Peeps at Ancient Rome - Jamse Baikie

The Games—the Circus Maximus

The Romans, as I dare say you know already, were always passionately fond of their games. From the earliest to the latest days of their history it was always the same with them, and we know that the games had been a regularly established event in the city year, with high officials specially appointed to attend to them, for nearly 400 years before the fall of the Republic and the coming of the Empire. Under the emperors the passion for such amusements grew continually. It came to be no longer a question of games on a few great festival occasions every year, but on every possible opportunity. The only way to keep the turbulent rabble of Rome in good temper was to give them constantly free bread and free games; and the cry, "Bread and the games!" was one to which no ruler of Rome who valued his popularity ever dared to turn a deaf ear.

You must know, however, that what a Roman meant by "games" was something very different from our harmless contests in wrestling, running, and leaping, or even from the sterner conflicts of the great Greek athletic festivals. The only Roman game that was even comparatively harmless was the chariot-race, and even then the drivers ran a good risk of having their necks broken. The real "game" was to see men killing and being killed—gladiators hacking and thrusting at one another, wild beasts being attacked by men whose miserable weapons were only sufficient to provoke the creatures to fury and make them turn upon their hunters with greater savagery, sea-fights in some great artificial lake, where slaves dashed galley against galley in some mimic Salamis or Mylae, till the waters were red with blood. Such things the fierce Roman nature always loved to see, and the thirst for blood grew year by year, till the Roman games were horrors that cannot be described.

To-day, however, we are going to witness one of the most famous of these tremendous displays of cruelty, or, at least, as much of it as you can stand. We shall only take a glance at what would really go on for day after day, but I expect you will find a sample quite enough, without staying through all the program of horrors. To-day you will see Rome at its greatest splendour and in its lowest degradation; for this is the day when Titus, whom we saw in his hour of triumph over Jerusalem, celebrates, with the most splendid games that Rome has ever seen, the opening of the Flavian Amphitheatre, which you and I now call the Colosseum (A D. 80).

People in Rome have been talking about nothing else for weeks and weeks. The merest acquaintance will stop you in the street to tell you of some of the wonderful new animals which are to be among the 9,000 wild beasts that will be exhibited, and mostly slain, in the Amphitheatre. You hear till you are tired about the merits of the various champions of the different gladiatorial schools in Rome, and the skill of the gladiators whom the Emperor is bringing from the famous school at Capua. When you escape from the wild-beast gossip, and the gladiator gossip, you are buttonholed by another bore, who has an endless yarn to tell you of how the Emperor is going to exhibit also the great sea-battle between the fleets of Corcyra and Corinth. He can tell you the names of all the galleys that will be fighting, and, if you would only listen long enough, I dare say he could tell you the names of all the rowers as well. Rome is living for nothing else but these games, and you are apt at times to wish that they were over and done with.

However, the great day has come at last, and we are going to begin with the mildest of the Roman amusements, the chariot-racing. As a show, the Romans do not care nearly so much for it as for the gladiator fights, except when an unlucky charioteer breaks his neck, or half a dozen ribs, by taking too quick a turn; but as a subject to bet upon and to quarrel over, they like the contests between the Whites and Reds and the Greens and Blues immensely. So we are sure to find the Circus Maximus well filled when we get down there.

Mater Matuta


Here comes the procession winding down from the Capitol. At its head comes a consular who is acting as "editor" of the races instead of Titus, whose health is none too good, and who is reserving himself for the actual ceremony at the Amphitheatre. The editor is dressed like a triumphing general, in a toga of purple and gold, and bears an ivory sceptre crowned by a golden eagle, while a slave, standing on the step of his two-horse chariot, carries a golden crown of oak-leaves. After him come his family retainers, in white togas, and then picked bodies of horse and foot, the finest young men in Rome. Here, behind them, follow the drivers who are to race—Appuleius Diocles, that wily old strategist of the race-course, Crescens the Moor, with his swarthy face, and the others, the two-horse riders, the dancers, and the band. Last of all (for this is a sacred business, and an act of religion, you will please to remember) we have the different priestly colleges, with incense-bearers and sacred vessels, and many very holy images of the gods, borne in litters or on four-wheeled chariots.

We fall in behind the last chariot of the gods, and the "pompa" winds through the Forum and the Velabrum to the cattle-market, where it enters the great gate of the Circus, makes a solemn circuit of the arena, and then gets itself seated, the editor in the tribunal opposite the winning-line.

The races, of course, may last the whole day long, but we shall be content to see one good one. The company races, where three or four chariots of each faction, Whites and Greens, Blues and Reds, all race together, are interesting enough if you can see the races through the dust, but the best races are where a single crack driver runs against another crack of the opposing faction. Diocles the Lusitanian, of the Reds, will drive to-day against Crescens the Moor, of the Greens, and that will be a race worth seeing. Till the champions are ready, look around at the Circus Maximus, for you will not easily see a place to match it in the world.

