Roman racers faced danger at every event in vehicles designed for SPECTACLE, reveals re-enactment

The tale of a Roman slave who became a wealthy free man and was worshipped throughout the empire for his success racing chariots in front of blood-thirsty crowds has been brought back to life.

The Smithsonian Channel studied the enigmatic character and produced a documentary detailing his extraordinary life.  

Flavius Scorpus competed up to 600 times a year, won his freedom and established himself as one of the most skilful chariot fighters in the empire after more than 2,000 career wins. 

His races and battles at Circus Maximus, one of Rome’s most iconic surviving relics along with the Colosseum in central Rome, won him the affection of the notoriously fickle Roman fans. 

The famed warrior was born a slave in modern-day Spain in the first century AD and began racing chariots at 16 and sparking a decorated 10-year run of dominance. 

His dominance has been attributed to a lifetime of practice with the lightweight chariots which were designed for speed, but often left the driver exposed. 

The Smithsonian Channel spoke to historical weapons experts who found others racing against the superstar charioteer came from parts of the world where they were accustomed to heavier and slower chariots, giving Flavius a distinct advantage.

He perished in the arena at the age of 26 after a mid-race crash and the tale of his ascension to fame and his ultimate demise will all be documented in the upcoming film. 

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Roman charioteer Flavius Scorpus was competing up to 600 times a year before he perished in a crash mid-race — with little to protect him, researchers have found (historical re-enactment)

Roman charioteer Flavius Scorpus was competing up to 600 times a year before he perished in a crash mid-race — with little to protect him, researchers have found (historical re-enactment)

Roman charioteer Flavius Scorpus was competing up to 600 times a year before he perished in a crash mid-race — with little to protect him, researchers have found (historical re-enactment)

Roman charioteers entertained the crowded masses on dangerous vehicles that did little to protect them, reveals a new historical re-enactment. Typical chariot races would have featured 12 competitors, each pulled by 4 animals (stock image)

Roman charioteers entertained the crowded masses on dangerous vehicles that did little to protect them, reveals a new historical re-enactment. Typical chariot races would have featured 12 competitors, each pulled by 4 animals (stock image)

Roman charioteers entertained the crowded masses on dangerous vehicles that did little to protect them, reveals a new historical re-enactment. Typical chariot races would have featured 12 competitors, each pulled by 4 animals (stock image)

HOW DID THE ROMANS REMEMBER SCORPUS? 

Following Scorpus’ death during a chariot race, Roman poet Martial (who lived between around 40–103 AD) memorialised the famous driver through in his tenth volume of epigrams:

‘Oh! Sad misfortune! That you, Scorpus, should be cut off in the flower of your youth, and be called so prematurely to harness the dusky steeds of Pluto.’

‘The chariot-race was always shortened by your rapid driving; but O why should your own race have been so speedily run?’

The poet also described Scorpus as ‘the glory of [Rome’s] noisy circus’ and the city’s ‘much-applauded and short-lived favourite.’ 

Scorpus’ recognition in Roman literature is unusual, as victory songs and statues did not as a rule typically include the names of competing charioteers as part of their accounts.

Scorpus reportedly died at the age of 26, following 2,048 victories.

They built and test-drove their very own chariot to find out just how risky the races really were.

Light and small, the chariots were made from wood and rawhide, and frequently flipped over — often with catastrophic results.

Flavius Scorpus, a slave who ultimately purchased his freedom through his race winnings, was reportedly one of the most successful and famous charioteers.

He notched up an impressive 2,000 wins before he died at the age of 26 due to injuries sustained during a crash.

For the Roman public, chariot races were at the pinnacle of popular entertainment  and a big business for the factions that took part.

It is believed that the Empire inherited its love of the sport from both their predecessors, the Etruscans, and also the Greeks.

The spectacles are depicted across Roman-era artwork and literature, with scholars reporting records not only describing the competitions, but also of victory songs and even detailed statistics on the names and pedigrees of famous racehorses.

Flavius Scorpus, born a slave in what is now Spain, lived near the end of the 1st century AD.  

It was common practice for slaves of the chariot owners, or hired professionals, to compete in the races. 

Scorpus’ racing career began at age 16, when he competed in the Empire’s outer provinces. Within five years he reached the level of the Circus Maximus.

This was the Roman Empire’s biggest stadium and racetrack, 2,037 feet (621 metres) in length and capable of accommodating up to around 150,000 spectators.

In his ten years racing for the green team, Scorpus is reportedly  won 2,048 victories, with his income ending up exceeding that of professional race sponsors (historical re-enactment)

In his ten years racing for the green team, Scorpus is reportedly  won 2,048 victories, with his income ending up exceeding that of professional race sponsors (historical re-enactment)

In his ten years racing for the green team, Scorpus is reportedly  won 2,048 victories, with his income ending up exceeding that of professional race sponsors (historical re-enactment)

In his ten years racing for the green team, Scorpus is reported to have won 2,048 victories, with his income ending up exceeding that of professional race sponsors. 

