Chariot racing in Roman sources

Virgil Ovid Statius Silius Italicus Sidonius Apollinaris

Publius Vergilius Maro, Georgics: Chariot race

(1st century BC)

Have you seen the chariots pour from the barrier,
rushing to attack the flat, competing headlong,
when young men’s hopes are roused, and fear throbs,
draining each exultant heart? On they go with writhing whips,
bending forward to loosen the rein, the red-hot axle turns:
Now low, now lifted high, they seem to be carried
through the void, and leap into the air:
no delay, no rest: a cloud of yellow dust rises,
and they’re wet with foam, and the breath of those pursuing:
so strong the desire for glory, so dear is victory.

Publius Vergilius Maro, Georgics, 3.103–112; transl. by A. S. Kline


Publius Vergilius Maro, Aeneid: A boat race

(1st century BC)

The speed is not as great when the two horse chariots
hit the field in their race, shooting from their stalls:
and the charioteers shake the rippling reins over their
galloping team, straining forward to the lash.

Publius Vergilius Maro, Aeneid, V.144–147; transl. by A. S. Kline

Publius Ovidius Naso, The Amores: At the Races

(late 1st century BC)

I am not sitting here1 an admirer of the spirited steeds;2 still I pray that he who is your favourite may win. I have come here to chat with you, and to be seated by you,3 that the passion which you cause may not be unknown to you. You are looking at the race, I am looking at you; let us each look at what pleases us, and so let us each feast our eyes. O, happy the driver of the steeds, whoever he is, that is your favourite; it is then his lot to be the object of your care; might such be my lot; with ardent zeal to be borne along would I press over the steeds as they start from the sacred barrier.4 And now I would give rein;5 now with my whip would I lash their backs; now with my inside wheel would I graze the turning-place.6 If you should be seen by me in my course, then I should stop; and the reins, let go, would fall from my hands.


But now the procession7 is approaching; give good omens both in words and feelings. The time is come to applaud; the procession approaches, glistening with gold.


Now the Prætor,8 the Circus emptied, has sent from the even barriers9 the chariots with their four steeds, the greatest sight of all. I see who is your favourite; whoever you wish well to, he will prove the conqueror. The very horses appear to understand what it is you wish for. Oh shocking! around the turning-place he goes with a circuit far too wide.10 What art thou about? The next is overtaking thee with his wheel in contact. What, wretched man, art thou about? Thou art wasting the good wishes of the fair; pull in the reins, I entreat, to the left,11 with a strong hand. We have been interesting ourselves in a blockhead; but still, Romans, call him back again,12 and by waving the garments,13 give the signal on every side. See! they are calling him back; but that the waving of the garments may not disarrange your hair,14 you may hide yourself quite down in my bosom.

And now, the barrier15 unbarred once more, the side posts are open wide; with the horses at full speed the variegated throng16 bursts forth. This time, at all events,17 do prove victorious, and bound over the wide expanse; let my wishes, let those of my mistress, meet with success. The wishes of my mistress are fulfilled; my wishes still exist. He bears away the palm;18 the palm is yet to be sought by me. She smiles, and she gives me a promise of something with her expressive eye. That is enough for this spot; grant the rest in another place.

1 I am not sitting here. – Ver. 1. He is here alluding to the Circensian games, which were celebrating in the Circus Maximus, or greatest Circus, at Rome, at different times in the year. Some account is given of the Circus Maximus in the Note to l. 392 of the Second Book of the Fasti. The ‘Magni’, or Great Circensian games, took place on the Fourth of the Ides of April. The buildings of the Circus were burnt in the conflagration of Rome, in Nero’s reign; and it was not restored till the days of Trajan, who rebuilt it with more than its former magnificence, and made it capable, according to some authors, of accommodating 385,000 persons. […]

‘Circus Maximus’ – Riley’s note to the Fasti, II.392 (G. Bell and Sons, London, 1881): This, ‘the Greatest Circus’, was originally built by Tarquinius Priscus, and was situate in a prolonged valley between the Palatine and Aventine Hills. It was a mile in circumference, and received great improvements from Julius Cæsar. It was able to contain at least 150,000 persons; Pliny says 250,000; perhaps the former number when sitting, the latter when standing. There the public games and shews were celebrated, which formed the favourite recreation of the Romans of all classes. It was called ‘Maximus’, ‘greatest’, because there were several other ‘circi’ at Rome, as the Circus Flaminius, Circus Vaticanus, and others were built in later times by Nero, Caracalla, and other emperors.

2 The spirited steeds. – Ver. 2. The usual number of chariots in each race was four. The charioteers were divided into four companies, or ‘factiones’, each distinguished by a colour, representing the season of the year. These colours were green for the spring, red for the summer, azure for the autumn, and white for the winter. Originally, but two chariots started in each race; but Domitian increased the number to six, appointing two new companies of charioteers, the golden and the purple; however the number was still, more usually, restricted to four. The greatest interest was shewn by all classes, and by both sexes, in the race. Lists of the horses were circulated, with their names and colours; the names also of the charioteers were given, and bets were extensively made, […] and sometimes disputes and violent contests arose.

