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A slave in Ancient Rome was the empire’s chariot-racing superstar

Roman relief depicting a chariot race and of spectators, of the Vatican Museum.
(CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty)

During the first century, the people in Rome were obsessed with the chariot races, which often produced horrific crashes.

However, a charioteer, sent his road to victory more than 2,000 times. Flavius Scorpus began his career as a slave, but rose to a height of fame and fortune.

How did he do that? And how dangerous are races? To find out, experts were built, and a test drive in a Roman-era race-car, found that the cars were designed to maximize the spectacle of racing, but did little to protect the driver. Scorpus’ performance — and the pulse-pounding risks of charioteering — are to be seen in the Smithsonian Channel’s new two-part documentary series, “Rome’s Chariot, Superstar.” [Photos: Early Bronze Age Chariot Burial]

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Scorpus began racing as a teenager in the outer provinces of the Roman Empire, the arrival in the Circus Maximus — Rome’s largest stadium and the circuit in A. D. 90, when he was about 21 years old. He’s probably in a total of 5,000 to 6,000 matches in his 10-year career”, which meant that he was probably racing 5[00] or 600 times a year,” Jerry Toner, fellow and director of studies, Churchill College at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, said in the documentary.

“He is a danger for his life on a very regular basis,” Toner said.

His performances were so risky, because the racing vehicles prefer speed over safety. In contrast to the fierce war chariots of the Egyptians and the Hittites, the Roman chariots were built for speed and spectacle, not to fight, historic racer Mike Loades told Live Science. The wheels on the Roman chariots were small, and the cars were light, made of wood and rawhide; the platform measured only about 3 feet (1 meter) from the rear axle to the front rail.

And in contrast to war chariots, which were led by two horses, Roman chariots were pulled by four horses, which made them harder to control and more likely to crash.

War chariots also have the waist-high rails at the front so that the shooter could brace themselves while standing upright, Loades said. But in the Roman chariots, the track was much lower at knee height. When Loades a test drive in a reconstruction of the car, he found that, while this design would have shielded from the charioteer of the stones and the dust kicked by the horses, as he was, he loses his balance, it would stabilize him as he fell on one knee on the platform, Loades explains.

“It looked very dangerous — that will play in the Roman idea of the theatre and the excitement and danger,” he said.

A typical Roman race featured 12 cars, with 48 horses drawn up on the height. When the contest began, it would have resembled a stampede. Because of this busy area, one of the most common risks on the circuit was “shipwrecks,” as the Romans called them — in cars could tumble and crash on the circuit, still glaring roadblocks for the other racers.

More than 10 years of racing, Scorpus’ prowess to him quantities of gold with an estimated value of $15 billion today, experts calculated in the “Circus Maximus.” The chariot-racing superstar was killed midrace in A. D. 95, and “he probably died in one of those dramatic shipwrecks,” Toner said.

“Rome’s Chariot Superstar” will premiere on the Smithsonian Channel on April 21, at 8 a.m. EDT.

  • Photos: Gladiators of the Roman Empire
  • See the Photos of the Control of the Sports Played in Ancient Rome
  • The Weird Reason Roman Emperors Were Murdered

Originally published on Live Science.

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