Victorious Roman Charioteer

Victorious Roman Charioteer

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The Highest Paid Athlete in History Was a Roman Charioteer

Thanks to multi-million-pound contracts, prize money, sponsorship and lucrative endorsement deals, the world of sport is flush with cash. Skilled – and savvy – athletes can command huge sums of money. Cristiano Ronaldo, for example, made $93 million in 2017, putting his total career earnings at $725 million. According to Forbes, the highest-paid athlete of all time is Michael Jordan, who is now worth a whopping $1.85 billion. Ask historian Peter T. Struck, however, and one ancient Roman chariot racer vastly surpassed this sum.

Gaius Appuleius Diocles, a Lusitanian Spaniard thought to have been born in 104 AD, amassed a fortune of 35,863,120 sesterces in his 24-year career. The exact figure is known thanks to a monumental inscription erected in Rome in 146 AD. Commemorating his retirement from the often-bloody sport of chariot racing, the inscription describes Diocles as the “champion of all charioteers”.

On retiring aged 42, Diocles had amassed a fortune worth five times what the highest-paid provincial governors at the time earned over a similar period. It was enough coin to provide grain for the entire city of Rome for a year or to bankroll the Roman army at its peak for a fifth of a year.

It’s this analogy that Struck, professor of classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania, used to calculate the modern-day equivalent of 35,863,120 sesterces. “By today’s standards that last figure, assuming the apt comparison is what it takes to pay the wages of the American armed forces for the same period, would cash out to about $15 billion,” Struck writes.

To earn that $15 billion, Diocles competed in 4,257 four-horse races, winning 1,462 of them. He also placed in another 1,438 races, mainly in second position. Other charioteers, however, recorded more victories – Flavius Scorpas won 2,042 races while Pompeius Musclosus racked up an impressive 3,559 wins.

Not just about the numbers, it was Diocles’ shrewdness in selecting when to compete that bolstered his financial success. Over a thousand of his victories were in single-entry contests that involved the best driver from one stable racing against the best driver from another stable. These races were prestigious and probably offered high prize money.

Some contests were likely seen as part-pageant or held a special significance that went beyond simply winning or losing. Certain races, for example, took place after street parades in which the charioteers formed part of the procession. Others, which Diocles seemingly avoided, involved two or three chariots of the same team pitted against chariots from a rival stable.

In other words, Diocles – not unlike many modern athletes – followed the money.

Victorious Roman Charioteer - History

Good Day Readers! So, let’s talk about some sports since the Olympics and the Super Bowl are just around the corner. While the Olympic Games were “the” competition of Ancient Greece the chariot races were the oldest and most popular spectacle of Ancient Rome. So, we all know the iconic chariot scene from Ben Hur, but how many of you know what is inaccurate about it? Read on!

An Average Race

Model of Rome in the 4th century AD, by Paul Bigot. The Circus lies between the Aventine (left) and Palatine (right) the oval structure to the far right is the Colisseum

They normally began with a pompa (procession) which started atop the Capitoline Hill and went through the Forum and Sacred Way and back towards Form Boarium, The carceres (starting gates) of the Circus Maximus (which could hold 250,000 people) abutted the Forum Boarium. The emperor or triumphator headed up the pompa riding in a biga or quadriga (2 or 4 horse chariot) and dressed as a triumphant general. Then the editor presiding over the games would follow along with a group of elites, then the drivers and chariots. These were usually serenaded by musicians. Then the priests with their ritualistic displays would enter last with statues of the gods on carts (depending on which festival and god was being honored).

Ground plan of the Circus Maximus, according to Samuel Ball Platner, 1911. The staggered starting gates are to the left.

Once the pompa was finished. The racers in their chariots would take their places behind the carceres. The races began at the dropping of a mappa (cloth) by a magistrate from the imperial box or above the starting gates. Races were held between quadrigae (four horse chariots) although other sizes were also used like the two horse chariot or even the rare ten horse chariot. Chariots were made from wood and leather in order to be light and maximize handling. Accidents were known as naufragia or shipwrecks. Naufragia and last-minute surges from behind were the most exciting features of a race.

Roman drivers steered their chariots using their body weight. They would tie the reins around their torso and lean to whichever side they desired to turn. This was done in order to free up their hands in order to use a whip or whatnot. Once the race had begun, the chariots (sometimes teams belonging to the same color faction) could move in front of each other in an attempt to cause their opponents to crash into the spinae (the long divider with statues and the obelisk). On the top of the spinae stood small tables or frames supported on pillars, and also small pieces of marble in the shape of eggs or dolphins (as seen in the Ben Hur video). At either end of the spina was a meta (turning point) in the form of large gilded columns this is where commonly crashes happened. Colors

A white charioteer part of a mosaic of the third century AD, showing four leading charioteers from the different colors, all in their distinctive gear.

There were factions (factiones) or teams for chariot racing (each color allowed 3 chariots in a race): russata(Red), albata (White), veneta (Blue), and prasina (Green). The origins of these colors and their meanings have been lost over time, but their original use was so that charioteers would be discernible from afar. The groups were broken into rivals of Reds vs. Whites and Blues vs. Greens. These rivals ultimately sparked hate, destruction, and intense competition between racers and fans. Slowly through the empire, the Reds and Whites were overshadowed by the popularity of the Blues and Greens in artifacts, inscription, and literature. Emperor Domitian created two new factions, the Purples and Golds, which disappeared soon after he died. To see the entire mosaic click here.