3 To be seated by you. – Ver. 3. The men and women sat together when viewing the contests of the Circus, and not in separate parts of the building, as at the theatres.

4 The sacred barrier. – Ver. 9. It is called ‘sacer’, because the whole of the Circus Maximus was sacred to Consus, who is supposed by some to have been the same Deity as Neptune. The games commenced with sacrifices to the Deities. [see also Riley’s note to the Tristia, V.9.29, below]

5 I would give rein. – Ver. 11. The charioteer was wont to stand within the reins, having them thrown round his back. Leaning backwards, he thereby threw his full weight against the horses, when he wished to check them at full speed. This practice, however, was dangerous, and by it the death of Hippolytus was caused. In the Fifteenth Book of the Metamorphoses, l. 524, he says, ‘I struggled, with unavailing hand, to guide the bridle covered with white foam, and throwing myself backwards, I pulled back the loosened reins.’ To avoid the danger of this practice, the charioteer carried a hooked knife at his waist, for the purpose of cutting the reins on an emergency.

6 The turning-place. – Ver. 12. For an account of the ‘meta’, see the Tristia, Book iv. El. viii. 1. 35. Of course, those who kept as close to the ‘meta’ as possible, would lose the least distance in turning round it.

‘Meta’ – Riley’s note to the Tristia, IV.8.35 (G. Bell and Sons, London, 1881): The ‘meta’ was a pyramidal column at each end of the Roman Circus, round which the horses and chariots turned seven times

7 Now the procession. – Ver. 34. […] The ‘Pompa’, or procession, now opens the performance. In this all those who were about to exhibit in the race took a part. The statues of the Gods were borne on wooden platforms on the shoulders of men, or on wheels, according as they were light or heavy. The procession moved from the Capitol, through the Forum, to the Circus Maximus, and was also attended by the officers of state. Musicians and dancers preceded the statues of the Gods. […]

8 Now the Prætor. – Ver. 65. The course is now clear of the procession, and the Præetor gives the signal for the start, the ‘carceres’ being first opened. This was sometimes given by sound of trumpet, or more frequently by letting fall a napkin; at least, after the time of Nero, who is said, on one occasion, while taking a meal, to have heard the shouts of the people who were impatient for the race to begin, on which he threw down his napkin as the signal.

9 The even barriers. – Ver. 66. From this description we should be apt to think that the start was effected at the instant when the ‘carceres’ were opened. This was not the case: for after coming out of the ‘carceres’, the chariots were ranged abreast before a white line, which was held by men whose office it was to do, and who were called ‘moratores’. When all were ready, and the signal had been given, the white line was thrown down, and the race commenced, which was seven times round the course. The ‘carcer’ is called ‘æquum’, because they were in a straight line, and each chariot was ranged in front of the door of its ‘carcer’.

10 Circuit far too wide. – Ver. 69. The charioteer, whom the lady favours, is going too wide of the ‘meta’, or turning-place, and so loses ground, while the next overtakes him.

11 To the left. – Ver. 72. He tells him to guide the horses to the left, so as to keep closer to the ‘meta’, and not to lose so much ground by going wide of it.

12 Call him back again. – Ver. 73. He, by accident, lets drop the observation, that they have been interesting themselves for a blockhead. But he immediately checks himself, and, anxious that the favourite may yet distinguish himself, trusts that the spectators will call him back. Crispinus, the Delphin Editor, thinks, that by the calling back, it is meant that it was a false start, and that the race was to be run over again. Burmann, however, is not of that opinion; but supposes, that if any chariot did not go well, or the horses seemed jaded, it was the custom to call the driver back from the present race, that with new horses he might join in the next race. This, from the sequel, seems the most rational mode of explanation here.

13 Waving the garments. – Ver. 74. The signal for stopping was given by the men rising and shaking and waving their outer garments, or ‘togæ’, and probably calling the charioteer by name.

14 Disarrange your hair. – Ver. 75. He is afraid lest her neighbours, in their vehemence should discommode her hair, and tells her, in joke, that she may creep into the bosom of his own ‘toga’.

15 And now the barrier. – Ver. 77. The first race we are to suppose finished, and the second begins similarly to the first. There were generally twenty-five of these ‘missus’, or races in a day.

16 The variegated throng. – Ver. 78. See the Note to the second line. [footnote 2]

17 At all events. – Ver. 79. He addresses the favourite, who has again started in this race.

18 Bears away the palm. – Ver. 82. The favourite charioteer is now victorious, and the Poet hopes that he himself may gain the palm in like manner. The victor descended from his car at the end of the race, and ascended the ‘spina’, where he received his reward, which was generally a considerable sum of money. For an account of the ‘spina’, see the Metamorphoses, Book x. 1. 106, and the Note to the passage.

