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Publius Vergilius Maro, Georgics: Chariot race
(1st century BC)
Have you seen the chariots pour from the barrier,
rushing to attack the flat, competing headlong,
when young men’s hopes are roused, and fear throbs,
draining each exultant heart? On they go with writhing whips,
bending forward to loosen the rein, the red-hot axle turns:
Now low, now lifted high, they seem to be carried
through the void, and leap into the air:
no delay, no rest: a cloud of yellow dust rises,
and they’re wet with foam, and the breath of those pursuing:
so strong the desire for glory, so dear is victory.
Publius Vergilius Maro, Georgics, 3.103-112; transl. by A. S. Kline © 2002
(Poetry in Translation, www.poetryintranslation.com)
Publius Ovidius Naso, The Amores: At the Races
(late 1st century BC)
I am not sitting here1 an admirer of the spirited steeds;2 still I pray that he who is your favourite may win. I have come here to chat with you, and to be seated by you,3 that the passion which you cause may not be unknown to you. You are looking at the race, I am looking at you; let us each look at what pleases us, and so let us each feast our eyes. O, happy the driver of the steeds, whoever he is, that is your favourite; it is then his lot to be the object of your care; might such be my lot; with ardent zeal to be borne along would I press over the steeds as they start from the sacred barrier.4 And now I would give rein;5 now with my whip would I lash their backs; now with my inside wheel would I graze the turning-place.6 If you should be seen by me in my course, then I should stop; and the reins, let go, would fall from my hands.
But now the procession7 is approaching; give good omens both in words and feelings. The time is come to applaud; the procession approaches, glistening with gold.
Now the Prætor,8 the Circus emptied, has sent from the even barriers9 the chariots with their four steeds, the greatest sight of all. I see who is your favourite; whoever you wish well to, he will prove the conqueror. The very horses appear to understand what it is you wish for. Oh shocking! around the turning-place he goes with a circuit far too wide.10 What art thou about? The next is overtaking thee with his wheel in contact. What, wretched man, art thou about? Thou art wasting the good wishes of the fair; pull in the reins, I entreat, to the left,11 with a strong hand. We have been interesting ourselves in a blockhead; but still, Romans, call him back again,12 and by waving the garments,13 give the signal on every side. See! they are calling him back; but that the waving of the garments may not disarrange your hair,14 you may hide yourself quite down in my bosom.
And now, the barrier15 unbarred once more, the side posts are open wide; with the horses at full speed the variegated throng16 bursts forth. This time, at all events,17 do prove victorious, and bound over the wide expanse; let my wishes, let those of my mistress, meet with success. The wishes of my mistress are fulfilled; my wishes still exist. He bears away the palm;18 the palm is yet to be sought by me. She smiles, and she gives me a promise of something with her expressive eye. That is enough for this spot; grant the rest in another place.
Publius Ovidius Naso, The Amores, III.2 (shortened); transl. by Henry T. Riley
(H. G. Bohn, London, 1852)
‘Circus Maximus’ – Riley’s note to the Fasti, II.392 (G. Bell and Sons, London, 1881): This, ‘the Greatest Circus’, was originally built by Tarquinius Priscus, and was situate in a prolonged valley between the Palatine and Aventine Hills. It was a mile in circumference, and received great improvements from Julius Cæsar. It was able to contain at least 150,000 persons; Pliny says 250,000; perhaps the former number when sitting, the latter when standing. There the public games and shews were celebrated, which formed the favourite recreation of the Romans of all classes. It was called ‘Maximus’, ‘greatest’, because there were several other ‘circi’ at Rome, as the Circus Flaminius, Circus Vaticanus, and others were built in later times by Nero, Caracalla, and other emperors.2 The spirited steeds. – Ver. 2. The usual number of chariots in each race was four. The charioteers were divided into four companies, or ‘factiones’, each distinguished by a colour, representing the season of the year. These colours were green for the spring, red for the summer, azure for the autumn, and white for the winter. Originally, but two chariots started in each race; but Domitian increased the number to six, appointing two new companies of charioteers, the golden and the purple; however the number was still, more usually, restricted to four. The greatest interest was shewn by all classes, and by both sexes, in the race. Lists of the horses were circulated, with their names and colours; the names also of the charioteers were given, and bets were extensively made, [...] and sometimes disputes and violent contests arose. 3 To be seated by you. – Ver. 3. The men and women sat together when viewing the contests of the Circus, and not in separate parts of the building, as at the theatres. 4 The sacred barrier. – Ver. 9. It is called ‘sacer’, because the whole of the Circus Maximus was sacred to Consus, who is supposed by some to have been the same Deity as Neptune. The games commenced with sacrifices to the Deities. [see also Riley’s note to the Tristia, V.9.29, below] 5 I would give rein. – Ver. 11. The charioteer was wont to stand within the reins, having them thrown round his back. Leaning backwards, he thereby threw his full weight against the horses, when he wished to check them at full speed. This practice, however, was dangerous, and by it the death of Hippolytus was caused. In the Fifteenth Book of the Metamorphoses, l. 524, he says, ‘I struggled, with unavailing hand, to guide the bridle covered with white foam, and throwing myself backwards, I pulled back the loosened reins.’ To avoid the danger of this practice, the charioteer carried a hooked knife at his waist, for the purpose of cutting the reins on an emergency. 6 The turning-place. – Ver. 12. For an account of the ‘meta’, see the Tristia, Book iv. El. viii. 1. 35. Of course, those who kept as close to the ‘meta’ as possible, would lose the least distance in turning round it.
