Roman Times and Events: Those about to Die, Chapter 01, Part 5 of 9

(by Daniel P. Mannix)

A horse that had won over one hundred races was called a Centenarius and wore a special harness. Diocles owned nine Centenarii, all of which he had trained himself.

He had one horse that had won over two hundred races. This horse, named Passerinus, was so revered that soldiers patrolled the streets when he was sleeping to keep people from making any noise.

The best horse in the team was always on the near hand (left side) of the hitch and never yoked—only held by traces. On the turns, this horse was nearest to the Spine and his speed and sure-footedness meant the difference between life and death to the driver.

The second best horse was on the offside (right) of the hitch and was usually not yoked either. On the turns, he had to jerk the chariot around while the Centenarius on the inside pivoted close to the cones.

The two center horses were yoked on either side of the shaft and were mainly for pulling power although the whole team had to know their jobs.

As today, there were unending arguments about the best breeds and best farms. The horses were not shod, so the condition of their feet was crucial.

The Sicilian horses were very fast but unreliable, the Iberians good only for a short course (feet too soft), and the Libyan best for a long drag. There were several breeds we do not have today; among them the Orynx, which was striped like a zebra but was apparently a domestic breed of horse.

Although there are innumerable statues of Roman charioteers in museums and although we have plenty of old records of the sport such as "Scorpus of the White Faction got first place seven times, second place twenty-nine times, and third place sixty times," I haven't been able to find a detailed description of any single race.

However, there are many scattered references to incidents in the races, and it is possible to imagine what a race was like. Let's picture a race during the Ludi Magni (great games) with Diocles one of the drivers.

For weeks, virtually the only topic of conversation in Rome had been the race and the betting odds. People paid huge sums for hot tips, which were usually unreliable.

Seneca, the great Roman philosopher, exclaimed: "The art of conversation is dead. Can no one today talk of anything except the skill of various charioteers and the quality of their teams?"

Diocles was such a heavy favorite that a senator remarked, "If Diocles loses, it will do more to upset the national economy than a major military defeat."

But a few days before the race, the betting odds suddenly altered. All sorts of rumors were sweeping the city. A man had it on the authority of one of the conditores who kept the chariots greased that Diocles had been heavily bribed to throw the race.

A tavern keeper had overheard two members of the Praetorian guard say that the emperor, who was backing another team, had arranged with the sponsor of the games to start the race again if Diocles was ahead.

The madam of a brothel had it from one of her girls who had entertained the valet of a prominent politician that two of the opposing charioteers had sworn a sacred oath to get Diocles by catching his chariot between them and wrecking it.

A man who had a cousin, who knew a vet, had been told that Diocles' Centenarius, Passerinus, had been doped. People hurried to the stable to taste Passerinus' dung to see if the story was true.

So the odds went up and down according to the latest rumor, many of them deliberately spread by heavy bettors who were speculating on the event.

Roman Events: Those about to Die, Chapter One, Part 6 is next.

Roman Events: Those about to Die, Index or Table of Contents