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Ancient Olympic Games: Chariot Racing

Chariot racing, a highly spectacular and dangerous event, has remained extremely popular throughout antiquity, from ancient Greek down to Roman and Byzantine times. Chariot and horse races were held on the morning of the second day of the ancient Olympics. There were two basic forms of chariot racing, the tethrippon, with four-horse chariots, established as early as the 25th Olympiad in 680 BC, and the synoris, with two-horse chariots, which was officially included in the Olympic program only in 408 BC.

The first known chariot race in Olympia emerges from the land of myth: Oinomaos, the mythical king of Elis and neighboring Pisa, willing to prevent the marriage of his daughter, Hippodameia, with whom he was secretly in love, had promised her hand to the man who would defeat him in a chariot race. Although given the lead, the suitors were doomed to fail, as Oinomaos was actually racing them with invincible horses, a gift from his father, Ares, the god οf war. So, he always managed to catch up with the suitors and kill them. He had already eliminated many young men, when Pelops arrived and having sabotaged Oinomaos’ chariot, caused his death during the race and succeeded in winning Hippodameia. Moreover, Herakles, who had officially introduced the chariot races in the Games, competed himself with Kyknos and defeated him. In the Iliad, the tethrippon race forms part of the Funeral Games for Patroklos, organized by Achilles to honour his dead friend. In general, chariot racing has its roots in the war life of the Achaeans and, like other equestrian competitions, remained for long a privilege of the aristocrats, who could afford breeding horses.

In historical times racing chariots were a variant of the Homeric chariots, lighter for speed and smaller as they did not carry two riders, a warrior and a charioteer, but only a charioteer. They were two-wheeled and open at the back, so that the driver could jump out, in case of an emergency. Charioteers were traditionally dressed in a long, ankle-high tunic, belted above the waist and additionally held in place by two bands passing over the shoulders and crossing at the back (analavos), as may be seen in the celebrated statue of the Delphi Charioteer.

All equestrian events were held in the Hippodrome. Its track was elongated and flat and had a total length of about 600 meters, while the arena was divided by a low parapet (emvolon), about two stadia long, that is about 390 meters, into two internal corridors. Sloping embankments rose along its long sides for spectators to sit on. In Olympia, the chariots started from the western end with an intricate and impressive release system. At the starting line the chariots occupied by lot certain positions, separated by vertical wooden bars, and blocked by a horizontal bar each, held up by a string (an entrance gate called hysplpex). All strings were operated through some sort of a mechanism by a referee. The positions were not all in the same line but one behind the other, converging to a central point and forming a triangle. Around the center of the triangle was a brick structure, whence the referee operated the release mechanism and where a bronze eagle rose. At the top of the triangle there was a bronze dolphin resting on a tall rod. At the sound of a trumpet, the horizontal bars gradually began to drop and the chariots to start, first those in the back positions and last those in the front one. As the racers were one by one released, the eagle began to rise, while the dolphin began to descend at the same speed. By the time the dolphin had reached the ground and the eagle the highest point, the last bar dropped, and all chariots were in motion and in the same straight line. This inviolable system ensured the simultaneous release of the chariot racers, while a variation was also used for the timely release of runners. Arriving at the eastern end of the track, the chariot racers turned around a post, the nyssa, and headed back to the starting/finishing line to the west, where there was another nyssa around which they turned again. From one nyssa to the other, the chariots completed a full lap, that is 1.200 meters. The tethrippon race covered 12 such laps, that is about 14 kilometers, while the synoris race 8 laps, that is about 9 kilometers.

The chariots were not allowed to deviate and enter in front of others, except when they had a good lead and there was no risk of collision. All racers sought to be promoted to the internal route, which was the shortest. Therefore, the most difficult part of the route, where most accidents occurred, was the turn point around the nyssa, where all the chariots strived to take a hairpin turn at full speed. For this to happen, the charioteer had to hold the two horses on the inner side until the two horses on the outside ran the curve and all four (or both horses of the synoris) were back on the same line. This process was bound to turn even more difficult for the chariots that were closest to the pole and risked hitting it. Many believed that Taraxipos, a demon who panicked the horses and drove them crazy, lurked by the nyssa. Το appease Taraxippos, the charioteers prayed and sacrificed to him before the race at a small altar across from the nyssa. This tradition probably accounted for the increased danger at this peak moment of the race, when tension could cause confusion and jitter to the driver, while all the shouting and yelling from the crowd may disturb the horses. The rising sun might have additionally blinded both the driver and his horses, escalating confusion. If a chariot happened to deviate or overturn, it could easily drag to doom other chariots running beside or behind it. Karrotos, for example, racing on behalf of king Arkesilaos of Cyrene along with 40 other chariots, was the only one who succeeded in leading his chariot intact to the finishing line and, of course, win! Everyone else had somehow managed to crush theirs!

More often than not, the chariot did not belong to the driver, who was simply paid to compete on behalf of a sufficiently wealthy owner. Some owners even participated with more than one chariot and driver to increase the chances of victory. Alcibiades' decision to participate with seven chariots in the Olympiad of 416 BC was scandalous, as he ended up earning not only the first, but also the second and the third place! Interestingly, although the victory was based mainly on the skill, control, courage and determination of the charioteers, the greatest glory was reserved for the owners of the victorious chariots. It was them, not the charioteers, who were awarded the kotinos prize, the renowned wild olive wreath. Consequently, one could find among the award-winning chariot owners also women, who would otherwise be strictly excluded not only from participating but also from watching any events! Such were the Spartan Kyniska and the Macedonian Velestichi. Conversely, the charioteers were only awarded a wool ribbon and rarely had a share in the victory honours and distinctions. Nevertheless, their contribution was duly acknowledged, and the most distinguished charioteers were often praised by poets, such as Pindar. Celebrated charioteers, apart from the Karrotos, were Syracusan Phintis and Chromios who ran with the chariot of Hegesias and the tyrant Hieron respectively, as well as the Athenian Nikomachos who raced for Xenokrates of Acragas.

Respect was also occasionally shown to the racehorses which likewise contributed significantly to the victory, and in some cases were even the leading figures. Such as the mare of Pheidolas of Corinth, Aura, which despite having thrown her rider at the beginning of the race, continued as normal, turned around the nyssa and sped up to the finishing line, earning the first place! Pheidolas was proclaimed winner and was allowed to erect a statue of of Aura in the sanctuary of Zeus! Similarly, Kimon Koalemos, father of Miltiades, honoured his horseswhich gad earned him victory in three consecutive Olympiads, not only with statues, but also with a place in his family tomb!

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