Sport During the Byzantine Era

Sport During the Byzantine Era

By Tanya Carr, Karen Sheppard and Angela Welch

Byzantium as a Context for Social Sciences Research (2010)

Ruins of the Hippodrome, from an engraving by Onofrio Panvinio in his work De Ludis Circensibus (Venice, 1600.)

Introduction: It is without question that chariot racing was the most celebrated sport event of the Byzantine era. Influenced by Oriental cultures, the Greeks and Romans, chariot racing is one, if not the most highly recognized sport of the Byzantine Empire. Chariot racing was unique in the Byzantine Empire because of its approach to the sport. Unlike their counterparts in the West, chariot racing adopted a less tolerant interpretation of the sport with no less grandeur.

It was seen to be a sport enjoyed by men, allowing women of the imperial court to view the sport unseen. The emperor’s immediate family and those with high – ranking status sat with him in the kathisma (a private seating area that led to the imperial palace), which was another unique feature of Byzantine chariot racing. With its strong ties to the imperial court, the circus and a Christian influence, chariot racing depicted a time that became known as the, ‘Golden Age’ of chariot racing. “By the fifth century, when the Golden Age of chariot racing had arrived, it was clearly the race of the Roman circus that was seen in the hippodrome of Constantinople.”

The races during the Byzantine Empire differed from those that existed in the Roman and Greek chariot races. The Byzantines provided an opportunity for a challenge to be called by the charioteer who won the morning race against the looser to be held in the afternoon. What made this so important is that the charioteers would switch horses and chariots, which was known as diversium. This was significant because it allowed the charioteer to publicly prove to the people that it was he (no women participants) who won the race and not his horse or chariot. He was victorious and if he was victorious so was the emperor; “We ask for equal share of your victory that comes from God, an equal share of your victory, Master, the faith of the kings prevails.”

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