Ancient Greek & Roman Hippodromes: Definition, History & Architecture

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

What kind of sporting events happened in ancient Greece and Rome? Where were they held? In this lesson, learn about Greek and Roman hippodromes and explore their history and architecture.

What Is a Hippodrome?

What's the largest sporting event you've ever attended? Can you imagine being in a crowd of 60,000 people or more? That's what might have happened if you attended chariot races at a hippodrome.

In ancient Greece, a hippodrome was a stadium-like structure used for horse racing and chariot racing. The Romans also had buildings shaped almost exactly like a hippodrome, but they called them a circus. The word ''hippodrome'' comes from ancient Greek, with ''hippos'' meaning horse and ''dromos'' meaning path or way. Basically, a hippodrome — and later a circus — was a large race track. It was shaped like a large U with a closed end.

Basic layout of a hippodrome.
Layout of a hippodrome

Now let's learn about the history of hippodromes.

History of Hippodromes

Hippodromes developed as spaces for chariot races. A chariot was a small two-wheeled cart pulled by horses. The ancient Greeks and other cultures used chariots for war and later for sporting events. Chariot racing was even included in the Olympic Games beginning in 680 B.C.

Scholars aren't sure when the earliest hippodrome was built, but those early Olympic chariot races were held in one. One of the largest hippodromes was built around A.D. 203 by early Roman Emperor Septimus Severus. Located in Constantinople (today, it's the city of Istanbul), this hippodrome was later enlarged and refurbished to fit more than 60,000 spectators. In comparison, today's Yankee Stadium in New York City holds around 47,000 spectators. Besides racing, hippodromes were also sometimes used for other events, including political rallies.

At the height of the later Roman Empire, chariot racing became extremely popular. Remember, in the Roman world, the Greek hippodrome became the Roman circus. One of the largest such structures was the Circus Maximus in Rome. It was more than four stories tall and could seat more than 100,000 people. Circuses could be found throughout the territories ruled by the Roman Empire, including in places like Jerusalem and Alexandria, Egypt.

Illustrations of the Circus Maximus, showing the tiers of seats and the course layout
Circus Maximus

A note about chariot racing: Hippodromes, and later circuses, were large structures because they had to be able to fit the contestants on the track. The races were all-day events with a series of contests. Chariots could be pulled by two, four, or (rarely) six horses in teams harnessed side-by-side. The driver of the chariot, called a charioteer, often came from the lowest rungs of society. But some became famous for their feats on the racetrack. Imagine a day at the races in the hippodrome with the noise and commotion with some races having as many as 10 chariots on the track at the same time.

So, what did a hippodrome look like?

Architecture of Hippodromes

Hippodromes and circuses were created by excavating, or digging out, part of a slope or hillside. The excess material was then used to create a banked surface opposite the excavated area. The U-shaped track was usually sandy and oblong in shape with one rounded end and one square end. The structure had areas for spectators in tiers of seats that ran along the length of the structure and around the curved end. Dignitaries and politicians had special seating in boxes on the flat end.

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