‘Meta’ – Riley’s note to the Tristia, IV.8.35 (G. Bell and Sons, London, 1881): The ‘meta’ was a pyramidal column at each end of the Roman Circus, round which the horses and chariots turned seven times7 Now the procession. – Ver. 34. [...] The ‘Pompa’, or procession, now opens the performance. In this all those who were about to exhibit in the race took a part. The statues of the Gods were borne on wooden platforms on the shoulders of men, or on wheels, according as they were light or heavy. The procession moved from the Capitol, through the Forum, to the Circus Maximus, and was also attended by the officers of state. Musicians and dancers preceded the statues of the Gods. [...] 8 Now the Prætor. – Ver. 65. The course is now clear of the procession, and the Præetor gives the signal for the start, the ‘carceres’ being first opened. This was sometimes given by sound of trumpet, or more frequently by letting fall a napkin; at least, after the time of Nero, who is said, on one occasion, while taking a meal, to have heard the shouts of the people who were impatient for the race to begin, on which he threw down his napkin as the signal. 9 The even barriers. – Ver. 66. From this description we should be apt to think that the start was effected at the instant when the ‘carceres’ were opened. This was not the case: for after coming out of the ‘carceres’, the chariots were ranged abreast before a white line, which was held by men whose office it was to do, and who were called ‘moratores’. When all were ready, and the signal had been given, the white line was thrown down, and the race commenced, which was seven times round the course. The ‘carcer’ is called ‘æquum’, because they were in a straight line, and each chariot was ranged in front of the door of its ‘carcer’. 10 Circuit far too wide. – Ver. 69. The charioteer, whom the lady favours, is going too wide of the ‘meta’, or turning-place, and so loses ground, while the next overtakes him. 11 To the left. – Ver. 72. He tells him to guide the horses to the left, so as to keep closer to the ‘meta’, and not to lose so much ground by going wide of it. 12 Call him back again. – Ver. 73. He, by accident, lets drop the observation, that they have been interesting themselves for a blockhead. But he immediately checks himself, and, anxious that the favourite may yet distinguish himself, trusts that the spectators will call him back. Crispinus, the Delphin Editor, thinks, that by the calling back, it is meant that it was a false start, and that the race was to be run over again. Burmann, however, is not of that opinion; but supposes, that if any chariot did not go well, or the horses seemed jaded, it was the custom to call the driver back from the present race, that with new horses he might join in the next race. This, from the sequel, seems the most rational mode of explanation here. 13 Waving the garments. – Ver. 74. The signal for stopping was given by the men rising and shaking and waving their outer garments, or ‘togæ’, and probably calling the charioteer by name. 14 Disarrange your hair. – Ver. 75. He is afraid lest her neighbours, in their vehemence should discommode her hair, and tells her, in joke, that she may creep into the bosom of his own ‘toga’. 15 And now the barrier. – Ver. 77. The first race we are to suppose finished, and the second begins similarly to the first. There were generally twenty-five of these ‘missus’, or races in a day. 16 The variegated throng. – Ver. 78. See the Note to the second line. [footnote 2] 17 At all events. – Ver. 79. He addresses the favourite, who has again started in this race. 18 Bears away the palm. – Ver. 82. The favourite charioteer is now victorious, and the Poet hopes that he himself may gain the palm in like manner. The victor descended from his car at the end of the race, and ascended the ‘spina’, where he received his reward, which was generally a considerable sum of money. For an account of the ‘spina’, see the Metamorphoses, Book x. 1. 106, and the Note to the passage.
‘Spina’ – Riley’s note to the Metamorphoses, X.106 (Arthur Hinds & Co., New York, 1893): In the Roman Circus for the chariot races, a low wall ran lengthways down the course, which, from its resemblance in position to the spinal bone, was called by the name of ‘spina’. At each extremity of this ‘spina’, there were placed upon a base, three large cones, or pyramids of wood, in shape very much like cypress trees, to which fact allusion is here made. They were called ‘metæ’, ‘goals’.
[Explanatory footnotes by Henry T. Riley. Some footnotes have been shortened and some omitted. The footnotes 1, 6 and 18 were supplemented by Riley’s explanations from his other books.]
Publius Ovidius Naso, The Metamorphoses: The transformation of Hippolytus
(late 1st century BC)
Exiled, I headed my chariot towards Troezen, Pittheus’s city, and was travelling the Isthmus, near Corinth, when the sea rose, and a huge mass of water shaped itself into a mountain, and seemed to grow, and give out bellowings, splitting at the summit: from it, a horned bull, emerged, out of the bursting waters, standing up to his chest in the gentle breeze, expelling quantities of seawater from his nostrils and gaping mouth. My companions’ hearts were troubled, but my mind stayed unshaken, preoccupied with thoughts of exile, when my fiery horses turned their necks towards the sea, and trembled, with ears pricked, disturbed by fear of the monster, and dragged the chariot, headlong, down the steep cliff.
I struggled, in vain, to control them with the foam-flecked reins, and leaning backwards, strained at the resistant thongs. Even then, the horses’ madness would not have exhausted my strength, if a wheel had not broken, and been wrenched off, as the axle hub, round which it revolves, struck a tree. I was thrown from the chariot, and, my body entangled in the reins, my sinews caught by the tree, you might have seen my living entrails dragged along, my limbs partly torn away, partly held fast, my bones snapped with a loud crack, and my weary spirit expiring: no part of my body recognisable: but all one wound. Now can you compare your tragedy, or dare you, nymph, with mine?
Publius Ovidius Naso, The Metamorphoses, XV.479-546; transl. by A. S. Kline © 2000
(Poetry in Translation, www.poetryintranslation.com)
Publius Ovidius Naso, The Tristia: A Letter Of Thanks
(early 1st century AD)
Even now, my Muse, although she has been bid to keep silence, scarcely restrains herself from naming thee, thus unwilling. And as the strong leash with difficulty withholds the struggling hound, when he has found the traces of the deer; and just as the high-mettled steed, now with his foot, now with his forehead, beats at the doors of the starting-place, not yet opened,1 so does my Muse, bound and restrained by the injunction imposed on her, desire to recount the praises of this name, forbidden to be uttered.
Publius Ovidius Naso, The Tristia, V.9.25-32; transl. by Henry T. Riley
(G. Bell and Sons, London, 1881)
[Explanatory footnote by Henry T. Riley.]
Publius Papinius Statius, Thebaid: Chariot race at the first Nemean Games
(1st century AD)
The sweat of horses first. Recite, Apollo,
the names of famous riders and their steeds.
There never was a gathering of more
noble, wing-footed horses. These resembled
a flock of birds aligned in V-formation,
or Aeolus, whose mad winds clash on shore.
Leading the others, clearly visible
because his red mane flamed, Arion pranced.
His lord, they say, was Neptune and the first
to hurt his tender mouth with his sharp curb:
he tamed that horse along a sandy shore
without a whip, for his desire to race
could not be satisfied—he was inconstant,
like winter waves, and joined with swimming steeds
he often drew his blue-haired master safely
through the Ionic and the Libyan seas
while storm clouds marveled to be left behind
and north and south winds struggled to pursue.
