In this post, I am going to write about ancient Roman chariot racing inspired by the epic scene in the 1959 film Ben Hur starring Charlton Heston. You can watch the scene here: Chariot Race Scene. In this post, I am going to throw some Latin words around, so bear with me.
The circus or arena set in Ben Hur was modeled after the Jerusalem hippodrome built by Herod the Great in the late first century BC. The hippodrome, meaning "horse course," was designed by the Greeks, and later used by the Romans. This type of arena was traditionally only used for horse races, but the Romans would also use it for other games and events. It was shaped like a horseshoe with a square portico at the end that housed the race horses and chariots. In Ben Hur, it took about a thousand workers to build the arena that spanned eighteen acres in the back-lot of Cinecitta Studios outside of Rome. The spina, the median strip, was built with tubing, wood, and plaster and stood forty-feet tall. Thirty-six thousand tons of sand were brought in to cover the surface to help keep the horses from going lame. The arena had cost one million dollars to make, and the whole scene totaled four million dollars and ten weeks to film. Sadly, the whole set was dismantled after the film was completed.
In the film, the race was made up of teams of four horses called a quadriga, meaning four yoked. The two outside horses were called the funalis and the two middle ones were the iguales, or the actual yoke horses. The funalis were the faster horses who would set the pace, while the iguales were the ones who pulled the weight of chariot and kept it steady. All the horses would need to work as a team and match pace with each other and take signals from their driver on when to slow down and when to speed up. An uncooperative, flighty horse would have spelled disaster for the whole team. The inside funalis horse, the one closest to the spina, would have had the most difficult job because he had to lead the team around the sharp turns while keeping the fast pace. When a specific horse was named in a quadriga in ancient records, it would usually be the inside funalis horse. In the scene when Judah Ben Hur was asked to race Sheik Ilderim’s team, he speaks about moving his smartest horse to the inside funalis position.
In the film, Judah Ben Hur’s horses were called Arabians, but the horses used were actually Andalusians and the other horse teams were made up of Lipizzans. Ancient Roman chariot race teams would have very likely been made up of close ancestors to the modern Arabian. When ancient Roman records mentioned horse breeds, the African breed was the most favored compared to the Spanish, Gaulish, Greek, and Cappadocian breeds. The African breed was described to have the characteristics of speed, endurance, intelligence, and hard hooves which are all present in the Arabian.
The driver, usually a male slave to the owner of the team, would need to be very fit to compete in this kind of race. He would need to have the strength to steer four galloping horses and help balance a 900lbs chariot around the sharp turns. Unlike other arena sports, the driver did not race in the nude, but would wear a tunic with a breastplate, leg wrapping, and a metal cap. Charlton Heston was experienced with horses before coming onto this film, but he had to spend a month learning how to stand in a chariot and control a four horse team.
The starting line was called the creta, or white line. Starting positions would be determined by drawing lots. Each driver chose his position as his name came up, so there was some strategy on where a driver chose to be placed. Drivers usually wanted to be as close to the spina as possible, but another option would be to be placed next to a team that could be easily intimidated and pushed out of the competition. The horses would run counterclockwise around the spina seven times, although in the film, they ran around nine times. I am not sure if this was an adaptation by the film to make the race more dramatic, or if various ancient circuses would set up their races differently. At the start of the race, teams would sprint to get as close to the spina as possible for the turns. Most crashes happened on the turns where men and horses would be severely hurt if not killed. An altar to honor Taraxippus, a ghost who scared horses, would usually be placed on the turns. I guess everyone can blame a Taraxippus when their horse frightens for no reason. Dirty tactics were used to gain advantages, such as cutting off, tailgating, crowding, and even whipping another team's horses. These tactics were frowned upon, but were considered part of the nature of the sport.
There were surprisingly no serious injuries for the actors or horses in the making of this scene. The actual race horses in ancient Rome would have been susceptible to strained tendons in the legs, cracked hooves, and strained backs. Records describe care methods to help heal some injuries, such as treating a horse’s eye that had been hit by a whip or how to treat a cut tongue, which indicates how the harsh bits were. The film brought in and trained about eighty horses, so if horses became tired or injured, they could be replaced.
The driver would most likely had to deal with grit flying up from the ground and getting in his eyes. It’s amazing these drivers could have even seen where they were going. Charlton Heston had to wear special contacts to protect his eyes from all the flying debris. Drivers would have also been subject to leather burns and blisters from the reins as the actor Stephen Boyd who played Messala suffered from during filming. And of course, if crashes happened, both horses and drivers would have been tangled in leathers and possibly be crushed by their own chariots or been trampled over by another team, as was depicted a few times in Ben Hur. Another risk was drivers usually wrapped the reins around their waists, so they were in danger of being dragged by their horses if they crashed, but in the film the actors only wrapped the reins around their wrists.
Roman chariot racing was a very dangerous sport, which made it very appealing in the Roman masses. Every major Roman city and town would have had a circus arena, and horse racing was one of the most favored sports to watch. I thought Ben Hur's adaptation of capturing the excitement and the danger involved in a Roman chariot race while staying historically accurate was done very well.
I am Amy. I love movies, TV, and horses. I grew up with horses and taught kids how to ride during my summer breaks from school. Now I am a country girl living in a city hoping to someday move back into a rural area and own a horse again.