Chariot racing in Byzantine sources

John Lydus Christopher of Mytilene

John Lydus, De Mensibus, 1.12: The chariot racing and the hippodrome

(6th century AD)

There was in Italy a certain Circe, notable for her birth and remarkable for her beauty, who fell in love with Odysseus when he was wandering in Italy with Diomedes; after being united with him, she bore him Auson, who later took power over the entire territory, and from who[se name] the western [land] was called Ausonia.1 At any rate, this Circe boasted that she was the daughter of Helios2 on account of her exceedingly great beauty, and in honor of her own father, I suppose, she was the first in Italy to celebrate a chariot race,3 which indeed was named circus after her. In Greece, Enyalius, the son of Poseidon, earlier conducted two-horse [chariot-races]—in the days of Moses; and Oenomaus later [conducted] four-horse [chariot-races].4 This latter was king of the Pisaeans, and he put on the chariot race in the month of March, on the 24th, when the sun was at its height.5 He himself would wear leaf-green or leek-green, for the earth, while his opponent [would wear] blue, for the sea; and those [who lived] inland took joy in the green, while those [who lived] on the coast [took joy] in the blue. As a prize for this competition, for anyone who defeated him, Oenomaus put forward his own daughter Hippodameia—but whoever was defeated would be immediately killed. Now then, when Pelops was going to compete against Oenomaus on the basis of the agreements as specified, Hippodameia saw him, fell in love, and betrayed to him her father’s tricks, whereby he used to win out over his competitors, and thus contrived for Pelops to win. And he, after winning, immediately did away with Oenomaus, married Hippodameia, and ruled over Greece for 38 years; and he called this [area] Peloponnese, from his own [name].6 But now let my discourse return to the former subject.

The aforementioned Circe first began the practice of chariot races in Italy, and established there a hippodrome, of four stades in length, and one [stade] in width.7 Its middle part she made of wood, calling this foundation “Euripus”—perhaps from the [Chalcidian] Euripus, and from its seven-times back-and-forth course, because indeed that [sea-passage] turns its movement to the opposite direction seven times a day.8

And also, there is a pyramid in the middle of the stadium; and the pyramid belongs to the Sun / Helios, since nearby, unshaded, [lies] that sort of altar.9 For while all the [other] light-bringing heavenly bodies produce shadow, that one alone is apart from this [i.e., shadow]. And at the ends of this Euripus, on both sides, altars were erected—three above the pyramid, [namely those] of Cronus, Zeus, and Ares; and three likewise below [it, namely those] of Aphrodite, Hermes and Selene.10 [There are] two tripods, of Helios and Selene and a woman wearing a flat bowl on her head—[this] is the Earth, who is bearing the sea. And at the conclusion of the competitions, trumpets summon the victors to their prizes; and [there are] twelve starting-machines, in imitation of the twelve signs of the Zodiac. The man who stands in the middle and holds the [starting-]signal for the race is called a mapparios, from what happens regarding the business at that point: The consuls were permitted to feast beforehand in the theatre, and after their feast, to cast away the napkins [they used to wipe] their hands—in the Roman language, these are termed mappa, from which [comes] also [the term] mandulia—and the so-called mapparios picks these up and then immediately celebrates the games. And around the pyramid, which they now call the obelos, the competitors make no more than seven circuits (which [are called] spatia, that is, “stades,” and missus, meaning “contests”)—on account of the fact that a mile consists of seven stades, and that there are seven planetary circuits, which the Chaldaeans call firmaments, apart from that of the moon—because the “dung” of all material substance extends as far as that, according to the Oracle.11

And they would conclude the competition with 24 prizes, on account of the way a pyramid works. A pyramid contains 12 angles—that is, four solid [angles], each made up of three [plane angles]. And still to this day, they bring to completion one day’s time by dividing the number 12 in two.

