Roman Times and Events: Those about to Die, Chapter 01, Part 7 of 9

(by Daniel P. Mannix)

Although the stalls from which the chariots started were all equidistant from a point midway between the stands and the end of the Spine, the charioteer who had the left-hand stall had an advantage, being able to go straight to the Spine and thus gaining the inside track.

The stalls were numbered from one to four and charioteers picked their number out of a bowl. Diocles drew the third stall from the left.

Slaves were out watering the track to keep down dust, raking the sand and making sure no one had thrown any empty wine skins or gnawed bones on the track.

A trumpet was blown and the track was hurriedly cleared. Meanwhile in the paddock behind the stalls the charioteers were getting their teams ready.

The men wore short tunics that left their arms bare, heavy leather caps like crash-helmets; and each carried a knife in his belt so that in case of an accident, he could cut himself free of the reins tied around his waist.

Most of the drivers had coated themselves with boar's dung in the belief that the odor kept horses from stepping on a man if he was thrown from his chariot.

The racing chariots were very light, made of wood with bronze fittings. They were lower and had a wider wheel base than the ordinary chariot.

When the trumpet sounded to clear the track, teams were led out by their handlers and hitched up. There were several types of hitches used. Although the most unusual was to have the two outside horses* on traces, sometimes a driver would have only his left-hand horse on traces.

On rare occasions the entire team might be on traces to give them greater maneuverability. The horses' tails were always tied up so they wouldn't foul the reins.

The hitching-up must-have been quite a sight with the horses pawing the ground and snorting, their manes studded with pearls and semi-precious stones.

They wore breast plates hung with gold and silver amulets and each horse had a broad ribbon the color of his racing stable around his neck.

The Romans claimed that chariot racing improved the breed of horses, but actually these animals were so inbred and temperamental that they were unfit for anything except this breakneck dash around the arena at top speed.

Another trumpet sounded, the drivers took their places in the gleaming chariots and the grooms led the teams into the stalls, entering them from the rear.

Then the grooms got out of the way—fast. A moment's pause. The editor of the games rose in his box and dropped a handkerchief. The gates of the four stalls were thrown open at the same instant and the chariots were off.

Every driver tried to reach the inside track around the Spine. As a result, there were usually so many crack-ups in this first wild rush that a special gate had to be constructed under the stands near the starting point where the arena attendants could drag out the smashed chariots, dead men, and horses so they wouldn't block the course when the rest had circled the Spine and started the second lap. Sometimes the race never got going at all with all the chariots ending up in a pile at this point.

To solve this problem, a white rope called the Alba Linea was stretched from Spine to the stands, just high enough to trip a galloping team of horses.

A judge who was stationed in a box could drop this rope if he decided that it was a fair start. If the chariots didn't get away together or if there was too much jostling and fouling at the start, he left the rope up and then the race had to start over again.

This rope posed a very critical decision for the charioteers. If a driver went all out to reach the preferred inside track around the Spine and the rope wasn't dropped in time, he and his chariot went wheels over shaft.

If he held back too much, and the rope was dropped at the last instant, some other driver got ahead of him.

It helped to know the judge's prejudices. If he was a secret supporter of the Blues and the Blue chariot was left at the post, he'd keep the rope up. If Blue was ahead, he'd drop the rope no matter what.

Roman Events: Those about to Die, Chapter One, Part 8 is next.

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