Ancient Olympic Games

Ancient Olympic Games - Ancient Olympic Events (Equestrian events)

Ancient Olympic Events (Equestrian events)


Equestrian events (chariot and horse races)  

According to mythology, the first chariot race took place between Pelops and the king of Pisa Oenomaos, in Olympia. In addition, Poseidon, patron of the equestrian events, is considered to be the owner of the famous horse Areion, with which Herakles with his charioteer Iolaus defeated Cycnus, son of Ares, during a chariot race in Troezen. Also Homer, in the Iliad, included a chariot race during the contests organized by Achilles in honor of his dear friend Patroclus.

The equestrian events were conducted in the Hippodrome. Even though no ancient hippodromes have been preserved, Pausanias informs us that the one at Olympia lay north of the stadium.

Rules of the equestrian events

The horse races that took place in Olympia included: the keles, a race for full-grown horse with a rider (horse should be one year old), which was included in 648 BC, the kalpe, a race for mares in 496 BC, and the race for foals in 256 BC.

The chariot races had their origin in the military customs of the Achaeans. The following is a list of chariot races in the chronological order in which they appeared in Olympia: the tethrippon, a four-horse chariot in 680 BC, the apene, a chariot pulled by two mules in 500 BC, the synoris, a chariot pulled by two horses in 408 BC, the tethrippon for foals in 384 BC and the synoris for foals in 268 BC.

Bronze horse with a rider from the cape Artemisium in Euboea. 3rd-2nd century BC. Athens, National Archaeological Museum 15177. Hellenic Ministry of Culture/Archaeological Receipts Fund.
Christopoulos, G. - Bastias, I. (eds.), Oi Olympiakoi Agones stin archaia Ellada. Archaia Olympia kai Olympiakoi Agones, Ekdotiki Athinon, Athens 1982, p. 233, image 134.
©Hellenic Ministry of Culture

The Hippodrome was a wide, flat, open area where the starting and finishing line was defined by a pole. A second smaller pole, the nyssa, defined the turning point, a dangerous point where many accidents took place. The track itself was divided with a stone or wooden partition, called embolon, next to which the horses and chariots run. It is known that the tethrippon completed twelve rounds of the track (the poet Pindar called this contest dodekadromon). The synoris and the tethrippon for fowls were eight-round races while the synoris of fowls was a three-round race. We know very little about the rules of the equestrian events. It is known that someone could not swerve in front of the other competitors, except if he was too far away from those behind him, so that collisions would be avoided.

At Olympia, opposite the nyssa, there was a round altar, the Taraxippos, which created havoc among the horses. Possibly, this was related to the position of the sun, since the games started in the afternoon at the time when the sun was setting and during the turn the animals were blinded by the glare resulting in many accidents.

Pausanias described in detail the complex system for the starting of the race, the hippaphesis, the invention of the statue-maker Kleoitas. On the western, narrow side of the hippodrome, the starting positions were in the shape of a triangle with a bronze dolphin on a high pole at its apex. In the middle of the basis of the triangle there was a stone altar with the starting mechanism. The altar was decorated on its uppermost part by a bronze eagle. Right before the contest, the chariots entered into the special partitions. With the sound of the trumpet, the eagle of the altar was raised, so that the spectators could see it, the dolphin fell on the ground and the rope was removed from the positions -starting from the two flank ones- so that all chariots should be positioned on a straight line.

The chariot was a small, wooden vehicle, wide enough for two standing men and open at the back. It was supported on a thill, whose edges were fastened on two powerful, wooden wheels. The stronger and faster animal was placed on the right to facilitate the chariot during turns. The horses were marked at the hoofs or the thighs, either with the letter q (koppa), from which they took the name koppaties, or with the letter σ, from which they took the name samphores. Even though the original war chariot was for two men -the charioteer and the warrior- the tethrippon and synoris carried only the charioteer.

The charioteer

The successful charioteer should lead his chariot without swerving -something difficult especially regarding the tethrippon- to know well how to use the whip and to hold the reins safely, so that he could avoid collisions or falling from the chariot in the curve. During the contest, the main concern of the charioteer was to take advantage of the inner side of the hippodrome, in such a way as to cover the minimum distance possible. According to the representations on pots, the riders were naked and without saddle and stirrups, holding the reins and the whip.

The charioteers were not the owners of the horses, but they were paid by the owners to ride their horses on their behalf. The owner of the horse was declared the winner and received the kotinos -the wreath from the sacred olive-tree in Olympia- as a prize, while the rider or the charioteer was crowned with a woolen stripe. For this reason, there have been cases where women were crowned Olympic victors (Cyniske) or even children and cities (Argos, Thebes). The animals that won in the contests were also crowned with a woolen stripe and they received special honors.

Famous charioteers were Antikeris from Cyrene, Karrotos the charioteer of the king of Cyrene Arkesilaus, Hromios of the tyrant of Syracuse Hieron, Fintis the charioteer of Agesias from Syracuse and the Athenian Nicomachus the charioteer of Xenocrates from Acragas.

Horse races


Horse racing was the most prestigious competition in the games. Only the very rich could afford to keep racing horses and to transport them to Olympia or elsewhere. The owners did not participate in person, but a jockey drove in their place. Nevertheless the owners were proclaimed as victors. In this way also women, children and even cities could become Olympic victors.
In the horse races there were different events: the four-horse chariot, the two-horse chariot and the horse with rider.

P0078The horse races took place in the hippodrome. A simple hippodrome could be constructed on any more or less flat surface for a single occasion. The plain had to be sufficiently wide for a large number of participants (sometimes up to fifty). Two turning points were built at the ends. These were the most dangerous points. Because everyone wanted to take the inner side of the turn, accidents were most likely to occur here. There were no seats for the spectators. They watched from the surrounding hills. At Olympia a starting mechanism made all the horses start at the same time.
From the Roman period onwards the Greek races lost their popularity because of the competition with the Roman horse races, but in the first place because the contest-circuit was now more international, and while the athletes could afford travelling widely across the Mediterranean, this was far more difficult and expensive with horses.

This vase (510-500 BC) shows a four-horse chariot race. The driver of the first chariot turns his head to see how closely he is followed by the second chariot.


Real time web analytics, Heat map tracking

Olympic Games



All Events


You are here: Home Olympic Games Ancient Olympic Games Ancient Olympic Games - Ancient Olympic Events (Equestrian events)