‘Spina’ – Riley’s note to the Metamorphoses, X.106 (Arthur Hinds & Co., New York, 1893): In the Roman Circus for the chariot races, a low wall ran lengthways down the course, which, from its resemblance in position to the spinal bone, was called by the name of ‘spina’. At each extremity of this ‘spina’, there were placed upon a base, three large cones, or pyramids of wood, in shape very much like cypress trees, to which fact allusion is here made. They were called ‘metæ’, ‘goals’.

Publius Ovidius Naso, The Amores, III.2 (shortened); transl. and annotated by Henry T. Riley. Some Riley’s footnotes have been shortened and some omitted. The footnotes 1, 6 and 18 were supplemented by Riley’s explanations from his other books.


Publius Ovidius Naso, The Metamorphoses: The death of Hippolytus

(late 1st century BC)

Though I was guiltless of all wrong,
my father banished me and, while I was
departing, laid on me a mortal curse.
Towards Pittheus and Troezen I fled aghast,
guiding the swift chariot near the shore
of the Corinthian Gulf, when all at once
the sea rose up and seemed to arch itself
and lift high as a white topped mountain height,
make bellowings, and open at the crest.
Then through the parting waves a horned bull
emerged with head and breast into the wind,
spouting white foam from his nostrils and his mouth.
“The hearts of my attendants quailed with fear,
yet I unfrightened thought but of my exile.
Then my fierce horses turned their necks to face
the waters, and with ears erect they quaked
before the monster shape, they dashed in flight
along the rock strewn ground below the cliff.
I struggled, but with unavailing hand,
to use the reins now covered with white foam;
and throwing myself back, pulled on the thongs
with weight and strength. Such effort might have checked
the madness of my steeds, had not a wheel,
striking the hub on a projecting stump,
been shattered and hurled in fragments from the axle.

I was thrown forward from my chariot
and with the reins entwined about my legs.
My palpitating entrails could be seen
dragged on, my sinews fastened on a stump.
My torn legs followed, but a part
remained behind me, caught by various snags.
The breaking bones gave out a crackling noise,
my tortured spirit soon had fled away,
no part of the torn body could be known—
all that was left was only one crushed wound—
how can, how dare you, nymph, compare your ills
to my disaster?

Publius Ovidius Naso, The Metamorphoses, 15.479–546; transl. by Brookes More


Publius Ovidius Naso, The Tristia: A Letter Of Thanks

(early 1st century AD)

Even now, my Muse, although she has been bid to keep silence, scarcely restrains herself from naming thee, thus unwilling. And as the strong leash with difficulty withholds the struggling hound, when he has found the traces of the deer; and just as the high-mettled steed, now with his foot, now with his forehead, beats at the doors of the starting-place, not yet opened,1 so does my Muse, bound and restrained by the injunction imposed on her, desire to recount the praises of this name, forbidden to be uttered.

1 Not yet opened. – Ver. 29. The ‘carceres’ were vaults at the end of the race-course, closed by gates of open wood-work, which, on the signal being given, were simultaneously opened by the aid of men and ropes, and the chariots came forth, ready for starting. The number of ‘carceres’ on a course are supposed to have varied from eight to twelve.

Publius Ovidius Naso, The Tristia, V.9.25–32; transl. and annotated by Henry T. Riley

Publius Papinius Statius, Thebaid: Chariot race at the first Nemean Games

(1st century AD)

The sweat of horses first. Recite, Apollo,
the names of famous riders and their steeds.

There never was a gathering of more
noble, wing-footed horses. These resembled
a flock of birds aligned in V-formation,
or Aeolus, whose mad winds clash on shore.

Leading the others, clearly visible
because his red mane flamed, Arion pranced.
His lord, they say, was Neptune and the first
to hurt his tender mouth with his sharp curb:
he tamed that horse along a sandy shore
without a whip, for his desire to race
could not be satisfied—he was inconstant,
like winter waves, and joined with swimming steeds
he often drew his blue-haired master safely
through the Ionic and the Libyan seas
while storm clouds marveled to be left behind
and north and south winds struggled to pursue.
With equal speed he carried Hercules,
son of Amphitryon, when he engaged
in King Eurystheus’s toils and traced deep furrows
through meadowlands. Even to him he was
disorderly and difficult to hold,
but soon—a gift of heaven—he accepted
the rule of King Adrastus. He grew tame
with age till on this day the king permitted
his son-in-law to ride him—yet he gave
warning to Polynices not to raise
a stern hand should the horse bolt, but use skill,
the arts of riding. “Do not let him free
and off the bit!” he warned. “Urge other steeds
with whips and threats! This horse has all he speed
you’ll need!” In just that way, Apollo gave
his happy son his fiery reins and car
but wept while he instructed him which stars
were treacherous, which zones could not be crossed,
and what was temperate between the poles.
His son was pious, duly cautious, but
young, and the harsh Fates would not let him learn.

The next contestant for the palm wore white,
harnessed white horses, and wore bands of wool
whose color matched his casque and crested plume:
Amphiaraus, guiding Spartan horses.
These were your offspring, Cyllarus, begotten
by stealth when Castor, by the shores of distant
Scythia, traded Amyclean reins
for oars along the Black Sea where he sailed.

