time to gather speed before crashing to his death. Pelops was the lover boy of Poseidon, and the god had given him divine horses that could not be beaten anyway, but Pelops wanted to be double-sure.