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HIPPO´DROMUS (ἱππόδρομος) was the name by which the Greeks designated the place appropriated to the horse-races, both of chariots and of single horses, which formed a part of their games. The word was also applied to the races themselves.

The mode of fighting from chariots, as described by Homer, involves the necessity of much previous practice; and the funeral games in honour of Patroclus present us with an example of the chariot-race, occupying the first and most important place in those games (Il. 23.262-650). In this vivid description the nature of the contest and the arrangements for it are very clearly indicated. There is no artificially constructed hippodrome; but an existing land-mark or monument (σῆμα, 331) is chosen as the goal (πέρμα), round which the chariots had to pass, leaving it on the left hand (336), and so returning to the Greek ships on the seashore, from which they had started (365). The course thus marked out was so long that the goal, which was the stump of a tree, could only be clearly seen by its having two white stones leaning against it (327-329), and that, as the chariots return, the spectators are uncertain which is first (450 ff.: the passage furnishes a precedent for betting at a horse-race, 485). The ground is a level plain (330), but with its natural inequalities, which are sufficient to make the light chariots leap from the ground (369, 370), and to threaten an overthrow where the earth was broken by a winter torrent, or a collision in the narrow hollow way thus formed (419-447). The chariots were five in number, each with two horses and a single driver (288 ff.), who stood upright in his chariot (370). The obscure passage 638-642 cannot be relied upon to prove that there ever were two drivers: see Leaf's note.

In a race of this nature, success would obviously depend quite as much on the courage and skill of the driver as on the speed of the horses; a fact which Homer represents Nestor as impressing upon his son Antilochus in a speech which fully explains the chief stratagems and dangers of the contest, and is nearly as applicable to the chariot-races of later times as to the one described by Homer (305-348). At starting, it was necessary so to direct the horses as, on the one hand, to avoid the loss of time by driving wide of the straightest course, and on the other not to incur the risk of a collision in the crowd of chariots, nor to make so straight for the goal as to leave insufficient room to turn it. Here was the critical point of the race, to turn the goal as sharply as possible, with the nave of the near wheel almost grazing it, and to do this safely: very often the driver was here thrown out, and the chariot broken in pieces (334-343, 465-468). There was another danger at this point, which deserves particular notice as connected with the arrangements of the hippodrome of later times. As the horse is easily scared, it can readily be understood that the noise and crush of many chariots turning the goal together, with the additional confusion created by the overthrow of some of them, would so frighten some of the horses as to make them unmanageable; and this is expressly referred to by Homer (468): αἱ δ᾽ἐξηρώησαν, ἐπεὶ μένος ἔλλαβε θυμόν.

Among the other disasters to which the competitors were liable were--the loss of the whip [p. 1.963](384); the reins escaping from the hands (465); the breaking of the pole (392); the light chariot being overturned, or the driver thrown out of it, through the roughness of the ground, or by neglecting to balance the body properly in turning the goal (368, 369, 417-425, 335); and the being compelled to give way to a bolder driver, for fear of a collision (426-437); but it was considered foul play to take such an advantage (439-441, 566-611). These and similar disasters were no doubt frequent, and, in accordance with the religious character of the games, they were ascribed to the intervention of the deities, whom the sufferer had neglected to propitiate (383-393, 546, 547). The prizes, as in the other Homeric games, were of substantial value, and one for each competitor (262-270). The charioteer accused of foul play was required to lay his hand upon his horses, and to swear by Poseidon, the patron deity of the race, that he was guiltless (581-585). This description is illustrated by the following engraving from an antique Greek vase; in which we see the goal as a mere stone

Chariot-race. (From a vase-painting.)

post, with a fillet wound round it: the form of the chariots is well shown, and the attitude of the drivers; each has four horses, as in the earliest Olympic chariot-race; and the vividness of the representation is increased by the introduction of the incident of a horse having got loose from the first chariot, the driver of which strives to retain his place with the others. (Panofka, Bilder Antiken Lebens, pl. iii. No. 10.) For other representations of the race and its disasters, see Circus, p. 433 ff.; SURRUS, p. 580.

