'Like NASCAR on Speed' Chariot Racing Might Return to Circus Maximus

If one Italian entrepreneur has his way, Rome's Circus Maximus will once again play host to roaring chariot racing. It's time, he says, for Romans to once again leave the Gauls and the Huns in their dust.
Von Josh Ward

It's a situation that keeps Franco Calo up at night. Across Europe and the world, chariot racing, perhaps the most Roman of all sporting events, is enjoying a renaissance of sorts. Events are held in cities from Bulgaria to Germany to France. There is even a hippodrome in Brazil.

But in Calo's native Rome? So far, the 27th generation Roman points out ruefully, there is nothing. That, though, is something Calo is setting about to change. He is pushing for the Italian capital to reclaim chariot racing and establish an event of its own.

"Rome is the only large Italian city without a unique historical manifestation, such as Siena's Palio horse races or Venice's Regata Storica," Calo told SPIEGEL ONLINE. He is slightly more pointed on his Web site Vadis al Maximo: Do Romans, he asks his readers, really want "to come in third behind the Gauls (the French) and the Huns (the Germans), when it comes to Romanness?"

Calo is especially annoyed that many of the races currently held outside of Italy show major shortcomings when it comes to historical accuracy. The re-enactments near Berlin particularly upset him. His Web site links to a video of the chariot races held annually in the city's Karlhorst district, but he warns that: "The site is only to be viewed by those with strong stomachs, as it contains horrific images, such as chariots being pulled by ponies and fake Roman soldiers, all blond and wearing disordered plumes."

The Phenomenon of the Great Spectacle

Such carelessness with past Roman glory simply won't do for Calo. It is time, he says, for chariot racing to come home to Rome -- and more specifically to the Circus Maximus, the site of Rome's earliest and largest circus and host to innumerable chariot races through the ages.

"After a prolonged and undeserved historical silence," Calo announces on his site, "there is finally an initiative to commemorate the glorious past of the Eternal City."

That, though, isn't all. Calo, who works in the Italian film industry, would also like the chariot racing event -- tentatively scheduled for three days starting on Oct. 17, 2009 -- to be accompanied by bits of historical authenticity across the Italian capital. In addition to the races, Cato envisions Roman squares dressed up to look like ancient Rome. He has his eye on props from Cinecitta film studios, the Italian production lots where "Ben Hur" -- the 1959 film whose chariot scene is widely considered to be one of the most spectacular scenes in the history of cinematography -- was filmed.

"I spent five years in Los Angeles," Calo says. "In America, I had the chance to witness the phenomenon of the great spectacle."

Circus Maximus is not what it once was, but it is still a popular place in Rome -- especially when Italy won the 2006 World Cup.

Circus Maximus is not what it once was, but it is still a popular place in Rome -- especially when Italy won the 2006 World Cup.

Foto: AFP

Still, as large as Calo's dreams are, so too are the potential hurdles. While he claims that he has lined up some potential sponsors, the site itself, Circus Maximus, is hardly what it used to be. Most of the circus' materials have been carted off over the centuries to be put to use in other buildings, and its grounds are now officially protected as a park. Nowadays, it is mostly used as a dog-run and a place for Romans to go jogging.

Plus, the film studio says it has not yet been contacted about the myriad statues, chariots, armor and catapults Cato would like to use for his re-enactment. Indeed, a representative of the studios says it doesn't even have some of these items in the first place.

NASCAR on Speed

Most challenging of all, however, is getting permission from the city to stage the event in the first place. "We've reached an important moment and we've passed most of the big tests," Calo insists. Marco Pomarici, the chairman of Rome's municipal counsel who is second in charge behind the mayor, has voiced his support for the project, according to Calo.

But Calo will also have to obtain permission from cultural heritage officials, who have been presented with an impact assessment and are currently reviewing the proposal.

Jeremy Hartnett, a professor at Rome's Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies and an expert on ancient Roman urban society, for his part, is skeptical that they will be cooperative. "I can't imagine they'd let him do this," Hartnett told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "One thing we know for sure about Roman chariot racing is that it was extremely dangerous. It was like NASCAR on speed."

Still, Calo figures if chariot races can be held elsewhere, then it certainly should be possible in Rome. Plus, it can be big business. Stellan Lind, for example, a Swedish citizen currently living in Jordan, runs a company devoted to staging such races. Called the Roman Army and Chariot Experience (RACE), Lind's company recreates Roman army displays and chariot races for tourists twice a day year-round. Although the races are choreographed, the hippodrome the races are held in -- located in Jaresh, Jordan -- was built by the Romans and his chariots are based on the original designs of Alfredo Danesi, the Italian expert who made the chariots used in 'Ben-Hur.'

A Porsche Chariot?

"The movie industry -- and especially 'Gladiator' -- has created a new interest in all things Roman," Stellan Lind told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "I always tell people that it's just like today's Formula 1. And, really, what's the difference? What we enjoy watching doesn't change."

In France, film director Robert Hossein transformed Paris's Stade de France into a venue for putting on five re-enactment performances of the "Ben-Hur" racing scene in September 2007. The $17-million (€10.7 million) event used hundreds of extras in period dress and drew nearly 300,000 spectators.

Calo also hopes his events can have international and even corporate flair. "Different companies could sponsor the various chariots," Calo says, "so you could have, for example, a Porsche chariot or a Mercedes chariot."

"And can you imagine," Calo added, "German charioteers driving Arab horses?"

But, of course, where does that leave the Italians and, more importantly, Roman pride? "It's ironic," says Hartnett, "that the people that the Romans conquered are the ones who want to play Romans. You never see modern Italians getting excited about dressing up as Romans."

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