Book Review by Philip Matyszak
These days when we think of spectacle in ancient Rome, we immediately think of gladiators in the arena. Yet gladiator shows only took place anywhere between ten and twenty days per year, and had a maximum audience of some 50,000 people at the Flavian Amphitheatre (Colosseum).
Chariot races happened regularly, and attracted some 150,000 people to the Circus Maximus. Charioteers were highly-paid superstars who had flocks of devoted followers. One such fan even threw himself onto a funeral pyre so that he could perish along with the remains of the charioteer he worshipped. And even when gladiator fights became a thing of the past, chariot races continued to be an essential part of Roman and Byzantine culture for centuries more.
So this book by Fik Meijer - Professor of Ancient History at the University of Amsterdam - is a very welcome contribution to the study of chariot racing. The most recent book to address the topic before this was
Cameron's Circus Factions in 1976 (though a 1991 paper by Elizabeth Rawson merits an honourable mention) Roman Circuses: Arenas for Chariot Racing by John Humphrey published in 1986, (second edition published in 1992). However, Meijer's book is more comprehensive in both its time span and range, in that it looks at all aspects of chariot racing, from start to finish, and in the process covers the venues, the supporters and the construction of the chariots themselves.
The reader starts at chapter one with the Nika riots in Constantinople, when chariot racing was over a thousand years old. This makes for a colourful beginning, and it dramatically highlights some of the themes which the book will later be tackling in greater depth. but it is only after the reader has finished the rest of the book that the full significance of the riots becomes apparent.
Having given us a look at chariot racing when it is a full-blown phenomenon in chapter one, the author then goes back to the very beginnings of chariot racing. He describes chariots and chariot racing in the pre-classical world (though without discussing the theory that chariots pre-dated horse riding simply because it took centuries of selective breeding before horses became large enough to be mounted).
The book is roughly organized by topic, for example, with one chapter on the Circus Maximus, another on the spectators and a third on the charioteers themselves. While the basic idea behind this is sound, it does not really work in practice. Instead the reader finds that the sequence of events is scattered all over the book and it is hard to put events into context. The thematic approach means that the reader becomes accustomed to reading of a fully developed Circus Maximus a few pages before it is a primitive circuit. Then the structure becomes a derelict ruin a chapter later, before springing back to life in the following pages.
Likewise we find Byzantine emperors coping with aspects of the races on the same pages as the early Caesars, and enthusiasm for circus factions in the Roman east varies from rabid to muted within paragraphs. For those reasonably familiar with the story of Rome, this is not a problem. In fact those who know the chronology will appreciate the other themes being clumped together instead, but readers who are uncertain of whether (for example) Justinian comes before Theodosius I will spend a lot of time on the chronological table at the start of the book trying to establish what happened when.
In terms of its actual material, this book is both solid factually and an entertaining read. This is a credit to the author's skill, as he makes even dry technical details appear intriguing, and it is also a tribute to the translator who has done an excellent job of carrying the liveliness and enthusiasm of the original work into English. Those who have read some of Fik Meijer's other works, including Emperors don't die in bed will already be aware of his fondness for quirky details and also his ability to search out obscure facts and quotes to go alongside commonly used sources. Thus we get little known writers such as Galenas and Malalas contributing material as well as well-known names such as Martial and Juvenal.
Oddly enough the book does not give Juvenal's famous complaint in Satire 8 that a charioteer made more in one race than a schoolteacher could make in a year, perhaps because the main emphasis is on the earnings of the superstar charioteers who could make more in a race than some schoolteachers might make in a lifetime. The obscure but delightful tale is recounted from Pliny about the man who took birds to the races and released the bird which he had dyed the colour of the winning team in the crucial race of the day. This bird made its way back to its home miles from Rome and gave the townsfolk early notification of the result. It is such details as this, as well as the meticulous examination of what is known of race formats, starting gates and chariot construction which make this book a joy to read.
Where the author is less helpful is when he presents his own views on social structures in Rome. Sometimes it is not always fully explained when this is personal opinion rather than established fact. For example we are told that the Roman elite tended to despise the common people for their enthusiasm for chariot racing, and in consequence were too embarrassed to show familiarity with the Circus by describing events there in any detail. Yet even if this view was held by Rome's literary elite - and this is disputable - there is no reason to presume the average top- class Roman felt the same way. We should note that the ancient sources have actually left us with about as much detail of what went on in a day at the races (certainly enough for the author to dedicate an entire chapter on the topic) as they have on what went on in a day's meeting of the Roman senate.
The author assumes snobbishness by Roman writers, yet only a small fraction of the literary output of antiquity survives, and it is far more likely that we are in fact looking at snobbishness on the part of those who chose what parts of this legacy to preserve. In this context it is very significant that explicit criticism of the races (though we do get occasional mutters about the fans) comes not from first century Romans of any social class, but from Christian writers of a later era. It is highly probable that medieval monks simply did not find descriptions of chariot races worth preserving.
Likewise, the writer comments that it was almost certain that early Romans reacted to the fortunes of their favoured faction in the same manner as modern football fans with their preferred clubs. Therefore he finds it inconceivable that post-race violence was not as much a phenomenon of early imperial Rome as it certainly was in later years. This assumption is unwarranted, as in many sports - such as American football and English rugby - supporters of different clubs, or even nations, give passionate support to an action-packed and exciting event while sitting intermingled in the stands and leave peaceably together afterward. Football violence, like the extreme factionalism which later plagued chariot racing, is a specific social pathology and it is hard to accept the author's implicit assumption that it always follows enthusiastic support for a particular team.
Where the book is strongest is when it gives the writer's views not on the supporters, but on the races themselves. Fik Meijer's enthusiasm is genuine and contagious, and his interest in the lives and careers of the daredevils who raced the chariots carries real echoes of the enthusiasm of the dedicated fans who followed these charioteers in centuries past.
The final chapter, a description and analysis of the epic chariot race in the movie Ben-Hur is sheer self-indulgence; not just on the author's part but also for the reader. It may not tell us much about chariot racing in the Roman empire (though what the film-makers got wrong is interesting), but it is a wonderfully compelling read, and a testament to the enduring appeal and excitement of the sport.