Thursday, November 11, 2010


Version at BMCR home site

Fik Meijer, Chariot Racing in the Roman Empire (translated by Liz Waters). Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010. Pp. xiv, 185. ISBN 9780801896972. $29.95.

Reviewed by John D. Muccigrosso, Drew University

Readers will find an excellent overview of our knowledge of ancient Roman chariot racing in this fairly short and readable book by Fik Meijer. Although there is little that will surprise the scholar familiar with Cameron's several books on the topic or Humphrey's by now standard work, the material is presented in a way which both interested lay people and undergraduate students will readily digest.

After a short introduction, the book begins with an account of the great Nika revolt of AD 532 and the centrality of the Hippodrome of Constantinople. The stage thus set Meijer backs up to trace the development of chariot racing from its origins in Greece and archaic Italy (where historians may find his account overly credulous), through the Republic, and into the empire. He tends to focus on the capital city itself, devoting the third chapter mainly to the Circus Maximus, the fourth to the infrastructure of the races (factions, charioteers, horses), and the fifth chapter to a typical day at the Roman races under the empire.

In chapter six Meijer goes over what is known of the careers of some of the more notable competitors whose names have come down to us, and in chapter seven moves over to the roles of those who watched the races—and those who pointedly did not—as well as how these viewers interacted with the races' sponsors, especially of course the emperor. In chapter eight he traces the decline of the races, starting with political changes in the third century, and bringing the reader over the Constantinople, so that in the ninth chapter he can give the later "heroes" of the Hippodrome their due and supply the reader with a history of the end of the sport in the medieval period in a short chapter 10.

Throughout the work Meijer usefully places their games in their political and social context, stressing the role of the factions in the political life of the empire, the importance of public events like these as social safety valves, and the central role the circus and hippodrome came to play in the political life of the emperor, as already introduced in chapter one's account of the Nika revolt.

The last chapter seems clumsily tacked onto the rest of the work, treating what is admittedly the most famous chariot scene—or better, scenes—in 20th-century popular culture, those of the Ben Hur movies. It comes off as a rather feeble attempt to connect the book to recent interest in film studies and the spate of antiquity-related big cinema. Perhaps for the current crop of college students, an analysis of George Lucas' pod-racing homage to Ben Hur would have been better.

In many ways the book is well suited for an undergraduate audience, with a map of Rome and the empire along with a timeline at the start of the book, and at the end, a list of known ancient racetracks (based on Humphrey), a glossary of most Latin terms found in the book, an adequate bibliography, and not too many endnotes. I found few outright errors ("AD" for "BC" on p. 29 is likely to mislead undergrads), but several choices may bother instructors, including the use of "Heliogabalus" for the more typical "Elagabalus," an absent "of" in the Circus Maxentius, a few uses of "plebeians" in reference to the lower classes at Rome, and a Euro-centric assumption of familiarity with the crowds and clubs of modern "football." While Meijer does quote at length from some ancient texts, I found myself looking for more, and a short index locorum at the end of the book would have gone a long way. There are several English-language compendia to which reference could have been made, in addition to the CIL usually cited in the notes, but perhaps this, like some of the language choices just mentioned, can be forgiven in a translated work. As is often the case in historical volumes, better use could have been made of the vast archaeological material available, including at least minimal incorporation into the text of the nearly 20 black-and-white images dispersed throughout the book.

Despite an overall favorable impression, I did find myself wondering how this might fit into a undergraduate curriculum. At 160 pages of text, it is a bit long for a survey of ancient sport and spectacle, especially for those who like to assign significant readings from primary authors, and advanced students might be sent directly to Cameron, Humphrey or other anglophone literature. Nevertheless it provides a useful middle ground for more interested students and may serve the instructor as a reliable background text.


  1. I would like to add the following observations:

    (1) Page xii - the chronology for the year 69 says: Galba, Otho, and Vitellius. It should be: 68-69 Galba, 69 Otho and Vitellius.

    (2) Page xii - the chronology for Antoninus Pius says: 136-161. It should be: 138-161.

    (3) The map of the Roman Empire shows Cyrene on the coast of North Africa, but Cyrene is inland, about 20 km from the coast.

    (4) On page 9 the author describes the attack on the imperial palace during the revolt of 532: "Not even the Hagia Sophia built there by Emperor Constantine was spared." The first church (dedicated in 360 during the reign of Constantius II) was destroyed after riots in 404. It was rebuilt, and the second church was dedicated in 415 during the reign of Theodosius II. This is the church that was destroyed in 532, and it has nothing to do with Constantine.

    (5) Constantine appears again on page 51: "As his center of government he chose the city he had founded himself, Constatinople..." The city on the Bosporos was founded by Greek pioneers ca. 600 BC. They called it Byzantium. In AD 324 Constantine announced that he was going to move the capital from Rome to Byzantium, and preparations for the move were made. Six years later (330) the capital was moved. At the same time the name was changed to Constantinople. But the first name of the city was Byzantium. Surprisingly, this name is mentioned on the very same page (and on page 5).