In another way too, the pyramid is fitting for those who are competing; for it is thought to belong to Nemesis. At least, in imitation of Circe, Romulus too later on, when he founded Rome in the month of April, on the 20th,12 constructed such a hippodrome in it, similar in every respect. And he first made three chariots: a red one, belonging to Ares, or fire; a white one, belonging to Zeus, or aer;13 a green one, belonging to Aphrodite, or earth. Later, the Gauls contended for equality of honor, and the blue one was added—because their cloaks were of this color—in honor of Cronus, or rather, Poseidon.14 Quite a long time afterwards, the Roman emperor Severus, marching out against Niger and arriving at Byzantium (the present Constantinople, queen of all cities), established immense baths there, on account of the delightful quality of the city. And finding that the adjacent area was dedicated to the Dioscuri, he built this hippodrome15 and adorned it with stages and colonnades; he cut down a grove of trees which was in the ownership of a certain pair of brothers and brought it to the beautiful state which can be seen even now.

The Romans called two-horse chariots bigae, from which also [comes the term for the drivers,] bigarii.

1 For Auson, son of Odysseus and Circe, see Servius Auctus on Aen. 8.328 (Servius on Aen. 3.171, on the other hand, makes him the son of Odysseus and Calypso). At 1.13 and 4.4 below, however, John uses the Hesiodic genealogy (Theogony 1011–16).

2 Cf. Homer, Odyssey 10.136–8.

3 Lit., “equestrian competition.” See J. H. Humphrey, Roman Circuses (Berkeley, 1986), p. 94, for the connection of Circe with the origins of chariot-racing—and of the latter with the Sun; especially, Tertullian, De spectaculis 8.2, refers to those who say that Circe was the first to put on a spectaculum, in honor of her father the Sun, and that her name accordingly was the origin of the word circus. Treatments of the symbolism of chariot-races and hippodromes such as the one offered by John here below proliferated in the 6th century (cf. e.g. John Malalas 7.4–5), with some obscure antecedents cited, for example Charax of Pergamum (2nd cen. A.D.). Cf. 4.30 below and notes there.

4 For the stories of Enyalius and Oenomaus, cf. the very similar accounts in John Malalas, 7.4–5 (and cf. 4.14 / 4.11 Thurn); John’s version here is sometimes briefer, sometimes more extensive than Malalas‘, and thus it seems likely that our author depends on Malalas‘ source(s)—identified as Charax of Pergamum and possibly also Philochorus (as in Thurn’s text of 4.11). Cameron, “Paganism in Sixth-Century Byzantium,” pp. 261–2, by contrast, suggests instead a Christian chronicle as the common source.

5 Gk. hupsoumenou tou hêliou; John Malalas reports that these events took place at the time of the festival of the Sun, 25 Dystros (the equivalent of March, as he explains)—the sun being “exalted” (hupsoumenôi) above the contest of the earth and sea, not at its highest point in the sky necessarily. (Cf. another difficult reference to the sun’s “height” in 4.8 below.)

6 Peloponnesos = “Island of Pelops.” For Pelops‘ reign as 38 years, cf. the Excerpta Barbari 2 (= Julius Africanus, Chronographiae fr. 50 Wallraff).

7 That is, roughly 800 yards long, and 200 yards wide.

8 The Chalcidian Euripus is the narrow strait between Euboea and the mainland. For the movement of its waters, cf. 2.12; and (more broadly for tides) 4.83.

9 I.e., the altar of Helios.

10 Thus, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars; Venus, Mercury, Moon.

11 Cf. Chaldaean Oracles, fr. 58 des Places / Majercik (seven firmaments)—and fr. 158 (the “dung” of material substance).

12 Usually the date given is the 21st , but note that this date is also anomalous as a numbered day of the month rather than the usual counting back from the following Kalends; the number given here may simply be the result of faulty calculation (or textual corruption). Cf. §14 and 4.73 below.

13 Aer (Gk. ἀήρ) in Greek thought refers to the atmosphere close to the earth—moist, dense and cloudy, by contrast with the more lofty aether (Gk. αἰθήρ). The English words “air” and “ether” are derived from these two terms, but to make the distinction clear in translation, I have frequently used the transliteration aer for the former. For Stoics, “fire” and “aether” were equivalents, while in Aristotle’s system, “aether” was a fifth, purely celestial element; for extensive discussion and documentation see J. H. Waszink, “Aether,” in RAC 1: 150–58. It is odd that here, Zeus is connected to aer, although John does use the same equivalency in De ost. proem.; more commonly, in the Greek tradition, Hera has this association (cf. 4.25 below). The Pre-Socratic philosopher Diogenes of Apollonia (64A8 Diels-Kranz), however, is attested as having equated Zeus and aer. “Air” and “aether,” moreover, are not always clearly distinguished; they are treated as equivalent to each other, for example, in Chaldaean Oracles, fr. 67 Des Places / Majercik; cf. Des Places, “Notes sur quelques ‘Oracles Chaldaïques,’” in Mélanges Edouard Delebecque (Aix-en-Provence, 1983), p. 326, citing also Plutarch fr. 179 Sandbach. The precise status of aether continued to be debated; Proclus is later attested as having struggled to reconcile Aristotle’s fifth element with the (Platonic) four-element theory (cited by John Philoponus, De aeternitate mundi, pp. 482-4 Rabe).

