Rome's Chariot Superstar

By: TammyJo Eckhart, PhD on 6/10/2019


Around Easter there are always a lot of television shows about Jewish history, Jesus, or ancient Rome in general. This past Easter on April 21, 2019, the Smithsonian Channel presented Rome’s Chariot Superstar, and from the ads it was unclear if this was a documentary or a docudrama. The two-part show looks at the life and career of Flavius Scorpus, the most successful charioteer we know from the ancient Roman world. Scorpus was a slave, which was true of the vast majority of sports or entertainment figures in the Roman world. Yes, they were quite famous, but they were slaves all the same. Through his life, Smithsonian also shows us the world of first-century Rome. Today on Rome Reborn® we are going to review each of the two episodes.

Episode 1, “Slave to Star,” has a slightly misleading title, because it suggests that the status of slave was different from that of star; they were not necessarily different at all. Most “stars” of entertainment and sports in ancient Rome were slaves and remained slaves until they died, no matter how many mentions we have of them in literature or graffiti. How does this show address the modern disconnect between slave and star when that was not the case in the ancient world?

Immediately, the show addresses our popular understanding of Roman sports and corrects it. As big as the Colosseum was, it was not the largest arena in Rome; the Circus Maximus held that honor. As important as this information is, it feels out of place, given that the next episode is titled “Circus Maximus.” We meet several historical experts, and I recognize some of them from other documentaries and historical reenactments concerning ancient Rome. Recreations of ancient Rome are interspersed with the ruins of today, where we see experts telling us or actors showing us what happened. Disappointingly, the episode dives right into the background of the facilities, not the charioteer, as I had hoped given the episode’s title, but it does eventually get around to Scorpus.

The program recounts Scorpus’s life through multiple pieces of evidence, including inscriptions, literature, and visual evidence. It also uses data about slaves and other charioteers for comparison. While the charioteers were, of course, popular, it is somewhat surprising to learn that their horses were often named in inscriptions and artwork, too. Records indicate that both racers and horses could come from around the world, but some locales were more famous than others for their skills and talents. Scorpus was likely born into slavery in the eastern part of the empire. He was probably bought to work in stables or with charioteers while still a child. At some point, he must have proven his skills and talents with horses and been given a chance to learn to become a charioteer. Charioteers had a short lifespan, averaging around 25 years of age at death. Why would a slave risk his life? The show touches on the reasons but does not expand upon them as much as I think it should. Even though a slave would most likely always retain that status no matter what he did, there were certain activities where success brought a greatly improved style of life.  Of course, some slaves were so admired that their masters even granted them their freedom. This did not mean the former slave could go anywhere or do anything he wished. We know that most freed charioteers stayed in the racing field as trainers.

This first episode spends a good chunk of time on what chariots were and how people came to use them around the Mediterranean world first for warfare and then for racing. To figure out what Scorpus’s chariot looked like, historians have used toy chariots surviving from the period, because they seem to have functioned as souvenirs bought by fans of the races. The episode compares mosaic images of chariots to the toys. From those two types of evidence, engineering experts drafted plans and built a chariot to be tested using techniques and materials that would have been available in the first century. Then experts in chariot use tested the chariot with two- and four-horse teams in a smaller scale arena. Two-horse teams were common, but not as popular in the Roman world, so one part of the testing focused on why that was the case. Four-horse teams required more money, time, and talent. Ultimately, the experts suggest that their popularity could have been about speed, skill in overcoming challenges, and an increased possibility for causing the driver’s death. In other words, four-horse racing created a more engaging show for the audience, if that audience liked violence, blood, and destruction.

This first episode also examines the popularity and business of chariot racing. At the time in question, the first century, there were four factions, or professional teams: red, blue, green, and white. Looking into the factions’ huge stables, with dozens of slaves, freedmen, and owners to oversee the horses and charioteers, is much like looking into the facilities of the biggest sports teams today.

