The famous chariot races in imperial Rome were as bloody in reality as they are in the classic film “Ben Hur”. Quite often the chariots of, up to twelve competitors were overturned, trapping their drivers and often causing fatalities. The “murcia” later known as the “Curve of Titus”, was notorious for these accidents, many of which were the result of deliberate obstruction or collusion between the four rival stables. These were the Reds, the Blues, the Greens and the Whites; they were known as “factiones and each strove for the favor of the crowd, where excitement would rise to fever “furor circensis”, the frenzy of the games.
The original form of the Circus Maximus is still recognizable today, the huge tuff and travertine remains from the time of Julis Caesar (1stcentury B.C.) surviving. Under Emperor Trajan (A.D. 98-117) the great stone arena, which was 650m (2.132 feet) long and 125m (410 feet) wide, was entirely faced in marble, and the seating could hold certainly up to 250.000 spectators.
Twelve starting stall adorned with herms and known as “carceras” were built into the straight front end of the Circus, the “officium”. This is where the drivers waited for the start signal from the editor, the organizer from the event, who to start a race would drop a handkerchief, the “mappa”. At that moment a sophisticated mechanical device unbolted and opened the iron gates.
From the time of the Emperor Augustus (63 B.C. - A.D.14) a wall called “spina” ran down the center of the arena: it was 2m (7 feet) high, 6m (20 feet) wide and 214 (702 feet) long, creating the definitive track where drivers had to go around seven times. At each end of end of the “spina” were counters to record the number of rounds ridden, consisting of seven metal dolphins that could be clapped down; they were dedicated to the sea god Neptune, who was also the god of horses.
Augustus had an obelisk of Ramses II (1279-1212 B.C.) that had been brought from Heliopolis in Egypt erected on the “spina”, and since 1589 it has stood on the Piazza del Popolo. In A.D. 357 the obelisk of Thumosis III (1479-1425 B.C.) from Thebes was added, and in 1588 it was placed in the Piazza S. Giovanni in Laterano. Other images of divinities, including one of “Cybele”, adorned the axis.
On the opposite straight lay the “pulvinar”, the Emperor's box built under Trajan in the form of a temple. It was set on the same level as the winning line, which was on a raised and tented structure on the other side of the track. As well as smaller awards the victors received large sums in prize money: 50.000 sesterces were paid out per race. The most succesful professional drivers of the “Formula 1” of the antiquity, became multimilionaires; superstar Appuleius Diocles is said to have accumulated a fortune of 35 million sesterces.
But the most favored of all the drivers was almost certainly the Emperor Nero (A.D. 54-68). Like his fellow emperors Caligula (37-41), Domitian (81-96) and Commodus (180-192), he was in the Green stable, the “prasini”, who engaged fierce duels with the “venet”, the Blues. At the olimpic games in A.D.67, Nero is said to have won 1.800 titles, including the first prize in chariot racing. It is a classical case of preventive “emperor duping”, for Nero, who was highly excitable, was thrown from his chariot and never in fact reached the winning post.
In the crowd, countless fast-food sellers catered to phisycal needs, and often wine flowed in plenty as well, not infrequently causing bloody fights on the stands. Numberless fatalities are documented during these battles between rival fans. Nevertheless the people became more and more demanding of that kind of shows and towards the end of the imperial age there were sixty racing days per year.
A barbarian finally put an end to the bloody history of chariot racing, when King Totila of the Eastern Goths (541-552) banned a tradition that had lasted 1150 years.