With equal speed he carried Hercules,
son of Amphitryon, when he engaged
in King Eurystheus’s toils and traced deep furrows
through meadowlands. Even to him he was
disorderly and difficult to hold,
but soon—a gift of heaven—he accepted
the rule of King Adrastus. He grew tame
with age till on this day the king permitted
his son-in-law to ride him—yet he gave
warning to Polynices not to raise
a stern hand should the horse bolt, but use skill,
the arts of riding. “Do not let him free
and off the bit!” he warned. “Urge other steeds
with whips and threats! This horse has all he speed
you’ll need!” In just that way, Apollo gave
his happy son his fiery reins and car
but wept while he instructed him which stars
were treacherous, which zones could not be crossed,
and what was temperate between the poles.
His son was pious, duly cautious, but
young, and the harsh Fates would not let him learn.
The next contestant for the palm wore white,
harnessed white horses, and wore bands of wool
whose color matched his casque and crested plume:
Amphiaraus, guiding Spartan horses.
These were your offspring, Cyllarus, begotten
by stealth when Castor, by the shores of distant
Scythia, traded Amyclean reins
for oars along the Black Sea where he sailed.
Admetus, blessed with steeds of Thessaly,
could hardly curb his barren mares, offspring
of Centaurs, it was said. They scorned their sex
and used their female heat to fashion strength.
They were like night and day, dark-grained and white,
so bright they could be easily believed
to stem from that same herd that would not eat
as long as they, enchanted and amazed,
could hear Apollo play Castalian reeds.
The next were sons of Jason, whom their mother
Hypsipyle had recently discovered.
The name of Thoas was one’s mother’s father;
Euneos was a word derived from Argo.
Their faces, horses, chariots, and clothes
and equal and harmonious vows to win—
or come in second only to a brother—
made the twins similar in all they did.
Here were Hippodamus and Chromis—one
descended from great Hercules, the other
from Oenomaus. Who could tell which one
handled his reins more fiercely? Getic steeds,
bred by Diomedes, for one; the other
had horses from his Pisan father. Stains
of blood marred both war carts—and foul remains.
One of the goalposts was a strong, bare oak,
whose branches had been stripped; opposed, a stone
protuberance, the kind that limits fields.
It was the length four javelins could reach
or three times longer than an arrow’s flight.
Prothous tumbled markers in a bronze
helmet to choose positions for the start.
Horses and drivers were their countries’ finest,
descendants of the gods. Their hearts unsettled,
with nervous confidence and hope, they waited.
Enclosed, they strained to be released as chills
ran through their limbs—not only fear but thrills.
The horses shared the passion of their masters.
Flames filled their eyes. Bits rattled in their mouths.
Blood and saliva scalded bridle rings.
They pressed the posts and scarce-resisting gates
and exhaled rage like smoke. Distraught, they waited,
and lost a thousand steps before they started;
their heavy hooves upchurned the absent fields!
Trusted attendants smoothed their knotted manes,
settled their spirits, whispered, planned their race.
Tyrrhenian trumpets played; the steeds leaped forward.
What sails at sea, what weaponry in battle,
what clouds so swiftly race across the sky?
There is less force in winter streams and fire;
stars fall more slowly, so do drops of rain
and rivers from high summits to the plains.
The Grecians watched them start but soon lost sight
of separate horses in the blinding dust.
A single cloud obscured them, one so dark
they scarcely saw or heard each other’s cries.
Then the pack thinned. The chariots formed lines.
The second circuit smoothed out former furrows.
The eager drivers leaned and touched their yokes,
flexed with their knees, and doubled tight-held reins.
Neck muscles bulged. Winds combed the flying manes;
wheels squealed; hooves pounded; parched earth drank white rain.
Hands never paused; whips whistled through the air.
Cold hail does not fall faster in north winds
nor water tumble from the horns of winter.
Astute Arion could detect the guilt
of Polynices, son of Oedipus,
the dreadful foreigner who held his reins.
He felt his future, and he was afraid,
unruly from the start, as his oppression
angered him more than usual. The Greeks
thought him provoked by praise, but he was fleeing
his driver, running mad, his unrestraint
threatening his charioteer, while through the field
he searched for King Adrastus, his right master.
Amphiaraus came before the others,
but he was far behind in second place.
Admetus, the Thessalian, raced with him.
Then came the wins; now Euneos was first,
now Thoas. One advanced; one fell behind.
Though each desired to win, they never clashed.
Desperate Chromis and Hippodamus
followed, slowed by their horses’ weight, not lack
of talent, and Hippodamus, out front,
could feel the heat of panting mouths behind him.
The auger of Apollo hoped to take
the shorter, inside path around the goal
by drawing in his reins so he could pass,
and the Thessalian hero, too, perceived
an opportunity because Arion
ran unrestrained in circles to the right.
Amphiaraus was first, Admetus now
no longer third, but they were passed, their joy
short-lived, as Neptune’s horse rejoined the circuit
from which he’d strayed. The crowd rose to its feet;
the heavens shook and tumult struck the stars.
No longer could the Theban Polynices
manage his reins or dare to use his whip,
like an exhausted helmsman who no longer
looks to the stars but only hopes for luck
while sea waves sweep his ship against black rocks.
Again they circled right in full career
and strove to hold their course around the field.
Axles collided; treacherous spokes struck wheels;
a thousand horse hooves pounded on the plain.
The riders feared, and also threatened, murder.
Their craving for renown was unrelenting.
Their violence was equally intense
as when they went to war with horrid weapons.
They needed more than whips; they shouted names:
Admetus called on Iris, Pholoë,
and Thoë, his best trace horse. The Danaan
augurer urged on Cygnus, that white steed,
and Ascheton. The son of Hercules—
that’s Chromis—called on Strymon. Euneos
shouted for fiery Aetion. Thoas named
dappled Podarces, and Hippodamus
pressured slow Cydon. In his chariot,
only Echion’s son maintained sad silence,
afraid his voice would tremble as he swerved.
The horses were just starting their true task
as they began the fourth, most dusty lap.
Limbs weary, hot with sweet, their thirsty throats
flaming, they found their forward progress flagged;
thick clouds of vapor marked their respirations,
and constant panting flattened out their flanks.
