Ancient passions revisited.
‘I am astonished …so many thousands of grown men should be possessed…with a childish passion to look at galloping horses.’
Pliny the Younger.
The ancient city of Jerash, Jordan has innovative plans to help bolster its flagging tourist industry. To revive depleted visitor numbers the Circus is coming to town – the classical variety - with chariot racing and gladiators. Tourist chiefs hope new visitors will flood in to watch four teams competing over seven laps in the same hippodrome that 1,800 years ago held 15,000 spectators following the classical equivalent of F1 racing.
The city of Jerash was founded by Alexander the Great and was one of ten influential cities or ‘Decapolis’ that dominated the region. Alexander was a great equestrian and well aware of the importance of good horses to his army. His breeding program involved 50,000 mares at any one time and he demanded tributes of the best horses from the peoples he conquered. His mount Bucephalus wore a golden, armoured faceplate to battle and this was thought to be the source of the legend of the unicorn.
Only the strongest, fittest horses made it onto the battlefield. A stringent four-day trial weeded out those not able to cope with tough physical challenges. Those that passed pulled chariots from the age of three and if they survived battle unscathed could expect an average working life of one to six years, before their back, shoulders or limbs were ruined.
The ancient Egyptians deployed chariot corps as mobile archery platforms or mobile flanking screens. They used squadrons of twenty-five chariots, each commanded by a ‘Charioteer of Residence’ with a ‘Lieutenant Commander of Chariotry’ acting as the senior officer. Each chariot contained a driver and a fighter – armed with bow and arrows, javelin, a sword and shield. Surprisingly the Romans didn’t fight from chariots, using them mainly as platforms for the commanding General or more importantly - for sport.
Very little interested the Romans more than a day at the Circus watching chariot racing. These races originated around 6 BC as part of funeral celebrations, honouring chariot-driving deities such as Sol ‘the sun’ and Luna ‘the moon.’ Spectators sat on the grassy slopes beside a long oval track in the valley between the Aventine and Palatine hills. Gradually wooden stands were built, which were superseded by stone seating and eventually a whole stadium evolved.
Racing was popular across all classes from slave to emperor and large amounts of money-changed hands through private betting – public gambolling was illegal. The wilier politicians distracted the populace when they threatened to riot, with the irresistible lure of offering ‘bread and racing.’
Just four racing stables dominated the Roman scene- each identified, in a similar way to modern racing silks, by their racing colours – the Blue, Green, Red and White teams. Racing chariots were lightweight vehicles pulled by two horse ‘biga’ or four horse ‘quadrigae’ teams. Charioteers were the David Beckham’s of their age, and took huge risks to win, including winding the reins round their waists for better control, which often led to horrific injuries when they crashed.
Chariot racing was such big business that foul play was widespread; doping and poisoning were rife, as was cursing the opposition. To know a specific horse’s name gave you power over that animal and there was a roaring trade in engraved stone tablets guaranteed to incapacitate the opposition with the invocation of a demon or malign deity.
‘Torment their [Red Team] minds…and senses…so they know not where they are going…knock out their eyes.’
The race day crowds chanted the names of the best horses. We know many of these names from spell or ‘hexor’ tablets. They ranged from the evocative - Celer ‘Swift’ or Volucer ‘Flyer’ – who was a favourite of Emperor Lucius Verus, who carried a golden statuette of the horse with him for luck, to the humorous such as Muccosus ‘Snuffler’ or Verbosus ‘Chatterbox’. Some were named after physical attributes; Calimorfus ‘Beauty’ or Incitatus ‘Bouncer’ – the latter Emperor Gaius’ favourite, he posted soldiers outside his stable the night before a race to ensure no one disturbed the horse’s rest. Some used psychology to intimidate rivals with names such as Astutus ‘Cunning’ and Eustoles ‘Ready for Anything.’ Names of weapons – Ballista ‘Cannon Ball’ or Sagitta ‘Arrow’, gods, rivers, animals and Emperors were also popular sources of names.
The main stud, just outside Carthage, that supplied all four Racing Stables was excavated in 1960. The walls of the main building were lined with ninety-eight mosaic panels, each illustrating a racehorse with a secondary figure that represented his name; eg a horse beside a wolf, indicating his name was Lupus. Archaeologists have postulated that names were encrypted to make it more difficult to curse that particular animal.
The general standard of roman veterinary care was variable. A general contempt existed amongst the upper classes for the base occupation of attending animals, which led to ‘inferior individuals’ becoming veterinarians. It took Publius Vegetius Renatus, 4th century AD, to write ‘Mulomedicina’, a work on the diseases of horses and mules. His aimed to provide a quality resource, which emphasised the economic value of horses and to show that a veterinarian was not inferior to a physician - writing that now jaded dictum:
‘The animal cannot speak for itself whereas man can describe his symptoms.’