Three days ago the French team won the football world cup and countless number of people (both French and others) took to social media posting “Bravo les bleus” referring to the nickname of a number of French national sporting teams (not just football).
Looking at all the cheering for the blues, I was struck that there was one other time in history when you could have yelled “Go Blues” and it would have still elicited (at least within one segment of the population) the same level of sporting enthusiasm and cheer. If you know me well enough you know where I’m heading. That’s right – to the ancient Roman times – but the topic of the Blues (and the Greens incidentally) also has a strong resonance with Byzantium.
Basic human instincts haven’t changed much over the last two millennia and so the people of ancient cultures loved sport as much as we do. They didn’t have football or rugby or cricket. But they did have their own version of Formula 1- that’s right- chariot racing!
The most famous racing track in the ancient Roman empire was the Circus Maximus which could accommodate over 150,000 people at any one time. The original two racing teams that existed in Rome were the Reds and the Whites as these were considered the sacred colours. But eventually this grew to become four teams with the addition of blues and greens. Much like the sports clubs and leagues of today the chariot racing teams attracted passionate following and supporters (and believe me the folk that could watch bloody gladiatorial and animal hunting spectacles could be passionate).
Each colour would field a total of three team for the race leading to a total of 12 teams that would compete in a narrow (but long race track). You had to go around the track seven times to win. Unlike modern racing events, chariot drivers had very minimal protective gear so injury and mortality rates were super high. There were a few charioteers who bucked the trend- Gaius Appuleius Diocles participated in a mind boggling 4,257 races and won 1,462 of them. He was truly a celebrity of his time.
With the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the rise of the Byzantine Empire, the racing tradition still continued but it was now the Hippodrome in Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) that resounded with the thundering hooves of the horses dragging the chariots. With time the Red and the White factions faded in importance and it was mainly the blues and the greens that ruled the roost. Racing was not restricted only to Constantinople but there were racing tracks in smaller cities as well.
At this time there were even political and ideological differences between the factions with each colour apparently standing for a particular religious/ political ideology and behaving more like a mafia rather than just a sports team. As you can imagine, our football hooligans of today would pale in comparison with their illustrious forebears yelling ‘Blues’ and ‘Greens’.
Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora (I’ve spoken about them recently) in the 6th Century CE were supporters of the Blue faction and would certainly have related to all the “Allez les bleus” and “Bravo les bleus” that was going on the last week or so.
But when passions run too high there can be unfortunate results. One such example was the Nika riots in the reign of Justinian when the Blue and Green factions united (this pretty much meant they had the entire population behind them) and rioted against Justinian in the Hippodrome. Cutting long things very short, an armed force went in and massacred thousands and thousands of people to quell the riots.
So what do you think? Would you have enjoyed watching chariot racing?