Now wavering Fortune, which had only watched,
first dared to intervene. As Thoas strove
madly to pass Admetus, his car crashed,
nor could his brother help, although he tried.
He failed because Mars-like Hippodamus
obstructed him, and his car intervened.
Then Chromis, using all his father’s strength—
the might of Hercules—locked axles with
Hippodamus to take inside position
going around the goal. Their horses fought
to free themselves. They tensed their necks and bridles
to no effect, as when the tides detain
Sicilian vessels while the north wind rages
and swollen sails stand motionless at sea.
Then Chromis flipped the other’s chariot
and raced ahead, but when the Thracian steeds
saw that Hippodamus had fallen, hunger
came over them. They would have madly ripped
their charioteer to pieces where he lay
had Chromis not retrieved them by their bridles.
He quit, defeated, but he earned high praise.
The race drew close; the winner was uncertain.
It was Apollo’s wish, Amphiaraus,
that you should have the victory he’d promised.
He thought the time was right to favor you
and there within the dusty circuit’s confines
he called from hell, or cunningly constructed,
the figure of a monstrous, crested serpent.
Its face was horrible to see. A thousand terrors
clung to his wicked thing he brought to light.
Neither dark Lethe’s fearful guardian,
the horses of the sun, the team of Mars,
or Furies could have seen it undismayed.
Arion’s golden mane stood stiff as he
stopped at the sight. He lifted up his shoulders
and raised his yoke companion and the other
horses who shared his labor by his side.
This forced the exile from Aonia to fall
and tear away the reins that crossed his back,
and, disattached, his chariot escaped
as he lay in the dust. The other cars—
from Taenaros and Thessaly and Lemnos—
avoided him by swerving just off course.
He managed to uplift his clouded head
after assistance reached him and to pry
his weak limbs from the ground before returning,
unlooked for, to Adrastus, his wife’s father.
Truly Amphiaraus, son of Oecleus,
tried to defeat the empty car as well,
though victory was certain as he followed
Arion, driverless, who raced ahead.
Phoebus lent strength, refreshing him. He drove
fast as an eastern wind, as if the gate
has just been dropped, the race has just begun.
With lash and reins he whipped the backs and manes
of fleet Ascheton and his snow-white Cygnus.
Now that the prophet raced in front alone
his hot wheels tore the track and scattered sand.
Earth groaned—a warning, a fierce premonition—
and Cygnus might have come in first and beaten
Arion, but the Father of the Sea
denied him that, yet gave a fair exchange:
the horse gained fame, the prophet won the race.
A pair of twins delivered him his prize,
a Herculean cup. This the Tirynthian
would lift one-handed when he raised his throat
and let pour foaming wine to celebrate
his conquest of some monster or a war.
Engraved artistically in gold, it showed
fierce Centaurs slaughtering the Lapithae
as torches, stones and drinking bowls went flying:
Hercules held Hylaeus by his beard
and clubbed him while the rioters were dying.
As your reward, Admetus, you were given
a cloak with purple border, deeply dyed,
that showed Leander braving Phrixean seas,
his figure carved in blue beneath the waves.
You would have thought the dry cloth held wet hair.
There he swam on his side, exchanging strokes,
while opposite, in Sestos, waits a light—
filled with anxiety—that slowly dies.
These gifts Adrastus ordered for the victors
and to his son-in-law he gave a slave girl.
Publius Papinius Statius, The Thebaid, 6.296-549 (shortened); transl. by Charles Stanley Ross
(The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 2007)
Tiberius Catius Asconius Silius Italicus, Punica: Chariot race at Scipio Africanus’ games at Carthago Nova in 206 BC
(1st century AD)
Now the appointed day came, and the plain was filled with the noise of a crowd past numbering; and Scipio, with tears in his eyes, led the semblance of a funeral procession with due rites of burial. Every Spaniard and every soldier of the Roman army brought gifts to throw upon the blazing pyres. Scipio himself held goblets, filled either with milk or with sacred wine, and sprinkled fragrant flowers over the altars. Then he summoned the ghosts to rise up, and rehearsed with tears the glories of the dead, and did honour to their noble deeds. Thence he went back to the race-course and started the first contest – that which was to test the speed of horses. Even before the starting-gate was unbarred, the excited crowd surged to and fro with a noise like the sound of the sea, and, with a fury of partisanship, fixed their eyes on the doors behind which the racers were standing.
And now the signal was given, and the bolts flew back with a noise. Scarcely had the first hoof flashed into full view, when a wild storm of shouting rose up to heaven. Bending forward like the drivers, each man gazed at the chariot he favoured, and at the same time shouted to the flying horses. The course was shaken by the enthusiasm of the spectators, and excitement robbed every man of his senses. They lean forward and direct the horses by their shouting. A cloud of yellow dust rose up from the sandy soil, concealing with its darkness the running of the horses and the exertions of the drivers. One man backs with fury the mettled steed, another the charioteer. Some are zealous for horses of their own country, others for the fame of some ancient stud. One man is filled with joyful hope for an animal that is racing for the first time, while another prefers the green old age of a well-tried veteran. At the start, Lampon, bred in Gallicia, left the rest behind; he rushed through the air with the flying car, galloping over the course with huge strides and leaving the winds behind him. The crowd roared with applause, thinking that with such a start their favourite had as good as won. But those who looked deeper and had more experience of the race-course, blamed the driver for putting forth all his strength at the beginning: from a distance they uttered vain protests, that he was tiring out his team with his efforts and keeping no reserve of power. “Whither are you careering too eagerly, Cyrnus?” – Cyrnus was the charioteer – “Be prudent! Put down your whip and tighten your reins!” But alas, his ears were deaf: on he sped, unsparing of his horses, and forgetting how much ground had still to be covered.
Next came Panchaies, a chariot-length and no more behind the leader. Bred in Asturia, he was conspicuous for the white forehead and four white feet of his sires. Though high-mettled, he was low of stature and lacked comeliness; but now his fiery spirit lent him wings, and he sped over the plain, impatient of the reins; he seemed to grow in stature and size as he ran. His driver, Hiberus, was gay with scarlet of Cinyphian dye.
