In the Late Roman Period through the Early Byzantine (Christian) Era chariot racing was one of the most popular events of the public. “Hippodrome” comes from two Greek words: hippos (meaning horse) and dromos (meaning “course”). In Greek times they were used for horse races and chariot races.
The Latin equivalent to a Hippodrome was a “Circus,” meaning “circle,” that took over the functions of the Hippodromes and was also used for other events. The most famous, and largest, of the Circuses, is the Circus Maximus in Rome.
The Circus Maximus was over 2,000 feet long and could accommodate over 150,000 people! It was used for Chariot Racing, Religious Festivals, and Political and Military Processionals.
In Rome the Flavian Amphitheater, aka. the Colosseum, was used for Gladiatorial contest and other public spectacles: mock sea battles, animal hunts, executions, etc.
For those readers of this blog, many of you have visited Caesarea Maritima. The west, or seaside, Hippodrome/Circus, evidently dates to the days of Herod the Great (r. 37 t0 4 B.C.).
This Hippodrome/Circus was 950 [290 m.] feet long and 165 feet [50 m.] wide. The prominent position of this Palace, from which this picture was taken overlooking the circus, was a reminder to those attending the chariot and foot races that Rome (the Emperor as represented through the governor) was the great benefactor of the games and of the political order.
In the second century A.D., a much larger (30,000-capacity) hippodrome was constructed in another section of Caesarea and the southern third of the Circus was converted to an Amphitheater that was used for gladiatorial contests.On both the right (west) and left (east) side of the image, the slopes outlining the hippodrome are visible. This is where the seating for 30,000 people was located.
The re-erected obelisk is clearly visible and beyond the hippodrome are three smokestacks from the electrical power plant at Hadera. The hippodrome is now either used for agricultural purposes—note the stubble of the harvested crop.
In addition, some of you have visited Istanbul/Constantinople and the outline of the large Hippodrome in the Sultanahmet district.The Hippodrome was first constructed around A.D. 200 by the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus as part of his rebuilding of the city of Byzantium. Constantine the Great and his successors later expanded it. The royal box was close to where the entrance to the Blue Mosque is now situated.
Today a park covers most of the hippodrome and it still reflects its elongated shape. Here chariot races and other extravaganzas were held: including victory parades and coronations. Here also the Nike riot of 532 began, and it was here that some 30,000 partisans were slaughtered.
What really happened in an ancient Hippodrome/Circus? Well, we have the next best thing to an ancient photograph or video.