This assembly, coinciding with the start of the World Cup in South Africa, looks back to the sport of chariot racing in ancient Rome. It asks questions about the pros and cons of professional sport – then as now
- A Leader
- A Reader, who plays the part of Gaius Appuleius Diocles, a champion charioteer. He should wear a red T-shirt
- A clip-art picture of chariot racing may be useful
Leader: [Adapt as necessary] Has anyone noticed what is going on at the moment in South Africa? Fans are parked in front of their TV sets. Cheers and groans are heard. Hopes rise and fall. Yes it’s time for World Cup fever.
Some love it, but others loathe it. So this morning we are going to get away from the beautiful game and go back to a city that used to be as sport crazy as some people still are today. It’s ancient Rome, where one of the most popular sports was chariot racing, which had a lot in common with Formula One motor racing today. The drivers didn’t travel as fast, but the risks they ran were much greater. There were four professional teams - the Reds, the Blues, the Whites, and the Greens (1). The track was long and straight with dangerously sharp turns at each end. [Show pic] The chariots were flimsy, built for speed, with health and safety coming a very long way behind, and the top charioteers were celebrities, as famous as Wayne Rooney or Lewis Hamilton.
Now we are going to interview one of them. Let’s give a welcome to a leading sportsman from 1900 years ago, the champion charioteer, Gaius Appuleius. (2)
The Reader comes in. He wears a red T-Shirt.
Leader: Welcome Gaius....I see from my notes that you started racing in 122 AD.
Reader: That’s right. You need to start young and there’s a lot to learn. I began racing with the Whites, but four years later I transferred to the Greens and three years after that - as you can seen from my shirt - I switched to the Reds.
Leader: And you had quite a successful career.
Reader: I certainly did. (Rattling off statistics) I drove four horse chariots for 24 years, and I came in first 1462 times. In 815 races I took the lead at the start and held it to the finish. I came through on the last lap 502 times, beating the Greens 216 times, the Blues 205 times and the Whites 81 times...
Leader: Hold on, please, please. This is getting complicated. Let’s talk about tactics. Why take the lead at the start?
Reader: Tactics depend on the horses. If you think that they can stand it, you get in front at the start and stay there. There won’t be a collision if the rest are trailing behind you. But don’t forget that the course is two miles long with seven laps and 13 sharp turns.
Leader: And sometimes you come through to win on the last lap?
Reader: Yes, sometimes. Try to imagine it as a double entry race. That means two chariots from each of the four teams. The drivers work as a pair. My colleague in the Red team takes the lead. He keeps swerving all over the track to block the other drivers when they try to overtake him. If they lose control and crash, so much the better. I stay at the back, saving the strength of my horses till lap six. (Excitedly) I keep well clear of pile-ups and then, suddenly, my horses feel the whip and after that it’s straight for home. The crowd are cheering – and the patron of the race is waiting to award me the palm branch – that’s the prize. It could be the Emperor himself.
Leader: So blocking the opposition is fair play.
Reader: If you want to win, you have to cut corners.
Leader: Some of our modern athletes do that by taking drugs.
Reader: (Laughs) Drugs would be no use to a racing chariot driver. But some of them try making offerings to evil spirits. (Dramatically) ‘O Evil demon, put a curse on the man who wears the wrong colours.. Make his horses go lame. Kill him in a crash.’ That sort of thing.
Leader: Did you ever do that?
Reader: No comment.
Leader: Roman chariot racing seems to be a risky business.
Reader: It can be. Now and again the fans run riot: then the army moves in and people get beaten up or worse. (3)
Leader: What’s the biggest risk for the driver?
Reader: We hold the whip in the left hand and wrap the reins round your right arm. Like this. (Demonstrates) If your a horse stumbles and you crash, then you get dragged along and behind the wreckage. That means you’re done for. (Sadly) I’ve seen too many young drivers go that way.
Leader: So the winners get the prizes and the losers end up dead.
Reader: That’s it. And I was a winner . In the course of my career the prize money I won came to more than 36 million sesterces. [Pronounced ‘ses-ter-sees’]
Leader: Amazing. You must have been the richest man in Rome.
Reader: (Laughs again) No chance. The winnings go to the rich people who own the teams, keep the stables and pay the grooms to look after the horses. But a top driver like me doesn’t do too badly. In ancient Rome a successful charioteer can win more in one race than a school teacher makes in twelve months. (4)
Leader: Things haven’t changed much. And now, in conclusion, after your brilliant sporting career, what’s your message to these young people in the twenty first century?
Reader: (Sadly) We Romans often say that life is like a chariot race. Time flies, and we are all racing towards the darkness at the end.
Leader: Could you say something a bit more cheerful?
Reader: Know your horses. Don’t trust the opposition. Watch out for dirty tricks and keep your eye on the winning post.
Leader: Gaius Appuleius, driver for the Reds, champion charioteer from ancient Rome, it has been a pleasure to meet you.
Reader: Thank you – and farewell.
Leader: Now let’s compare the Roman chariot racing of ancient Rome with a similar modern professional sport – motor racing.
On the plus side for the spectators: a visit to the chariot races was a great day out, with lots of thrills and plenty of fun.
One the plus side for the drivers: chariot racing was one way for a poor young man to get to the top and become famous.
On the minus side for the fans: when supporters of the different colours ran riot, the Roman army moved in and people could get hurt.
On the minus side for the drivers: some tried dirty tricks: nowadays they might use drugs. In those days it meant calling on evil spirits. And some took one risk too many and died young.
And in the end, what was the point of it? Gaius the charioteer sounded pessimistic. For him, we are all racing towards the finishing line of death. But there is another view. When St Paul the Christian was a prisoner in Rome, under threat of execution, his mind turned towards that crucial last lap on the race track. For him, reaching the winning post would mean meeting the Lord Jesus Christ. ‘Reaching out for what lies ahead’, he said ‘ I press towards the goal to win the prize, which is God’s call to the life above.’ (5)
Now let’s share some good thoughts – make them prayers if you like – for the World Cup
May the players be preserved from serious injury.
May the fans happily back their own teams and respect the opposition.
May every game be played fairly.
May the best team win.
May the World Cup help to encourage long-lasting friendship between people and countries.
- Jo Ann Shelton: ‘As the Romans did’ Oxford University Press, 1988 p. 350
- Shelton: p. 356
- Shelton: p 235
- Shelton p. 110
- The New Testament: Letter to the Philippians 3:14.
(The Good News Bible includes a sketch of a runner, but the word used for ‘goal’ makes chariot racing just as likely. For St. Paul’s knowledge of foot racing and boxing : 1 Corinthians 9:25-26. Gladiators 1 Corinthians 4:9.)
This e-bulletin issue was first published in June 2010
About the author: John Coutts has worked as secondary school principal in Nigeria, taught RE in Scotland, and has been involved in teaching and teacher training at the University of Greenwich. He currently works as a freelance writer, poet and performer.