In the few weeks surrounding the Kentucky Derby, when national attention turns ever-so-briefly to horse racing and wearing pretentious hats becomes cool, it’s good to know that some ancient sponsors of the sport were actually good sports.
Horse racing was so popular in the Greek and Roman empires that every major city was expected to have a hippodrome where horses, often pulling chariots, raced around a long narrow course with hairpin turns. “Hippodrome,” by the way, logically comes from hippos, the Latin word for horse, combined with dromos, which could mean either “race” or “course” (similarly, “hippopotamus” means “river horse” — they don’t like riders but are faster than they look).
The races, not unlike modern NASCAR events, drew large crowds in part because of the spectacular crashes that could be expected when several horses or chariots came barreling into the 180 degree turns at the end of the course. The life expectancy for both horses and drivers of chariot teams was typically short. Teams were often owned by groups of sponsors and marked by trademark colors, though less elaborate than the jerseys worn by today’s jockeys. Betting on the races was common and rivalries between factions were fierce. Fights sometimes broke out after one chariot intentionally wrecked another. Again, hello NASCAR.
A discovery from the south-central region of Turkey suggests that some tracks called for a more gentlemanly approach to the sport. A 2,000-year-old monument found in the Konya region of Central Anatolia was built to honor a jockey named Lukuyanus, who must have been popular, but died young.
The monument includes a tablet that reportedly contains rules for horse racing, though the article
mentions only one: if a horse won a race on a given day, it couldn’t compete in other races, nor could any other horses belonging to the race winner. Professor Hasan Bahar from Selçuk University’s History Department praised the custom: “In this way, others were given a chance to win. This was a beautiful rule, showing that unlike races in the modern world, races back then were based on gentlemanly conduct,”
These days, of course, racing twice within three weeks is considered far too arduous for the highly specialized and incredibly expensive mounts that will take the track for the sport’s premier races, so the rule is hardly necessary. As formally clad race fans sip their mint juleps on race day, however, the tradition of courteous sophistication continues — and leads one to wish that our political races could be so civil.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.