Abstract: Fans, Factions and Favoritism : Horses and Charioteers of the Roman Circus


When it comes to the history of sport and spectacle few events come close to equaling the Roman circus.  As a contest, chariot racing had a long and illustrious past.  The first written reference to the sport is found at Iliad XXIII.261-538 as part of the funeral games for Patroclous.  1500 years later the Byzantine world was aid to honor two kinds of people: the holy man and the triumphant charioteer. 

Chariot racing became part of the Olympic Games in 680BCE and remained a staple of the program at Olympia and the other Pan-Hellenic Games.  In the Roman world, however, chariot racing evolved into something much greater than a contest; it became a highly organized industry.  Chariot racing was popular in Greece, but in the Roman world it became an obsession.

This paper will trace the history of the Roman Circus from its Greek and Etruscan origins to the establishment of the racing teams – the Reds, Whites, Greens and Blues – that became professionally run factions during the Imperial period.  Further, I will explore the social impact of the Circus as an essential part of Roman society through the colorful partisans who raised victorious charioteers and their horses to near divine status, immortalizing their feats with monuments, inscriptions while the greatest poets of the day sung their praises.  Even the Emperor was not immune to the lure of the Circus.  Nero famously dyed the track of the Circus Maximus Green in support of his chosen team, while Caligula made his favorite chariot horse a Senator and built him a marble stable.  Diocletian went so far as to create two new teams- the Golds and the Purples.  In Byzantium the Circus and its factions became powerful enough to influence politics.  In an unprecedented event the notoriously violent supporters of the Blues and Greens united to stage a mass revolt against the Emperor Justinian in the Nike riots.


Short bibliography and/or website on lecture topic:

Cameron, Alan.  Circus Factions: Blues and Greens and Rome and Byzantium. Clarendon Press: 1976.

Cotterell, A.  Chariot: The Astouinding Rise and Fall of the World’s First War Machine.  Pimlico: 2004.

Futrell, A (ed).  The Roman Games: A Sourcebook.  Blackwell: 2006

Harris, H.A.  Sport in Greece and Rome.  Thames and Hudson: 1972.

Humphrey, John H.  Roman Circuses: Arenas for Chariot Racing.  University of California Press: 1986.

Hyland, A.  Equus: The Horse in the Roman World.  BT Batsford: 1990.

Meijer, F.  Chariot Racing in the Roman Empire.  John Hopkins University Press: 2010.



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