14 This would thus complete the symbolism of the traditional four elements: fire, aer, earth, and water.

15 I.e., the one currently existing in Constantinople. The story that Septimius Severus rebuilt Byzantium, including baths and hippodrome (cf. Hesychius, Patria 36–8 [Preger, Scriptores originum Constantinopolitanarum 1:15–16]), appears to be a Byzantine fiction: See T. D. Barnes, Constantine (Malden, MA, 2013), p. 112; but cf. A. Kaldellis‘ notes on Hesychius in BNJ 390F7.

John Lydus, De Mensibus, 1.12, pp. 3–6; transl. and annotated by Mischa Hooker.

See also Agnosini 2018.

John Lydus, De Mensibus, 4.9 (January): The chariot races held in Rome on 2 January

(6th century AD)

On the following [day],1 which is the fourth before the Nones of January, they had leisure time on account of the sacred rites of the chariot-races. And before the procession to the chariot-race, in the presence of the high priests, they would offer sacrifices to the daemons,2 and in the streets they would distribute to the common people the [coins] they called milliarensia, in honor of Scipio.3 For he first in the 109th Olympiad, on account of a dearth of gold, prepared and distributed to the soldiers the milliarensia, when Hannibal was threatening [Roman] affairs. For the opportune gift is called “profit,” and the milliarensia were so called from the militia,4 that is, the military campaign / service. But Dardanus says in his [work] On Weights that the miliarense in former times came to 1000 obols, and it was called this on the basis of this “thousand” number of obols.5

1 2 Jan. There seems to be some confusion, however, as the next section again reflects activities of 1 Jan—the distribution (sparsio) of special coins by the consuls, for which see Meslin, pp. 59–61, although the way John associates this with the army suggests that possibly confusion with the giving of donatives to the soldiers at this same time (Meslin, p. 29) may have occurred as well. For the games (including chariot-races) celebrated at this time in the late Empire, see Meslin, pp. 66–70; and Degrassi, pp. 389–90, citing in particular the calendar of Polemius Silvius, which records circus privatus for 2 Jan. Possibly in John’s mind there is also a connection to the Compitalia / Ludi Compitales, held on 3–5 Jan. (for these see Scullard, Festivals and Ceremonies, pp. 58–60; Warde Fowler, Roman Festivals, pp. 279–80).

2 Specifically the Lares, as being associated with the Compitalia (cf. Meslin, pp. 46–9)? Alternatively, this could be a reflection of sacrifices by the consuls to Jupiter (or Janus) on the 1st (cf. Pina Polo, pp. 17–18; Meslin, p. 58).

3 For the silver coin frequently designated miliarense, minted under the Tetrarchy (only later, from the 8th cen., reappearing again as a standardized denomination), see M. F. Hendy, Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy, c. 300-1450 (Cambridge, 1985), pp. 466–67. An office apparently in charge of distributing these coins is attested in administrative texts, e.g. Cod. Just. 12.23.7 (late 4th cen.)—see Hendy, pp. 389–91; R. Abdy, “Tetrarchy and the House of Constantine,” in W. Metcalf (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Coinage (Oxford, 2012), p. 594. By introducing Scipio into the story, however, John is conflating this coin with the denarius; that is, he is treating all silver coinage as the same (so P. Grierson, Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection, 3.1 [Washington, D.C., 1973]: 14; for the introduction of the denarius during the Second Punic War, see B. E. Woytek, “The Denarius Coinage of the Roman Republic,” in Metcalf, p. 316).

