Probably the most famous charioteer was a little, dark wiry fellow named Diocles. He was the first man to win a thousand races.
Diocles had a passion for horses and fine clothes. He swaggered around Rome in a silk tunic and embroidered linens, and owned his own teams; which was as unusual as for a modern jockey to have a racing stable.
Juvenal wrote bitterly:
"Decent men groan to see this ex-slave with an income one hundred times that of a senator," but Diocles was a popular idol.
He had started life as a slave-groom to a Spanish nobleman, been shipped to Rome with a cargo of horses and bought by a patrician who admired the boy's uncanny skill with temperamental thoroughbreds.
He drove his first race at the age of twenty-four and, being a newcomer, was illegally forced to take the outside track. Positions were supposedly chosen by lot but there was a good deal of crookedness about the selections.
To reach the rail, an outside chariot had to cut in front of the others, which meant almost certain death. Diocles didn't try it. He tailed the others until the last lap and then by a magnificent piece of driving, passed the other three chariots to win.
It was customary for the owner of a racing stable to split the purse with the charioteer, so Diocles soon made enough money to buy his freedom. He then put his winnings into buying horses, trained them himself, and got his own chariot.
He usually drove stallions and collected over $40,000 a year for stud fees alone. In addition to his other privileges, Diocles like all famous charioteers was allowed on certain days to play April Fool-type jokes on anyone he wished, even members of the nobility.
Another lucrative source of income for Diocles was making freak runs for big side bets. Once he raced twice in one day; the first time with a six-horse hitch (swinging a six-in-hand around the ends of the Spine at full speed was a terrific feat) and won 40,000 sesterces.
Then he raced a seven-horse hitch not yoked, held only with traces, and won 50,000. Perhaps his most remarkable stunt was winning a race without using a whip, for a side bet of 30,000 sesterces.
The whip was used by the charioteers not so much to beat the teams as to guide them on the turns. While rounding the cones at the ends of the Spine at full speed, the charioteer could signal the inside horse when to turn by laying his whip on its shoulder, and if one of the other horses tried to turn too soon, the driver could check him by a light flick.
The reins were tied around the charioteer's waist so he could get more leverage on the turns but this made it difficult to control any individual horse.
The horses were extremely valuable, worth far more than slaves. Training started when the horses were three years old and was so detailed that a horse could not be raced until he was five.
Some teams were so smart that they could drive themselves. One driver fell out when his team made the usual "jackrabbit" start from the stalls but the horses kept going and actually won the race. They got the prize, too.
Sculptors made statues of famous horses, some of which still remain. Under the statues are inscriptions such as: "Tuscus, driven by Fortunatus of the Blues, 386 wins," and "Victor, driven by Gulta of the Greens, 429 wins."
Lucius Veres had a horse named Volucris who was awarded a bushel of gold pieces, after a race, and the Emperor Hadrian put up a mausoleum for his horse, Borysthenes, that still stands.
The most famous of these horses was Incitatus, belonging to the Emperor Caligula. Incitatus had a marble bedroom, an ivory manger and drank from a golden bucket. Famous artists decorated the walls of his stall and he attended state dinners where his oats and corn were served to him by his special slaves.
Caligula even planned to have him made a consul.
Roman Events: Those about to Die, Chapter One, Part 5 is next.
Roman Events: Those about to Die, Index or Table of Contents