    (6) On page 163 there is a note from the translator Liz Waters: "Most passages from ancient texts have been translated by me from the Dutch..." This approach is extremely un-professional.

    (7) In one case the author contradicts himself. In the text on page 1 he says: "The number of monographs on the subject is limited..." But in the notes on page 163 he says: "There are several excellent studies..." He cannot have it both ways. Either the number is high or low. The text is correct. The number is low.

    (8) On page 44 the author mentions an Egyptian obelisk and says: "In 1587 ... Pope Sixtus V transferred the obelisk to the Piazza del Popolo where it now stands at the center of the oval piazza." This obelisk was moved and raised in 1589.

    (9) Many captions are incomplete, because they do not tell us where the item shown was discovered and where it is now (if it was moved to a museum). On page 59 the caption says: "A charioteer holds his horse by the bridle." This mosaic is one of a set of four. Another mosaic from this set appears on page 100. Today the set of four mosaics is on display in the National Museum in Rome (Palazzo Massimo).

    (10) On page 80 the caption is incomplete and moreover false. The caption claims that the winner of a race gets an olive branch, but this is not true. If you look at the mosaic, you can see that the winner gets a palm frond. On pp. 69-72 there is a long quotation from Sidonius Apollinaris. The quotation on page 72 says: "Now the ... emperor calls for palm fronds ... to reward the performance." In this case we can see that the author contradicts his own illustration (the mosaic) and his own source (the quotation from Sidonius)!

    (11) On page 124 the caption says: "Commodus." The author does not say anything about this bust of Commodus. It is on display in the Capitoline Museum in Rome (Palazzo dei Conservatori) in the Room of the Tapestries. Commodus is portrayed as Hercules, even though he had a frail and skinny body. The author does not try to describe or analyse the ancient bust.

    In light of these (and many other) flaws I think Muccigrosso is too positive in his review of this book in BMCR.

    Torben Retboll

  2. Here are some additional observations:

    (1) In the bibliography (on page 173) a Dutch translation of a French book from 1939 is listed. Why list a Dutch translation of a French book in an English book? This book by Jerome Carcopino is so famous that it has been translated into several languages, including English: there is a Penguin edition from 1991.

    (2) On page 49 we are told the best-preserved Roman circus is in Leptis Magna in Libya. The author gives us nine lines about it, but there is not even one picture of the circus in Leptis Magna.

    (3) On page 51 we are told the smallest Roman circus is in Gerasa (Jerash in present-day Jordan. The author gives us two lines about it, but there is not even one picture of the circus in Gerasa (which has been partially restored).

    (4) There is a famous mosaic, which shows a chariot race in a Roman circus, in Villa Silin in Libya (not far from Leptis Magna). This mosaic is not shown in the book. It is not even mentioned.

    (5) There is a famous mosaic, which shows a chariot race in a Roman circus, in Villa Romana del Casale, ca. 3 km from Piazza Armerina in Sicily. This mosaic is not shown in the book. It is not even mentioned.

    (6) On pages 49 and 161 the author claims the dimensions of the circus in Leptis Magna are 450 x 70 m. He has confused the exterior and the interior dimensions: the outside dimensions are 450 x 100 m, while the inside dimensions are 420 x 70 m.

    Why are there so many flaws in a book, which is written by a professional historian and published by a famous university press?

    Torben Retboll

  3. I agree with Torben Retboll that this is an inadequate review by someone who clearly has no specialist knowledge. In my Amazon review, I highlight the following additional problems with the book:

    (1) Meijer describes in detail the duties of the moratores as if we actually knew anything about these attendants other than that they existed, and that their name means "delayers" or "holders".

    (2) He says that "in most circus shows" a normal horse-race was held for every five chariot-races; we know that horse-races and other entertainments were given between races, but even if there is evidence for such a specific program, it can't apply to the entire centuries-long history of the sport.

    (3) He states that Sidonius's famous account of a race "amidst Rome's thunderous applause" refers not to the Circus Maximus but to a palace arena at Ravenna. This idea, put forth by W.B. Anderson in his 1936 translation of Sidonius, has been rejected by modern scholars, who point to the lack of evidence for a hippodrome in that city and to the fact that the imperial court was often in Rome at this time.

    (4) His assertion that claques were introduced to the Circus and helped "radicalize" the spectators is utterly without foundation. See my remarks at .

    (5) In discussing the decline of the races in Rome around 500 AD, he cites a law of 409 as evidence that "people chosen more or less at random were being forced to report to the racing stables [as charioteers]." In fact, the law simply forbids officials to poach "citizen charioteers" from other towns -- a typical late-Roman response to manpower shortages in many professions. The law proves that some charioteers were citizens rather than slaves or freedmen, but nothing more.