Admetus, blessed with steeds of Thessaly,
could hardly curb his barren mares, offspring
of Centaurs, it was said. They scorned their sex
and used their female heat to fashion strength.
They were like night and day, dark-grained and white,
so bright they could be easily believed
to stem from that same herd that would not eat
as long as they, enchanted and amazed,
could hear Apollo play Castalian reeds.

The next were sons of Jason, whom their mother
Hypsipyle had recently discovered.
The name of Thoas was one’s mother’s father;
Euneos was a word derived from Argo.
Their faces, horses, chariots, and clothes
and equal and harmonious vows to win—
or come in second only to a brother—
made the twins similar in all they did.

Here were Hippodamus and Chromis—one
descended from great Hercules, the other
from Oenomaus. Who could tell which one
handled his reins more fiercely? Getic steeds,
bred by Diomedes, for one; the other
had horses from his Pisan father. Stains
of blood marred both war carts—and foul remains.

One of the goalposts was a strong, bare oak,
whose branches had been stripped; opposed, a stone
protuberance, the kind that limits fields.
It was the length four javelins could reach
or three times longer than an arrow’s flight.


Prothous tumbled markers in a bronze
helmet to choose positions for the start.
Horses and drivers were their countries’ finest,
descendants of the gods. Their hearts unsettled,
with nervous confidence and hope, they waited.
Enclosed, they strained to be released as chills
ran through their limbs—not only fear but thrills.

The horses shared the passion of their masters.
Flames filled their eyes. Bits rattled in their mouths.
Blood and saliva scalded bridle rings.
They pressed the posts and scarce-resisting gates
and exhaled rage like smoke. Distraught, they waited,
and lost a thousand steps before they started;
their heavy hooves upchurned the absent fields!
Trusted attendants smoothed their knotted manes,
settled their spirits, whispered, planned their race.

Tyrrhenian trumpets played; the steeds leaped forward.
What sails at sea, what weaponry in battle,
what clouds so swiftly race across the sky?
There is less force in winter streams and fire;
stars fall more slowly, so do drops of rain
and rivers from high summits to the plains.

The Grecians watched them start but soon lost sight
of separate horses in the blinding dust.
A single cloud obscured them, one so dark
they scarcely saw or heard each other’s cries.
Then the pack thinned. The chariots formed lines.

The second circuit smoothed out former furrows.
The eager drivers leaned and touched their yokes,
flexed with their knees, and doubled tight-held reins.
Neck muscles bulged. Winds combed the flying manes;
wheels squealed; hooves pounded; parched earth drank white rain.
Hands never paused; whips whistled through the air.
Cold hail does not fall faster in north winds
nor water tumble from the horns of winter.

Astute Arion could detect the guilt
of Polynices, son of Oedipus,
the dreadful foreigner who held his reins.
He felt his future, and he was afraid,
unruly from the start, as his oppression
angered him more than usual. The Greeks
thought him provoked by praise, but he was fleeing
his driver, running mad, his unrestraint
threatening his charioteer, while through the field
he searched for King Adrastus, his right master.

Amphiaraus came before the others,
but he was far behind in second place.
Admetus, the Thessalian, raced with him.
Then came the wins; now Euneos was first,
now Thoas. One advanced; one fell behind.
Though each desired to win, they never clashed.
Desperate Chromis and Hippodamus
followed, slowed by their horses’ weight, not lack
of talent, and Hippodamus, out front,
could feel the heat of panting mouths behind him.

The auger of Apollo hoped to take
the shorter, inside path around the goal
by drawing in his reins so he could pass,
and the Thessalian hero, too, perceived
an opportunity because Arion
ran unrestrained in circles to the right.

Amphiaraus was first, Admetus now
no longer third, but they were passed, their joy
short-lived, as Neptune’s horse rejoined the circuit
from which he’d strayed. The crowd rose to its feet;
the heavens shook and tumult struck the stars.

No longer could the Theban Polynices
manage his reins or dare to use his whip,
like an exhausted helmsman who no longer
looks to the stars but only hopes for luck
while sea waves sweep his ship against black rocks.

Again they circled right in full career
and strove to hold their course around the field.
Axles collided; treacherous spokes struck wheels;
a thousand horse hooves pounded on the plain.
The riders feared, and also threatened, murder.
Their craving for renown was unrelenting.
Their violence was equally intense
as when they went to war with horrid weapons.

They needed more than whips; they shouted names:
Admetus called on Iris, Pholoë,
and Thoë, his best trace horse. The Danaan
augurer urged on Cygnus, that white steed,
and Ascheton. The son of Hercules—
that’s Chromis—called on Strymon. Euneos
shouted for fiery Aetion. Thoas named
dappled Podarces, and Hippodamus
pressured slow Cydon. In his chariot,
only Echion’s son maintained sad silence,
afraid his voice would tremble as he swerved.

