Horse racing, in some form or another, has been in existence for at least 6000 years. A carved cylinder, dating from around 4000 BCE, depicts Assyro-Babylonian warriors riding on horse-drawn chariots. Additionally, inventories found at Pylos, Tiryns, Mycenae, and Knossos, reveal that these ancient cities/palaces held at one time or another, hundreds of chariots. Though we can’t be sure whether these chariots were used for other purposes besides warfare, it’s been suggested that they may have been used to stage races as well.
Pottery fragments found at Tiryns support this idea, as they portray several chariots which appear to be in the middle of a race, heading towards a ‘turning pole’ which was used to mark the point where the charioteers would turn their horses and vehicles a full 180 degrees. As such, we have tangible evidence that suggests chariot racing was a well-known sport, or at the very least, a pastime, near 1200 BCE. Of course, we also have literary evidence, in the form of Greek legends, to support the notion that chariot racing was an established activity within the thirteenth century BCE.
King Oinomaos of Olympia is believed to have declared that any suitor wishing to win the hand of his daughter would have to beat him in a chariot race. The catch being that if any these young men lost to Oinomaos, the King would have the right to kill them. Pelops, the Greek hero, thought he was up to the task at hand, and accepted Oinomaos’ challenge. Pelops managed to beat the King, but it wasn’t his skilful chariot driving talents which saw him across the line first. Before the race, the Greek hero had discretely replaced the nails which held the wheels of the King’s chariot together, with copies made of wax. No surprises here, the wax melted during the race, the chariot crumbled, and poor old Oinomaos fell to his death. This legend is said to describe the origins of the Olympic Games, and as Dirk Bennett points out, it’s unfortunate that the “most famous games in the world began with a fraud.”
Perhaps the most famous and earliest example of chariot racing, though written some five hundred years after the story’s proposed setting, is found in the Iliad. After the death of Petroclus, Achilles announces games will be held to honour his dead friend. The great warrior Diomedes eventually wins the race - his prize? A ‘woman skilled in woman’s work’, whatever that means. The depiction of the race can be found in Book 23, the text reading:
"As one, they raised their whips, shook the reins, and urged their teams on. Swiftly the horses galloped over the plain, leaving the ships behind. A whirlwind cloud of dust rose to their chests, and their manes streamed in the wind. Now the chariots ran freely over the solid ground, now they leapt in the air, while the hearts of the charioteers beat fast as they strove for victory, and they shouted to their horses, flying along in the storm of dust."
Here, in this pocket of time, racing on wheels had begun.
Homer, The Iliad, Penguin Books, London.
Bennett, Dirk 1997, 'Chariot Racing in the Ancient World', History Today, vol. 47, no. 12, pp.41-48.
Everitt, B 2008, Chance Rules: An Informal Guide to Probability, Risk and Statistics, Springer, New York.