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Richard's Writings > The Birth of Rome > Chapter 12: The Circus

Synopsis of Chapter 12: The Circus

The sudden increase in population from Alba Longa strains Roma's resources. They are given employment building the largest structure in all Italia: the Circus Maximus. Tanaquil has her first child. Lucumo and Marcus labor over the first Latin dictionary, using Greek letters to match the sounds of Latin words. The Temple of Vesta is finished and two Vestal Virgins inaugurated to maintain the eternal flame. Lucumo establishes the ludi Romani to celebrate all things Roman. When the Circus is finally complete, the entire city attends to watch an exciting series of chariot races.

Excerpt from Chapter 12: The Circus

Eight chariots were to participate, two chariots for each team: the Reds, Blues, Whites and Greens. The chariots lined up in their starting gates, one in each archway, their starting position determined by drawing lots. The crowd could see the movement of the horses behind the wooden slats. From the temple above the finish line, Lucumo dropped a white handkerchief. At that signal, by means of an ingenious mechanical device, all the gates opened at the same time. They're off!

The chariots raced towards the right side of the spine, all in a line and all having the same distance to run, thanks to the curved starting gate set at an angle facing the right side straightaway. Each chariot was painted in the color of its team, as was the helmet worn by the charioteer. Each team's two chariots would work in partnership, one going for speed and position, the other trying to block and obstruct the rest of the chariots on the course.

The chariots reached the straightaway. They were now free to press against the spine, the surest strategy for winning. There was a minimum of dust to obscure the view, thanks to a hard packed layer of sand over the dirt surface. The eight chariots flashed by and came to the turn. The turning post was a high, semi-circular platform topped by three tall cones, and each chariot made the turn as closely to the turning post as possible. A Red was in the lead, followed by a Blue and a Green, then the second Red, with the two Whites, a Blue and a Green in the rear.

The second Red began to work the strategy of delay. He pulled back on his reins to slow the rest of the field, then angled away from the spine to prevent the trailers from swinging to the outside and passing him by. The Red swung out far enough to block the White right on its tail, but the other White curved inside and got past him. The second Blue tried to follow the leading White, causing the second Red to swing back inside, blocking the Blue but allowing the Green to veer outside and pass the second Red. They came up to the turning post with Green making his outside pass and he was forced to make a large half circle around the turn before he could whip his horses into another burst of speed up the stretch.

Meanwhile, the first Red still maintained the lead, closely followed by the White, then a Blue and a Green, neck and neck. They were approaching the turning post while an attendant on the spine dropped an egg into a cup, indicating that one lap had passed. The Blue bumped into the Green and the Green charioteer over compensated, flipping his light chariot over for several turns, while he went flying. A White and the second Red came thundering up, too late to skirt around the overturned chariot. The White rolled up and over the chariot, but the second Red crashed right into it, injuring both horses. On their heels came the second Blue and the second Green. The dismounted Green charioteer jumped up and down and waved his partner on. The second Green charioteer could only spare a passing glance, and leaned into the curve of the turn, pulling the reins tightly to the left. There were only forty meters between the stands and the spine, and everyone could clearly see the action around the turning post. The injured horses and the overturned chariot were quickly cleared out of the way.

In the left side straightaway the Red raced the White for the turn, followed by a Blue, the second White, the second Blue, and the Green. The White tried to press the Red on the turn and take over the inside track, but he was too late and was forced to pull back the reins and let the Red precede him around the turn. Off they flashed down the straightaway, pulling away from a Blue, the second White, the second Blue, and the Green. Another egg was dropped into a cup. Two laps down.

The second White decided to help his partner in the lead by slowing down the followers and giving his partner an even chance against the leading Red. He weaved back and forth on the track, concentrating more on keeping the others behind him than on making speed. It was a successful strategy. The second Blue and the Green were thwarted by the weaving White. That left the Red and the other White contesting for the lead, with a Blue trailing behind them.

The debris had been cleared from the turning post and the Red and White spun around the turn shoulder to shoulder. They remained even as they thundered down the straightaway and jockeyed for position as they came to the turn. The Red remained in the lead, but was pressed by the White on the inside. However, the White's horses were in danger from the spinning wheels of the Red as they slid around the turning post, and the White charioteer let the Red slip ahead just so far as needed to relieve his precious horses. Down they came on the other side, while ten lengths behind trailed the second White, a Blue and a Green.

But the leading Red and White forgot about the Blue that was right behind them. Glancing to the left, towards the spine, the Red and White charioteers saw only the three chariots bringing up the far rear. They failed to see the Blue that was creeping up on their outside shoulder. A third egg was dropped in its cup. The leading Blue charioteer decided to try out a new idea: instead of losing speed around each turn, he would race the track in a larger oval and retain his pace throughout. He raced the straight-aways on the outside track and approached the turns in a gentler arc, an arc he was able to maintain at a higher speed. Best of all, he was invisible to the leaders, who never thought to look back over their right shoulders. The Blue was still trailing on the turn, and continued to trail the leaders on the straightaway and the turn beyond. But after the fourth egg was dropped in its cup the Blue charioteer saw that his strategy was working. He took a long approach to the turn, behind the Red and the White, and while they were fighting with each other to keep the inside tract he swooped alongside them both, and had the momentum to take the lead on the straight. The Red and White charioteers never saw him coming. Now the Blue was in the lead.

It was a lead he was never going to forfeit. The fifth egg was dropped with the Blue still in the lead. The Green and the second Blue had finally overcome their White obstruction, but they were safely out of the race, unless an accident changed things ahead of them. The Blue retained the lead, then came the Red, with the White close on his tail, and that is how they entered the final lap. The crowd was on its feet, roaring its support and pleasure. If those thousands of voices could only push their favorite cart a little faster! But the ending was foretold, a combination of unique strategy and the strength and courage of the Blue charioteer. When the flag waved over the finish line, the Blue chariot won the day, followed by the Red, then the White. The race was officially declared, and the bets were settled. The Blues had won the first running of the ludi Romani! He took a final victory lap and accepted the cheers and flowers of the crowd.

The horses were snorting and steaming; the Blue charioteer could barely muster enough energy to step down from the platform to receive his accolades; and no wonder! They had just run a race that was four miles long! It was a test of endurance as much as a contest of speed. With a Roman mile measuring one thousand paces, and each pace measuring five feet, four miles was quite a distance. Yet they had given it their all, and they had won!


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