Differences of the Roman racing charioteers from the Greek ones

Founded 29-Oct-2010
Last update 29-Oct-2010

Fik Meijer, Chariot Racing in the Roman Empire


Roman charioteers looked quite different from their Greek predecessors as we know them from vases and statues. If we compare the famous Greek bronze statue The Charioteer of Delphi with a Roman marble sculpture of a charioteer from the second century AD, the differences are immediately obvious. The Greek driver wears a chiton, a long robe that would offer no protection at all should his chariot meet with an accident, and around his head he has a hair band. The Etruscans had shortened the chiton and given the driver a cap to wear, but Roman charioteers wore truly professional-looking protective clothing that gave them some chance of survival should they be thrown out of a chariot in a crash. They donned helmets of leather or felt and wound strips of leather or linen around their legs as protection against abrasions from the guard behind which they stood. Their chest were laced up with tight leather straps, as if they were wearing corsets.

A number of images show charioteers with knives thrust into the straps around their chest, which they could use to cut themselves loose if they were thrown out of a chariot and dragged along. This was far more likely to happen in Rome than in Greece, since Greek charioteers held the reins in both hands whereas the Romans tied the four pairs of relatively heavy reins around their torso, just above the waist. They steered their chariots by adjusting their weight and made further corrections with the left hand, holding the whip in the right.

Fik Meijer, Chariot Racing in the Roman Empire, pp. 62 and 64
(The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland, 2010; translated by Liz Waters.
Originally published as Wagenrennen: Spektakelshows in Rome and Constantinopel,
Athenaeum - Polak & Van Gennep, Amsterdam, 2004.)