In no other writer, not even in Pindar, have we a description,at once so vivid and so minute, of the Greek chariot-race as this of Homer's; and it may be safely assumed that, with a few points of difference, it will give us an equally good idea of a chariot-race at Olympia or any other of the great games of later times. The chief points of difference were the greater compactness of the course, in order that a large body of spectators might view the race with convenience, and the greater number of chariots. The first of these conditions involved the necessity of making the race consist of several double lengths of the course, instead of only one; the second required some arrangement by which the chariots might start without confusion and on equal terms. It is now to be seen how these conditions were satisfied in the hippodrome at Olympia; of which the only description we possess is in two passages of Pausanias (5.15.4; 6.20.7 ff.). The reconstruction of this hippodrome by Hirt (Lehre d. Gebäude, pp. 147-150), following Alexandre de la Borde, has not been superseded by recent discoveries, and is retained by Baumeister (s. v. Hippodrom), and nearly every writer on the subject.

The following is the ground-plan which Hirt (pl. xx. fig. 8) has drawn out from the description of Pausanias. A, B, the sides; C, the

Ground-plan of Hippodrome at Olymp.a. (Hirt.)

rounded end of the hippodrome, with raised seats for the spectators (the dotted line D d is the axis of the figure); a, place of honour for the magistrates and musicians; b, side door, perhaps for the exit of disabled chariots and horses; c, seats for the Hellanodicae, the judges of the games; d, principal entrance, corresponding to the porta triumphalis in a Roman circus; D, the starting-place; e, its apex; f, g, its curved sides; h, i, &c., up to l, stations of the chariots, their directions converging towards the point E; F, G, the goals, or turning-posts; H, the spina; p, p, small intervals between the spina and the goals; q, the winning line; m, dolphin used as a signal; n, altar, with eagle for signal; o, o, o, portico of Agnaptus.

The general form of the hippodrome was an oblong, with a semicircular end, C, and with the right side, A, somewhat longer than the left, B, [p. 1.964]for a reason to be stated presently. The right side, A, was formed by an artificial mound; the left, B, by the natural slope of a hill. The base of the fourth side, D, was formed by the portico of Agnaptus, so called from its builder. At this end of the hippodrome was the starting-place (ἄφεσις), in the form of the prow of a ship, with its apex, e, towards the area, and each of its sides more than 400 feet long. Along both of these sides were stalls (οἰκήματα) for the chariots about to start, like the carceres in the Roman circus; and it was in the arrangement of these stalls that the peculiarity of the Greek starting-place consisted. According to the view which we follow, the stalls were so arranged as that the pole of each chariot, while standing in its stall, was directed to a normal point E, at which, as nearly as possible, each chariot ought to fall into its proper course. As this point, E, was necessarily on the right side of the area (in order to turn the goal on the left hand), and as the corresponding stalls on each side were required to be equidistant from the apex, e (as will presently be seen), and of course also from the point E, it follows that the base of the aphesis must have been perpendicular to the line E e, and therefore oblique to the axis D d; and this is the reason why the side A was longer than the side B. The curvature of the sides of the aphesis, f, g, is a conjectural arrangement, assumed as that which was probably adopted to give more space to each chariot ,at starting. The front of each stall had a cord drawn across it, and the necessary arrangements were made for letting these cords fall at the right moments. On the signal being given for the race to begin, the cords in front of the two extreme stalls, h h, were let fall simultaneously, and the two chariots started; then those of the next pair; and so on, each pair of chariots being liberated at the precise moment when those which had already started came abreast of their position; and when all the chariots formed an even line abreast of the apex of the aphesis, e, it was a fair start. This arrangement of the aphesis was the invention of the statuary Cleoetas, and was improved by Aristeides (perhaps the famous painter; see Hirt, l.c.). Cleoetas celebrated his invention in an epigram, which he inscribed on the base of a statue made by him at Athens: “ Ὀς τὴν ἱππάφεσιν ἐν Ὀλυμπίᾳ εὕρατο πρῶτος
τεῦξε μὲ Κλειοίτας, ϝἱὸς Ἀριστοκλέους.

Hirt's explanation of the aphesis, with the rest of his reconstruction of the hippodrome at Olympia, has been accepted by most scholars; among others by Guhl and Koner in the earlier editions of their Leben der Griechen und Römer. In the last edition Koner has followed in some particulars the differing views of Count Lehndorff in his Hippodromos, and has given a slightly altered ground-plan (Guhl and Koner,5 pp. 148-150, with fig. 164). The chief difference is that on this view the chariots are conceived as starting on one side only (the right) of the aphesis. On this Baumeister remarks (p. 694 a), that “though containing much that is attractive and in part well founded, it is still open to much doubt.”

