Bronze Statuette of Cybele on a Cart Drawn by Lions
ca. 150 - 200 AD
The cult of the Anatolian mother goddess Kybele was introduced into Rome during the Second Punic War in the late third century B.C. and remained popular until early Christian times. The goddess is shown with her usual attributes, a patera (libation bowl) in her right hand and a large tympanum (drum) in her left. But instead of flanking her throne as they normally do, here the two oversized lions pull a chariot. This elaborate group comes from a fountain, in which spouts projected from the open mouths of the lions. The original cart, harness, and throne no longer survive; the rear left wheel is a nineteenth-century restoration.
In Ancient Rome, entertainment had a dual effect: it allowed the ruling class to distract the mass of unemployed lower class citizens who had nothing else to do except cause trouble, or so they thought, and it genuinely entertained the Romans and gave them something to cheer for. What were they cheering for you may ask? Their favorite chariot team or even chariot driver. The chariot teams of ancient Rome were not unlike sports clubs of the modern era: scouting, training, and even trading drivers. In the later empire, chariot racing became big business and if a driver was lucky and successful enough he could become a very wealthy man, even catch the eye of the emperor! However, chariot racing was not all pomp and circumstance, it was as dangerous, if not more so than fighting in the gladiatorial arena. With little protection and lots of opportunity for danger, the life expectancy of chariot drivers was extremely low. The arena he raced in was designed to bring the chariots as close as possible, causing inevitable collisions that led to the crushing of limbs and loss of life. And yet the risk was worth it for the glory, fame, and riches one would receive if victorious.
Welcome to the Circus
The circus was the Roman arena used for chariot racing, and the most important was the Circus Maximus in Rome. It is estimated that the Circus Maximus could seat nearly 150,000 people. The Circus Maximus had a distinctive form with parallel sides and one semi-circular end fitted with tiered seating, and with twelve starting gates (carceres) at the open end. The carceres were spring-loaded allowing a simultaneous start for each chariot. Down the center of the racecourse ran a long central barrier (spina) marked at the end with conical turning-posts (metae) and decorated by Augustus with obelisks and other monuments, including the movable eggs and dolphins which marked the ends of the seven laps in each race. The skilled charioteer would attempt to corner the meta as tightly as possible sometimes grazing it and sometimes causing a collision. The first chariot to complete seven laps was the victor.
Suit Up, Your ChariotAwaits
Surviving figurines and other representations show that the typical racing chariot was more like a basket on wheels. Racing chariots were designed to be as small and lightweight as possible, which afforded little support or protection for the charioteer, who basically had to balance himself on the axle as he drove. The most commonly raced were the four-horse chariots (quadrigae), however two-horse (bigae) and three-horse (trigae) chariots were raced as well. The best and most experienced horse on a team was usually harnessed on the left, where he could help the other horses negotiate the tight turns. The charioteers (aurigae) drove standing upright in their chariots, wearing a belted, short tunic, protective bands around his waist, and a light helmet or cap. A charioteer wrapped the reins around his waist, therefore, in the event of a crash, he had a curved knife fastened to his tunic in order to cut himself free. He would brace his entire body against the reins, steering the chariot by shifting his weight, and using the left hand to correct the course while holding the whip in his right hand.
Choose Your Favorite Color
The four Roman racing companies or stables (factiones) were known by the racing colors worn by their charioteers: the greens (Prasini), the reds (Russata), the whites (Albata) and the blues (Veneta). According to Tertullian, the colors represented the four seasons, which possibly corresponded to four different gods: the Reds to Mars, the Whites to the West Wind (Zephyrus), the Greens to Mother Earth (Terra Mater), and the Blues to the Sky and Sea (Iuppiter et Neptunus). By 70 BC, the Reds and Whites were established factiones. The Blues and Greens were formed during or after the reign of Augustus. Two other factiones were created by the emperor Domitian, the Purples and Golds, however they disappeared soon after his death. Each factio had its own scouts for finding talented drivers and horses, and each stable was passionately supported. Much like modern sports, drivers did not stay on one team throughout their entire career. A certain Gaius Appuleius Diocles began driving for the Whites at the age of eighteen; after six years, he switched to the Greens for three years, and then drove fifteen years for the Reds before retiring at the age of forty-two. In addition, some emperors were major supporters of specific factiones; the emperor Caligula was a huge fan of the Green factio. It is said that Caligula spent long periods of time with the horses and charioteers of the Greens, even eating with them in their stable. Nero was also a huge fan of chariot racing and even raced a chariot himself on occasion.