The horses were just starting their true task
as they began the fourth, most dusty lap.
Limbs weary, hot with sweet, their thirsty throats
flaming, they found their forward progress flagged;
thick clouds of vapor marked their respirations,
and constant panting flattened out their flanks.

Now wavering Fortune, which had only watched,
first dared to intervene. As Thoas strove
madly to pass Admetus, his car crashed,
nor could his brother help, although he tried.
He failed because Mars-like Hippodamus
obstructed him, and his car intervened.

Then Chromis, using all his father’s strength—
the might of Hercules—locked axles with
Hippodamus to take inside position
going around the goal. Their horses fought
to free themselves. They tensed their necks and bridles
to no effect, as when the tides detain
Sicilian vessels while the north wind rages
and swollen sails stand motionless at sea.

Then Chromis flipped the other’s chariot
and raced ahead, but when the Thracian steeds
saw that Hippodamus had fallen, hunger
came over them. They would have madly ripped
their charioteer to pieces where he lay
had Chromis not retrieved them by their bridles.
He quit, defeated, but he earned high praise.

The race drew close; the winner was uncertain.
It was Apollo’s wish, Amphiaraus,
that you should have the victory he’d promised.
He thought the time was right to favor you
and there within the dusty circuit’s confines
he called from hell, or cunningly constructed,
the figure of a monstrous, crested serpent.
Its face was horrible to see. A thousand terrors
clung to his wicked thing he brought to light.

Neither dark Lethe’s fearful guardian,
the horses of the sun, the team of Mars,
or Furies could have seen it undismayed.

Arion’s golden mane stood stiff as he
stopped at the sight. He lifted up his shoulders
and raised his yoke companion and the other
horses who shared his labor by his side.
This forced the exile from Aonia to fall
and tear away the reins that crossed his back,
and, disattached, his chariot escaped
as he lay in the dust. The other cars—
from Taenaros and Thessaly and Lemnos—
avoided him by swerving just off course.

He managed to uplift his clouded head
after assistance reached him and to pry
his weak limbs from the ground before returning,
unlooked for, to Adrastus, his wife’s father.


Truly Amphiaraus, son of Oecleus,
tried to defeat the empty car as well,
though victory was certain as he followed
Arion, driverless, who raced ahead.
Phoebus lent strength, refreshing him. He drove
fast as an eastern wind, as if the gate
has just been dropped, the race has just begun.
With lash and reins he whipped the backs and manes
of fleet Ascheton and his snow-white Cygnus.

Now that the prophet raced in front alone
his hot wheels tore the track and scattered sand.
Earth groaned—a warning, a fierce premonition—
and Cygnus might have come in first and beaten
Arion, but the Father of the Sea
denied him that, yet gave a fair exchange:
the horse gained fame, the prophet won the race.

A pair of twins delivered him his prize,
a Herculean cup. This the Tirynthian
would lift one-handed when he raised his throat
and let pour foaming wine to celebrate
his conquest of some monster or a war.
Engraved artistically in gold, it showed
fierce Centaurs slaughtering the Lapithae
as torches, stones and drinking bowls went flying:
Hercules held Hylaeus by his beard
and clubbed him while the rioters were dying.

As your reward, Admetus, you were given
a cloak with purple border, deeply dyed,
that showed Leander braving Phrixean seas,
his figure carved in blue beneath the waves.
You would have thought the dry cloth held wet hair.
There he swam on his side, exchanging strokes,
while opposite, in Sestos, waits a light—
filled with anxiety—that slowly dies.

These gifts Adrastus ordered for the victors
and to his son-in-law he gave a slave girl.

Publius Papinius Statius, The Thebaid, 6.296–549 (shortened); transl. by Charles Stanley Ross

Tiberius Catius Asconius Silius Italicus, Punica: Chariot race at Scipio Africanus’ games at Carthago Nova in 206 BC

(1st century AD)

Now the appointed day came, and the plain was filled with the noise of a crowd past numbering; and Scipio, with tears in his eyes, led the semblance of a funeral procession with due rites of burial. Every Spaniard and every soldier of the Roman army brought gifts to throw upon the blazing pyres. Scipio himself held goblets, filled either with milk or with sacred wine, and sprinkled fragrant flowers over the altars. Then he summoned the ghosts to rise up, and rehearsed with tears the glories of the dead, and did honour to their noble deeds. Thence he went back to the race-course and started the first contest – that which was to test the speed of horses. Even before the starting-gate was unbarred, the excited crowd surged to and fro with a noise like the sound of the sea, and, with a fury of partisanship, fixed their eyes on the doors behind which the racers were standing.