Third in order, neck and neck with Pelorus, ran Caucasus, a fractious animal that loved not the caressing hand that patted his neck, but rejoiced to bite and champ the iron in his mouth till blood came with the foam. Pelorus, on the other hand, was more tractable and obedient to the rein; never did he swerve aside and drive the car in crooked lines, but kept to the inside and grazed the turning-post with his near wheel. He was conspicuous for the size of his neck and the thick mane that rippled over it. Strange to say, he had no sire: his dam, Harpe, had conceived him from the Zephyr of spring and foaled him in the plains of the Vettones. This chariot was driven along the course by the noble Durius, while Caucasus relied upon ancient Atlas as his driver. Caucasus came from Aetolian Tyde, the city founded by the wandering hero, Diomede; and legend traced his descent to the Trojan horses which the son of Tydeus, successful in his bold attempt, stole from Aeneas by the river Simois. Atlas came last, but Durius was last also and moved no faster: one might have thought the pair were running peaceably side by side and keeping level.
And now, when near half the distance was completed, they quickened over the course; and spirited Panchates, struggling to catch up the team ahead, seemed to rise higher and at each moment to mount upon the chariot in front, and the hoofs of his prancing forefeet struck and rattled on the car of the Galhcian horse. When Hiberus, who came second, saw that the Gallician team of Cyrnus was tiring, that the chariot was no longer bounding ahead, and that the smoking horses were driven on by severe and repeated flogging, then, as when a sudden storm rushes down from a mountaintop, he leaned forward quickly as far as the necks of his coursers and hung above their crests, and stirred up Panchates, who was chafing at being second in the race, and plied his whip, even while he called to the horse: “Steed of Asturia, shall any other get in front and win the prize when you are competing? Rise up and fly and glide over the plain with all your wonted speed, as if on wings! Lampon is panting hard; his strength is gone and he grows smaller; he has no breath left to carry to the goal.” At these words, Panchates rose higher, as if he were just starting in the race; and Cyrnus, though he strove to block his rival by swerving, or to keep up with him, was soon left behind. The sky and the race-course resounded, smitten by the shouts of the spectators. Victorious Panchates raised his triumphant crest still higher as he ran on; and he drew after him his three partners in the yoke.
The two last drivers were Atlas and Durius; and now they swerved aside and resorted to tricks. First, one tried to pass his rival on the left; and then the other came up on the right and strove to get in front; but both failed in their attempted strategy. At last Durius, young and confident, leaning forward and jerking at his reins, placed his chariot athwart his rival’s course and struck the other car and upset it. Atlas, no match for the other’s youth and strength, protested with justice: “Whither are you careering? or what mad fashion is this of racing? You seek to kill me and my horses together.” As he cried out thus, he fell head first from the broken chariot; and the horses too, a sorry sight, fell down and sprawled in disorder on the ground, while the conqueror shook his reins on the open course, and Pelorus flew up the middle of the track, leaving Atlas struggling to rise. It did not take him long to catch up the weary team of Cyrnus: he flew past with speedy car, though Cyrnus was learning too late the wisdom of controlling his pace. A shout of applause from his supporters drove the chariot on. And now Pelorus thrust his head over the back and shoulders of terrified Hiberus, till the charioteer felt the horse’s hot breath and foam upon his neck. Durius pressed on along the plain, and increased the pace of his team by the whip. Nor was the effort vain: coming up on the right, he seemed to be, or even was, running neck and neck with his rival. Then, amazed by the prospect of such glory, he cried out: “Now, Pelorus, now is the time to show that the West-wind was your sire! Let steeds that spring from the loins of mere animals learn how far superior is the issue of an immortal parent. When victorious, you shall offer gifts to your sire and rear an altar in his honour.” And indeed, had he not, even while he spoke, been beguiled, by too great success and by his fearful joy, into dropping his whip, Durius would perhaps have consecrated to the West-wind the altars he had vowed. But now, as wretched as if the victor’s wreath had fallen from his head, he turned his rage against himself, tearing the gold-embroidered garment from his breast, and weeping, and pouring out complaints to heaven. When the lash was gone, the team no longer obeyed the driver: in vain he flogged their backs with the reins for a whip.
Meanwhile Panchates, sure now of victory, sped on to the goal, and claimed the first prize with head held high. A light breeze fanned the mane that rippled over his neck and shoulders; then with proud step he raised his nimble limbs, and a great shout greeted his victory. Each competitor received alike a battle-axe of solid silver with carven work; but the other prizes differed from one another and were of unequal value. To the winner was given a flying steed, a desirable present from the Massylian king; the second in merit next received two cups overlaid with gold of the Tagus, taken from the great heap of Carthaginian spoil; the third prize was the shaggy hide of a fierce lion and a Carthaginian helmet with bristling plumes; and lastly Scipio summoned Atlas and gave him a prize also in pity for his age and ill-fortune, though the old man had fallen down when his chariot was wrecked. To him was given a beautiful youth, to attend on him, together with a skin cap of Spanish fashion.
Silius Italicus, Punica, XVI.303-456; transl. by J. D. Duff
(The Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, Cambridge / Massachusetts - London / England, 1934 / reprinted 1961)
Sidonius Apollinaris, Carmen: Chariot race at Ravenna
(5th century AD)
Nay, it was rather the duty of my Muse to record with joy your own great exploits when you were conqueror at the circensian games amid the thunderous plaudits of Rome.
Phoebus was beginning a new yearly circle, and two-faced Janus was bringing back his Calends, the day when the new magistrates take their seats. It is Caesar’s custom to provide games (called “private”) twice in that one day. Then a company of young men, all of the Court, goes through a grim mimicry of the field of Elis with four-horse chariots racing over the course.
Now the urn demanded you and the whistling cheers of the hoarse onlookers summoned you. Thereupon, in the part where the door is and the seat of the consuls, round which there runs a wall with six vaulted chambers on each side, wherein are the starting-pens, you chose one of the four chariots by lot and mounted it, laying a tight grip on the hanging reins. Your partner did the same, so did the opposing side. Brightly gleam the colours, white and blue, green and red, your several badges.
Servants’ hands hold mouth and reins and with knotted cords force the twisted manes to hide themselves, and all the while they incite the steeds, eagerly cheering them with encouraging pats and instilling a rapturous frenzy. 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. They push, they bustle, they drag, they struggle, they rage, they jump, they fear and are feared; never are their feet still, but restlessly they lash the hardened timber.
