Chariot Racing: What Was It Like?

Humankind’s relationship with horses stretches back thousands of years. Some of the earliest sporting competitions involved horses and riders, from archery events to dead sprints. As early as 13th century Mycenae Greece, archaeologists have also found evidence of chariot racing on pottery.

The first concrete historical reference comes from a historian named Pausanias, who recorded the first chariot races in the 13th Olympic games back in 680 BC. Another source, Pindars, covered chariot races for the earliest Olympics, at which time events with mules and mares were also organized (and then soon dropped).

Archaeologists have also uncovered evidence from centuries later in Ancient Rome. At this time, chariot races were a favorite amongst the common people. Along with gaming dice in Ancient Persia and keno-like slips in Ancient China, early evidence of gambling also points back to the sports betting slips used to wager on chariot races in Ancient Rome.

But what was the experience like from a competitor’s perspective rather than from a spectator’s? Let’s dive into the ancient world of chariot racing, as well as modern iterations.

Ancient Greek Warfare & the Hippodrome

Before chariot races became a sporting pastime for the common people, chariots were a critical facet of ancient warfare. In fact, the earliest chariot races in Ancient Greece harkened back to this immediate history, as the chariots closely resembled those used in military campaigns.

The chariots were composed of two-wheel carts with an open back. Similar to an archer on a battlefield, these charioteers stood for the duration of the competition. The chariot’s body rested on its axis, which meant balance and physical brawn were key components for charioteers hoping to stay on for the ride—and definitely for the sharp turns common to racetracks or hippodromes.

Competitors sought to pick up speed on the straightaways, then take a wide turn to avoid flipping. Along with glory, these early competitors sought to win on behalf of wealthy families. Unsurprisingly, accidents were common—though opponents were forbidden from inciting crashes.

Ancient Rome’s Grand Circus

After the fall of Hellenic culture and the rise of Ancient Rome, chariot races remained hugely popular and were developed into massive events. The largest racetrack was the Circus Maximus in Rome, which could hold up to 150,000 spectators. Here, the emphasis wasn’t on attaining glory for wealthy families, but on entertaining the masses in general.

As mentioned above, it was common to wager on sports at this time. Competitors typically belonged to one of four factions represented by red, white, blue, and green, which were social and business groups that sponsored the races. Oddly enough, being a charioteer was seen as marking a low social status—and especially for those who made money from chariot races. Typically, factions contracted charioteers from the lower classes who could become celebrities by winning races. 

At this time, the chariots were smaller and more functional, meaning the races were more dynamic. Opponents were allowed to, and encouraged to, disrupt other charioteers during a live race and attempt to lead them to crash. Many factions and charioteers turned to supernatural ‘curse tablets’ for added protection and luck.

Modern ‘Harness’ Racing

Chariot racing is still popular today. It’s known as harness racing, which revolves around modernizing the chariots into lightweight, safe, and aerodynamic designs that can be attached to a comfortable harness.

Like the chariots of yore, modern carts, known as a sulky or spider, are two-wheeled. However, horses aren’t galloping around a racetrack at precarious speeds. Instead, harness racing usually takes place with a specific gait, like a pace or trot.

The rules shift in each country. In Europe, for example, Russian Trotters and French Trotters are the most common breed in harness racing. In North America, Standardbred horses are used. Meanwhile, in Scandinavia, Coldblood trotters and Finnhorses are commonly found in harness races.