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Rome Chariot's Superstar

Sinclair Bell, associate professor of art history in the School of Art and Design is featured as the lead presenter in the upcoming Smithsonian Channel program, “Rome’s Chariot Superstar” which premieres on the network Sunday, April 21 at 7 p.m. Central Daylight Time.

Bell is a classical archaeologist and art historian who teaches courses in Greek, Etruscan, Roman, and Egyptian art and archaeology. He studied Classical Archaeology at the University of Oxford, the University of Cologne, and the University of Edinburgh, from which he received his Ph.D. in Classics (which focused on Roman sport and spectacle.)

With new discoveries from the world of Roman chariot racing, “Rome’s Chariot Superstar” pieces together an epic view of the lost ancient sport – the most popular and longest-lived form of mass entertainment in the Roman world, yet also the most lethal. Smithsonian Channel’s new two-hour special offers a detailed account of the life of Flavius Scorpus, a real chariot star, and the racing contests he and other champions entered in the famed Circus Maximus arena. Drawing from expert knowledge, archeological evidence and written records, “Rome’s Chariot Superstar” rebuilds the world of chariot racing and its stars in graphic detail. The special premieres Sunday, April 21 at 7 p.m. CDT on Smithsonian Channel.


Video courtesy of Smithsonian Channel

“Rome’s Chariot Superstar” focuses on the end of the first century AD, when the race-mad Roman emperor Domitian presided over one of the most popular and lucrative eras in sports history. Scorpus rose from a slave to become the charioteer all-star of his age, winning an astonishing 2,048 races and earning the modern equivalent of $15 billion in a decade. When he died, he was just 26 years old. Dramatic reconstruction brings to life the noise, the smell and the excitement of audiences turning up to see their favorite team – the gambling, the fanatical support and, above all, the adrenaline-fuelled nine minutes of each race from start to finish.

The first part, “From Slave to Star”, examines how Scorpus rose to become one of the greatest chariot racers of all time. He likely grew up on a stud farm or stables and chose in his mid-teens to try to make it as a charioteer – or die trying. Chariot racing at the time was dominated by four commercial “factions,” which like modern sports teams had scouts throughout the Empire looking for talent. By his late teens, Scorpus would have been testing his skills in the Roman equivalent of the minor leagues.

In the second hour, “Circus Maximus”, Scorpus takes his place on chariot racing’s greatest stage. The famed Roman arena held audiences topping 150,000 – more than three times the capacity of Yankee Stadium.

As Bell puts it, “the circus games weren’t just athletic competitions, or political stagecraft or a religious ritual. They were all three wrapped into one spectacular package.” This half deconstructs not just how the races were won and lost, but how the spectacle was used by the unpopular Emperor to keep his subjects complacent.

The two-part special uses rare evidence and experimental archaeology to reveal the world of chariot racing and bring the sport vividly back to life, traveling to the great sites of Carthage, Caesarea and all across the Roman Empire. Expert coachbuilder Robert Hurford uses a 2,000-year-old Roman bronze toy to build a replica chariot to be tested by race historian Mike Loades. Loades thunders around a circuit with four horses pulling a Roman chariot at maximum speed with ancient-style harnesses to rediscover the incredible skills required, the danger involved and the sheer spectacle created on the track.

“Rome’s Chariot Superstar” premieres Sunday, April 21 at 7 p.m. CDT on Smithsonian Channel.