Roman Times and Events: Those about to Die, Chapter 01, Part 8 of 9

(by Daniel P. Mannix)

In this race, we'll suppose that all the chariots got away to an even start and the rope was dropped as the foremost chariot approached it.

We can be pretty sure that this foremost chariot wasn't Diocles. He was famous for holding his team back until the last lap and then coming from behind to win.

Diocles might even have been running last as the four chariots swept around the cones at the far end of the Spine on their first turn.

The basic strategy of all charioteering was to take the turns as tight as possible, but there were many other tricks.

If ahead, you tried to block the others so they couldn't pass. If you were in the middle, you cut in front of the other chariots on the turns to force the drivers to rein in.

If you got the chance, you hooked your wheel inside the wheel of an opposing chariot and then suddenly swung your team out. If properly done, it could jerk your opponent's wheel off the axle and put him out of the race.

We'll suppose that by the end of the fifth lap, Orestes, a Greek driving for the Reds, is ahead of Diocles, driving for the Greens, just behind.

Diocles is using his whip only on three of the horses, controlling Passerinus, his inside horse, by voice alone. Orestes is a skilful driver and as they go into the sixth lap, he manages to block Diocles on the turns so the Spaniard can't pass him.

Then the two chariots level out for the rush down the lefthand side of the Spine. In spite of everything Orestes can do, Diocles pulls up alongside of him, but on the outside. They still have one more turn around the end of the Spine, and Orestes cuts in as close as he dares, Diocles turning with him.

As they spin around, Orestes slackens his reins too much while his team is making the swing. His axlerod hits one of the cones and breaks.

Orestes is thrown out and as he falls, he tries to jerk out the knife in his belt to cut himself free of the reins. He can't get it free in time.

Diocles has had to throw all his weight back on his reins to keep from being entangled in the wreck ahead for the pull of the dragging axle-bar has swung Orestes' team in front of him.

Orestes is dragged along by his frantic horses; one moment he's half standing and then he's feet uppermost. The other two chariots following the leaders see their chance and try to pass, but Diocles shouts to his team and gives them their heads.

They plow through the wreckage of Orestes' chariot, trampling the Greek underfoot. Passerinus trips and almost falls but Diocles grabs the stallion's reins in both hands and keeps his head up. Now they're through the wreckage and in the clear.

One final burst of speed and they cross the finish line while the crowd goes wild. Orestes' corpse is so trampled that, as a contemporary writer remarked after the race, "His best friend couldn't have identified the body."

Diocles retired at forty-two with a fortune of 35 million sesterces (about $1,800,000). We know so much about him because he published a book of memoirs, ghost-written by a contemporary sports writer.

Diocles claims to have been the greatest charioteer of all time (he was undoubtedly the most successful financially) although he admits some other drivers won more races than he did. "But what kind of races?" he asks. "On some provincial track running against a lot of plugs. Now, I was always in the big-time events at the Circus Maximus, running against stiff competition. No other driver ever won a thousand races under those conditions."

Very few charioteers were as lucky at Diocles. Fuscus was killed at twenty-four after only fifty-seven wins. Aurelius Mollicus, judging from his double name a freeman, not a slave, was killed at twenty after a hundred twenty-five wins.

However, all these men had statues made in their honor with glowing inscriptions which were intended to, and have, made them immortal. The inscriptions read: "Never lost the lead at the Ludi Plebei!" "Came from behind to win at the Ludi Apollinares." "An unknown who really fooled the wise ones." And so on.

There they stand in museums for the benefit of tourists, good-looking men most of them, with powerful forearms and tremendous shoulders. They lived high, wide and handsome and their end generally came under the flashing hoofs of horses while the crowd yelled with excitement or thought: "There go my ten sesterces."

Roman Events: Those about to Die, Chapter One, Part 9 is next.

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