And now the signal was given, and the bolts flew back with a noise. Scarcely had the first hoof flashed into full view, when a wild storm of shouting rose up to heaven. Bending forward like the drivers, each man gazed at the chariot he favoured, and at the same time shouted to the flying horses. The course was shaken by the enthusiasm of the spectators, and excitement robbed every man of his senses. They lean forward and direct the horses by their shouting. A cloud of yellow dust rose up from the sandy soil, concealing with its darkness the running of the horses and the exertions of the drivers. One man backs with fury the mettled steed, another the charioteer. Some are zealous for horses of their own country, others for the fame of some ancient stud. One man is filled with joyful hope for an animal that is racing for the first time, while another prefers the green old age of a well-tried veteran. At the start, Lampon, bred in Gallicia, left the rest behind; he rushed through the air with the flying car, galloping over the course with huge strides and leaving the winds behind him. The crowd roared with applause, thinking that with such a start their favourite had as good as won. But those who looked deeper and had more experience of the race-course, blamed the driver for putting forth all his strength at the beginning: from a distance they uttered vain protests, that he was tiring out his team with his efforts and keeping no reserve of power. “Whither are you careering too eagerly, Cyrnus?” – Cyrnus was the charioteer – “Be prudent! Put down your whip and tighten your reins!” But alas, his ears were deaf: on he sped, unsparing of his horses, and forgetting how much ground had still to be covered.

Next came Panchaies, a chariot-length and no more behind the leader. Bred in Asturia, he was conspicuous for the white forehead and four white feet of his sires. Though high-mettled, he was low of stature and lacked comeliness; but now his fiery spirit lent him wings, and he sped over the plain, impatient of the reins; he seemed to grow in stature and size as he ran. His driver, Hiberus, was gay with scarlet of Cinyphian dye.

Third in order, neck and neck with Pelorus, ran Caucasus, a fractious animal that loved not the caressing hand that patted his neck, but rejoiced to bite and champ the iron in his mouth till blood came with the foam. Pelorus, on the other hand, was more tractable and obedient to the rein; never did he swerve aside and drive the car in crooked lines, but kept to the inside and grazed the turning-post with his near wheel. He was conspicuous for the size of his neck and the thick mane that rippled over it. Strange to say, he had no sire: his dam, Harpe, had conceived him from the Zephyr of spring and foaled him in the plains of the Vettones. This chariot was driven along the course by the noble Durius, while Caucasus relied upon ancient Atlas as his driver. Caucasus came from Aetolian Tyde, the city founded by the wandering hero, Diomede; and legend traced his descent to the Trojan horses which the son of Tydeus, successful in his bold attempt, stole from Aeneas by the river Simois. Atlas came last, but Durius was last also and moved no faster: one might have thought the pair were running peaceably side by side and keeping level.

And now, when near half the distance was completed, they quickened over the course; and spirited Panchates, struggling to catch up the team ahead, seemed to rise higher and at each moment to mount upon the chariot in front, and the hoofs of his prancing forefeet struck and rattled on the car of the Galhcian horse. When Hiberus, who came second, saw that the Gallician team of Cyrnus was tiring, that the chariot was no longer bounding ahead, and that the smoking horses were driven on by severe and repeated flogging, then, as when a sudden storm rushes down from a mountaintop, he leaned forward quickly as far as the necks of his coursers and hung above their crests, and stirred up Panchates, who was chafing at being second in the race, and plied his whip, even while he called to the horse: “Steed of Asturia, shall any other get in front and win the prize when you are competing? Rise up and fly and glide over the plain with all your wonted speed, as if on wings! Lampon is panting hard; his strength is gone and he grows smaller; he has no breath left to carry to the goal.” At these words, Panchates rose higher, as if he were just starting in the race; and Cyrnus, though he strove to block his rival by swerving, or to keep up with him, was soon left behind. The sky and the race-course resounded, smitten by the shouts of the spectators. Victorious Panchates raised his triumphant crest still higher as he ran on; and he drew after him his three partners in the yoke.

The two last drivers were Atlas and Durius; and now they swerved aside and resorted to tricks. First, one tried to pass his rival on the left; and then the other came up on the right and strove to get in front; but both failed in their attempted strategy. At last Durius, young and confident, leaning forward and jerking at his reins, placed his chariot athwart his rival’s course and struck the other car and upset it. Atlas, no match for the other’s youth and strength, protested with justice: “Whither are you careering? or what mad fashion is this of racing? You seek to kill me and my horses together.” As he cried out thus, he fell head first from the broken chariot; and the horses too, a sorry sight, fell down and sprawled in disorder on the ground, while the conqueror shook his reins on the open course, and Pelorus flew up the middle of the track, leaving Atlas struggling to rise. It did not take him long to catch up the weary team of Cyrnus: he flew past with speedy car, though Cyrnus was learning too late the wisdom of controlling his pace. A shout of applause from his supporters drove the chariot on. And now Pelorus thrust his head over the back and shoulders of terrified Hiberus, till the charioteer felt the horse’s hot breath and foam upon his neck. Durius pressed on along the plain, and increased the pace of his team by the whip. Nor was the effort vain: coming up on the right, he seemed to be, or even was, running neck and neck with his rival. Then, amazed by the prospect of such glory, he cried out: “Now, Pelorus, now is the time to show that the West-wind was your sire! Let steeds that spring from the loins of mere animals learn how far superior is the issue of an immortal parent. When victorious, you shall offer gifts to your sire and rear an altar in his honour.” And indeed, had he not, even while he spoke, been beguiled, by too great success and by his fearful joy, into dropping his whip, Durius would perhaps have consecrated to the West-wind the altars he had vowed. But now, as wretched as if the victor’s wreath had fallen from his head, he turned his rage against himself, tearing the gold-embroidered garment from his breast, and weeping, and pouring out complaints to heaven. When the lash was gone, the team no longer obeyed the driver: in vain he flogged their backs with the reins for a whip.