Agitaturi Te Salutant (Those Who are About to Drive Salute You)
When the maximum amount of chariots participated in a race, twelve, things could get dangerous. Three chariots from each factio would race together, working as a team to make sure that their best driver claimed the victory. Ramming other chariots outright was seen as bad form and would lose a driver points with the fans, therefore drivers on the same team would work together to cut other teams off when making their tight turns at the meta. The tight corners of the metae could make or break a driver, if he was going too fast he may collide with the meta instead of grazing it and gaining the inside track. The driver needed to be skilled in managing the precise speed and control over his horses, especially his best horse on the far left, the inability to do so could lead to an early death. Several chariot drivers died at a young age: Scorpus, who the Roman poet Martial wrote two epigrams about (Book X, L & LIII), died at the age of twenty-seven most likely from a crash at the meta. Other ages of deaths are recorded for chariot drivers, “Fuscus at 24, Crescens at 22, Aurelius Mollicius at 20,” which shows that many chariot drivers did not make it out of their mid-twenties. However, the risk was well worth it: very successful charioteers became some of the richest men in Rome. Diocles, who was mentioned before, earned 35,863,120 sestertii over his entire racing career.
“I am the more astonished that so many thousands of grown men should be possessed again and again with a childish passion to look at galloping horses, and men standing upright in their chariots. If, indeed, they were attracted by the swiftness of the horses or the skill of the men, one could account for this enthusiasm. But in fact it is a bit of cloth they favor, a bit of cloth that captivates them. And if during the running the racers were to exchange colors, their partisans would change sides, and instantly forsake the very drivers and horses whom they were just before recognizing from afar, and clamorously saluting by name.” — Pliny the Younger.
For the audience, the sequence of events about to unfold before their eyes were both enormously popular and highly partisan, which gave way to a sense of high drama and compelling spectacle. The audience had to sit closely packed together in narrow rows, and therefore there would have been a physical sense of unity; in the Circus, men and women were allowed to sit together, and the social orders intermingled. This blurring of social barriers represented the entire Roman people coming together for unparallelled spectacle. The public adored their favorite factio and stayed loyal to their colors no matter what, a point that Pliny makes clear. The fanatic partisanship of the fans led them to make curse tablets against rival factiones: “Help me in the Circus on the eighth of November. Bind every limb, every sinew, the shoulders, the ankles and the elbows of Olympus, Olympianus, Scortius and Juvencus, the charioteers of the Red. Torment their minds, their intelligence and their senses so that they may not know what they are doing, and knock out their eyes so that they may not see where they are going—neither they nor the horses they are going to drive.” Also, the public could gamble at the chariot races, one of the few places betting was legal, therefore lots of money exchanged hands at the circus. The fans enthusiasm for their favorite factio, the high stakes riding on the races, and the free flowing wine led to furor circensis (Circus Madness), which gave way to a hooligan like atmosphere. There are recorded instances of charioteers being arrested and as a result fans rioting throughout the city. The most famous example of this is the Nika Riot in Constantinople, however this was not the only instance.