At last the herald with loud blare of trumpet calls forth the impatient teams and launches the fleet chariots into the field. The swoop of forked lightning, the arrow sped by Scythian string, the trail of the swiftly-falling star, the leaden hurricane of bullets whirled from Balearic slings has never so rapidly split the airy paths of the sky. The ground gives way under the wheels and the air is smirched with the dust that rises in their track. The drivers, while they wield the reins, ply the lash; now they stretch forward over the chariots with stooping breasts, and so they sweep along, striking the horses’ withers and leaving their backs untouched. With charioteers so prone it would puzzle you to pronounce whether they were more supported by the pole or by the wheels.
Now as if flying out of sight on wings, you had traversed the more open part, and you were hemmed in by the space that is cramped by craft, amid which the central barrier has extended its long low double-walled structure. When the farther turning-post freed you all from restraint once more, your partner went ahead of the two others, who had passed you; so then, according to the law of the circling course, you had to take the fourth track. The drivers in the middle were intent that if haply the first man, embarrassed by a dash of his steeds too much to the right, should leave a space open on the left by heading for the surrounding seats, he should be passed by a chariot driven in on the near side. As for you, bending double with the very force of the effort you keep a tight rein on your team and with consummate skill wisely reserve them for the seventh lap. 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 horses and men, are warmed by the race and chilled by fear.
Thus they go once round, then a second time; thus goes the third lap, thus the fourth; but in the fifth turn the foremost man, unable to bear the pressure of his pursuers, swerved his car aside, for he had found, as he gave command to his fleet team, that their strength was exhausted. Now the return half of the sixth course was completed and the crowd was already clamouring for the award of the prizes; your adversaries, with no fear of any effort from you, were scouring the track in front with never a care, when suddenly you tautened the curbs all together, tautened your chest, planted your feet firmly in front, and chafed the mouths of your swift steeds as fiercely as was the wont of that famed charioteer of old when he swept Oenomaus along with him and all Pisa trembled. Hereupon one of the others, clinging to the shortest route round the turning-post, was hustled by you, and his team, carried away beyond control by their onward rush, could no more be wheeled round in a harmonious course. As you saw him pass before you in disorder, you got ahead of him by remaining where you were, cunningly reining up.
The other adversary, exulting in the public plaudits, ran too far to the right, close to the spectators; then as he turned aslant and all too late after long indifference urged his horses with the whip, you sped straight past your swerving rival. Then the enemy in reckless haste overtook you and, fondly thinking that the first man had already gone ahead, shamelessly made for your wheel with a sidelong dash. His horses were brought down, a multitude of intruding legs entered the wheels, and the twelve spokes were crowded, until a crackle came from those crammed spaces and the revolving rim shattered the entangled feet; then he, a fifth victim, flung from his chariot, which fell upon him, caused a mountain of manifold havoc, and blood disfigured his prostrate brow.
Thereupon arose a riot of renewed shouting such as neither Lycaeus with its cypresses ever raises, nor the forests of Ossa, troubled though they be by many a hurricane; such echoing roar as not even the Sicilian sea, rolled onward in billows by the south wind, gives forth, nor Propontis, whose wild deeps are a rampart to the Bosphorus. Next the just emperor ordered silken ribands to be added to the victors’ palms and crowns to the necklets of gold, and true merit to have its reward; while to the vanquished in their sore disgrace he bade rugs of many-coloured hair to be awarded.
Sidonius Apollinaris, To Consentius (Carmina, 23.304-427); transl. by W. B. Anderson
(The Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, Cambridge / Massachusetts - London / England, 1936)
Note: This text from the 5th century AD depicts a small race with amateur charioteers at Ravenna in Italy (“Rome” in the first paragraph must not be taken literally). Sidonius describes teamwork among two pairs of chariots. The paired chariots would cooperate to ensure victory for one of them.
Nonnos of Panopolis, Dionysiaca: Chariot race at the funeral games for Opheltes
(late 5th century AD)
The god [Dionysos] offered prizes of victory for the charioteers. For the first, a bow and Amazonian quiver, a demilune buckler, and one of those warlike women, whom once as he walked on the banks of Thermodon he had taken while bathing and brought to the Indian city. For the second, a bay mare swift as the north wind, with long mane overshadowing her neck, still in foal and gone half her time and her belly swollen with the burden her mate had begotten. For the third, a corselet, and a shield for the fourth. This was a masterpiece made on the Lemnian anvil and adorned with gold patterns; the round boss in the middle was wrought with silver ornaments. For the fifth, two ingots, treasure from the banks of Pactolos.
First Erechtheus brought his horse Bayard under the yoke, and fastened in his mare Swiftfoot; both sired by Northwind Boreas in winged coupling when he dragged a stormfoot Sithonian Harpy to himself, and the Wind gave them as loveprice to his goodfather Erechtheus when he stole Attic Oreithyia for his bride.
Second, Actaion swung his Ismenian lash. Third was speedyfoal Scelmis, offspring of Earthshaker lord of the wet, who often cut the water of the sea driving the car of his father Poseidon. Fourth Phaunos lept up, who came into assembly alone bearing the semblance of his mother’s father, with four horses under his yoke like Helios; and fifth Achates mounted his Sicilian chariot, one insatiable for horsmenship, full of the passion which belongs to the river that feeds the olivetrees of Pisa. For he lived in the land of the nymph loved by hapless Alpheios, who brings to Arethusa as a gift of love his garlanded waters untainted by the brine.
Bold Actaion was led away from the crowd by his father, who addressed these loving injunctions to his eager son:
“My son, your father Aristaios has more experience than you. I know you have strength enough, that in you the bloom of youth is joined with courage; for you have in you the blood of Apollo my father, and our Arcadian mares are stronger than any for the race. But all this is in vain, neither strength nor running horses know how to win, as much as the driver’s brains. Cunning, only cunning you want; for horseracing needs a smart clever man to drive.