It lies in a narrow valley between the Palatine and the Aventine hills, and indeed its sides are the slopes of these hills shaped and held up by retaining walls and provided with stone seats rising row upon row behind one another. At one end the seats sweep round from hill to hill in a graceful curve, broken by the Triumphal Gate through which we entered, and by which the victor drives out after the race. The other end is closed by the row of chariot-houses, where the competing teams wait till their race is called. Down the centre of the large arena, which measures more than 1,900 feet in length by 260 in breadth, runs a high barrier. It is decorated with a huge Egyptian obelisk brought from Heliopolis by tile Emperor Augustus, and at each end three cones of gilded bronze rise from a stone base. These are the "metae" or turning-points. The chariots race from the starting-line down the right side of the barrier, whirl round the first meta, along the left side of the barrier, and round the second meta, repeating this seven times. But look at the unending rows of seats. They stretch for 2,100 feet along each side, and for 400 feet across the end. Never in all your life are you likely to see such a crowd again as is seated here. The Romans will tell you all kinds of stories about the numbers. One man will put a Circus crowd at 150,000, another at 350,000, and another at half a million. Take it even at the lowest figure, it is the biggest crowd that ever sat in a single building on earth. Well may they call this the Circus Maximus.

Now the "desultores," as the men are called who race against one another, each man guiding two horses, and leaping from one to the other as they gallop, have finished their turn. Nobody pays much attention to them, anyway, for all are eager to see the great champions. Here they come at last, each in his light pair-horse chariot of ivory, bronze, and gold. Diocles, a stalwart swarthy Spaniard, looks well in his short tunic of red. His body is swathed in coil after coil of leather thongs, to protect him as far as possible in the case of a heavy fall, and beneath the tunic his thighs are also wrapped in leather, so that the great arteries are well covered. A short curved dagger is thrust into his girdle, so that he may cut himself free from the reins, should any accident occur; for, though the charioteer guides his horses with one or both hands, the reins pass round his waist, and are knotted behind his back. His two splendid black Spanish horses, Pompeianus and Cotynus, plunge and curvet impatiently, but Diocles has them under complete control, and passes on, swaying easily in his chariot, to the starting-line.

He is followed by his dark-skinned opponent, Crescens the Moor. Scarcely less famous than his Spanish rival, Crescens is a much sparer and lighter man. His green tunic is wound with leather thongs in the same way as that of Diocles, and his two African-bred grey horses, Tuscus and Victor, are just as famous as those of his opponent. The two chariots are drawn up to the starting-line, and the editor watches carefully till they are absolutely level with each other. In his hand he holds a white linen cloth, and each charioteer, controlling his plunging horses almost without the use of the hand, by swaying his body this way or that, glances upwards anxiously for the fall of the signal.

Now the white cloth is dropped, fluttering down upon the track below the editor's tribunal, and both chariots are off, to an absolutely perfect start. Down the straight, there is nothing to choose between the two pairs for speed, but Crescens has had the luck to draw the inside berth, and as they turn round the first meta he will gain a little, as Diocles will have to drive wider. Watch them as they round the mark. The hub of the off wheel of Crescens's biga almost touches the base of the meta, while the off wheel of his rival is almost grazing the rear part of the Moor's chariot frame. This is the danger moment. A hair's breadth too near the mark, and your light chariot will be smashed and upset, while you yourself will be lucky if you escape with three or four broken ribs or a fractured shoulder. Many a charioteer has never moved again after the fall that followed his attempt to cut the thing too fine. Yet, on the other hand, to drive wide is fatal to your chance. Both drivers, however, are old and experienced hands, and the meta is rounded with perfect skill and neatness, and the chariots whirl with increased speed down the straight on the other side of the barrier.

So well are they matched, that lap after lap is reeled off with almost monotonous regularity, and Crescens, always gaining a little at the turns, gradually opens out a lead of about a length. If nothing happens, and if Diocles has nothing in hand for the last spurt up the finishing straight, it looks as though the race will go to the Moor. Now they are into the seventh lap, and are whirling down together in a cloud of dust for the last turn. The whole population of Rome, you would imagine, has risen from the Circus seats, and each faction is howling encouragement to its champion, men and women screaming, cursing, rejoicing, as one chariot or the other seems to gain or lose. Even the editor himself is on his feet, stooping forward to watch the critical moment.

Look at Diocles! He is bending over the front of his chariot, not using the scourge yet, but urging his horses with strange Spanish cries; and the black horses are coming with a rush. Just as they sweep up to the turn, they begin to overlap the Moorish chariot again, and Crescens, as the black heads draw up past his left shoulder, gives one glance round. Just one glance; but that glance was part of the plan of his wily rival, whose rush was timed just to fluster his opponent's nerve at the very moment when his horses needed all his care. That turn of the head has mechanically ended in a twitch of the off rein, and the hub of the Moorish wheel has taken the hair's breadth too much that means disaster. There is a sudden grind and check; the black horses and the red tunic behind them seem to leap forward alone, and rush down the straight to the winning-line amidst a thunderous roar of cheers and curses.

Behind them come the greys, half mad with excitement, dragging a broken chariot-pole. Beside the meta lies a broken heap of wood and bronze, and a little beyond it a motionless figure in a green tunic. It looks, for a few moments, as though the Moor had driven his last race; and indeed a less skilled driver must have been killed by such a fall. But as the ring-keepers hasten up to him, Crescens slowly rises, shakes the dust from his tunic, and, though dazed a little, is able, with the help of a friendly arm, to hobble out of the arena. With amazing swiftness he had cut himself clear of the reins as the chariot lurched, and he has sustained no more damage than a pretty severe shock and a few bruises. In their hearts, I think the Romans are a little disappointed that, since there had to be a smash, Crescens did not make it complete by breaking his neck, and so giving them a real sensation to gossip over.