‘He was probably racing 5[00] or 600 times a year,’ Jerry Toner, a classicist at Churchill College, Cambridge said in a new documentary.

‘He’s out there risking his life on a very regular basis.

‘It looked very dangerous — that plays into the Roman idea of theatre, excitement and jeopardy.’

To find out just how dangerous the races really were, experts built their very own Roman-era racing chariot based on contemporaneous descriptions and illustrations.

The reconstruction, alongside the dramatic career of Scorpus, is featured in the new Smithsonian Channel documentary series, ‘Rome’s Chariot Superstar,’ which is broken into two parts – the first being ‘From Slave to Star’ and the second titled ‘Circus Maximus.’  

The two-part series premieres on the Smithsonian Channel on April 21st at 8 p.m. (ET).   

Putting the recreation’s reins in the hands of historical weapons expert historical weapons expert Mike Loades for a test-drive, the historians found that the chariots did little to protect the driver.

Instead, they seem to have been designed largely to maximise the spectacle of the race for the watching crowds.

This explains why Roman charioteers were reported to often wear helmets and other protective gear while competing.

Alongside this, they also sported an ankle-length, sleeved garment known as a xystis, fastened at both the belt and the back to prevent the clothing from ballooning out during the race. 

Made of wood and rawhide, Roman racing chariots (pictured, historical re-enactment) featured a platform for standing of only three feet (one metre) from the front to the rear axle — and with only a knee-height protective rail at the front

Made of wood and rawhide, Roman racing chariots (pictured, historical re-enactment) featured a platform for standing of only three feet (one metre) from the front to the rear axle — and with only a knee-height protective rail at the front

Made of wood and rawhide, Roman racing chariots (pictured, historical re-enactment) featured a platform for standing of only three feet (one metre) from the front to the rear axle — and with only a knee-height protective rail at the front

In contrast to the robust war chariots favoured by the Egyptians and the Hittites of Anatolia, the smaller and lighter racing vehicles used by the Romans were built for speed, Mr Loades told Live Science

Made of wood and rawhide, Roman racing chariots featured a platform for standing of only three feet (one metre) from the front to the rear axle — and with only a knee-height protective rail at the front.

Loades found that the design might have shielded the rider from dust and stones kicked up by the horses, but did little to help them remain upright 

In contrast, battle chariots were built with waist-height rails, which would be leant on for stability.

A deadly consequence of the crowded races would be that when chariots crashed or flipped, the wrecks would remain as a hazard on the track. Pictured: A crash at a turning post during a chariot race as depicted on a circus relief in the collections of the Pergamon Museum, Berlin

A deadly consequence of the crowded races would be that when chariots crashed or flipped, the wrecks would remain as a hazard on the track. Pictured: A crash at a turning post during a chariot race as depicted on a circus relief in the collections of the Pergamon Museum, Berlin

A deadly consequence of the crowded races would be that when chariots crashed or flipped, the wrecks would remain as a hazard on the track. Pictured: A crash at a turning post during a chariot race as depicted on a circus relief in the collections of the Pergamon Museum, Berlin

Typical chariot races would have featured 12 competitors — meaning a total of 48 horses would have lined up at the start.

Given this, the opening moments of the race would have been all but a stampede until the field of chariots spread out.

Being pulled by four horses, unlike the two common to war chariots, Roman racing vehicles were more tricky to control and prone to crashing.

A deadly consequence of the crowded nature of the races would be that when chariots crashed or flipped, the wrecks would remain as a hazard on the track.

The Romans referred to these overturned vehicles as ‘naufragia’, which translates as ‘shipwrecks’. 

A deadly consequence of the crowded nature of the races would be that when chariots crashed or flipped, the wrecks would remain as a hazard on the track (historical re-enactment)

A deadly consequence of the crowded nature of the races would be that when chariots crashed or flipped, the wrecks would remain as a hazard on the track (historical re-enactment)

A deadly consequence of the crowded nature of the races would be that when chariots crashed or flipped, the wrecks would remain as a hazard on the track (historical re-enactment)

Accidents were particularly common near the track’s turning posts.

During events, charioteers would wrap the horses’ reins around them, using their body weight for better control.

Should they crash and be unable to cut themselves free from the reins in time, however, they would end up trampled under the chariots of their fellow competitors.

In such perilous circumstances, even the skilled Scorpus found his career cut violently short — the famous charioteer is believed to have been killed at a turning point, mid-race, in 95 AD at the young age of 26.

‘He probably died in one of those dramatic shipwrecks,’ Dr Toner said.

Experts have calculated that, before his demise, Scorpus’ skill behind the reins had earned him gold to the equivalent sum today of £11.5 billion ($15 billion).

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