Equestrian Hippodrome of Ancient Olympics Uncovered

Aerial view of the site of the ancient hippodrome course in Olympia. Each side of the starting-place is more than four hundred feet in length, and in the sides are built stalls, according to Pausanias (Book VI 20.10-15). (Credit: Image courtesy of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz)

With athletes now gearing up for the 2008 Olympics in Hong Kong, I think it’s fascinating that the ancient hippodrome, where equestrian events were held in ancient Greece, has been excavated by sports historian Professor Norbert Müller, of the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, and fellow researchers Dr. Christian Wacker, who is a sports archaeologist from Cologne, and and Dr. Reinhard Senff, chief excavator of the German Archaeological Institute.

For more than 100 years archeologists have probed the site where the ancient Olympiad was held, but most people believed that nothing of the hippodrome had survived. The area described in old texts had been flooded by the Alfeios River and covered with silt.

However, using geomagnetic and georadar techniques, which explored to depths up to eight meters, the team was able to identify water courses, ditches, walls and rectilinear structurer that extended along a stretch of almost 1200 meters, which was most likely the race course, which ran parallel to the stadium. Structural remains of the temple of Demeter — known to be near the hippodrome — were discovered in the spring of 2007.

The complex had a length of 1052 meters and a width of 64 meters, not including the earth walls built for the spectators. The starting-gates stretched the full width of the racecourse.

Two of the biggest equestrian events in the ancient Olympic Games were chariot races and horse races. All equestrian events took place in the Hippodrome. A full circuit around the Hippodrome was four stades, or 769 meters, although distances varied at different sites. At Olympia, a full circuit was eight stades, or 1,539 meters. Two turning posts marked the beginning and end of a race at either end of the level arena. The chariot races included the tethrippon for a four-horsed chariot for twelve laps; the apene for two mules pulling a chariot; the synoris for a two-horse chariot for eight laps; the synoris for two foals pulling a chariot for three laps; and the tethrippon for four foals pulling a chariot for eight laps.

Chariot Races were first recorded by Homer in the Iliad and were among the most popular Olympic events.
Chariot Races were first recorded by Homer in the Iliad and were among the most popular Olympic events.

Each race  consisted of four to 60 chariots that were required to complete seven to twelve laps around the circus. Charioteers placed the fastest horse on the right side so that they could make turns around the turning post as fast as possible

The chariot itself was nothing more than a type of cart that consisted of a set of wheels which had a floor and a waist high guard in front to prevent the driver from falling out. Since the chariots were very light and fragile, collisions almost certainly meant that the chariot would be smashed and the driver seriously injured or killed. During the race violent collisions were expected, although deliberately crashing into an opponent was illegal. Even if a racer didn’t crash, the posts at the ends of the center dividing wall of the arena that marked the bounds of the track posed a dire threat. The driver had to make a turn on the outside of the post and because these turns were extremely sharp, they often lost control or were ejected from their chariots.

A race began by a procession into the hippodrome where the names of drivers and the chariot owners were announced. After the procession, the participants were loaded into mechanical starting gates that were staggered to allow racers on the outside to leave before those on the inside. The race didn’t officially begin until the final gate was opened. Another set of devices called an eagle and a dolphin were used to signify the start of the race and to indicate the number of remaining laps.

Of all the events, chariot racing was one of the few that were performed by clothed participants due to safety reasons and the eminent threat of bloody crashes. Although women were officially prohibited from participating or even watching, a few accounts of them doing so were documented. A few women were allowed to drive the chariots because they were slaves, commanded to drive by their masters. Only one was a noble woma: Cynisca, the daughter of Spartan Agesiaus II, who won two races.

Horse races were also an Olympic event. There were separate races for horses, mares and foals.
Horse races were also an Olympic event. There were separate races for horses, mares and foals.

The horseback competitions included the keles for full-grown horses, the kalpe for mares, and the race for foals. The course was six laps around the Hippodrome (4.5 miles). Jockeys rode without stirrups and sometimes without saddles, although they often had whips.

One thing that hasn’t changed since ancient times: horse sports were reserved for the wealthy as only they could afford the upkeep!

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