Racers or Charioteers

Mosaic from Lyon illustrating a chariot race with the four factions: Blue, Green, Red and White.

Racers were color coded in accordance to their faction or team. The charioteer wore a short tunic wrapped with a fasciae (padded bands) to protect the torso as well as around his thighs. They also wore a leather helmet and carried a falx (a curved knife) which they could cut the reins and keep from being dragged in case of an accident. Roman charioteers themselves, the aurigae, were considered to be the winners, although they were usually also slaves. They received a wreath of laurel leaves, and probably some money if they won enough races they could buy their freedom( as could gladiators). Drivers could become celebrities throughout the Empire simply by surviving, since the life expectancy of a charioteer was not very high.

Winners & Famous Charioteers

A winner of a Roman chariot race, from the Red team.

Victorious racers were awarded prize money in addition to the contractual pay arranged in advanced (by the sponsor of the games). Racers also performed and raced in more than one race per day (on a festival or ludi), so some charioteers could earn a fortune! Pliny the Elder recounts the unusual result of a team of horses winning the race even though the driver was knocked off. Pliny attributes the winning to “equine pride” and Pliny’s example shows the benefits to repetitive training. One celebrity driver was Scorpus, who won over 2000 races before being killed in a collision at the meta when he was about 27 years old. The most famous of all was Diocles who won 1,462 out of 4,257 races. When Diocles retired at 42( after a 24 year career and switching from White to Green to Red) his winnings reportedly totalled 35,863,120 sesterces ($US 15 billion), making him the highest paid sports star in history!

Mosaic naming Polydus the charioteer and his lead horse, Compressor. Rheinisches Landesmuseum Trier.

Horses were worthy of reputation and respect for their prowess in a race. Even the famous charioteer Polydus’ horse, Compressor, was depicted in mosaics( above). A quadiga‘s lead horse was the focus of attention for fans, charioteers, and gamblers. If a racer’s lead horse seemed unsteady or skittish then fans and sponsors would less likely bet or support that particular charioteer. However, if a horse was well respected they would receive honors or even curses by competitors. [Sources for curses against charioteers and their horses can be found here]. Examples of horses being honored include Emperor Caligula’s Incitatus (once a race horse), the horse known as Volucer (meaning winged one) was a favorite of Emperor Lucius Verus, and Tuscus who was favored by Diocles (with whom he won 429 races). Mares were rarely used for the lead horse, but they were used for the inside positions. The Romans kept detailed statistics of the names, breeds, and pedigrees of famous horses.

Fans & Fan Clubs

Just like the loyalty of modern day fans, Ancient Roman fans or supporters of the Red, Blue, Green or White factions were intense. Pliny records one Red fan threw himself unto the funeral pyre of a Red charioteer known as Felix, and how the opposing fans tried to prevent this story to be recorded and asserting that the man fainted and fell in. Furthermore, each faction color had their reserve seating for their color so that fans could in engage in chanting, activities, and sneers uniformly. Eventually extreme fans became an issue in the Empire when their color lost riots would ensue. Sometimes these riots and revolts were sparked by a loss (or blamed on one), but often had political undertones such as the Nika Revolt.

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Winning ceremony for ancient Roman the Chariot Race

When the race was finally over, the presiding magistrate ceremoniously presented the victorious charioteer with a palm branch and a wreath while the crowds cheered wildly the more substantial monetary awards for stable and driver would be presented later.

This terracotta lamp shows a victorious charioteer processing in the Circus Maximus he holds a palm branch and prize wreath, and one can see the spine behind him with the dolphins for counting laps, the obelisk, and a shrine to a deity.

Apart from achieving love, glory and laurel crowns in the manner of Greece, the winning charioteers could make quite a monetary fortune. Reaching success would probably mean having your portrait scribbled all over the walls of the city.

Each race could have huge monetary prizes and successful riders could become the Roman equivalent of millionaires. Chariot racers tended to be slaves but this didn’t prevent them from amassing huge fortunes and redeeming their freedom.

The Battle of Actium

The Battle of Actium, 2 September 31BC by Lorenzo A. Castro, 1672, Oil on Canvas, via Royal Museums Greenwich

Actium was the last stand for Cleopatra and her crumbling Ptolemaic dynasty. By 30 BC, all of the Hellenistic kingdoms of the Eastern Mediterranean had either fallen to Rome or become one of its vassal states. Until that point, Cleopatra had managed to secure her position and that of her family’s through amorous alliances with Roman generals.

But now she was between her lover, Mark Antony, and the future first Augustus of Rome, Octavian. Their conflict came to a head at the port of a Greek city called Actium, where the Roman navy soundly defeated the forces of Ptolemaic Egypt. In this case, the Romans were victorious at sea. But, largely, the most epic of their battles were fought on land.

The Battle of Ch â lons falls into this category.

Famous Charioteers

Charioteers could gain wide celebrity and have long careers, moving from faction to faction over the course of their time racing. However, they started their careers as slaves and could be sold to another faction by their masters, rather than picking and choosing between offers like a modern athlete (once freed they could presumably move as they wished). Given the incredibly dangerous nature of chariot racing many of them could also die as slaves, never managing to be given or buy their freedom. One short lived but extremely successful charioteer of the 1st century CE was Scorpus, about whom Martial wrote several poems the two on his death show the extent of Scorpus’ celebrity.

