Roman Times and Events: Those about to Die, Chapter 01, Part 3 of 9

(by Danie P. Mannix)

The Spine was the show spot of the whole circus. There were statues on columns, fountains spurting perfumed water, altars to the gods, and even a small temple dedicated to the Venus of the Sea, the special patron goddess of charioteers. The charioteers always burned incense to this Venus before beginning a race.

In the center of the Spine there was an obelisk, imported from Egypt, surmounted by a golden ball. This ball gleamed brilliantly in the sun and was the most noticeable object in the circus. The obelisk, minus the ball, now stands in the center of Saint Peter's Square in Rome, before the cathedral.

Near the ends of the Spine were two columns, each surmounted by a crossbar of marble. On one crossbar was mounted a line of marble eggs. There was a line of dolphins on the other.

The eggs were the symbol of Castor and Pollux, the heavenly twins who were the patron saints of Rome, and the dolphins were sacred to Neptune, the patron of horses.

Every time the chariots circled the course, an egg and a dolphin were removed so the crowd could tell how many laps had been run.

At the extreme ends of the Spine were set three cones some twenty feet high and ornamented with bas-reliefs. These cones (called metae) acted as bumpers to keep the elegant Spine from being damaged by the chariots on the turns. Pliny says the metae looked like cypress trees.

The racing was managed by a number of big corporations that were regarded as the most important money-making enterprises in the Roman world and had thousands of stockholders.

Stock in these companies was so valuable that it was carefully passed on from father to son as a priceless possession. These corporations maintained huge offices in the heart of the business districts in all main cities as well as in Rome itself.

In addition to these offices, the companies owned great blocks of buildings near the various circuses (there was a circus of some sort in virtually every town in the empire) and these buildings served as barracks and stables.

The buildings were usually set around a track for exercising the teams. The companies also owned countless stud farms and even maintained fleets of ships with built-in stalls for transporting horses from one circus to another.

The size of the stud farms may be imagined by the remark of a government agent who, in 550 A.D. when it was finally necessary to abolish the racing, was sent around to break up the farms. He said of one place: "It was already so reduced that the owner has only four hundred horses left so I decided that it was not worth bothering about."

The number of men employed by these companies, including herdsmen, ostlers, drivers, breakers, and so on, is unknown, but it is interesting to look at a partial list of the men engaged in the actual race itself.

In addition to the charioteers there were the medici (doctors), the aurigatores (the charioteer's assistants), the procuratores dromi (men who smoothed the sand before the race), the conditores (who greased the chariot wheels), the moratores (who grabbed the horses at the end), the sparsores (who cleaned the chariots), the erectores (who took down the eggs and dolphins), and the armentarii (grooms).

In addition, there were also the stable-boys, trainers, vets, saddlers, tailors, stable guards, dressers and waterers. There was even a special group who did nothing but talk to the horses and "cheer them on" as they were being led from their stalls.

The charioteers themselves were mostly slaves, although a few freemen volunteered for the job in hopes of winning fame and fortune.

Slave or not, a successful charioteer was the hero of Rome and could win huge sums. Several retired as millionaires, having either bought their freedom or been given it by a grateful master who shared in the winnings.

The Emperor Caligula gave Eutychus, a famous charioteer, two million sesterces (about $85,000) as a gift. Crescens, a Negro who started racing when he was thirteen, won $75,000 before he was killed at twenty-two. He won thirty-eight races "snatched at the post;" that is, came from behind in the last lap to win, which was considered an especially praiseworthy feat.

One man won fifteen purses of gold in an hour. Although the usual sum paid to a winning charioteer was only about $2,500, he received much more in bonuses from the company, gifts from admirers, bribes from bettors who wanted tips, and concerns who wanted to use his picture on vases, trays and souvenir cameos.

Roman Events: Those about to Die, Chapter One, Part 4 is next.

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