All the many iterations of Ben Hur, up to and including the most recent one (2016, dir. Timur Bekmambetov) have placed a heavy emphasis on the climactic chariot-racing scene. Indeed the first cinematic version, the 1907 silent film, was nothing but the chariot race. Because of this, the scene has had a strong effect on how racing is presented in Hollywood films. So let’s take a look at Roman chariot racing.
The ancient Mediterranean world loved chariot racing. Originally the chariot was a weapon of war, providing a mobile platform from which an archer or spearman could make attacks. Chariot racing probably evolved out of practicing for warfare. The first literary depiction of a chariot race comes from the last book of the Iliad, in which the Greeks conduct a chariot race at the funeral games of Patroclus, the fallen lover of Achilles, and the sport is mentioned in later Greek myths as well.
In 680 BC, chariot racing (both two-horse and four-horse teams) was added to the list of Olympic events. A special race-track, the hippodrome, was built to accommodate them. Noteworthy features of the Olympic hippodrome included mechanical starting gates and a series of bronze dolphins that were used to indicate how many laps had been done and how many remained. Whereas most competitors in the Olympics were the athletes involved, so that the man who won the footrace, for example, was the runner himself, the chariot races were different. The competitor was the owner of the horses, and the victory went to him, not to the chariot-driver, who might be a slave of the owner. Since Spartan women were allowed to own property, this became the only Olympic event that a woman could compete in.
It’s clear already in the Iliad that chariot-racing was a dangerous sport; Menelaus crashes his chariot during the race. The teams traveled at a high rate of speed and the chariots themselves were not very heavy vehicles, basically just an axle and wheels with a light frame. The driver essentially balanced on the axle. When the chariots came to the turns at the ends of the tracks, it was easy for the chariot to throw the driver, tip over, or crash into other. The chariots bringing up the rear might collide with or run straight over a crashed chariot, thrown driver, or tripped horse. Injuries and fatalities to both drivers and horses were a common feature of these events.
Eventually the Romans acquired the sport from the Greeks (as well as the Etruscans, although we know less about Etruscan racing). They began building circuses as race-tracks; like the hippodrome, the circus was an oblong track with a turning point at each end, but unlike the hippodrome, there was a median strip, the spina, that came to be decorated with statues and columns.
The racing itself was much like Greek racing, but there were differences. Although two-horse teams were still raced, the most important races were four-horse teams (and occasionally much larger—10-horse teams are mentioned, but were probably just for demonstrations of skill). Greek races were traditionally 12 laps, but the Romans shortened the race to 7 and later to 5 laps, because they wanted to get more races in during a single day. Instead of holding the reins in their hands, the driver tied the reins to his waist, which meant that if he was thrown from the chariot, he would dragged along unless he could manage to cut himself loose; as a result, drivers carried a knife. The drivers were the competitors (even if they were slaves), so if they won the race, they received the prize money; winning prize money because a way for a driver to purchase his freedom.
By the start of the 2nd century BC, Roman chariot racing was divided into factions: Red, White, Blue, and Green, with the Blues and Greens being the most important. Charioteers of the same faction raced as a team, so that if any chariot of a faction won, the faction itself won (perhaps a little like the Tour de France today). The job of the lesser drivers was the help the star charioteer win. That opened up a realm of tactics in which lesser drivers supported the lead driver by, for example, blocking other teams from advancing or trying to crash rival chariots. Spectators tended to organize themselves according to the factions, so that they would sit together, cheer for their faction, and occasionally riot if their faction lost. In that sense, they have a lot in common with modern sports fans, who typically have a favorite team that they root for.
Chariot drivers were considered entertainers, just like actors and musicians. Many, though not all were slaves; the cash prizes they won could help buy themselves out of slavery. It is clear that they were very far down the social hierarchy, and they were considered infames, “disgraceful people”; other infames included prostitutes, pimps, gladiators, and soldiers who had been dishonorably discharged. Infames were excluded from many of the legal rights of Roman citizens; for example, they could not give testimony in court, and could suffer corporal punishment for crimes.
However, although they were socially disreputable people, successful charioteers could still be celebrities and move in very high social circles. Roman society had a rather ambivalent attitude toward entertainers of all types. It accorded them low status and treated them as morally suspect, but it celebrated them for their unusual accomplishments. The rich enjoyed socializing with them and some became romantically involved with extremely powerful people. This somewhat contrary attitude is perhaps paralleled by modern Americans’ fascination with both the glamour of celebrities and the occasionally tawdry scandals they get involved in. The Emperor Nero scandalized Roman society by competing in an Olympic chariot race; he ‘won’ the race, even though he fell out of his chariot and had to be helped back in. The spectacle of the most honored man in the Empire acting as an infamis surely disgusted many conservative Romans.