Precisely the same arrangements were made for the start in the race of single horses (κέλητες); and in both cases, as in the race described by Homer, the stalls were assigned to the competitors by lot. How many chariots usually started, cannot be determined; but that the number was large is proved by the well-known story, that Alcibiades alone sent to one race seven chariots. Sophocles (Elect. 701-708) mentions ten chariots as running at once in the Pythian games; and the number at Olympia was no doubt greater than at any of the other games. This is probably the reason why the arrangements of a starting-place were so much more complicated in the Greek hippodromus than they were in the Roman circus [CIRCUS]. About the centre of the triangular area of the aphesis there was an altar, n, of rough brick, which was plastered afresh before each festival, surmounted by a bronze eagle with outstretched wings; and above the apex of the aphesis was a bronze dolphin, m. As the signal for the race to begin, the eagle was made to soar aloft, so as to be seen by all the spectators, and the dolphin sank to the ground.

The chariots, thus started, had to pass several times round two goals (νύσσαι), the distinction between which is one of the difficult points in the description of Pausanias. On the whole it seems most probable that the one which he describes as having a bronze statue of Hippodameia, holding out the victor's fillet, as if about to crown Pelops with it, was the one nearer to the aphesis, and abreast of the winning line, F; and that the other, G, round which the chariots made their first turn, was that which Pausanias calls “Taraxippus, the terror of the horses.” This was a round altar, dedicated to Taraxippus, who was supposed to strike a supernatural terror into the horses as they passed the spot, and whom, therefore, the charioteers sought to propitiate, before the race began, by

Race of single horses. (From a vase.)

offering sacrifices and making vows at this altar. Pausanias gives various accounts as to who this Taraxippus was: some modern scholars take the word for an appellation of Poseidon Hippius. He was similarly honoured in the Isthmian hippodrome. At Nemea there was no such [p. 1.965]hero, but above the turning point of the course there was a bright red rock, which was supposed to frighten the horses. He adds the remark that the Olympian Taraxippus had by far the most powerful effect upon the horses; and considering that the number of chariots which joined in the race there was greater than at any of the other games, that remark affords a pretty clear proof that the explanation of the supposed supernatural terror is that which has been given above in describing the Homeric race. There are several vase-paintings on which chariots or single horses are exhibited turning the goal, which is represented as a Doric or Ionic column. (See Panofka, Bilder Antiken Lebens, pl. iii.) One of these is shown in the foregoing engraving, which exhibits a vivid picture of a race of single horses: the last rider has been unlucky in turning the goal.

There is no authority in the account of Pausanias for the connecting wall, H, between the goals, nor does he state that the winning line, q, was marked out as a white line; but these details are inserted from the analogy of the Roman circus. So also is the oblique position of the line of the goals, as compared with the axis of the figure: of course the greatest space was required at E, where the chariots were all nearly abreast of each other.

Respecting the dimensions of the Olympic Hippodrome, we have no precise information; but from the length of the measure called HIPPICON and on other grounds, it seems probable that the distance from the starting-place to the goal, or perhaps rather from one goal to the other, was two stadia, so that one double course was four stadia. How many such double courses made up the whole race, we are not informed. The width must have been at least as great as the length of each side of the aphesis, namely, more than 400 feet. There does not appear to have been much architectural display in the structure, and not many statues. The internal area of the aphesis, D, contained several altars.

The chief points of difference between the Greek hippodrome and the Roman circus are the smaller width of the latter, as only four chariots ran at once, and the different arrangement of the carceres. The periods at which the Olympic horse-races were instituted are mentioned under OLYMPIA

A few other hippodromes in Greece, Syria, and Egypt are mentioned by Pausanias and other writers; but they deserve no special mention. (Cf. Krause, Gymnastik und Agonistik, 1.151 ff.; Guhl and Koner, ubi supra; Baumeister, s. v.)

Among the Romans the term was also applied to an enclosed space for riding and driving in, attached to a garden or villa, and planted with trees (Plin. Ep. 5.6, § § 19, 32; Mart. 12.50, 5 with Paley's note; “clusus essedo cursus,” Id. 12.57, 23).

[P.S] [W.W]

hide References (7 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (7):
    • Homer, Iliad, 23.650
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 6.20.7
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 5.15.4
    • Homer, Iliad, 23.262
    • Pliny the Younger, Epistulae, 5.6
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 12.5
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 12.50
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