The fifth- and sixth-centuries CE was a period of enormous change in the Roman empire. In the west, pressure from Visigoths and Huns hastened the end of imperial rule, Rome was no longer the centre of ‘Rome’ as, in the eastern empire, Constantinople (previously called Bysantium and Nova Roma (New Rome)) grew in importance, influence and wealth following its enrichment and enlargement by the Emperor Septimius Severus and, later, the Emperor Constantine. In this large, bustling city, opportunities for entertainment were plentiful and the most important site, both socially and politically, was the hippodrome.
Horse racing in the ancient world was enormously popular, even more so than the gladiatorial combats and beast hunts held in the amphitheatres, and Constantinople’s Hippodrome was large enough to hold audiences of around 100,000 people. As was the case with the staging of gladiatorial games and beast hunts in the Colosseum, the events held in Constantinople’s Hippodrome were important politically as well as socially, and provided the opportunity for the populous to connect directly with the Emperor.
Unsurprisingly, gambling on the horses was always a big part of the fun. At the Bode Museum on Museum Island in Berlin is this fascinating object, purportedly found somewhere near the Hippodrome, and acquired by the Bode Museum in 1891. It’s a racing-themed gambling machine!
I spent ages looking at its features to work out how it would have worked.
There’s a zig-zag slope from the top to the bottom, with a groove running along the edge of it, suggesting that there was a wall running along it. At various points along the slope there are holes, some of which go all the way through to the next level down, some of which don’t.
Balls, would be rolled down the slope in a race, mimicking the races in the Hippodrome. It’s like a penny-in-the-slot arcade game. The machine is decorated with images of horse-racing and, especially, winning, to encourage those good feelings that help to loosen the purse-strings.
On the two side panels are scenes from the hippodrome.
Here (above) is the start of the race. At the top, men carry a banner while musicians play pipes.
Below this is a scene from the race preparations. In order to decide which team would race in which lane, coloured balls corresponding to the colours of the teams would be spun in a sort of tombola and be dropped out into the receptacle beneath.
Along the bottom the charioteer whips his team on. At each corner is one of the conical posts, called the metae, which mark the turning points.
The other side shows the end of the race.
Again, banner-bearers and musicians are show at the top. Below this is the winning charioteer, displaying his winner’s garland to the admiring lady up at the window.
And along the bottom, the winner crosses the line with his whip help up in celebration.
And this is what a champion horse look like. Look at those ears!
Of the museums that I visited on Museum Island, the Bode seemed to be the least busy. It’s right at the northern end of the island and, perhaps, doesn’t have the big draws of, say, the more famous Pergamon Museum. The ongoing renovations also cut it off a little from some of the other museums. Nevertheless, the Bode is really worth a visit as it has a lovely collection of late antique and medieval artefacts, and the building itself is worth seeing too.
* The is the German spelling of Constantinople.