4 The Latin word means “military service / campaign.” Epiphanius, De mensuris et ponderibus lines 801–2 Moutsoulas [= §52 of the Syriac text, ed. Dean], explains the coin’s name in exactly this way.

5 Dardan(i)us appears to have been active in the 4th cen.; he is mentioned also for weights and coinage by Priscian, De figuris numerorum 10 [2: 408–9 Hertz (= Keil, Grammatici Latini vol. 3); the relevant text is also printed in F. Hultsch (ed.), Metrologicorum scriptorum reliquiae, 2: 83–5]. Cf. J.-P. Callu, “Les origines du ‘miliarensis’: Le témoignage de Dardanius,” Revue Numismatique 6 (1980), pp. 120–30; H. L. Adelson, “A Note on the Miliarense from Constantine to Heraclius,” Museum Notes 7 (1957), pp. 124–35. Callu, probably correctly, treats “Dardanius” as the proper spelling of the name (with F. Hultsch [ed.], Metrologicorum scriptorum reliquiae, 2: 22–23, and the ms. of John here), whereas Wuensch has corrected it to Dardanus on the basis of (Hertz’s edition of) Priscian. Callu further mentions (p. 128) a third interpretation of the coin’s appellation: milliarense = 1/1000 of a pound of gold.

John Lydus, De Mensibus, 4.9, p. 66; transl. and annotated by Mischa Hooker.

John Lydus, De Mensibus, 4.30 (February): The colors of the chariot racing teams

(6th century AD)

The Romans call the public slave a vernaclus.1 Because the Roman people was divided into three [treis] parts, they called the “tribe” [phylê] a tribus, and the leaders of the commoners tribunes [tribuni].2 And they were concerned with chariot-racing3—that it should be carried out in a fitting way—and therefore, even now a tribune takes the lead in the voluptates, meaning “pleasures.”4 Since the place is called agôn and agônia5 on account of its being round—because it has no corner [gônia]6—in accordance with this shape, circular garlands used to be placed on the winners. And the three columns7 make manifest three elements8 of nature: water, fire, and earth. For over these alone death exercises its power, and hence myth gives Pluto a dog with three heads, meaning “with three elements.”9 The air, you see, is life-giving. So then, through the columns it becomes clear that they celebrated the agônia10 in honor of those who died on behalf of their country, as three—not four—chariots competed in the chariot-racing. The one [team is] the russati, or “reds,” the next the albati, or “whites,” the next the virides, or “flourishing ones” (but now they call them “greens”).11 And the russati thought they belonged to Ares, the “whites” to Zeus, and the “flourishing ones” to Aphrodite. Later on, [there was] also the blue [team]; they call them the “blues” [benetoi / veneti] in the local [language]—[meaning] ferruginous12—from the Heneti [= Veneti] around the Adriatic who wear clothing of that [color]. But the Romans call “blue” [beneton / venetum] the color we call “blue-green” [kalaïnon]. Well then, the Gauls were filling a certain place of their own as they watched in the hippodrome; and they called them Veneti on the basis of their clothing—and [called] their country Venetia because no one there ever had an abundance of garments.13 And because of the four elements, they made the contests four in number. The “flourishing” is equivalent to fire, in honor of Rome—and they call it Flora, just as we say “Anthusa” [“flowering”].14 Second is the “white,” on account of the air; the third group [is dedicated] to Ares; and the fourth, having now been added, [is dedicated] to Cronus or Poseidon—for deep blue is attributed to both.15

The reds are dedicated to fire on account of the color; similarly the greens to earth on account of the flowers, the blues to Hera,16 the whites to water. But others say that green [represents] the spring, red the summer, blue the autumn, and white the winter. And so, they considered it an omen of misfortune for the “flourishing” [team] to suffer a loss—as though Rome itself had been defeated. For because the western “cardinal point”17 was attributed to the element of earth, it was reasonable for them to be concerned about it.18 For this reason too the Romans, it is clear, honored Hestia before all [others], just as the Persians [honor] the rock-born Mithras on account of the cardinal point of fire; and those under the Bear [honor] the moist nature on account of the cardinal point of water; and the Egyptians [honor] Isis, the equivalent of Selene, the overseer of all the air.

