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Professional sports have become a multibillion-dollar industry with millions of fans who will live and die based on their favorite team’s performance.
Occasionally, soccer hooligans and Raiders fans will take their exuberance a bit too far. Rioting after a team wins a championship happens more often than not.
However, nothing in the world of modern sports can compare to the levels of devotion and street violence which chariot racing commanded in ancient Rome.
Learn more about the Greens and the Blues, and the havoc they caused, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
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When you think of competitions in ancient Rome, you probably think of gladiators.
To be sure, gladiators were popular and gladiatorial games had a lot of spectators, but it was nothing like the popularity of chariot racing.
To put it into perspective, the Colosseum, where gladiatorial games were held in Rome, could seat about 50,000 to 80,000 people, but the Circus Maximus, which is where the chariot races were held, could seat between 150,000 and 250,000.
Granted, much of that is due to the fact that a race track just took up more space, but chariot racing was the closing thing in Rome to the professional team sports of today.
Chariot racing wasn’t originally a roman activity. As with many Roman cultural traits, it was taken from someone else.
The Greeks had chariot racing at the ancient Olympic Games, and the Etruscans, which came before the Romans on the Italian Peninsula, also held races as well.
The Circus Maximus was a huge facility. It dates back to the earliest periods of Rome, but it was rebuilt during the reign of Julius Caesar. It was so important that the emperor had an ancient equivalent of a luxury box that was connected to the imperial villas.
The length of the track at the Circus Maximus was 621 m or 2,037 ft long, so a complete lap of the track would be over 1.2 kilometers. A race would consist of 7 laps around the track with 24 races taking place on a normal race day.
The number of laps was later reduced so they could fit in more races.
Most Roman races were run by four-horse teams called a quadriga. A given race would have between 6 and 12 teams.
Chariot racing was extremely dangerous. Most of the charioteers were either slaves or ex-slaves. A chariot racer would be lucky to live to the age of 30. Unlike the Greeks and other cultures, Roman charioteers would tie the reins of the horse around their waist, meaning if they were thrown from their chariot, they’d be dragged along by their horses.
Here is where I will give you all a homework assignment. Go to YouTube and watch the chariot race scene from the 1959 version of Ben Hur. It really is an incredible depiction of Roman chariot racing and it was all shot without CGI. It holds up very well over time.
For those of you who want some extra credit, you can watch the original 1925 silent version of Ben Hur’s chariot scene, and for those who really want to suck up to the teacher, you can watch the scene from the 2016 movie. All of the clips are about 4 to 5 minutes and won’t take up too much of your time.
As dangerous as chariot racing was, it was also potentially extremely profitable. There were massive amounts of betting which went on with each race, and the very best charioteers were some of the most wealthy people in Rome. Assuming you could survive, slaves could earn enough to buy their freedom.
The charioteer Gaius Appuleius Diocles was one of the greatest athletes in Roman history, and on an inflation-adjusted basis, might have been the highest-paid athlete in human history. His lifetime winnings were 35,863,120 sesterces, which some calculate as the equivalent of $15 billion dollars today.
He competed in 4,257 quadriga races, winning 1,462 of them and placing in another 1,438.
He had an unusually long career, racing from the age of 18 to 42.
The chariot teams were a major operation, not too much different from running a modern-day Formula 1 team.
Wealthy men in Rome would sponsor teams. They hired trainers for the horses, scouts to find horses and riders, and they had to have custom chariots built. However, there was a great deal of fame to be made for a successful team sponsor, which could help them get elected to political office. Listen to my previous episode on the Cursus Honoram.
This is all very interesting, but this is actually not an episode on chariot racing. This is an episode about chariot racing fans.
The chariots were actually divided up into teams. At one point there were four major teams: the reds, the whites, the greens, and the blues. Those were literally their names. The Romans weren’t too creative with naming.
The teams would often run multiple chariots in each race. They would usually work as a team to block other teams, and ensure that a member of their team was the winner.
The fans were fanatical about team loyalty in a way that dwarfs team loyalty today. Fights were regular occurrences. One fan threw himself onto the funeral pyre of his favorite charioteer. Spectators would throw cursed nails onto the track, which wasn’t considered illegal.
One such curse was found in an archeological excavation. It 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.
I think I might try that the next time the Packers play the Bears.
Emperors were fans as well. Emperor Vitellius was a huge supporter of the Blues and executed several spectators who insulted his team. Caligula was a big Green supporter and would often eat dinner in the stables with his team.
The emperor Diocletian tried to bring expansion into the world of chariot racing by introducing two new teams, the gold, and the purple, but they didn’t last very long.
What we don’t know if there was any meaning to team loyalty. Did people from certain neighborhoods root for certain teams, or perhaps it meant support for certain gods, or social standing, or political leanings? There is no evidence to support the idea that teams were stand-ins for anything. As far as we know, the colors were just colors.
What we do know is that over time, two teams came to dominate: the greens and the blues.
When the capital moved from Rome to Constantinople, the tradition of chariot racing came with, as did teams and the fanaticism. Here is suggest you listen to my very first episode where I explain how the Byzantine Empire was really just the Roman empire by another name.
Over time, the team’s supporters became something more akin to gangs, and team support did start to mean something.
They began to dress differently to distinguish themselves on the street. It started to bleed over into politics, and some suggest that team loyalty even began to take on religious overtones with the Greens supporting Christian Monophysitism and the Blues supporting traditional Orthodoxy.
In the reign of Emperor Justinian I, things really came to ahead.
In late 531 after a particularly bad riot between the greens and the blues where several people were killed. Justinian had both a green and a blue arrested for murder and they were scheduled to be executed.
On January 10, 532, the pair escaped from jail and ran to a church for sanctuary. A mob of greens and blues gathered outside of the church and demanded that Justinian let them go.
Justinian, not wanting to have domestic problems while he was trying to finish up a war with Persia, commuted their sentences to imprisonment and declared another day of races would be held.
This did not satisfy the mob. They wanted the prisoners released.
On January 13, the special race was held. The crowd wasn’t their usual self. They almost immediately began insulting Justinian and instead of engaging in chants for their teams, they began chanting “Nika” or victory.
The greens and the blues had joined forces against the emperor.
The mob surrounded the palace and for five days Constantinapole burned and the city was almost destroyed.
During the mayhem, some senators thought it would be a good time to replace the emperor with one of their own. They declared a new emperor, Hypatius.
However, there was something here that changed the dynamic. Justinian was a well-known supporter of the Blues. Hypatius was a supporter of the Greens.
Justinian sent one of his eunuchs with a big bag full of gold to the blues to remind the blues that despite whatever their problems with the emperor, it was better to have a blue on the throne than a green.
The next day at the hippodrome, when the senate was to crown Hypatius as the new emperor, all of the blues got up and left. When they were gone, the emperor’s troops came and began a massacre.
When the dust settled, between the days of rioting and the slaughter in the hippodrome, an estimated 30,000 people in Constantinapole were killed in the Nika riots.
After the riots, support for chariot teams never reached this level again. Eventually, team support died out completely as did the popularity of chariot racing.
The next time you hear about fanatical sports fan, championship riots, or soccer hooligans, just remember that it is nowhere even close to the level of team fanaticism seen during the Nika riots.