Poor Gaurus begged Praetor , a man he knew well from a long-standing friendship, for a hundred thousand sesterces, and told him that he only needed that sum to add to his three hundred thousand and qualify him to applaud the emperor as a full equestrian. [1] Praetor replies, “You know, I shall have to give some money to Scorpus and Thallus [2] and would that I had only a hundred thousand sesterces to give them!” Ah! shame, shame on your ungrateful chests, filled to no good purpose! That which you refuse to an equestrian, Praetor, will you give to a horse?

Martial, Epigrams 5.67

Tragic Victory: shatter your Idumaean palms. [3] Favour, strike your bare chest with wild blows. Honour, change your clothing. Sad Glory, cast your crowned locks as a gift for the unjust funeral pyre. Alas for the shame of it! Scorpus, cheated and cut down in your youth and so quickly yoking the horses of death. Your wheels always hastened the race – but why was the finishing line of your life so close?

Martial, Epigrams 10.50

O Rome, I am Scorpus, the glory of your noisy circus, the object of your applause, your short-lived favourite. The envious Lachesis, [4] when she cut me off in my twenty-seventh year, considered me, judging by the number of my victories, to be an old man.

Martial, Epigrams 10.53

This inscription, which commemorates the charioteer Scirtis and his wife, Carisia Nessis, a freedwoman, dates from 13-25 CE and shows the fondness for listing all victories in exhaustive detail that the more detailed honorific inscriptions for charioteers have however, the sum total of wins is not great and reflects that this was not a good period for spectacles – Scirtis raced during Tiberius’ reign and Tiberius was notoriously cheap about giving spectacles.

Scirtis, freedman, charioteer for the Whites.

In the consulship of Lucius Munatius and Gaius Silius, [5] in the four horse chariot 1 victory, 2nd 1 time, 3rd 1 …

In the consulship of Sextus Pomepius and Sextus Appuleius, 1 victory, 2nd 1 time, 3rd 2 times

In the consulship of Drusus Caesar and Gaius Norbanus, 2 victories, was recalled once, 2nd 5 times, 3rd 3 times

In the consulship of Gaius Caelius and Lucius Pomponius, 2 victories, was recalled once, 2nd 8 times, 3rd 6 times

In the 3rd consulship of Titus Caesar and the 2nd of Germanicus Caesar, 2nd 7 times, 3rd 12 times

In the consulship of Marcus Silanus and Lucius Norbanus, was recalled once, 2nd 5 times, 3rd 5 times

In the consulship of Marcus Valerius and Marcus Marcus Aurelius, 2nd 3 times, 3rd 4 times

In the 4th consulship of Titus Caesar and the 2nd of Drusus Caesar, 2nd 2 times, 3rd 5 times

In the consulship of Decimus Haterius Agrippa and Sulpicius 2nd 3, 3rd 4

In the consulship of Gaius Asinius and Gaius Antistius Vetus, was recalled once, 2nd 1 time, 3rd 5 times

In the consulship of Servilius Cornelius Cethegus and Lucius Visellenius 2nd 1 time, 3rd 4 times

In the consulship of Cossus Cornelius Lentulus and Marcus Asinius 3rd 2 times

… Grand total: 7 victories in a four horse chariot, was recalled 4 times, second 39, third 60. He once raced during an official suspension of public business, and twice raced in a six horse chariot.

The following inscription is from 35 CE and comes from Rome given that his career was quite short, Fuscus was clearly quite successful, although he died without gaining his freedom.

Fuscus, charioteer for the Greens, lived 24 years, he won 53 times at Rome, twice in the ludi for the goddess Dia, [6] once in the ludus given at Bovillae. He won one palm, after he was called back twice. [7] He was the first of all the drivers to win on the first day he raced. His fellow slave, Machao, set this up in the consulship of Gaius Cestius and Marcus Servilius to preserve his memory.

The following inscription was found at the Porta Flaminia on the Via Flaminia in Rome the inscription itself has been largely destroyed, although some fragments remain, including the reliefs of five horses (Palmatus, Danaus, Ocean, Victor, Vindex). It dates from the late second century CE.

Publius Aelius Gutta Calpurnianus, son of Marcus Rogatus. I won with these horses for the Blues: Germinator, black from Africa, 92 Silvanus, roan from Africa, 105 times Nitidus, chestnut from Africa, 52 times Saxo, black from Africa, 60 to,es. And I won major purses: 50,000 sesterces once, 40,000 9 times, 30,000 17 times.

Publius Aelius Gutta Calpurnianus, son of Marcus Rogatus. I won 1,000 palms for the Greens with these horses: Danaus, bay from Africa, 19 times Ocianus, black, 209 times. Victor, roan 429 times Vindex, bay 157 times. And I won major purses: 40,000 sesterces 3 times. 30,000 3 times.

I won 1,127 palms as described above.

For the Whites I won 102 times, was called back 2 times, won 30,000 sesterces once, 40,000 sesterces once, in the first race of the day 4, times with novice horses 1 time, in races for single chariots 83 times, in races for pairs of chariots 17 times, in races for chariots 3 times, for four 1 time.

For the Reds I won 78 times, was called back 1 time, 30,000 sesterces 1 time, in races for single chariot 42 times, in races for pairs of chariots 32 times, in races for three 3 times, for four 1 time.

For the Blues I won 583, 30,000 sesterces 17 times, once with six horses, 40,000 sesterces 9 times, 50,000 1 time, in the first races of the day 35 times, with three horse chariot won 10,000 sesterces 1 time, 25,000 sesterces 1 time, with novice horses 1 time, at the quinquennial sacred games [8] 1 time, called back 1 time. In races for single chariots 334 times, for pairs 184 times, for three chariots 64 times.