1 This is a syncopated version of vernaculus, from verna. The reason for this reference is clarified by De magistratibus 1.44, where John Lydus says that the tribunes were served by public slaves called vernacli.

2 It is not impossible that tribus was derived from the number three (cf. Ernout-Meillet, Dictionnaire etymologique, p. 702, s.v. tribus); in any case, there were traditionally three “Romulean” tribes, for which cf. 1.38 above.

3 27 Feb. was Equirria, a festival involving horse-racing. This may be the rationale for the discussion of chariot-races at this point in John’s text.

4 For this official, attested in the early 5th century in the Codex Theodosianus, and quite frequently in the early 6th cen.—but only here for the eastern Empire—see Alan Cameron, Circus Factions (Oxford, 1976), pp. 60, 220; R. Lim, “The Tribunus Voluptatum in the Later Roman Empire,” Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome 41 (1996), pp. 163–73; J. A. Jiménez Sánchez, “Le tribunus voluptatum, un fonctionnaire au service du plaisir populaire,” Antiquité Tardive 15 (2007), pp. 89–98; A. Puk, Das römische Spielwesen in der Spätantike (Berlin, 2014), pp. 107–12. As Puk, p. 110, points out, Cassiodorus‘ wording (Variae 7.10) on the importance of assuring appropriate order in the celebrations parallels John’s description of the tribunus’ role in seeing that the contests were carried out fittingly: Agantur spectacula suis consuetudinibus ordinata.

5 These Greek terms literally mean “contest” or “place of contest.”

6 This explanation interprets the first letter of agônia as an “alpha privative,” expressing negation.

7 Gk. obeloi. John is referring either to to the sets of three conical turning-point markers on either end of the spina of a Roman hippodrome (referred to as bronze obeliskoi by Hesychius, Patria 37 [Preger, Scriptores originum Constantinopolitarum (Leipzig, 1901), 1: 16]), or to the three columns adorning the spina of the Constantinople Hippodrome: the obelisk of Theodosius, the “Serpent Column,” and (most likely) the original column standing in the central position now occupied by the “walled obelisk,” whose inscription attests that it was repaired by Constantine Porphyrogenitus. Cf. B. Ward-Perkins, “Old and New Rome Compared,” in L. Grig and G. Kelly (eds.), Two Romes: Rome and Constantinople in Late Antiquity (Oxford, 2012), pp. 59–60; Dagron, Naissance d’une capitale, pp. 324–5; and Jona Lendering’s useful comments on the columns adorning the Hippodrome, which are available online at

8 The Greek term tristoichos normally means “in three rows” or “threefold”—but John here (presumably because of the association with stoicheion, “element”) seems to be assuming the meaning “of three elements.” Cf. the oracle cited in 3.10 above.

9 The association with death (perhaps significantly at the dangerous turning-post area) shows a connection to the theme of February as a month for memorializing the dead. The hippodrome’s ties to the chthonic Consus (Humphrey, Roman Circuses, pp. 60–61) and a curious mocking ritual of reverence performed in the Constantinople hippodrome by the chariot-drivers to a white-robed figure known as the “ruler of the underground [spirits]” (Preger, Scriptores originum Constantinopolitarum, 1:80–81; Dagron, p. 338) reinforce this reminder of mortality.

10 I.e., the contest.

11 The symbolism seen in the colors associated with the circus teams / factions is paralleled in many points by various writers; for extensive documentation, see P. Wuilleumier, “Cirque et astrologie,” Mélanges d’archéologie et d’histoire 44 (1927), pp. 191–4; Dagron, pp. 330–338; and note also Alan Cameron’s discussion in Circus Factions, pp. 56–70. Cf. also further details offered in De mens. 1.12.

12 Gk. sidêrobaphos—etymologically, “iron-dyed” or “iron-tempered.” This term does not, however, obviously evoke a blue color as it is supposed to.

13 For this discussion of blue and Venetia (perhaps a little garbled at the end), cf. Photius, Quaestiones ad Amphilochium 323, seemingly derived from John’s text: “The country of Venetia was named from the blue [benetos] garment.” The text of Photius parallels portions of John’s material from this point as far as §51 below.

14 For “Anthusa” as an alternate name for Constantinople, cf. Cameron, Last Pagans, p. 612. In §73 below, John expounds further on Flora as a “sacred” name of Rome.

