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Part X – ‘Thrills, spills, speed, and more than a hint of danger’

Chariot races were a popular passtime for the Romans. Dr Nicholls guides you around the Circus Maximus in real-life footage and digital reconstruction
If there was one form of entertainment that the Romans really loved above all others for thrills, spills, speed, and more than a hint of danger it was chariot racing, so much so that tyrannical emperor Nero even indulged in it himself, scooping up the prizes wherever he raced, even though, truth be told, he was not very good at it. But to watch the professionals, you came here. And the people racing here could make serious money. The richest sportsman in human history, we think by any standards, was a Roman charioteer called Diocles. Chariot racing can happen anywhere where there is a flat piece of land.
So this long narrow valley between the Palatine Hill behind me, seat of the Roman emperors, and the Aventine Hill over there, seat of the Roman people, was probably used for horse sports for centuries and centuries, if not millennia. But it was under the Roman emperors that this place truly developed into a spectacular arena, yet another arena for bread, and in a very real sense, circuses. The events that went on here primarily were four-horse chariot races.
The competitors would spring out of their automatic starting gates down at that far end, make seven anticlockwise laps of the central barrier, or spina, richly decorated with obelisks and other ornaments including lap counters and fountains, and before the roaring crowd, come into the final straight, and take the prize. So the racing was the main event. But here too you could get something to eat, something to drink, place a bet, or as the poet Ovid tells us, pick up a girl. But for a quarter of a million people, gathered into this arena, rising in the seats above and around us, chariot racing was really what it is was all about. This was Roman bread and circuses at its best.
This is the Piazza Navona. These days it’s a pleasant place for an evening stroll and maybe a pricey cocktail or two. But back in the ancient imperial period, it was also a venue for entertainment of a different sort. If you look at the square behind me, you’ll see it’s a long thin space, straight sides. The far end is straight. And the end where we’re standing curves around. And that’s because the buildings underneath the foundations of this square rest on the remains of what was once a Roman athletic stadium. It was built at the end of the first century AD in the 80s by the emperor Domitian.
They used it for running races, athletic games in the Greek manner, and what would it have looked like? Well, there would be stone seats rising up on either side, on the foundations that are now buried under the modern buildings seating maybe 30,000 spectators looking down on the athletics events below. These days, there are fountains in the middle of the square and restaurants around the edge. But behind me, you might also see an obelisk. And the hieroglyphs on that were carved for the same emperor Domitian, not in ancient Egypt, but here, in first century AD Rome.
So we’ve seen Rome’s culture of bread and circuses, the entertainments handed out by the emperor in the wonderful architectural record and remains of buildings in Rome. But they also wanted this largesse to be evident on the coins. And so they pictured their entertainment structures on coins that would be handed around throughout the entire Roman Empire, transmitting ideas, not only of the buildings, but of the entertainments held in them to a very wide audience. Here, for example, is a coin of the emperor Trajan, early second century AD. And he knew that he had to keep the people on his side with regular games and spectacles. So he enlarged and enhanced the Circus Maximus, Rome’s chariot racing arena.
Well, on the back of that coin is a really detailed picture of the Circus Maximus. It gives us lots of information about the structures that are now lost. So on the lower register of the coin, you see the arcades on the outside of the circus, the substructures that held up the big banks of seating. And you can see some of that seating again on the far side of the coin with a little temple structure that might be one of the religious shrines that was built into the seating banks of the circus, alongside the spaces for the population to gather to watch the circus.
And then, in between those two, in the middle register of the coin, you can see, it’s as if the moneyer has tipped the circus up a little bit to let us look inside it. And you can see on this side here some charioteers and their horses springing from the starting gates. In the middle, you can see the structures that lined what we call the spina, the long barrier that ran down the middle of the arena, around which the chariots made their seven anticlockwise laps to constitute one complete race.
And on that barrier, there was an obelisk, a great granite structure there from Egypt, there were cones called metae that you can see right at the far edge that acted as the turning post on the end of the spina, around which the chariots made their tight turn. And you can see other structures too like triumphal arches and shrines and chariot statue groups, and really, an impression of visual richness and detail, that on this coin, brings to life what is really a structure that is almost entirely lost to us in reality now.

Welcome back! Last week you heard that emperors had to ensure a steady flow of grain into the city or risk falling ‘foul of the mob’. This week our attention shifts to the second part of their ‘bread and circuses’ offering: entertainment.

Cheering their favourite competitor on in a fast and furious chariot race was a popular passtime for the Romans. Their emperors were eager to win favour with the masses by creating magnificent arenas, perfectly designed to house the most elaborate of sporting events. You could draw a comparison between the best of these Roman charioteers and today’s well paid celebrity athletes, but may be surprised to hear that the richest sportsman in history was a Roman chariot racer called Diocles.

Join me this week in a guided tour around the Circus Maximus, a huge arena stretching along a narrow, flat valley between two of Rome’s hills. This was the perfect place for roaring crowds to gather and cheer on their favourites. I’ll also introduce you to another type of athletics stadium, the Piazza Navona. These were ideal sporting venues to eat, drink, and even – as one Roman poet tells us – pick up a girl.

As you watch this video, you may like to think about the following:

  • How does the Circus Maximus relate to the Palatine Hill, the seat of the great Roman emperors, behind it?

  • Can you think of any other examples of Roman architecture previously covered in the course which combined a political aspect with their main function?

Share your thoughts in the discussion area below.

Course facilitation

A reminder that you’ll see comments from myself and Bunny and we’ll aim to answer your queries in the course discussion between 12 Oct to 13 Nov, but we can’t respond to everyone. To view our comments, you can can follow our profiles.

Don’t forget you can view or download the course supplement and A-Z glossary as you go through the week.

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