BMCR 2010.11.26

Chariot Racing in the Roman Empire (translated by Liz Waters)

, Chariot Racing in the Roman Empire (translated by Liz Waters). Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010. xiv, 185. ISBN 9780801896972. $29.95.

Readers will find an excellent overview of our knowledge of ancient Roman chariot racing in this fairly short and readable book by Fik Meijer. Although there is little that will surprise the scholar familiar with Cameron’s several books on the topic or Humphrey’s by now standard work, the material is presented in a way which both interested lay people and undergraduate students will readily digest.

After a short introduction, the book begins with an account of the great Nika revolt of AD 532 and the centrality of the Hippodrome of Constantinople. The stage thus set Meijer backs up to trace the development of chariot racing from its origins in Greece and archaic Italy (where historians may find his account overly credulous), through the Republic, and into the empire. He tends to focus on the capital city itself, devoting the third chapter mainly to the Circus Maximus, the fourth to the infrastructure of the races (factions, charioteers, horses), and the fifth chapter to a typical day at the Roman races under the empire.

In chapter six Meijer goes over what is known of the careers of some of the more notable competitors whose names have come down to us, and in chapter seven moves over to the roles of those who watched the races—and those who pointedly did not—as well as how these viewers interacted with the races’ sponsors, especially of course the emperor. In chapter eight he traces the decline of the races, starting with political changes in the third century, and bringing the reader over the Constantinople, so that in the ninth chapter he can give the later “heroes” of the Hippodrome their due and supply the reader with a history of the end of the sport in the medieval period in a short chapter 10.

Throughout the work Meijer usefully places their games in their political and social context, stressing the role of the factions in the political life of the empire, the importance of public events like these as social safety valves, and the central role the circus and hippodrome came to play in the political life of the emperor, as already introduced in chapter one’s account of the Nika revolt.

The last chapter seems clumsily tacked onto the rest of the work, treating what is admittedly the most famous chariot scene—or better, scenes—in 20th-century popular culture, those of the Ben Hur movies. It comes off as a rather feeble attempt to connect the book to recent interest in film studies and the spate of antiquity-related big cinema. Perhaps for the current crop of college students, an analysis of George Lucas’ pod-racing homage to Ben Hur would have been better.

In many ways the book is well suited for an undergraduate audience, with a map of Rome and the empire along with a timeline at the start of the book, and at the end, a list of known ancient racetracks (based on Humphrey), a glossary of most Latin terms found in the book, an adequate bibliography, and not too many endnotes. I found few outright errors (“AD” for “BC” on p. 29 is likely to mislead undergrads), but several choices may bother instructors, including the use of “Heliogabalus” for the more typical “Elagabalus,” an absent “of” in the Circus Maxentius, a few uses of “plebeians” in reference to the lower classes at Rome, and a Euro-centric assumption of familiarity with the crowds and clubs of modern “football.” While Meijer does quote at length from some ancient texts, I found myself looking for more, and a short index locorum at the end of the book would have gone a long way. There are several English-language compendia to which reference could have been made, in addition to the CIL usually cited in the notes, but perhaps this, like some of the language choices just mentioned, can be forgiven in a translated work. As is often the case in historical volumes, better use could have been made of the vast archaeological material available, including at least minimal incorporation into the text of the nearly 20 black-and-white images dispersed throughout the book.

Despite an overall favorable impression, I did find myself wondering how this might fit into a undergraduate curriculum. At 160 pages of text, it is a bit long for a survey of ancient sport and spectacle, especially for those who like to assign significant readings from primary authors, and advanced students might be sent directly to Cameron, Humphrey or other anglophone literature. Nevertheless it provides a useful middle ground for more interested students and may serve the instructor as a reliable background text.