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Religious Games
Horse Racing

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The Real Story of the Ancient Olympic Games

Only the very rich could afford to train the horses and to hire the riders and drivers for horse and chariot races. Such races were the centerpiece events at the major Panhellenic festivals. Philip II of Macedon's horse won the Olympic flat race in 356 BC, supposedly on the day of his son Alexander's birth. Philip went on to achieve victory in the four-horse chariot event at a number of Olympiads. The four-horse chariot event carried the greatest prestige in the world of Greek athletics. The running distance for teams of full-grown stallions was excessive by today's standards: 12 laps or over 9 kilometers. Eight-lap events were staged for teams of colts. Thus the emphasis was on the animals' endurance and their driver's skill at avoiding collisions. The chariots were light two-wheeled carts equipped with flimsy rails across the front and down the sides. Since they had no springs, they must have bounced around when driven at speed. The drivers wore no protective headgear. While the starting fields were large-in later times consisting of as many as 40 teams-the risks were considerable and many did not finish.

Attic Black Figure Amphora
Early 5th century BC
By the Diosphos Painter
On loan, Philadelphia Museum of Art
The goddess Athena driving a four-horse chariot or quadriga.
H. 18.8; Dia. 12.0 cm. UM neg. S8-2828.
Silver Tetradrachm
ca. 342-336 BC
Philip II of Macedon
Young naked rider on a walking horse, carrying a long victory palm. This commemorates Philip's victory in the horse race at Olympia in 356 BC Inscribed philippou or "coin of Philip."
Dia. 26.0 mm. Photo courtesy D. White.

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