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The Circus at Lyon

On display at the Museum of Gallo-Roman Civilization, this restored mosaic from Lugdunum (Lyon) vividly depicts a circus race. Eight chariots are competing, two from each faction, the quadrigae running around the track barrier, which consists of a channel or euripus filled with water. Here are placed the lap markers: seven dolphins, water gushing from their mouths, and seven eggs. When each lap had been run, a dolphin was tipped downward and an egg lowered from its bar (one can see that four laps already have been run). At the ends of the barrier are the turning posts (metae)on a detached plinth and, in the center, an obelisk. Between the basins, officials holding the palm branch and wreath of victory stand waiting, while a hortator rides ahead, setting the pace and assisting the charioteer. A sparsor holds a basin of water to refresh both horse and rider. (Basil, the bishop of Caesarea, actually speaks of water being thrown on the horses, when he writes about AD 375 that the arrival of a letter refreshed him "like water poured into the mouths of racehorses, inhaling dust with each eager breath at high noontide in the middle of the course," Epistle CCXXII.) The presiding magistrates can be seen above the starting gates protected by an awing, one holding the mappa that signaled the start of the race. Intriguingly, the figure next to the officials operates a lever, which may have released a latch that mechanically swung open the gates.

The white line (creta) on the left, where there has been an accident, is the break line, at which point, says Cassiodorus (Variae, III.51), the chariots could leave their lanes and move to an inside position, the intention being not so much to avert crashes as to prevent them from occurring before the race had fairly begun. A second white line, opposite the obelisk, marks the finish, the Lyon mosaic being the only one to depict both lines.


The most detailed account of a Roman chariot race is that of Sidonius Apollinaris, bishop of Auvergne, in a poem written around AD 450 to Consentius, a young friend who was competing in a race between two teams, Blue and White racing against Red and Green, each driving one of four quadrigae chosen by lot. His partner having pulled out of the race and himself behind his opponents, Consentius slips on the inside past one of the opposing team at the turn, who loses control. When the other tries to cut him off, he crashes instead and Consentius comes home the winner. The race takes place in Ravenna, capital of the western empire, and the horses are impatient to begin.

"There behind the barriers chafe those beasts, pressing against the fastenings, while a vapoury blast comes forth between the wooden bars and even before the race the field they have not yet entered is filled with their panting breath...never are their feet still, but restlessly they lash the hardened timber....The others are busy with hand and voice, and everywhere the sweat of drivers and flying steeds falls in drops on to the field. The hoarse roar from applauding partisans stirs the heart, and the contestants, both horse and men, are warmed by the race and chilled by fear....You sped straight past your swerving rival...."

Sidonius Apollinaris, To Consentius (XXIII)

Virgil conveys the same impression of horses impatient to leave the gate.

"See you not, when in headlong contest the chariots have seized upon the plain, and stream in a torrent from the barrier, when the young driver's hopes are high, and throbbing fear drains each bounding heart? On they press with circling lash, bending forward to slacken rein; fiercely flies the glowing wheel. Now sinking low, now raised aloft, they seem to be borne through empty air and to soar skyward. No rest, no stay is there; but a cloud of yellow sand mounts aloft, and they are wet with the foam and the breath of those in pursuit: so strong is their love of renown, so dear in triumph."

Virgil, Georgics (III)

One interesting detail provided by Apollinaris is that, when Consentius raced down the straight on the opposite side of the spina, its lap counter and ornaments partly obstructed the view.


References: A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Series II (1890-1896) edited by by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. The illustration is from What Life Was Like: When Rome Ruled the World: The Roman Empire, 100 BC-AD 200 (1997) by the Editors of Time-Life Books.

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