“Then listen to your father, and I will teach you too all the tricks of the horsy art which time has taught me, and they are many and various. Do your best, my boy, to honour your father by your successes. Horseracing brings as great a repute as a war; do your best to honour me on the racecourse as well as the battlefield. You have won a victory in war, now win another, that I may call you prizewinner as well as spearman. My dear boy, do something worthy of Dionysos your kinsman, worthy both of Phoibos and of skilful Cyrene, and outdo the labours of your father Aristaios. Show your horsemastery, win your event like an artist, by your own sharp wits; for without instruction one pulls the car off the course in the middle of a race, it wanders all over the place, and the obstinate horses in their unsteady progress are not driven by the whip or obedient to the bit, the driver as he turns back misses the post, he loses control, the horses run away and carry him back where they will. But one who is a master of arts and tricks, the driver with his wits about him, even with inferior horses, keeps straight and watches the man in front, keeps a course ever close to the post, wheels his car round without ever scratching the mark. Keep your eyes open, please, and tighten the guiding rein swinging the whole near horse about and just clearing the post, throwing your weight sideways to make the car tilt, guide your course by needful measure, watch until as your car turns the hub of the wheel seems almost to touch the surface of the mark with the near-circling wheel. Come very near without touching; but take care of the stone, or you may strike the post with the axle against the turning-post and wreck both horses and car together. As you guide your team this way and that way on the course, act like a steersman; ply the prick, scold and threaten the whip without sparing, press the off horse, lift him to a spurt, slacken the hold of the bit and don’t let it irk him. Manage your car like a good steerman; guide your car on a straight course, for the driver’s mind is like a car’s rudder if he drives with his head.”
With this advice, he turned away and retired, having taught his son the various tricks of his trade as a horseman, which he knew so well himself.
One after another as usual each put a blind hand into the helmet, turning away his face, and hoping to get the uncertain lot in his favour, as one who shakes his fingers for a throw of the doubtful dice far from him. So the leaders in turn took their lots. Horsemad Phaunos, offspring of the famous blood of Phaëthon, was first by lot, and Achates was second, next came the brother of Damnamenes [Scelmis], and next to him Actaion; but the best racer of all got the last lot, horsewhipper Erechtheus.
Then the drivers lifted their leather whips, and stood in a row each in his chariot. The umpire was honest Aiacos; his duty was to view the crown-eager drivers turning the post, and to watch with unerring eyes how the horses ran. He was the witness of truth, to settle quarrels and differences.
The race started from the barrier. Off they went—one leading in the course, one trying to catch him as he raced in front, another chasing the one between, and the last ran close to the latter of these two and strove to graze his chariot. As they got farther on driver caught driver and ran car against car, then shaking the reins forced off the horses with the jagged bit. Another neck and neck with a speeding rival ran level in the doubtful race, now crouching sideways, now stretching himself, now upright when he could not help it, with bent hips urging the willing horse, just a touch of the master’s hand and a light flick of the whip. Again and again he would turn and look back for fear of the car of the driver coming on behind: or as he made speed, the horse’s hoof in the spring of his prancing feet would be slipping into a somersault, had not the driver checked his still hurrying pace and so held back the car which pressed him behind. Again, one in front with another driver following behind would change his course to counter the rival car, moving from side to side uncertainly so as to bar the way to the other who pressed him close. And Scelmis, offspring of the Earthshaker, swung Poseidon’s seawhip and drove his father’s team bred in the sea; not Pegasos flying on high so quickly cut the air on his long wings, as the feet of the seabred horses covered their course on land unapproachable.
The people collected together sat in rows on a high hill, to see the race, and watched from a distance the course of the galloping horses. One stood anxious, another shook a finger and beckoned to a driver to hurry. Another possessed with the fever of horses’ rivalry, felt a mad heart galloping along with his favourite driver; another who saw a man running ahead of his favourite, clapt his hands and shouted in melancholy tones, cheering on, laughing, trembling, warning the driver.
The fine chariots, faster than the furious Bear [the constellation Ursa Maior, which turns around the Pole], now flew high aloft, now skimmed the earth scarcely touching the surface of dust. The track of the car dashing straight on with quick circling wheel scratched the sandy soil as it passed. Then there was a confused struggle; the dust also was stirred and rose to the horses’ chestst, their manes shook in the airy breezes, the busy drivers shouted all with one voice together louder than their cracking whips.
Now they were on the last lap. Scelmis with a swift leap was first of all pressing on his seachariot. Erechtheus was close upon him whipping up his team, and you might almost say you saw the second car ready to climb aboard the car of the maritime Telchis; for the spirited stallion of Erechtheus was up in the air, panting and snorting with both nostrils, so as to warm the back of the other charioteer. The eyes of Scelmis were turned back again and again on the other driver, and he might have pulled Erechtheus’ horse by the mane, and the foaming stallion might have shaken his jaw with a quick jerk and spat out the bit; but Erechtheus checked the car, and turned it to one side with a vigorous pull at the stout reins, wrenching the horses’ jaws slowly towards himself. Then again he drove close, having escaped the disaster of a horse without bit and bridle. And Scelmis when he saw him making for his car shouted in threatening tones—
“That will do now! It’s of no use to run a match with horses of the sea! Pelops long ago driving another car of my father’s beat in a race the unconquered horses of Oinomaos. As guide of my horsemanship I will call on the Horse God of the deep: you, my friend the horse flogger, direct all your hope to Athena the Perfect Webster. I do not want your paltry olive; I’ll carry off a different garland, a vinewreath and not your trumpery olive.”
Erechtheus was a hasty man, and these words of Scelmis made him angrier than before, and his quick intelligent mind began at once to weave plots and plans. His hands went on with his driving, but in his heart he uttered a quick prayer to Athena the queen of his own city in his own country language, to crave help in his horsemanship:
“Lady of Cecropia, horsemistress, Pallas unmothered! As thou didst conquer Poseidon in thy contest, so may Erechtheus thy subject, who drives a horse of Marathon, conquer Poseidon’s son!”
With this appeal he touched up the flanks of his colts and brought up level car to car and yoke to yoke, and with his left hand caught at the mouth of his rival’s horse, and pulled at the heavy grip of the bit, forcing back by the bridle the car running by his side; with his right hand he lashed his own highnecked steeds putting on a spurt. So he took the place of Scelmis on the course, and made that charioteer fall behind. Then he looked back with a laughing countenance on the son of Poseidon, and mocked him in his turn with raillery, the words tumbling over his shoulder in a stream—
“Scelmis, you’re beaten! Erechtheus is a better man than you, for my old ambling mare Swiftfoot has beaten your Piebald [...] Athena, a female, has beaten your backer [Poseidon], the male!”
As he said this, the man of Athena’s town ran past the Telchis. Next after him came Phaunos flogging his fourhorse team. Fourth was Actaion the cunning and artful, who had not forgotten his father’s good advice; and the last was Tyrsenian Achates.