I set up this monument for myself while alive.

Diocles raced from the age of 18 and achieved immense success over the 24 years his career spanned as this monument from 146 CE details:

Gaius Appuleius Diocles, charioteer for the Reds, born in Lusitania, Spain, aged 42 years, 7 months, 23 days. He first drove for the Whites during the consulship of Acilius Aviola and Corellius Pansa [122 CE]. He first won for the same faction during the consulship of Manlius Acilius Glabrio and Gaius Bellicius Torquatus [124 CE]. He first drove for the Greens during the second consulship of Torquatus Asprenatis and the first of Annius Libo [128 CE]. He first won for the Reds during the consulship of Laenatis Pontianus and Antonius Rufino [131 CE].

His wins: drove a four-horse chariot for 24 years. He started 4,257 races, won 1,462, he won the first race of the day 110 times. [9] In races for single four horse chariots he won 1,064 times, and in this he took the largest purse 92 times he won the 30,000 sesterces prize 32 times (3 of them in a 6 horse chariot), the 40,000 sesterces prize 28 times (twice in a 6 horse chariot), the 50,000 prize 28 times (one in a 6 horse chariot), the 60,000 sesterces prize three times. In races for pairs of four horse chariots he won 347 times and won 15,000 4 times in a three horse chariot. In races for three chariots he won 51 times. He gained honours 1,000 times.

He was second 861 times, third 576, fourth with 1,000 sesterces once, and took no prize 1,351 times. He won jointly with a charioteer for the Blues ten times with one from the White 91, and shared the 20,000 purse twice. His total winnings were 35,863,120 sesterces. He also won 1,000 sesterces in a two-horse chariot, jointly with a White charioteer once and with a Green twice.

He won while leading from the gate 815 times, coming from behind 67, after being passed 36, in different ways 42, and at the finishing line 502. He won against the Greens 216 times, against the Blues 205, and against the Whites 81 times. Nine horses had 100 wins with him and one had 200.

In the year when he first won twice driving a four horse chariot, he won at the finishing line twice. The acta say that Avilius Teres was the first in his faction to win 1,011, and he won most often in one year for single chariots, but in that year Diocles won over 100 victories, winning 103 races, 83 of them for single chariots. Increasing his fame he passed Tallus of his faction, who was the first in the Reds to…But Diocles is the most distinguished of the charioteers, since in one year he won 134 races with another charioteer’s lead horse, 118 races for single chariot, which puts him ahead of all the charioteers who compete in the games.

It is noted by all, with well-deserved admiration, that in one year with unfamiliar lead horses, with Cotynes and Pompeianus as the inside pair, he won 99 times, winning the 60,000 purse once, the 50,000 four times, 40,000 once, and 30,000 twice.

…for the Greens winner 1025 times, Flavius Scorpus, winner 2048 times, and Pompeius Musclosus, winner 3550 times. Those three charioteers won 6,652 times and won the 50,000 purse 28 times, but Diocles, the greatest charioteer ever, won the 50,000 purse 29 times in 1,462 wins.

The following inscription features a family of charioteers (a father and two sons) the inscriptions for the sons are translated below. In addition there is an inscription which says that both sons met their fate together and that the father had met a similar end.

Marcus Aurelius Polynices, slave by origin, lived 29 years, 9 months, and 5 days and won the victory palm 739 times in the following ways: he won 655 times as a Red, 55 as a Green, 12 as a Blue, 17 as a White he won the 40,000 sesterces prize 3 times, the 30,000 sesterces prize 26 times, and the basic prize 11 times. [10] He won with an eight-horse chariot 8 times, with a ten-horse chariot 9, with a 6 horse chariot three times.

Marcus Aurelius Mollicus Tatianus, slave by origin, lived 20 years, 8 months, 7 days and won the victory palm 125 times. He won 89 as Red, 24 as a Green, 5 as Blue, 7 as a White he won the 40,000 sesterces prize twice.

CIL 6.10049, found on the Via Praenestina, Rome.

Not all charioteers met their end in the Circus some went on to be trainers after retiring, as the following undated inscription from Rome notes.

Sacred to the memory of Aurelius Heraclides, charioteer for the Blues and trainer for the Blues and Greens. Marcus Ulpius Aposlaustianus set this up for a worthy colleague.

Bibliography and Further Reading

  • Cameron, Alan. (1973) Porphyrius the Charioteer. Alan Cameron. Oxford University Press.
  • Johnson, S. (1954). The Obituary Epigrams of Martial. The Classical Journal,49(6), 265-272.
  • Teeter, T. (1988). A Note on Charioteer Inscriptions. The Classical World,81(3), 219-221. (Talks about Diocles’ inscription.)
  1. Equestrians had to have 400,000 sesterces in property to qualify for that rank. &crarr
  2. Thallus is not mentioned elsewhere by Martial, although there is an inscription from 90 CE to a charioteer Thallus (ILS 3532). &crarr
  3. Victory, Favour, Honour, and Glory were all Roman gods. Palms were often called Idumaean, because although they could be found in Southern Italy, they were said to be from Idumaea, a region in Judea. &crarr
  4. One of the three Fates and the one responsible for allotting people the years that they would live. &crarr
  5. 13 CE each consulship after that represents a year. &crarr
  6. Her sanctuary was around five miles south of Rome Bovillae was 11 miles southeast of Rome on the Via Appia. &crarr
  7. Charioteers were often called back for false starts. &crarr
  8. Probably the agon Capitolinus or Capitolia, a Roman version of the Olympic games which occurred every four years it was instituted by Domitian in 86 CE. &crarr
  9. The Latin says he won from the pompa, that is right after the parade that opened the races. &crarr
  10. Perhaps the 15,000 sesterces purse. &crarr

The second most senior position in the cursus honorum, there was originally only one, but the number expanded to 8 and then 16 as the needs of the administration demanded more and more magistrates.

