Friday, March 21, 2008

The Hippodrome

Antiochenes were famous, or infamous, for a variety of things and chief amongst them was their love of chariot-racing. The city had its main circus on the Island and had another hippodrome at Daphne, where the Olympic Games were staged.

The Circus on the Island has already been mentioned here as probably being linked to the Imperial Palace complex as was the Circus Maximus in Rome. The Antioch circus was one of the largest specimens in the empire and had enormous seating capacity estimated at around 80,000.

The hippodrome was one of the few visible remnants of the city when the Princeton team arrived in 1932 and so it was the focus of part of the first season with extensive excavation and delineation of the carceres (starting end) of the stadium. The excavation of the carceres and of the long sides of the Circus of Antioch, begun in 1932, was continued in 1933 with a goal of finding the plan and projecting the appearance of the superstructure.In the 1933 season the long east side along the wall of the arena and the exterior, and one half of the semi-circular north end was cleared. As a result Mr. John W. Lincoln was able to draw a complete plan of the east side, the north end and the arena. The excavations revealed the rubble and concrete foundations of a podium, a maenianum primum, an ambulacrum, and a maenianum secundum. In elevation these elements were carried on raking barrel vaults of rubble and concrete with intradoses of radiating blocks of limestone and piers of limestone. There were good indications that an annular barrel vault supported a gallery with a colonnade of red granite columns above the maenianum secundum.

Stillwell's plan of the excavation can be seen below (enlarged by clicking on the image). It can be noted that the left side next to the palace was largely unexcavated. If the palace was connected (like the Circus Maximus) then it would be in the unexcavated portion that the evidence for the linakge would be found.

In Campbell's opinion the date of the construction of the Circus could be deduced from coins dating from the fourth century B.C. to the second century B.C. that were found in the undisturbed stratum below the level of the top of the foundations; in this same stratum were many sherds of late Hellenistic pottery; and a coin of Antiochus VI Dionysus, 144-142 B.C. was found embedded in the rubble and concrete of the foundations. This evidence and the preserved masonry make a date in the first century B.C. seem probable.

The original structure was probably that reported as having been built by Q. Marcius Rex, the pro-consul of Cilicia in the first century BC (probably started around 67 BC).It must have been expanded later as the city grew in importance and population.

It was not difficult for the team to work out the original dimensions. The track was 499.5m in length and 70-75m wide. The radius of the curvature of the semi-circular end is 31 m.; of the carceres, 130 m.; while the long sides bow slightly in a curve whose radius is 41m. The outer wall of the circus was designed with the usual arcades, having an arch to each vaulted bay supporting the seats.

Campbell notes in his report on the Third Season that "the excavation of this campaign added to the data already obtained the location, dimensions and construction of the spina. This was a continuous construction, 283.3 m long by 8.30 m wide, with a foundation of rubble and concrete faced with blocks of limestone. The metae had large semicircular foundations of rubble and concrete which were continuous with the spina. There were drains along both sides of the spina and across both ends between it and the metae; these yielded a number of lead tabellae defixionum".

Campbell in his report on the 1935-6 season added:

"The Porta Pompae and the paved area outside it were located, and in the angle between the west long side and the carceres, the foundation of a vaulted passageway into the arena was uncovered. Trial trenches between the west cavea and the river revealed a large structure connected with the circus, which may prove to be the imperial palace".

By the 1930s all material that could be stripped from the structure had been taken over the centuries leaving the concrete stairwells as the prime reference points. Interestingly the land had not been cultivated over the site as the soil was "sour" in the estimation of local farmers.

Racing continued until the Christian era outlawed such frivolities.

The obsession of the locals with the racing included the obligatory riots as the factions of the Blues and Greens struggled for supremacy. Malalas makes mention of disturbances in the reign of Anastasius. An uprising by the Green faction was put down in the Circus by Constantius in the Autumn of 494 AD. He also records a tumult between the Green and Blue factions at Antioch in the third consulship of Anastasius, and soon afterwards another sedition at the time of the Olympiad at Daphne ; probably at the Olympiad of July 508 AD. On this occasion Procopius, Count of the East, was compelled to flee; Menas was slain, and the Green faction prevailed.

Stinespring's translation of the Vatican Codex relates in a passage about the villages "outside" the city (for by then the Island had been made extra-mural:

"The fourth has the name Drumarsina; and in it there is a great theatre 300 cubits long, and 200 cubits and 50 quasabas wide. This contains 72 columns, 36 columns on each side. And in the center is a piller 43 cubits high with a circumfernce of eleven cubits. Upon this is a statue of a horseman which is tied to every column round about it....."

By its shape it is clearly the hippodrome and not a theatre. We have read a report (Humphrey, Roman Circuses, p. 458) that the spina of the hippodrome had an obelisk, brought (like those in the Circus Maximus and Circus Flaminia in Rome) from Egypt.

Curse tablets were found in the excavations showing appeals to the supernatural to affect the outcomes on the contests.

Chariot races have seeped through into popular culture in the form of the chariot racing scene in the film Ben Hur, which is set in Antioch. The link for that is here:

No comments: