Where Sports and Politics Met: Chariot Racing in the Byzantine Empire

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In the sixth century, Roman-style chariot racing was the Byzantine (or Eastern Roman) Empire’s most popular spectator sport, having outlasted the infamous gladiatorial fights and wild beast hunts of the earlier imperial period. The rules of the sport remained essentially the same. The standard race would have been quite familiar to modern observers, with starting boxes and a finish line. There were many variations to keep the races fresh. A particular favorite was the diversium, in which the winning charioteer exchanged horses and chariots with a losing charioteer, and then raced again. Victory in this rematch would prove that the originally victorious charioteer won because of his skill, not because of his horses and equipment. The imperial government administered and financed four racing teams (Blue, Green, White, and Red), which owned the horses and equipment and employed the charioteers. Byzantine chariot races took place in large arenas known as hippodromes. In the fifth and sixth centuries, the heyday of Byzantine chariot racing, hippodromes dotted the lands around the Eastern Mediterranean.

After the sixth century, chariot racing declined in the Byzantine world generally, in large part because it had become intimately connected to government finances. The Byzantine government experienced significant setbacks in the seventh century with the Persian War and the subsequent Arab invasions. The resulting financial difficulties probably led to the disappearance of racing in provincial cities, which we cease to hear about in the seventh century. However, chariot racing and the racing teams definitely survived in Constantinople in diminished form until at least the twelfth century. The attack of the Fourth Crusade in 1204 probably played a role in its eventual disappearance, although chariot racing had probably already been in decline in the years leading up to that event.

It is likely that the emperors preserved chariot racing in Constantinople not just because it made for good entertainment, but also because the races provided an opportunity for the people and emperor to have some face time with one another. The emperors regularly attended the races, as of course did a great many citizens of Constantinople. It is estimated that the hippodrome could hold 100,000 spectators, so this was the largest setting for imperial interaction with the people of the city. In general, it seems that emperors appearing in the hippodrome had an expectation (or perhaps merely a hope) that they would be cheered or otherwise supported by the spectators gathered there. For example, in 602 the emperor Maurice used heralds to address the crowd in the hippodrome and assure them that the revolt of Phocas was not serious. He then ordered a series of chariot races to amuse the assembled people. The fans of the Blues responded by leading a chant in support of Maurice, assuring him (falsely, as it turned out) that he would overcome his enemies (Theophylact The History 8.7.8–9). This is an indication of the way that emperors hoped to use the circus racing factions to their political advantage.

Of course the spectators themselves did not merely show up to support their emperor. They frequently hoped to make requests of the emperor for the improvement of some aspect of their daily lives. These requests could and sometimes did relate to chariot racing itself, as when racing fans of all four colors shouted for the famous charioteer Porphyrius in the hopes that he would be assigned to race for their team. Requests ranged far beyond racing, however. In 512, the people in the hippodrome protested against the emperor Anastasius and shouted for his ecclesiastical advisors to be thrown to wild beasts. Anastasius responded by appearing in the hippodrome without his crown, promising to do everything the people asked, and swearing to abdicate if they wished it. This response pacified them and they acclaimed Anastasius and left peacefully (John Malalas Chronographia 16.19). So in the heyday of Byzantine chariot racing, the spectacle was not merely a form of entertainment, but a forum for discussion between emperor and people. Both hoped to get something from the exchange. A chariot race was the emperor’s chance to speak with many of his people at once, and the people’s chance to confront the emperor directly on their terms with relative anonymity. These exchanges were an essential part of the give and take of government in Byzantium, and they took place in the hippodrome, before, after, and even during the races.


David Alan Parnell

David Alan Parnell is Assistant Professor of History at Indiana University Northwest


Suggestions for further reading:

Alan Cameron, Circus factions: Blues and Greens at Rome and Byzantium (Oxford, 1976).

David Alan Parnell, “Spectacle and Sport in Constantinople in the Sixth Century” in Companion to Sport and Spectacle in Greek and Roman Antiquity, edited by Paul Christesen and Donald Kyle, Malden 2014, pp. 633-645.



The emperor Theodosius I (r. 379-395) and the people of Constantinople at the hippodrome, from a bas-relief of the pedestal for the obelisk of Theodosius, which was placed in the median strip of the race track. Photo by the author.


Greek Horse Races, Politics, and Identity

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Everything was different at the Olympic Games of AD 67: they were held two years too late, musical contests had been added to the programme, and the victor was known before the competition had even started. The initiator of these changes was the man who saw himself as the most versatile athlete of the ancient world: the emperor Nero. According to our sources, he had become a little too ambitious in one discipline, though: his attempt to drive a ten-horse-chariot failed and he fell off the chariot much to the hidden amusement of the spectators.

In many ways the games of AD 67 were exceptional, and after Nero’s death, they were annulled and deleted from the victor lists. One aspect was not exceptional at all, however: the participation of prominent people in the horse races. For the hippic events, the Olympic victor lists read like a ‘who is who’ of Greek history.

Unlike Nero, however, most of these prominent participants would not have take the risk to make themselves a laughing-stock by personally driving their chariots. Success in the races mainly required investing a considerable amount of money: these race horses were not just proud animals, but expensive prestige objects. As such, part of their raison d’être simply was to demonstrate that their owners could afford them. So for many very rich people like Sicilian tyrants, Thessalian aristocrats or members of the incredibly wealthy dynasty of the Ptolemies who ruled over Egypt it simply was no question whether they should compete or not. Others, however, were more hesitant. So why did Greek elites engage in horse races?


Let’s begin with a possible, but most certainly incomplete answer: it was all about the race and the horses. The first thing we have to bear in mind here is that the perspective which matters most in ancient Greek horse races is not the perspective of the actual participants in the competition, the charioteers or jockeys, but that of the owners of the horses. They were the ones listed as victors, and we simply know next to nothing about the charioteers and jockeys.

The owners were proud of their horses and emphasized when they stemmed from their own breeding. Some even steered the chariots themselves. Yet the mere fact that horse owners were not necessarily present at the games in which their horses won victory (the locus classicus is Plut. Al. 3), suggests that some of the most important aspects of equestrian competition did not happen on the day of the race itself but after the contest. A true passion for equestrian competition may thus not have been the major driving force behind all of these agonistic activities. It was rather about winning, and maybe not even about winning itself, but about the celebration of the victory, since agonistic success gave enormous prestige and could be used to achieve and secure political power or to enforce a political argument.

To give an analogy from modern football, the club slogan of a well-known sports club from North Rhine-Westphalia which is “Echte Liebe” (“true love”) did not correspond to the mindset of Greek horse owners. For them, it was more about what the magazine of a rivalling and even more famous football club labeled in response as “Echte Spitze” (“truly at the top”). In order to be celebrated, you needed to win, not to be passionate.


Horse owners wanted to demonstrate that they were better (wealthier, more successful etc.) than their competitors. The essential components of agonistic poetry commissioned and written to perpetuate successes in this discipline included the place of victory, the discipline and the name of the victorious horse-owner, all other information was optional. It was surely possible to praise a victor “who delights in horses” (Pind. Ol. 1.23). Yet, even in such a case the emphasis was not on the passion for the animals, but on the close relationship between the owner and his objects of prestige.


So it comes as no surprise that successful charioteers did not reach the status of rich stars in Greek horse races. The horse owners monopolized the commemoration of the victory. They took center stage and had no need for any equivalent of the racing stables of the Roman circus factions. Greek horse owners used their victory celebrations for their own self-presentation and made good use of the symbolic capital inherent in the victory. Depending on what was useful for them in the political discourse of the day, they had poets to present a fitting image of their victory. Part of this image was an adequate social and political identity.


Horse races were not just a typical elite hobby like hunting. They had a competitive character and winning was key. This is why an often-quoted modern definition for “game” which is sometimes applied to sport does not hold true for Greek athletics, at least not for horse races. This definition specifies a “game” as “the voluntary effort to overcome unnecessary obstacles” (Bernard Suits), which lacks an essential component Greek sport: the element of competition (and winning).


To put it in a nutshell, there definitely was more than one possible reason for a Greek ruler or aristocrat to compete in horse races. A necessary prerequisite, though, was wealth – apart from the high cost of purchasing horses, the logistical operation to make it to the races was far from cheap too (see Sandra Zipprich’s contribution). Yet, some members of Greek elites were just happy with their parade horses or never engaged in horse breeding at all. So, the political usefulness of a possible agonistic victory was key. Competing in horse races was not simply the obvious thing to do. Neither was a passion for horses and horse races the decisive factor. Galloping horses in Greek sports were all about politics and identity.


Sebastian Scharff,

Sebastian Scharff is a Postdoctoral scholar at the Department of Ancient History in the University of Mannheim.


For more on this topic:

Decker, W., Sport in der griechischen Antike. Vom minoischen Wettkampf bis zu den Olympischen Spielen, Hildesheim ²2012, 86-94.

Moretti, J.-C. & P. Valavanis (eds.), Hippodromes and Horse Races in Ancient Greece, forthcoming.

Petermandl, W., Olympischer Pferdesport im Altertum. Die schriftlichen Quellen, Kassel 2013.

Platte, R., Equine Poetics, Washington, DC, 2017.