Chariot Racing in the Ancient World

Dirk Bennett sheds new light on the origin and history of chariot racing as a sport, and explores its popular and political role from pre-classical Greece to the fall of the Roman Empire.

Antilochos the fourth driver, the glorious son of Nestor, that king of lofty heart, the son of Neleus, got ready his horses with gleaming coats. Swift horses born in the land of Pylos drew his chariot. And his father, standing by his side, giving good advice to one who was himself naturally prudent, spoke wisely thus: 'Antilochos, although you are very young, Zeus and Poseidon have both loved you and taught you all kinds of skills at driving a chariot; therefore we need not teach you, for you know how skilfully to turn around the post. But your horses are the slowest. I therefore think that the race will be sorrowful to you. True, their horses are swifter, but the drivers do not know more than you. And so, my son, contrive a plan in your heart, so that the prize will not elude you ... Drive chariot and horses so close to this (the post) as to graze it, and lean the wellwrought car slightly to the left horse, and calling upon the right horse by name, prick him with your goad and let out its reins from your hand. Let your horses graze the post so that the hub of the well fashioned wheel will seem to touch it. But avoid making contact with the stone, so that you will not injure your horses and wreck your chariot, which would be a joy for your opponents and a distress to you'.

(Homer. Iliad 23. 334-348) Horse racing, the ancient equivalent to Formula One, does not, however, begin here. The history of equestrian sports could change our perception of the ancient world in general, and our idea of Greece as the cradle of European civilisation in particular. In fact, when the first horses appeared from Central Asia in Mesopotamian and near Eastern societies in the 2nd millennium BC, Greece and Italy, as well as the rest of Europe, lay very much on the outskirts of the civilised world.

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