Sunday, March 13, 2016

Chariot Racing and Sports Stars in the Ancient World

(Neither Messi, Ronaldo, Federer, Jordan, Schumacher or Tiger Woods are the best paid sports player in history. In fact Cristiano Ronaldo is not even the top athlete in Portuguese history! The top earnings prize goes to a Lusitanian (old Portuguese) chariot racer born in 104 AD. Also, in Roman Races even a dead man could win if his horses finished the race, a true posthumous glory! And fights among ancient “hooligans” reached a violence far above today.)

The predecessors of most sports started as Funeral Games in Ancient Greece. All of the Pan-Hellenic Games – the Olympics, Pythian, Nemean and Isthmian festivals – honored a patron god and a deceased human hero. Homer in the Iliad describes how sports in the Bronze Age were already a tradition during funerals of great warriors. In a previous post I wrote how Alexander the Great paid for an elaborate set of athletic games for his deceased friend Hephaestion.

The Olympic Games were the oldest of the four festivals and according to tradition begun in 776 BC. Some of the games played by the Hellenic peoples still exist such as wrestling, boxing, foot races, long jump, discus throw and the pentathlon. Chariot racing was perhaps the most popular of all ancient sports. While chariot races no longer exist it is easy to imagine them as a close predecessor to some modern sports, such as equestrian races and car races such as Formula 1. Chariot races in Greece and Rome were done at special venues, the hippodromes, which resemble quite well the elliptical shapes of modern horse or car race circuits. Above I show a modern recreation in France of how a roman chariot race could have been like. Another pic shows a gymnasium in Olympia where Hellenic athletes would train to improve their skill.

In Greece and Rome the owner and driver of the chariot were different persons, since the drivers were often slaves or men of low birth. Even nowadays in equestrian races the owners are often more prestigious than the jockeys. Races were risky events where drivers and horses would often crash or be trampled to death by the other competitors. Women were not allowed to drive, but they could own the cart and horses, a prominent case being Cynics, daughter of a Spartan King. Unlike other Hellenic sports which were practiced by males in the nude, charioteers wore sleeved garments and a leather helmet to protect themselves from the dust and the crashes. Below I show a mosaic with a Roman charioteer. Greeks and Romans no longer used chariots for battle at this time, since they were unstable and riders could be thrown out of their cart. However, the most enthusiastic moments of these races were really the round turns when the spectators could expect incredible crashes with deadly results for both horses and driver, sometimes of several cars in a row as competitors would knock and crush into each other around the post.

The largest hippodrome ever built was the Circus Maximus in Rome which could seat up to 250,000 people. In this circus you could do extensive betting on the winners of a race. There was an extensive market of bookies and professional betters willing to take advantage of the naïve and greedy. Some people would lose their fortunes and even their freedom from lost bets. Rules of winning were tricky at times, because the winner of the race was the first chariot passing the finishing line – even if the man had been trampled to death way behind. Nowadays we celebrate deceased athletes, but the Roman racers could actually claim a truly posthumous glory for their victory! In the center of the race there was a series of pillars with sculptures and engravings on top. These pillars and adornments increased the number of crashes (the Romans called these accidents, naufragia or "shipwrecks"). and the death risk of the races. Racers would want to be as close as possible to the center of the track in order to reduce space and pass their opponents, but the closer to the center the riskier their moves were. In general the bravest and most intelligent horse had to be the one closest to the center of the track, since his movements would be the ones to either lead him to glory or to death. Above I show a picture of the Circus Maximus in Rome which is pretty much an abandoned field nowadays and below I show the hippodrome of Constantinople which forms part of the city center of Istambul. There were four teams disputing the championship of races in ancient Rome and Constantinople, with their identities being given by their colors – Red, Blue, White and Green. Fanatics of these teams often descended into violence and hooliganism and their power was enough to topple down big politicians. In 532 AD the Nika riots started as a dispute between different chariot teams and threatened the reign of emperor Justinian, ending up with half of Constantinople burnt and tens of thousands of people killed.

Finally, no modern athlete, neither Messi, Ronaldo, Federer, Jordan, Schumacher nor Tiger Woods can claim to be the best paid sports player in history, since even the richest of these have only earned slightly more than 1 billion USD. In fact Cristiano Ronaldo is not even the top athlete in Portuguese history! The top earnings prize goes to Gaius Appuleius Diocles, a Lusitanian (the roman name for the ancient Portuguese people) chariot racer born in 104 AD. Diocles earned the sum of 35,863,120 sesterces which amounts to roughly 15 billion USD and all of these winnings came from race prizes, not advertising revenues. Diocles was known for being a strong finisher, who would wait for an opportunity and then pass his opponent from behind at the finish line.  He won 1,462 of his 4,257 races and finished second 861 times. Through his long career Diocles raced for three teams – White, Green and Red – and retired at 42 years of age, still quite able to enjoy a good life. His supporters erected him a monument in Rome detailing his victories. Most of the chariot champions died young, with one example being Scorpus who won over 2000 races before dying in a collision at 27 years of age. As a finish note, Cristiano Ronaldo does not have to mind being passed by his Portuguese ancestor. I am a Portuguese and a fan of Sporting, therefore he is still my big hero.

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