Chariot Racing in Ben-Hur
When I saw the movie, I was initially skeptical that Jerusalem would have had a hippodrome for formal chariot racing, but in fact it did. The movie exaggerates reality a bit, since Jerusalem’s hippodrome wasn’t carved out of a mountainside, and it wasn’t located just below Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified, but those details are just dramatic embellishments. Ben-Hur’s race could have taken place in Jerusalem.
But that’s not to say there aren’t problems with it. It’s highly unlikely that the Roman soldier Messala (Toby Kebbell) would have been a champion charioteer. As I noted, charioteers were infames, and most scholars seem to agree that infames were excluded from the Roman army (although surviving law codes don’t actually explicitly say that, so there’s a bit of wiggle room). This version of Messala is struggling to make up for the fact that his grandfather was one of Julius’ Caesar’s assassins, so acting as an infamis is exactly the sort of thing he would have avoided in his quest for respectability. So the whole premise of the original novel is flawed; if Messala isn’t a chariot-driver, there’s no story at all, and if he’s not a soldier, there’s no dramatic confrontation between Roman culture and proto-Christianity. In order for there to be any story at all here, we have to overlook this legal detail.
The film gets the basics of chariot racing right; the chariots used are comparatively light. The one Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) trains in is clearly made of wicker, although the one Messala uses in the race is rather over-decorated and probably too heavy to successfully compete. The film conveys a sense that the drivers are balancing on their chariots rather than firmly rooted. But they hold the reins in their hands, perhaps because tying the reins around their waists would look weird to modern audiences. The race-track has a substantial spina down the middle, complete with dolphins to track the laps.
The racers are not, however, organized into factions. There are no Blues or Greens, just eight individual teams all competing against each other. Each driver represents a different ethnic group, so there’s a Persian driver and an Egyptian driver, for example. Judah is the Jewish driver and Messala is the Roman driver, the favorite to win. The race as it’s presented is essentially a way for the Romans to demonstrate their military and cultural superiority over the rest of the world. While that’s untrue to actual Roman chariot racing, it’s not entirely alien to the way Romans thought. Gladiatorial contests were sometimes staged to convey that sense of cultural superiority.
The movie treats chariot racing the same way that movies treat gladiatorial combat, as if killing most of the drivers was a fundamental element of the sport. Throughout the racing scene, the emphasis is on how violent the race is. The six drivers who are not Ben-Hur or Messala all appear to get killed or severely injured during the race, and Messala ultimately loses a leg. When stretcher-bearers are carrying a body off the track, one of them gets hit and presumably killed as well. Many of the horses seem likely to die in the accidents, and one of them gets thrown into the stands, where it immediately starts injuring spectators.
This is surely an exaggeration. Chariot racing was a risky sport, but it wasn’t Death Race 2000. Just like gladiator films, Ben-Hur is presenting an image of Roman sport as being an inherently bloody slaughter as if what the Romans care about is the spectacle of violence and death rather than the competition between skilled athletes.
As Donald Kyle has pointed out in his Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World, people have traditionally viewed Greek and Roman attitudes toward athletics in contrasting fashion. The Greeks are viewed as caring about sport (with an emphasis on skill, athleticism, and ideals) while the Romans are presented as interested only in spectacle (dramatic shows, violence, and bloodshed). This is despite the fact that both cultures practiced most of the same forms of athletics. The fact that Greek athletics could be extremely harsh is downplayed. Pankration, Greek all-out wrestling, is one of the most brutal versions of wrestling ever practiced; smashing joints, breaking fingers and toes, outright strangulation, and biting were all legal moves. Chariot racing was just as brutal when the Greeks practiced it as when the Romans did, and yet we associate Greek chariot racing with the Olympic ideal and Roman chariot racing with disregard for human life. In this film, the brutality of chariot racing is a metaphor for Roman brutality toward conquered peoples.
And yet, right at the end of the film, Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek) makes a rather telling observation to Ilderim (Morgan Freeman). After Ilderim has won the race, Pilate takes note of the way the Jews are celebrating Ben-Hur and essentially says that the race has served its actual purpose of acculturating Jews to the Empire, by teaching them how to love racing the way the Romans do.
While I don’t know of any scholarship on this specific point, it’s a broadly accurate statement. The Roman Empire succeeded in part because the Romans were very good at developing institutions and practices that encouraged conquered peoples to absorb Romanness. This taught conquered peoples to see themselves as Romans as well as whatever ethnic group they belonged to. It gave the Empire a shared set of practices and values that helped hold it together for so long. A passion for chariot racing was certainly something held on long after the Roman Empire had broken up. It was perhaps the favorite sport of the Byzantine Empire for centuries.
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Want to Know More?
The movie isn’t available on Amazon yet, since it’s still in the theaters, but the 1959 Charleton Heston version of Ben Hur is.
Donald Kyle’s Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World looks primarily at Graeco-Roman athletics and tries to understand them as as sport, rather than just cataloging facts about the various games. It’s a really good discussion of what Greeks and Romans understood sport to be about. Alison Futrell’s The Roman Games: A Sourcebook is a collection of primary sources related to Roman sports, including chariot racing.