This exquisite portrait bust depicts an elegant Roman matron of timeless beauty. The subject looks to the left, which affords a tantalizing glimpse of her complex coiffure. Her diadem, or crown, would have been fashioned in place by a thick fabric cord. Her crisply pleated, gap-sleeved tunic is so thinly carved that light passes through parts of the marble. For modesty’s sake, she also wears an overgarment, its deep folds indicating a thick material, possibly wool. Draped low across her torso, the mantle reveals the gentle swell of her right breast, an unusual feature of Roman busts of this period. The identity of the subject of this striking portrait is not known, but her elaborate coiffure, which emulates a fashion trend set by Empress Faustina the Elder (d. A.D. 141), wife of Antoninus Pius, and her daughter Faustina the Younger (d. A.D. 175), whose coin portrait is depicted in the adjacent case, suggests that she lived during their lifetimes. Her hairstyle, which would have required a servant to arrange, along with her bejeweled headband and richly textured clothing, indicates that she held a prominent position in Roman society. It is likely that she was a priestess of the imperial cult, a state-sponsored religion that perpetuated the memory of dead and deified members of the ruling family through special rituals and acts of civic benefaction.
If you were alive during the time of the early Roman Republic, you fell into one of two categories: patrician or plebeian. From the beginning, these two social classes were gridlocked over issues of power and civil rights: in the early republic the plebs were excluded from religious colleges, magistracies, and the senate. The patricians, a status only obtained by birth, were the dominate minority in terms of political and social power. According to Livy, they were comprised of the families of the first one-hundred men appointed to the senate of Rome by Romulus, but the origins of the patricians are still obscure. Most of these families were wealthy and their descendents were most often elected into political office, preventing the wealthier plebs from attaining magistracies and depriving the masses of proper representation. The misrepresentation of the plebs led to several political conflicts during the early years of the Roman Republic.
In 494 BC, tensions came to a head between the two social classes; there was fear of a civil war breaking out. Instead of fighting, the plebs seceded (secessio was a common plebeian tactic depriving Rome of its workforce and main source of military manpower) from Rome. They left the city and congregated on the nearby Aventine Hill. The plebs demanded that the Roman state recognize the entity of the plebs and to allow them their own assembly and leaders. This “secession of the plebs” led to the creation of the consilium plebis, or people’s assembly. The people’s assembly elected ten tribunes, tribuni plebis, and these tribunes were tasked with protecting the interests of the plebs.
In 450 BC, the plebs requested that a law code be created and displayed for all to see because plebs were unhappy with the patrician stranglehold on legal authority. The patricians opposed this measure; therefore, the plebs again brought the state to a halt by leaving the city. Finally, the patricians in 449 BC created the “Twelve Tables” and displayed them in the forum for all to read. These law codes were basic rights for the conduct of citizens and not very in depth, for most issues during this period were resolved within the family. Nevertheless, this law code laid the foundation for a later Roman constitution.
In 445 BC, the plebs requested two things: the right to marry patricians and to be able to stand for the consulship. The patricians would not allow plebeians to hold the highest office in the republic, therefore they decided to compromise. First, plebs would now be allowed to marry patricians and vice versa, second, a new office, the military tribune with consular power, was created and every year the senate voted to either have consuls or military tribunes for that year. A confusing solution, but the catch was that plebs would be allowed to run for military tribune but not for consul. Obviously, this is not much of a compromise because the senate could simply choose to pick consuls every year, and even when they chose military tribunes, the People’s Assembly still elected patricians by means of bribery and threats. In addition, as soon as wealthy plebs were elected to a magistracy they became part of the ruling fold and abandoned their poorer constituents. The military tribune compromise lasted from 445-367 BC.
In 367 BC, the compromise was abolished and a new rule was set in place: the senate would now only elect consuls, but one of the two consuls must be a pleb (two plebeians would not be elected consul simultaneously until 172 BC), this allowed new, wealthy plebs to enter the senate through the consulship. These men were known as homines novi or new men, and this shift created a new nobility. By the end of the Republic, these “new men” greatly outnumbered patrician families. In 300 BC, the plebs are allowed to hold positions in many of the priesthoods, which had never been open to them before; however, patricians continued to hold half the places in major priestly colleges and several priesthoods remained exclusively patrician. In 287 BC, anything that was passed by the People’s Assembly became binding law for all Romans. It is safe to say that by the third century BC, the plebs had achieved a notable level of equality in the Roman state.
It always amazes me when small glass objects survive so well for so long. This needle would have been a practical everyday object, and the fact that we have it in this condition is amazing. I can imagine a Roman mother sitting making clothes for her children with this.