15 The foregoing explanation of the four colors (found in the X family of mss.) is disjointed and conflicts with the material printed around it, in particular with the explanation following it in Wuensch’s text (found only in Y). Most oddly, it associates green (rather than red) with fire—this in particular seems probably to be due to some corruption in transmission. In the first explanation, as also in 1.12 (attested only in P), white is connected with aer and Zeus, blue with Poseidon (and so, presumably, water) or Cronus; but in the following explanation these connections are reversed: white is associated with water, while blue is associated with Hera and aer. The former associations are more typical (see Dagron, p. 332; Wuilleumier, pp. 191–2), although one should note that blue quite commonly shows mixed associations with air / sky and water; yet the latter seem equally well worked out as a system, and it seems possible that John reported both versions as alternate interpretations, but that any explicit marking of them as different options has fallen out in the process of excerpting.

16 Wuilleumier, p. 192 n. 7, endorses a plausible emendation to aer.

17 I.e., the Spring equinox.

18 In Greek, the pronoun is feminine; it is not clear whether it refers to the “earth” or to “Rome,” but the logic of the context seem to favor the latter.

John Lydus, De Mensibus, 4.30, pp. 81–4; transl. and annotated by Mischa Hooker.

John Lydus, De Mensibus, 4.156 (December): Chariot races on the feast of the Consualia (?)

(6th century AD)

On the third day before the Nones of Decem<ber>1 is a <day> without work, on which Euc<te>mon s<ays> the Dog [i.e., Canis Major] rises and <the wint>er be<gi>ns. And a chariot-race was held, at which abom<inable [?]>2

1 3 Dec, on which women at Rome worshipped the Bona Dea (cf. Scullard, Festivals and Ceremonies, pp. 199–201; Warde Fowler, Roman Festivals, pp. 255–56).

2 The remains of a word here could point to an original meaning “deprecatory (prayers / rites).” Could the reference be to the Consualia of 15 December, at which (as at the festival of the same name on 21 August) there would have been chariot-races (cf. Scullard, Festivals and Ceremonies, p. 177–78, 205; Warde Fowler, Roman Festivals, pp. 206–9)?

John Lydus, De Mensibus, 4.156, p. 174; transl. and annotated by Mischa Hooker.

Christopher of Mytilene, On Jephtha the charioteer, who crashed in the Golden Hippodrome 1

(11th century AD)

Your chariot causes laughter and amusement, Jephtha,
as it lies toppled over before the golden organs,2
which I could admire more than Orpheus’s lyre;
for, though silent and having ceased their tune,
they have the power to attract horses and wheels,
and yes, together with them, the charioteer.
Are these not better than Orpheus’s lyre?
While it attracted all things with wondrous sounds,3
now this pair of golden organs
soundlessly attract this four-horse chariot.
As for you, if you believe my words,
leave your reins to those who know how to drive,
and seek another trade to make your living,
bidding the track farewell.
For even if you yoked four Pegasuses
(that was the horse of Bellerophon4)
against the racers of the Greens, you’d run
on foot beside the Lydian chariot,5 as they say.

1 The Golden Hippodrome was a special race on the Tuesday after Easter, when the new chariot racing season began.

2 The imperial organs, whose pipes were clad in gold, accompanied various ceremonial occasions in the Hippodrome. See Egon Wellesz, A History of Byzantine Music and Hymnography (Oxford, 1961), 105–7.

3 Orpheus was a mythological figure who attracted all humans and animals with his music.

4 Bellerophon was a mythological hero, who on the back of his winged horse Pegasus achieved many feats, but also unsuccessfully tried to attack Mount Olympus.

5 The proverbial expression “running on foot beside a Lydian chariot” means “to be thoroughly defeated.” See Pindar, fragment 206, in Pindari carmina cum fragmentis. Pars II, ed. Herwig Maehler (Leipzig, 1975), 133.

Bernard, Floris, and Livanos, Christopher (2018), The Poems of Christopher of Mytilene and John Mauropous, Poem 6, pp. 9–10 and notes on pp. 526–7.

