Many of us will have seen Charlton Heston giving it some whip in the chariot race in 'Ben Hur', or more recently, Russell Crowe dishing out orders and lopping off heads in the race sequence in 'Gladiator'. When I was planning my novel set in the Late Roman Empire, I wanted to try and capture the pulse-pounding excitement of chariot racing, Roman-style, on the page.
The novel, "Caesar's Sword", is set mostly in Constantinople of the early 6th century AD, during the reign of the Emperor Justinian I. By this time most of the blood-spattered public games that the Roman public had been addicted to for centuries were banned, forbidden by the Christian church, who regarded them as savage pagan entertainments and a pointless waste of life.
One sport, however, the church dared not try to ban, and that was chariot racing. The 'Romans' of Constantinople - they still called themselves Romans at this point, rather than the later Byzantines - were feverishly addicted to the races, and avidly followed the fortunes of the competing teams - much as football and basketball (etc) fans do today.
Old illustration of the ruined Hippodrome in Istanbul (Constantinople)
The races were originally transported from Rome and consisted of four teams: the Blues, the Greens, the Reds and the Whites. By Justinian's reign only the Blues and the Greens still enjoyed considerable followings. The population of the city was sharply divided in their loyalties between these two teams, to the extent that violent clashes in the streets between gangs of rival supporters were common (sound familiar?).
Often the violence escalated into widespread looting and general disorder, and the Emperor was obliged to send his guards out to restore order. However, the passion for the races affected all classes, and sometimes the Emperor himself gained or lost popularity thanks to his support for one or the other team. Justinian, for instance, was known to favour the Greens, and as a result was deeply unpopular with the Blue section of the city. His unpopularity was one of the reasons for the 'Nika' riots that erupted in the city in the early years of Justinian's reign, and which also feature in my novel.
The races were staged inside the Hippodrome, a gigantic U-shaped structure next to the imperial palace, and which served as Constantinople's version of the famous Circus Maximus in Rome. There was a lodge in the centre of the arena for the Emperor and his entourage to watch the races, and also to hear complaints from representatives of the Greens and the Blues: the Hippodrome was as much a government building as a sporting venue, and a complex warren of governments departments and offices existed beneath it.
In the finest Roman tradition, the races themselves were violent and bloody affairs, and the death and serious injury of charioteers was common. The chariots were lightweight affairs usually pulled by teams of four horses, and the drivers were allowed to strike at each other with their whips, or even force their opponents into the 'Spina', a row of statues and monuments in the centre of the track. Forcing another driver to crash, injuring or even killing himself and his horses in the process, was considered a great trick.
Emperor Justinian I and his court
As if that wasn't enough, Roman citizens used to enter the arena with bags of heavy lead amulets covered in spikes and engraved with the names of drivers they particularly hated. During races they would throw the amulets at the object of their passion, hoping to smash his skull (for this reason, drivers wore helmets) or at least distract him enough to veer off the track. Romans also created wax dolls - like voodoo dolls - of unpopular drivers and stuck nails and pins into them before a race, hoping they would meet with bad fortune.
By the time of my story, Constantinople was sports-mad, and the contending passions of the Blue and Green faction was beginning to infect every aspect of city life and government. The atmosphere inside the city was volatile. Thrown into the melting pot were high taxes, an unpopular Emperor and a not very successful war in the East against the Sassanid Persians. The imperial city was ready to blow, and just needed one match to light the explosion...