New Year Roman Games: No Lanes. No Rules
Zara Altair writes traditional mysteries set in the time of Ostrogoth Rule in Italy in The Argolicus Mysteries. Learn more about her and her books at her website.
The New Year: A Time for Games In Ancient Rome
The latest Argolicus mystery, The Roman Heir, is set in Ostia just outside Rome in January 512 CE. The young heir thinks his greatest problem is getting his father to let him go to the new year Games hosted by the new Consul. His father is viciously murdered and the young man changes from teenager to adult.
The games were extravagant events that went on for days. They were entirely free to the public but cost politicians so much they often went deeply into debt. Chariot races were the main event held at the Circus Maximus, which could hold 250,000 spectators. Aside from the cost of horses, chariots, charioteers, and all of their attendant grooms, the games also provided entertainment with musicians, wild animal hunts, acrobats, and other acts all paid for by the politician.
Even though the Games were held in January, inclement weather like rain or snow did not stop the Games. Whatever the weather, people flocked to the Games for the annual holiday.
Charioteers were like famous sports personalities today, gaining popular support with the people. They belonged to Factions represented by colors. By the time of the story, there were two main Factions – the Greens and the Blues. Loyalty to Factions was strong, often passed down through generations. Enthusiasm and support for Factions was high-strung resulting in fistfights in pubs and street fights much like soccer team support today. The closest modern day example of the fervor is the Palio horserace in Siena, Italy, where faction loyalty consumes the city.
The charioteers wore Faction colored jackets over their tunics so they were easily identified by the spectators. Around their waist was an arrangement of leather straps that protected them from the reins of the four horses. The reins wrapped around the charioteer’s waist. He guided the horses around the dangerous turns at each end of the Circus Maximus by leaning his body.
The Passion of the Games
The passion of the games were a mammoth spectacle that began with a parade of the game’s sponsor with musicians, acrobats, mounted guards, etc. Faction members held traditional positions to spur the crowd to cheers with chants and loud noisemakers.
Crowds loved the chariot races as there were no lanes and no rules. With 24 races every day, the Games were filled with excitement, drawing people from outside the city to celebrate the holidays. Chariot races were filled with danger. Wheels fell off, and charioteers lost their balance on the lightweight wood and leather chariots and were dragged behind the running horses by the reins wrapped around their body.
A Teenager’s Freedom
Teenagers enjoyed the Games as a time of no-holds-barred excitement much like young people in Europe today flock to the running of the bulls at the Feast of San Fermín in Pamplona, Spain. They went not just for the event but for the freedom from usual social constraints. The Games offered an environment for young men and women to meet without the usual Roman parental guidance.
Philo, the Roman heir, gives up his dream of going to the Games as Argolicus searches for clues. The Games are background to the mystery. I hope you are tempted to add this story to your New Year’s reading.
Happy New Year!
Guest Post for Author Anastasia Pollack