Meanwhile Panchates, sure now of victory, sped on to the goal, and claimed the first prize with head held high. A light breeze fanned the mane that rippled over his neck and shoulders; then with proud step he raised his nimble limbs, and a great shout greeted his victory. Each competitor received alike a battle-axe of solid silver with carven work; but the other prizes differed from one another and were of unequal value. To the winner was given a flying steed, a desirable present from the Massylian king; the second in merit next received two cups overlaid with gold of the Tagus, taken from the great heap of Carthaginian spoil; the third prize was the shaggy hide of a fierce lion and a Carthaginian helmet with bristling plumes; and lastly Scipio summoned Atlas and gave him a prize also in pity for his age and ill-fortune, though the old man had fallen down when his chariot was wrecked. To him was given a beautiful youth, to attend on him, together with a skin cap of Spanish fashion.

Silius Italicus, Punica, XVI.303-456; transl. by J. D. Duff

Sidonius Apollinaris, Poem 23 (To Consentius): Chariot race at Ravenna

(5th century AD)

Nay, it was rather the duty of my Muse to record with joy your own great exploits when you were conqueror at the circensian games amid the thunderous plaudits of Rome.1

Phoebus was beginning a new yearly circle, and two-faced Janus was bringing back his Calends, the day when the new magistrates take their seats. It is Caesar’s custom to provide games (called “private”) twice in that one day. Then a company of young men, all of the Court, goes through a grim mimicry of the field of Elis2 with four-horse chariots racing over the course.

Now the urn3 demanded you and the whistling cheers of the hoarse onlookers summoned you. Thereupon, in the part where the door is and the seat of the consuls, round which there runs a wall with six vaulted chambers on each side, wherein are the starting-pens, you chose one of the four chariots by lot and mounted it, laying a tight grip on the hanging reins. Your partner4 did the same, so did the opposing side. Brightly gleam the colours, white and blue, green and red, your several badges.

Servants’ hands hold mouth and reins and with knotted cords force the twisted manes to hide themselves, and all the while they incite the steeds, eagerly cheering them with encouraging pats and instilling a rapturous frenzy. There behind the barriers chafe those beasts, pressing against the fastenings, while a vapoury blast comes forth between the wooden bars and even before the race the field they have not yet entered is filled with their panting breath. They push, they bustle, they drag, they struggle, they rage, they jump, they fear and are feared; never are their feet still, but restlessly they lash the hardened timber.

At last the herald with loud blare of trumpet calls forth the impatient teams and launches the fleet chariots into the field.5 The swoop of forked lightning, the arrow sped by Scythian string, the trail of the swiftly-falling star, the leaden hurricane of bullets whirled from Balearic slings has never so rapidly split the airy paths of the sky. The ground gives way under the wheels and the air is smirched with the dust that rises in their track. The drivers, while they wield the reins, ply the lash; now they stretch forward over the chariots with stooping breasts, and so they sweep along, striking the horses’ withers and leaving their backs untouched. With charioteers so prone it would puzzle you to pronounce whether they were more supported by the pole or by the wheels.

Now as if flying out of sight on wings, you had traversed the more open part, and you were hemmed in by the space that is cramped by craft, amid which the central barrier has extended its long low double-walled structure.6 When the farther turning-post freed you all from restraint once more, your partner went ahead of the two others, who had passed you; so then, according to the law of the circling course, you had to take the fourth track.7 The drivers in the middle were intent that if haply the first man, embarrassed by a dash of his steeds too much to the right, should leave a space open on the left by heading for the surrounding seats, he should be passed by a chariot driven in on the near side. As for you, bending double with the very force of the effort you keep a tight rein on your team and with consummate skill wisely reserve them for the seventh lap. The others are busy with hand and voice, and everywhere the sweat of drivers and flying steeds falls in drops on to the field. The hoarse roar from applauding partisans stirs the heart, and the contestants, both horses and men, are warmed by the race and chilled by fear.