Now bold Actaion thought of a cunning plan. His car was just behind Phaunos and catching him up, when with a sharper cut of the whip, he turned his horses aside and drove them up level, slipping by the driver and getting a little in front, then pressing his knees against the rail, he scraped the rival car with his own crossing car and scratched the horse’s legs with his running wheel. The car was upset, and over the wreckage three of the horses lay fallen on the ground, one on the flank, one on the belly, one on the neck. But one kept clear by a swerve and remained standing, his feet firmly rooted on the earth, shaking his trembling neck; he supported the whole leg of the horse yoked next to him, and lifting the yokeband pulled the car up again. There they were in a mess on the ground; the driver rolled in the dirt beside his wheel, close to the car, the skin of his forehead barked, his chin soiled, his arm stretched out in the dust and the elbow torn by the ground. The driver leapt up quickly, and in a moment he was standing beside his wrecked car, dragging up the prostrate horse with shamed hand and flogging the discomfited beast with quick lash. Bold Actaion watched Phaunos in difficulties beside his car, and made merry at his plight:
“That will do now! It’s of no use to press your unwilling horses. That will do, it’s all of no use! I shall be there first, and I will inform Dionysos that Phaunos will let all the other drivers pass, and he will come in last dragging his own car. Spare your whip. It really makes me sorry to see your poor horses torn like that with a fleshcutting prick!”
Phaunos was furious to hear these words, as the speaker drove his team quickly on with speeding whip. He pulled at the thick tails of the horses lying on the ground, and with great difficulty made the beasts get up from the dust. One colt which had struggled out of the untied yokestrap he brought back again and fastened into the bridle. He put the feet of the struggling horses into their places on both sides, and mounted the car, taking his stand firmly in it, then once more whipt up the team with his terrible lash. Harder than ever Phaunos drove and urged on his galloping horses, quicker than ever he pursued the driver in front of him—and he caught up the team ahead, for horsegod Earthshaker put spirit into the horses to honour his bold son. Then seeing a narrow pass by a beetling cliff, he wove a tangled web of deceitful artifice, to catch Achates and pass him by skilful driving.
There was a deep ravine, which the errant flood of rain pouring from the sky had torn by the side of the course under the wintry scourge of Zeus; the torrent of rain confined there had cut away a strip of earth and hollowed the ground so as to form a narrow ridge. Achates when he got there had unwillingly checked his car, to avoid a collision with the approching driver; and as Phaunos galloped upon him, he called out in a trembling voice—
“Your dress is dirty still, foolish Phaunos! the tips of your harness are still covered with sand! You have not yet dusted your untidy horses! Clean off your dirt! What’s the good of all the driving? I fear I may see you tumbling and struggling again! Take care of that bold Actaion, or he may catch you and flick your back with his leather thong and shoot you headlong into the dust again. You still show scratches on your round cheeks. Why do you still rage, Phaunos, bringing disgrace alike on Poseidon your father and Helios your gaffer? Pray have respect for the mocking throat of the Satyrs—beware of the Seilenoi and the attendants of Dionysos, or they may laugh at your dirty car! Where are your herbs and your plants, where all the drugs of Circe? All have left you, all, as soon as you began this race. Who will tell your proud mother the tale of a tumbling chariot and a filthy whip?”
Such were the proud words that Achates shouted in mockery, but Nemesis recorded that big speech. Now Phaunos came close and drove alongside. Chariot struck chariot, and hitting the middle bolt with his axle he broke it with his rolling wheel—the other wheel rolled off by itself and fell twisting on the ground, as with the chariot of Oinomaos, when the wax of the false axle melted in Phaëthon’s heat and ended the horsemanship of that furious driver. Achates remained in the narrow way, while Phaunos in his car, leaning over the rail of his four-in-hand, passed him with speeding whip as if he did not hear; he lifted his lash more than ever, flogging the necks of the galloping horses beyond pursuit. Now he was next behind Actaion, as far as the long throw of a hurtling quoit when some stout lad casts it with strong hand.
The spectators were mad with excitement, all quarrelling and betting upon the uncertain victory that was not yet. They lay their wagers on the stormfoot horses—tripod or cauldron or sword or shield; native quarrelled with native, friend with comrade, old with old and young with young, man with man. All took sides shouting in confusion, one praised up Achates, a second would prove Phaunos the worse, for falling to the ground from his upset car; another maintained that Erechtheus was second behind Telchis the driver from the sea; another would have it that the resourceful man of Athens was visible close by, that his team was in front and he had won after passing Scelmis the leading driver.
The quarrel had not ended when Erechtheus came in first, a near thing! unceasingly lashing his horses right and left down from the shoulders. Sweat ran in rivers over the horses’ necks and hairy chests, their driver was sprinkled with plentiful dry spatterings of dust; the car was running hard on the horses’ footsteps amid rising whirls, and the undisturbed surface of the light dust was disturbed by the rolling tyres. After this flying race, he came into their midst in his car. He wiped off with his dress the sweat which poured from his wet brow, and quickly got out of the car. He rested his long whip against the fine yoke, and his groom Amphidamas unloosed the horses. Then quickly with happy hand he lifted the first prize of victory, quiver and bow and helmeted woman, and shook the flat half-shield with the boss in the middle.
Scelmis came second in his chariot from the sea—for he drove Poseidon’s car from the sea, as far behind as the round wheel is behind the running horse—as he gallops, the hairy tip of his long waving tail just touches the tyre. He took the second prize, the mare in foal, and gave her in charge to Damnamenes, offering her with jealous hand.
Third Actaion lifted his token of victory, the corselet shining with gold, the gorgeous work of Olympos.
Next came Phaunos, and there checked his car. He lifted the shield with rounded silver boss, and he still showed those relics of the dirty dust.
When Achates arrived despondent beside his slowrolling car, a Sicilian groom displayed two ingots of gold, a consolation from his kind friend the splendid Dionysos.
Nonnos, Dionysiaca, 37.116-37.484 (shortened); transl. by W. H. D. Rouse
(The Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, Cambridge / Massachusetts - London / England, 1940)
Note: The description of the funeral games of Opheltes, a friend of the god Dionysos killed in the war against the Indians, imitates the burial of Patroklos in Book XXIII of Homer’s Iliad (see the excerpt above). Italicized notes in brackets are mine.