Christopher of Mytilene, To his friends who were out of town in the countryside, and, having missed the horse race that had been held, asked to be told about it

(11th century AD)

How yesterday’s horse race unfolded, my friends,
and what contests its course witnessed,
I now write to you, who were absent and want to hear about it.
I will make everything clear for you in detail,
so that you, my dearest friends, will have the impression,
as from the mirror of my present words,
of being present at yesterday’s spectacle in the Hippodrome
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx… as if very clearly
seeing the four chariot drivers,
made to …
The first starting box, which is called “the first door,”1
was occupied by the White charioteer,
while the Red was assigned to the third,
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx… the second.
The Green was next to the Red

The fifth starting box was allotted to the Blue.2

The crowd was chanting, as it is accustomed to do,3

the White was already near to running,

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx… the beginning of the race

… at the same time often looking at the …

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx… but not without purpose

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx… to fall far off the mark

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx… oblique

… wanting to … the wall
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx… was squeezed and fell down

xxxxxxx… drawing his reins with all the strength of his hands

avoiding the wall and narrow track

the slab which is carved out of white stone,

opened up space for the Blue to pass through

pulling against him and going slightly ahead of him

swerving away from the straight track

he saw the White running together with the Red

uttering frequent shouts and whistles

he left them and ran forward with speed

when they had also passed the organs4

the Blue overtook with great distance the Red

as we said, he rushed forward … turning post,
tightly …
and holding the right rein with all the strength of his hands,
he turns and …
he enters and rides through this broad passage,
while the Red …
The Green immediately reached the turning post,
driving through first …
the White occupied second place at the turning post,
the Red followed as the third,
and the Blue was fourth, close to the Red.
This way, the first lap of the course
was finnished by the four charioteers,
first Green, then immediately White,
after them Red, and close to the Red
was the Blue driver.
But when two laps of the course had been finished,
the Blue was tied with the Green,
and they both held a contest between them,
spurring their horses with blows and shouts,
and hurrying to take the lead.
When they came to the place where a huge …
and high pyramid of bronze stood,
having a square shape at its base,
marvelously tapering off from that square to a point,5
the Green advanced a bit forward,
and pulling his reins to the inside in a curved line,
he holds the Blue down …
The Blue spurs his horses and accelerates with a vehement rush.

from there he takes off and starts to run again

violently biting the reins

they bring him up to the curved ramp,6

But the Green, as I said above, …

When the third lap was run, …

he breathed heavily …

his horses

the dice …

and he overtook the Green …

at that point …

when … toward …

the Green … both of them

it was the intention of White and Blue …

to squeeze his chariot from both sides

was to be seen driving in front of them

passing him and arriving at the finish

such was the end of yesterday’s horse race

reporting in detail to the people there

what is known to everyone in the city.

The chariot races, a Roman heritage, were enduringly popular in Byzantium (see also poem 6). The took place in the Hippodrome in Constantinople. Four chariot drivers competed with each other, each wearing the color of one of the four popular factions: green, blue, red, or white. A course consisted of seven laps around the track.

There exists an English translation of the beginning of the poem in Alice-Mary Talbot, “The Lure of the Hippodrome in the Middle Byzantine Era,” in Hippodrom/ Atmeydanı: İstanbul’un Tarih Sahnesi – Hippodrome/ Atmeydanı: A Stage for Istanbul’s History, ed. Brigitte Pitarakis (Istanbul, 2010), 65–68.

1 The chariots started from starting boxes, which had a mechanism to hold horses before the beginning of the race. The assignment of these starting boxes was drawn by lot.

2 There were twelve starting boxes, so some were empty at the start of each race.

3 The supporters of the different colors (sometimes called “circus factions”) performed various acclamations and chants in honor of the emperor before the beginning of the races.

4 The organs in the Hippodrome accompanied the chanting. See also notes to poem 6.

5 The so-called Masonry Obelisk is an obelisk, still extant, built by Constantine the Great or perhaps later. The monument was situated at the center of the spina (the central axis of the Hippodrome). The obelisk was once clad with plates of bronze.

6 The Sphendone (lit., “sling”) is the curved part of the Hippodrome at the southern end, opposite to the starting gates.

Bernard, Floris, and Livanos, Christopher (2018), The Poems of Christopher of Mytilene and John Mauropous, Poem 90, pp. 181–9 and notes on p. 552.


5 February 2023