Thus they go once round, then a second time; thus goes the third lap, thus the fourth; but in the fifth turn the foremost man, unable to bear the pressure of his pursuers, swerved his car aside, for he had found, as he gave command to his fleet team, that their strength was exhausted. Now the return half of the sixth course was completed and the crowd was already clamouring for the award of the prizes; your adversaries, with no fear of any effort from you, were scouring the track in front with never a care, when suddenly you tautened the curbs all together, tautened your chest, planted your feet firmly in front, and chafed the mouths of your swift steeds as fiercely as was the wont of that famed charioteer of old when he swept Oenomaus8 along with him and all Pisa trembled. Hereupon one of the others, clinging to the shortest route round the turning-post, was hustled by you, and his team, carried away beyond control by their onward rush, could no more be wheeled round in a harmonious course. As you saw him pass before you in disorder, you got ahead of him by remaining where you were, cunningly reining up.

The other adversary, exulting in the public plaudits, ran too far to the right, close to the spectators; then as he turned aslant and all too late after long indifference urged his horses with the whip, you sped straight past your swerving rival. Then the enemy in reckless haste overtook you and, fondly thinking that the first man9 had already gone ahead, shamelessly made for your wheel with a sidelong dash.10 His horses were brought down, a multitude of intruding legs entered the wheels, and the twelve spokes were crowded, until a crackle came from those crammed spaces and the revolving rim shattered the entangled feet; then he, a fifth11 victim, flung from his chariot, which fell upon him, caused a mountain of manifold havoc, and blood disfigured his prostrate brow.

Thereupon arose a riot of renewed shouting such as neither Lycaeus with its cypresses ever raises, nor the forests of Ossa, troubled though they be by many a hurricane; such echoing roar as not even the Sicilian sea, rolled onward in billows by the south wind, gives forth, nor Propontis, whose wild deeps are a rampart to the Bosphorus. Next the just emperor ordered silken ribands to be added to the victors’ palms and crowns to the necklets of gold,12 and true merit to have its reward; while to the vanquished in their sore disgrace he bade rugs of many-coloured hair to be awarded.

1 “Rome” must not be taken literally: these games were held at Ravenna, where Valentinian III resided. The description which follows, though by no means without originality, is considerably influenced by Statius, Theb. VI. 389 sqq., which describes the chariot-race held at Nemea by the seven chieftains on their way to Thebes.

2 i.e. of the Olympic games.

3 urna. The lot assigned to each competitor a particular carcer, and hence, on this and similar occasions, a particular chariot, as the chariots and teams were supplied by the Emperor, and were already in their respective carceres (v. 331).

4 Cf. 362. The four competitors were paired off, and each competitor endeavoured to bring victory to his side by fair means or by means which in modem times would be considered foul. The “colleague” of Consentius apparently tries to force the pace and fluster his opponents in order to leave a clear field for his partner, who conserves the energies of his team until the time comes to make a spurt for victory. In the last lap one of the opposing side tries to help his partner by an egregious foul, with disastrous results.

5 It was usual to start the race from a white line made on the course itself; but on this occasion the start is made from the carceres. This seems to have been the older method.

6 Euripus is applied to a canal or large tank. In some circuses the long central barrier (spina) was filled with water. In earlier times euripus was applied to the moat which Julius Caesar built round the interior of the Circus Maximus to protect the spectators when wild beasts were exhibited. This was filled up by Nero.

7 The races were run counter-clockwise; thus the competitors had the spectators on their right and the spina on their left. The coveted position was the inside one, i.e. the one nearest to the spina, which gave the shortest course. On this occasion Consentius‘ partner has the inside position and Consentius the next. The two opponents get so far ahead of Consentius that they are entitled to move inward in front of him, and he has to change over to the outside position (363 sq.). Having gained this advantage, the two opponents hope that the horses of Consentius‘ partner will swerve outward far enough to allow one of his enemies to dash in and seize the inside position (363–369). In the fifth lap Consentius‘ partner has to withdraw; thus the opponents secure the two inner tracks. Consentius, acting on the traditional principle that all’s fair in the circus, rushes up as close as possible to the inside car as it passes the turning-post, and succeeds in exciting the horses, so that they plunge wildly and take a crooked course. Consentius watches his opportunity, gains the inside position, and dashes ahead (394–399).

8 Cf. 2.490 sqq.

9 i.e. the first-mentioned of the two opponents of Consentius, the one whom Consentius had first passed.

10 This man’s attention had been distracted (vv. 400–440) and, seeing Consentius pass him on the inside, he assumed that his own partner, who had occupied that position a moment before, had gone ahead. He then attempted to simplify that partner’s path to victory by fouling Consentius‘ wheel. Venit (407) does not mean “dashed against”; Consentius‘ car could not have won after such an impact. How the blow was eluded and how the horses were brought down we are not told explicitly; indeed the end of the description is so vague that I long understood it to mean that one of the men inadvertently fouled his partner’s car; but several things seem to rule out this interpretation.

11 “a fifth,” the other four being the horses.

12 Note the plurals; the two members of the winning pair receive the same prizes. One of them had not finished the course, but he had done his best for his side. Thus unselfish “team-work” was encouraged.

Sidonius Apollinaris, Poem XXIII (To Consentius), 23.304–427; transl. and annotated by W. B. Anderson. The verse numbers in footnotes refer to the Greek text given in the Loeb edition.


4 June 2021 – 14 January 2023