The chief military and civilian commander of Rome. Two were elected each year and competition to become consul was incredibly intense as it represented the apex of a political career. After their term in office consuls could go on to be governors of provinces, where, under the Republic, they were wont to rob the provincials blind in order to recoup the costs of their political campaigns.

A ludus may refer to any type of school, including a gladiatorial one. Ludi also refers to games, the public games held as part of religious rituals.

Rudston Charioteer Mosaic

Iron Age chariot burials are also a feature of the Parisi, the native pre-Roman trabe in the East Riding area. The Charioteer Mosaic was found in 1971 at a Romano-British villa at Rudston, East Yorkshire. It dates to the 4th century AD and would have graced a dining room in the house of a wealthy family.

The central panel depicts a victorious charioteer standing in his 'quadriga' or four-horse chariot. He is holding his symbols of victory - a palm frond and a wreath, the winner's crown. Around the central circle are four roundels depicting the seasons as beautiful women.

Chariots also appear on a mosaic from another Roman villa found at Horkstow in North Lincolnshire. On this example four chariots are shown racing around a track rather like a cartoon - one of the contestants is even falling out of his chariot! Depictions of chariots are very rare outside the region and some believe this may indicate the presence of racecourses or 'circuses' nearby.

Iron Age chariot burials are also a feature of the Parisi, the native pre-Roman trabe in the East Riding area.

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This mosaic was discovered much earlier than you state I remember it being on the original site, inside a wooden building, in the 1950's

I was the person who first uncovered the charioteer in autumn 1971. We had opened a new area of the villa in a field beyond the roadside ditch and realised that the main buildings there extended under the hedge to the roadside ditch. We could tell that a central panel was just beyond the area and needed to ascertain what was there prior to covering it, to be lifted next season. I cut the box section on the last day to reveal this and we saw the charioteer for the first time in perhaps 16 centuries. The expert David Neal came up to draw the figure next year and commented that this was probably the finest workmanship he had seen in Roman Britain. A number of mosaics were found before this one and it must have bee na different one that you saw in the 50s.

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The legions . . . dashed forward in wedge-shaped formation. The auxiliaries charged in the same way, and the cavalry with extended spears broke through what was powerful and in the way. The rest took flight, though escape was difficult . . .

The heavily outnumbered Roman army defeats the Boudican hordes in 61.

Despite the tales of epic defeats, the greatest prospect for many Roman soldiers was the chance to go on campaign, especially if that meant a war of conquest, with all the chances of glory and booty that might bring. It was also the most terrifying. This chapter traces some of Rome’s most remarkable warriors in republican and imperial times: artillery experts, those who committed acts of remarkable bravery in the heat of battle or who lived to tell the tale and dine off their heroic acts for the rest of their lives. These were the men who helped define Rome’s greatest military successes and slay the demons of past defeats. They also showed what superb training, discipline and well-maintained morale could achieve.

As Polybius described it, the Roman order of battle was almost impossible to break through. The Roman soldier could fight in it individually or collectively, with the result that a formation of troops could turn to offer a front in any direction. The individual soldier’s confidence was strengthened by the quality of his weapons. The result was, he said, that in battle the Romans were ‘very hard to beat’.

Josephus was staggered by the Roman war machine in action during the Jewish War, fascinated by the way the Romans never laid down their arms yet always thought and planned before they acted. As a huge admirer of the Romans, like Polybius he painted a very compelling and biased picture of an invincible force. He saw Vespasian, the future emperor, set out on campaign to invade Galilee and described how the legions went to war. The auxiliaries attached to the legions were sent out ahead to scout for ambushes and fight off any enemy attacks. Behind them came the legionaries, with a detail of ten men from every century carrying the unit’s equipment. Road engineers followed to take care of levelling the surface, straightening out bends and clearing trees. Behind them came the officers’ baggage train, guarded by Vespasian’s cavalry and his personal escort. The legion’s cavalry was next, followed by any artillery, the officers and their personal bodyguards, the standards and the legionaries’ personal servants and slaves, who brought their masters’ effects. At the back came the mercenaries who had joined that campaign, and finally a rear-guard to protect the rear of the column. The Roman army had reached this arrangement after centuries of experience that had also involved terrible defeats and lessons.

The great achievements were rarely commemorated at the site of battles or campaigns themselves, although to do so was not unique. Actium, unusually, had a monument at the location of the conflict. Trajan erected a memorial at Adamklissi (Tropaeum Traiani, ‘the Trophy of Trajan’) in Dacia in honour of his victory there in 107–8, while fragments of an inscription found in Jarrow church in Northumberland in Britain evidently once belonged to a huge monument built under Hadrian’s rule to commemorate the ‘dispersal [of the barbarians]’ and the construction of his Wall by ‘the Army of the Province’ of Britain. But more often Roman military successes were honoured with triumphal parades and monuments in Rome, the latter usually in the form of an arch, like those of Augustus, Claudius, Titus, Septimius Severus and Constantine I, or the columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius. Another stood at the port of Richborough in Britain, serving as a gateway to the province and commemorating the completion of its conquest in c. 85 under Domitian during the governorship of Agricola. There were many more in provincial cities throughout the Empire. Victories and conquest were a matter of Roman national prestige and the emperor’s standing with the mob was of the highest importance. Few ordinary people were ever likely to travel to the sites of former battles, so there was little point in going to great lengths to build monuments there.

