Ancient Horse Racing: Golden Chariots

It is not exactly known when the first chariot race was held, but it is known that chariot racing was an extremely popular sport in both ancient Rome and Greece. It is said that the Olympic Games were derived from chariot racing, or more accurately, established because of chariot racing. Legend has it that King Oenomaus challenged Pelops to a race, as Pelops was an avid suitor to the King’s daughter, Hippodamia. Pelops won the race and according to legend he established the Olympic Games in honor of his victory over the King.

Today, the oldest known sport in Rome takes place in the form of harness racing and does not carry the grandeur and extravagance that chariot racing once did. Special arenas, of which Circus Maximus is the most famous, were constructed to host the races and could seat approximately 250,000 spectators. Each race was a fashionable event with women wearing their most exquisite gowns and jewels and the men were also known to wear their best attire to a day at the races. It was also common practice for the horses to be adorned in pearls and jewels that would be woven into their tails and manes.

The chariots and their drivers would be racing on behalf of an owner and were therefore recognized by the colors in which they raced. Blue, green, red or white would represent the racing team. As chariot racing was a very dangerous sport to both the driver and the horse, slaves were used to drive the chariot around the seven lap course. Many drivers were killed by the hooves of horses and many accidents of clashing chariots would occur at the far ends of the track on the corners. Drivers would wrap the reins of their horses around their wrists for better control, as they not only had to steer the horses but also keep their balance in their lightweight wooden chariots. Often drivers were flung from their chariots and dragged for long distances, unable to free themselves from the reins. Drivers did not have much in the form of protection, as their long robes and thin helmets did little to guard their bodies against thundering hooves.

The importance and number of chariot races started to fall and faded into history, together with the crushing of the Roman Empire. Slaves no longer had to win their freedom by risking their lives on the back of a chariot but the fascination with the speed and power of horses lived on. Drivers have been replaced by jockeys, chariots with saddles, circus arenas with race tracks and local betting crowds with controlled and regulated totes. A much safer race, for man and horse.