Just the other day in Pompeii, archaeologists discovered one of the most well-preserved Roman chariots ever found in Italy. It is essentially the Lamborghini of Roman chariots. Everything found before this has essentially been the equivalent of a station wagon or a sedan. Now this is a true example of Roman luxury.
This chariot is so nice that it is believed to be have been used for festivities and parades like weddings rather than racing or general transport. This is just further evidence of the Romans love of flexing. Not too different from today.
The chariot comes fitted with four iron wheels, metal armrests and backrests, and a perched seat that can fit two. It is adorned with metal medallions that depict satyrs, nymphs, and cupids which is why it is believed to be used for weddings. It’s a bit like hiring a limo to take the bride and groom from the church to the reception. It is unknown what its top speed may have been but it seems unlikely to match a Lamborghini.
But if this chariot was for showing off and parading around what were the station wagons for? They often were used for casual transport to work or just travel in general but that wasn’t all. What they were often used for was far bloodier and dangerous.
Chariot racing in Ancient Rome was one of, if not, the most popular sporting event. You may think it was the gladiatorial events with all its violence and blood, but that wasn’t limited to just the gladiators. The chariot races often involved the death of both the charioteers and their horses. Collisions were common, often inevitable. And during these collisions, the charioteers, who had the reigns tied to their waists, went down with the chariot. They would either be dragged to their death or they would be able to cut themselves free. It was all part of the spectacle. It was not just about who won the race, but often who survived.
These events were so popular that the venue, the Circus Maximus, was even bigger than the Colosseum. It took up an area of 45,000 square metres and could fit at least 150,000 spectators. For big events they would even bring in temporary seating that brought up the capacity to 250,000! This meant that the Circus was at least twelve times bigger than the Colosseum and things only get that size for one reason. Money and passion.
Chariot racers in Rome, if they survived, could become incredibly rich and famous. These racers could be sports-stars on the same level as Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. One charioteer, Gaius Appuleius Diocles, won 1,462 races out of 4,257 races and was one of the few charioteers who actually retired. His victories meant that he was very rich. His winnings were reported to be 35,863,120 sesterces, which today is roughly equivalent to $US 15 billion! This means that Gaius still holds the record as the highest paid sportsman in history! All this without a Nike endorsement.
There was so much money to be made because betting on the races was very commonplace. From the Emperor to the lowest pleb, everyone would bet on the races from time to time. As the seats were free to the poor, there was no barrier to enjoy the races, they were not exclusive. Not to say that it was an even playing field as the richer folks could buy better seats with shade and other comforts. Think of it in a similar vein to a modern-day horse track. Entry is cheap and you can stand around the track. But spend a little more and you get box seats to keep the rain off your head.
But why would someone want to compete in something so dangerous? If death is a very likely possibility, surely the prize money isn’t enough to risk your life? You’re right, for most people it wasn’t worth it. In fact, most charioteers were slaves and forced to race. Some were good at it and enjoyed it and many often competed to win their freedom.
It is no small wonder that the ‘Lamborghini’ chariot was not used in the races given its likely destruction. But even if it was no racer, it is still what it intended to be – a thing of beauty. Let’s not forget that the Romans were multi-faceted like we are today. They could make the same thing for different purposes. Whether that was to show off one’s wealth or to be raced and possibly destroyed.