No Roman general ever went to war without thinking about his celebrated forebears. In 202 BC, when Publius Cornelius Scipio was still only thirty-four years old, the fate of Rome hung in the balance. The Second Punic War had been dragging on since 218 BC. Scipio had carried a vast army across from Sicily to North Africa in 204 BC and had been slowly wearing the Carthaginians down ever since. The following year, a major defeat had cost the Carthaginians dear when Scipio attacked two of their camps near Utica. It was said that 40,000 men, taken completely by surprise and unarmed, had been killed and 5,000 captured, as well as six elephants. Scipio celebrated the victory by dedicating the captured arms to Vulcan and then ordering them burned.6 Polybius painted the picture of confusion, shouting, fear and raging fire caused by the assault and judged it to be ‘the most spectacular and daring’ of Scipio’s attacks.

The war, which Scipio had been ordered to bring to an end, was at this stage still far from over. During a storm shortly afterwards, a Carthaginian naval attack came close to wiping out his fleet. Sixty transports were seized by the Carthaginians and towed away. A little while later three Carthaginian triremes attacked a quinquereme carrying Roman envoys. Although the envoys were rescued, a large number of Roman troops on the quinquereme were killed. This renewed Roman determination to finish the Carthaginians off. When talks between Scipio and Hannibal broke down, fighting was inevitable. The stakes could not have been higher. Both Rome and Carthage were fighting for survival.

The battle opened with a Carthaginian charge, heavily reliant on Hannibal’s 80 elephants. This turned out to be a mistake. The animals were badly rattled by the noise of the Carthaginian trumpets, panicked and turned back to run into Hannibal’s Numidian cavalry. Some of the frightened elephants reached Roman lines, causing serious casualties before being forced off the battlefield by Roman javelins. Gaius Laelius, Scipio’s cavalry commander, took advantage of the opportunity to charge the Carthaginian cavalry and drive them into a retreat. Only then did the battle descend into close combat as the rival infantry forces advanced towards each other. Thanks to Roman discipline and organization, their infantry formations held and were backed up by their comrades, despite a vicious assault by Hannibal’s mercenaries. But the Carthaginian troops failed to support the mercenaries, who turned on the Carthaginians themselves. Only then did the Carthaginians start to show their mettle, fighting both mercenaries and Romans simultaneously, but the Romans managed to stand fast. Some of the Carthaginians fled from the battle, prevented by Hannibal from taking refuge with his veterans.

Thus far the battle’s confusion and the Carthaginians’ problems had been largely self-inflicted. The Romans had done well but had not yet managed to take control. Scipio was furthermore prevented from attacking because of the sheer number of corpses and the quantity of debris and abandoned weapons in the way. He had the wounded carried off before ordering his men to reorganize themselves into formation by treading their way over the dead bodies. It was effectively a second battle. Once they were in battle order they were able to advance on the Carthaginian infantry. The fighting proceeded inconclusively at first, since both sides were evenly matched the attrition was only broken when the Roman cavalry returned from chasing away the Numidian horse and attacked Hannibal’s men from the rear. Many were killed as they fought, others as they tried to escape. It was a decisive moment. The Carthaginians lost 20,000, it was said, compared to 1,500 Romans. The exact figures were academic, and were unknown anyway. The point was the difference.

Hannibal had exhibited remarkable skill in how he had distributed his forces so as to counter the Romans’ advantage. He had hoped the elephants would disrupt the Roman formation and cause confusion from the outset, planning that the opening assault by mercenary infantry would exhaust the Romans before the main confrontation with his best and most experienced troops, who would have saved their energy. Until then Hannibal had been undefeated. Polybius believed that a Roman victory only came this time because Scipio’s conduct of the fight was better, yet his own description of the battle clearly described how luck had played a large part. There can be no question that it was a brilliant victory, one for which Scipio deservedly took credit. But whether it was really the result of his generalship, or of happenstance in the chaos of battle, is a moot point.

Regardless, the Battle of Zama ended Carthage’s role as a Mediterranean power and confirmed Rome’s primacy in the region. Not only did it earn Scipio immortality as one of the greatest Roman generals of all time but it also enhanced the reputation of the Roman army, as well as putting to bed the shame of Trasimene and Cannae. Scipio offered the Carthaginians remarkably moderate terms, based largely on the payment of reparations and the restriction on the numbers of their armed forces, though these had to be ratified by the Senate.

Of the ordinary men who fought that day none is known to us by name, and nor are the anonymous feats of any individual. Even the celebrated Republican veteran Spurius Ligustinus did not enlist until two years after the battle. In 201 BC, after settling the peace, Scipio took his men home via Sicily for a triumph in which many must have participated, and carrying epic quantities of booty. How he acquired the name Africanus had been lost to history by Livy’s time. Perhaps it was his men who gave it to him, or his friends, or even the mob – but he was the first Roman general to be named after a nation he had conquered, though none who came after, said Livy, were his equal. No wonder anecdotes about his skills, his views and his achievements were recounted for centuries.