Scorpus, we are told, raced for the Green Faction. He raced at arenas around the empire and won most of his races. He became popular enough that he was able to come to Rome to race on the world’s largest track for the largest audience of all: archaeologists estimate that the Circus Maximus might have accommodated as many as 250,000 spectators. Certain details are missing from the TVaccount– was Scorpus owned by a particular person or by the faction? The reenactments show him walking through the streets alone, but that seems unlikely for a slave who was also a rising star. Before it can reveal any more information, the episode abruptly ends.

Episode 2, “Circus Maximus,” looks at Scorpus’s move from the minor arenas into the major arena at Rome. We get more information about the training facilities for charioteers in Rome and how few racers would make it to the Circus Maximus. The reenactment suggests that Scorpus may have come to the attention of the emperor Domitian before he had ever raced in the main arena, but the program does not pin this down with evidence. Domitian’s love for chariot racing is well known, and this episode does a good job of looking at why he was interested and how he promoted the events. There is an inconsistency in the episode: at one point it is claimed that Domitian sponsored 30 annual races during his reign, yet at another point that he held 60. Which is it?

A lot of time in this second episode is spent on the Circus Maximus itself. We see a unique mingling of the sexes in the audience. The program shows ancient spectators wearing bright colors, which is an anachronism: while it is true that they might have shown support for their favorite factions by wearing their colors, most people could not afford, nor were they allowed to wear, much blue or red; even white was a challenging color to create. I also found it annoying that several clips showing the audience were reused throughout the hour of this episode.

A lot of this episode looks at the history of the Circus Maximus as a structure during the first century, when Scorpus raced. It does mention that the facility changed over time, but I think it needed more models to show us that change. The facilities for the audience were rather modern, with public bathrooms on the different levels of seating as well as a shopping mall beneath the lowest seating level. The businesses included bakeries, laundries (probably using urine from the bathrooms), taverns, brothels, butchers, and many other types of shops. The program discusses the function of the spina, the median strip down the center of the arena, as well as the maintenance of the field using modern and ancient evidence for horse and chariot racing.

Slave racers were rented out for specific races. This meant that they tended to race for different colors, yet Scorpus is only known to have ever raced for the Greens. We learn that he won races for the Greens over a 10-year period and that he died at the age of 26, meaning that he started when he was 16, if not younger. Racers won money when they won a race, but since they were slaves, a large percentage went to the faction for which they raced. At some point Scorpus bought his freedom but kept racing, probably because he could keep a larger percentage of the winnings. All that is interesting, but why didn’t Scorpus race for other factions? The program doesn’t even attempt to guess the reason, and I found that disappointing.

Racing was big business. Fans might offer money or gifts to racers; they might also offer bribes to lose races. Factions staked out areas around the racetrack and would attack anyone from a rival faction who ventured into their area. There is evidence of magic being used, in the form of purchased blessings or curses engraved on lead scrolls; none yet found happen to have Scorpus’s name on them.

I liked that the show talked about how restricted Scorpus was even after buying his freedom. His continued racing may have made him rich, but he would not have been welcomed among the elites as anything other than another thing they could show off to friends, colleagues, and rivals. The reenactments suggest that he lived a lonely life. There isn’t even mention of his burial site, though the Roman poet Martial did write about him and his death. Given that we have burial inscriptions for other entertainment stars, why does the best charioteer simply disappear from all records?

If a viewer was hoping for more docudrama than documentary, this show would be disappointing. It was far more educational than entertaining. For educators or history lovers, though, this program is a great balance of facts, interpretation, and then reenactments. There is a lot here for history and technology geeks, and also, needless to say, sports fans. The commercial breaks are a bit annoying, but there is the paid Smithsonian Channel service if you want to view it ad-free.

Rome’s Chariot Superstar is a Smithsonian Channel original documentary and originally aired on their cable TV station in the USA on Easter, April 21, 2019. That channel will replay the two-part miniseries several times over the next month, so check your local schedules. You can stream it on your cable TV’s on-demand service or through the Smithsonian Channel Plus service.




Photo: A Roman Charioteer Racer. Copyright 2019 by Flyover Zone Productions. All rights reserved.


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