There was an amusing postscript to Zama. Some years later, in 192 BC, Scipio Africanus and Hannibal met in the city of Ephesus, on the Ionian coast of Asia (Turkey). Scipio was there as a member of a diplomatic delegation investigating the Seleucid king Antiochus III, Hannibal as the king’s adviser. Allegedly they discussed generalship Scipio asked Hannibal whom he regarded as the greatest general, privately hoping that Hannibal would name Scipio himself. Instead Hannibal gave first place to Alexander the Great and second to Pyrrhus. Scipio was sure Hannibal would name him third at least, but in fact Hannibal then named himself, citing his extraordinary march into Italy and the campaign that had followed. Scipio burst into laughter and asked Hannibal where he would have placed himself had he not been defeated at Zama. Hannibal said he would have been first, managing simultaneously to continue his self-flattery while implying that Scipio was greater than Alexander. The story is almost certainly fictional, but it added another to the range of tales and anecdotes about Scipio retold in later years.


A single soldier’s sharp eyes and quickness of wit could make all the difference at a crucial moment in a campaign. In the war against Jugurtha in North Africa (112–106 BC), the general Gaius Marius was engaged in the siege of a stronghold perched on a rocky outcrop that could only be approached from one direction down a narrow path. The track was far too narrow for siege engines to be moved up along it. On all the other sides there were steep precipices. The siege was starting to look impossible to maintain, not least because the stronghold was well stocked with food and even had a water supply from a spring. Marius began to believe he had made a serious mistake and considered giving up. But one of Marius’ soldiers, an anonymous Ligurian, was out looking for water. He was also picking up snails for food, had climbed higher and higher towards the fortress up one of the precipitous slopes until he found himself near the stronghold. He climbed a large oak tree to get a better view and realized that by working his way through the tree and the rocks he had solved the problem of the Roman assault. He climbed back down, noting the exact path and every obstacle along the way, and went to Marius to tell him he had found a way up.

Instead of dismissing advice from an ordinary soldier Marius realized this might be the break he needed. He sent some of his men to confirm what the Ligurian had said. Based on their reports he was convinced and sent five of his nimblest troops, who were also trumpeters, led by four centurions up the incline again with the Ligurian. The men, who had left their helmets and boots behind so they could see where they were going and be as agile as possible, followed the Ligurian up the hillside through the rocks. To make the climb easier they strapped their swords and spears to their backs, and used straps and staffs to help them up. The Ligurian led the way, sometimes carrying the men’s arms, and tying ropes to tree roots or rocks. When the trumpeters reached the rear of the fortress after their long and exhausting climb they found it undefended. No one inside had expected an attack from that direction.

In the meantime Marius was using long-range artillery to hit the fortress, but the defenders were not in the least concerned. They came out of the fortress accompanied by their women and children, who joined in as they taunted the Romans, convinced they were safe. At that moment the trumpeters at the rear of the fortress started up with their instruments. That was the signal to Marius to intensify his assault. The women and children fled at the sound of the trumpets, believing an attack from behind had taken place, and were soon followed by everyone else. The defence collapsed and Marius was able to press on and take the fortress, all thanks to the Ligurian.

Sometimes soldiers were confronted with terrifying prospects simply for the purpose of gratifying the conceits and ambitions of their commanding officers, generals or emperors. When in 55 BC Julius Caesar began the first of his two invasions of Britain, he was the first Roman to attempt to do so. He had 80 ships built to carry two legions over the Channel from Gaul, and another 18 to bring the cavalry, but when his force arrived off the coast of Britain they were faced with cliffs that could not possibly be scaled. The ships had to be sailed 7 miles (11 km) further on so they could land on a beach.

Well aware of what was happening, the Britons positioned cavalry and charioteers along the coast to prevent the Romans getting ashore. It was already difficult enough for the invaders. Caesar’s troop transports had to be beached in deep water, forcing the infantry to jump down into the water laden with their armour and weapons under a hail of missiles from the Britons. As a result the Romans became frightened and hesitant, not least because they had never experienced anything like it.

Caesar had to order his warships to move into position so his men could attack the Britons with artillery, arrows, and stones hurled from slings. ‘This movement proved of great service to our troops,’ he remembered. The Britons temporarily withdrew, but the Roman troops were still reluctant to risk all by jumping into the sea. Famously, at that moment ‘the aquilifer of Legio X, after praying to heaven to bless the legion by his deed, shouted, “leap down, soldiers, unless you want to betray your eagle to the enemy. It shall be told for certain that I did my duty to my nation and my general”.’ Caesar’s heroic aquilifer then jumped down from the beached transport into the foaming water and charged through the waves with his standard. The prospect of shame was too much for the others on the transport. They followed him, and one by one the men on the other transports followed suit.

Caesar went on to enjoy moderate success that year and the next, but the entire project had hung in the balance that day. His political career could have been destroyed by failure on that beach. The ignominy would have been too much to sustain, especially given the febrile politics of Rome at the time. One soldier had managed to turn the moment around in the nick of time.

At least Caesar’s standard-bearer had acted autonomously. Long before, in 386 BC, Marcus Furius Camillus, a military tribune, was also faced with his own troops holding back. He had physically to grab a signifer by the hand and lead him into the fray to get the others to follow, rather than be humiliated.

Chariot Racing—Ancient Rome’s Most Dangerous Sport

(Image: Raffaello Sorbi/Public domain)

Chariot Racing in the Circus Maximus

The circus was a specific arena, shaped like a bullet, for the staging of chariot races, the largest of these was the Circus Maximus in Rome. Circus Maximus means “Biggest Circus.” It was an enormous structure, standing four stories in height, half a Roman mile down each side, with a central large spine up the center of the racing arena where the chariots raced around. It could seat about 200,000 people, making it the largest sporting arena ever erected anywhere at that point in human history.

The Circus Maximus, in Rome could seat approximately 200,000 people. (Image: Nenad Basic/Shutterstock)

The chariot races were immensely popular, and historical accounts tell us that the city would be virtually deserted when they would take place. Generally, the format had 12 chariots racing in teams. There were four teams, often called factions, which were identified by their colors: blue, green, red, and white. The fans followed the team color more than they followed the individual drivers or horses, similar to modern sports.

This is a transcript from the video series The History of Ancient Rome. Watch it now, on The Great Courses.

If you had 12 chariots racing, that would mean you would have three chariots from each team that would be fielded for a typical race. For each chariot, the normal number was four horses. We do hear of two-horse and even six-horse chariot racing on occasion, but that was quite rare. Imagine trying to control six galloping horses. Trying to control four is hard enough six would be stretching it.

The most popular seats were at the curved end of the bullet shape of the arena, since that is where most of the crashes took place.

The chariots would break out of the starting gates at the one end. In the Circus Maximus, there were 12 starting gates, and the chariots would come out with the drivers wrapped up in leather and with their team colors on. They would do the circuit of the circus seven times, seven laps being required to complete the race.

Shipwrecks in the Arena: Chariot Crashes in Ancient Rome

The most popular seats were at the curved end of the bullet shape of the arena since that is where most of the crashes took place. The slang for a chariot crash in Roman times was a “shipwreck.” They liked to watch the shipwrecks—tangled masses of horses and drivers and wood—that would careen off the corner.

The slang for a chariot crash in Roman times was a “shipwreck.” (Image: By Alfredo Tominz/Public domain)

Of course, the rules were pretty minimal. You could whip and lash your opponents and try to pull them out of their chariots if that is what you wished. These were violent spectacles, not just spectacles of skill and entertainment. After the time of Augustus, the race laps were marked with little golden dolphins that were tipped as each lap was finished. Betting was widespread, and one of the chief advantages and pleasures of going to the races would have been to bet on teams or individual drivers.

The enormous popularity of the games was reflected in several sources, including the Roman poet Juvenal, who wrote on one occasion, “All of Rome is in the circus today.” There were even instances when the circus races were going on that Augustus took to stationing groups of soldiers at various points around the city to prevent looting and other ruffians from taking advantage of the practically deserted streets.

The poet Ovid gives an entertaining account of a visit to the races, where he goes not so much to look at the chariots but to look at the girls and try to pick them up as they are being jostled by the crowd. The whole sense of his poem is about the packed nature of the crowd and excitement of the occasion, and he is trying to be Mr. Charming, the knight in shining armor to a girl who has been jostled around ultimately it was all a ploy on his part.

Superstars of Ancient Rome Chariot Racing

We also hear from inscriptions of the enormous popularity of individual charioteers, who often became the superstars of their day. By far the most famous and successful charioteer raced during the reigns of Hadrian and Antoninus Pius in the 2nd century AD. His name was Gaius Appuleius Diocles, and we have his gravestone on which he claims that he raced for 24 years, mostly for the red faction, and he won almost 35% of his races, placed second in a further 33% (this is an extremely impressive record), and only failed to place in 32% of his races. He was an immensely popular and immensely wealthy man at his death.

Another charioteer mentioned in historical sources was a young man called Scorpius, who seemed to have a great career ahead of him for the green faction when, unfortunately, he crashed into the finishing post, and his career came to a swift end at the end of the 1st century AD.

Fanatical Fans of Ancient Chariot Racing

In the end, the emperor had to send in the troops, with the result that 7,000 people were killed in the ensuing chaos. The support of the charioteers for their faction was noticeable.

All kinds of underhanded stories are told of charioteers poisoning other charioteers or trying to poison their horses so they would perform poorly the next day. The fanatical support of the mob for their individual factions is commented on again and again in the sources.

We hear that in AD 390 one charioteer from one of the factions in Thessalonica in Greece made a sexual advance on a Roman general in the area, and he was ordered to be arrested. When word got out, the supporters of his faction rioted, lynched the general concerned, broke their charioteer out of jail, and, continuing to riot, burned down the center of the city of Thessalonica.

In the end, the emperor had to send in troops, with the result that 7,000 people were killed in the ensuing chaos. The support of the charioteers for their faction was noticeable.

The following curse survives from an inscription in which a person who hates the green and white factions calls down the following curse upon their horses and drivers. The curse reads:

I call upon you, oh demon, whoever you are, to ask that from this hour, from this day, from this moment, you torture and kill the horses of the green and white factions and that you kill and crush completely the drivers Calrice, Felix, Primulus, and Romanus, and that you leave not a breath in their bodies.

Such was the fanaticism of the charioteer supporter.

Common Questions About Chariot Racing

Chariot racing was extremely dangerous, as the driver could be thrown from the open chariot and trampled or dragged to death after getting caught in the reigns.

In addition to entertainment for the masses, chariot races took place in the Byzantine and Roman empire for social status and political reasons, often used as a proxy for skirmishes.

It is believed by historians that chariots were first made around 2,000 BCE in a grassy area of Central Asia, running from Hungary to China by what are known as the people of the steppes.

The most famous chariot racer raced during the 5th and 6th centuries CE. He was a Roman named Porphyrius the Charioteer.

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