Circuses, known as hippodromes in eastern parts of the empire, were similar in form to lecture halls but much larger, open-air arenas for sensational entertainment, especially chariot-racing, which enjoyed increasing popularity from the first century throughout Late Antiquity (Humphrey 1986) and was well known across the empire to be wildly popular in Alexandria. In the southwest corner of Alexandria, just below the Temple of Serapis, was the hippodrome called the Lageion after the founder of the Ptolemaic Dynasty (Ptolemy I Lagos, also known as Ptolemy I Soter, 385-285 Bc). The Lageion was one of the largest hippodromes of the Roman world. The only larger examples, in Alexandria’s peer cities of Rome, Constantinople, and Antioch, all shared the same long u-shape outlined by stepped seating constructed of stone. The remains of the Lageion as recorded in Napoleon’s Description de I’Egypte preserved little more than this framing shape: opposite the curved end (sphendone) would have been the starting gate (carceres); column fragments were found along the center barrier around which the chariots were raced (the spina).
Although not usually considered from the perspective of Late Antique Egypt, it is instructive to consider better preserved evidence of the hippodromes in Constantinople and Rome for examples of the kinds of honorific monuments erected along the spina and to underscore the visibility of Ancient Egypt in Late Antique public art. The hippodromes ofthose capital cities were marked with trophies, commemorative monuments, and famous spoils (spolia) collected from across the Empire. It is certainly possible that references to the distinctive grandeur of Alexandria and its love of hippodrome entertainment were on display in monuments along the spina of the Lageion.
A scene painted on papyrus, evidently belonging to a late fifth - or early sixth-century codex (Turner 1973), was found in Antinoopolis, another of the Egyptian cities boasting its own hippodrome - there is evidence for hippodromes in other Late Antique Egyptian cities, including Memphis, Herakleopolis Magna, Oxyrhynchos, and Hermopolis Magna. Since the manuscript leaf is fragmentary, it is not known whether the composition was more extensive before the page was broken along the left side (figure 45.3). What remains, depicted in confidently economical brushstrokes, is a group of six figures. Five of the figures wear helmets. Four must be charioteers for they wear red or blue padded vests over their long, tight-fitting blue or red shirts. One of them carries a horsewhip. On his right, another relatively well-preserved figure, also helmeted and wearing a tight-fitting green jacket but without a protective vest, touches the charioteer’s arm in a gesture of familiarity. This may represent another charioteer or, perhaps, an attendant.
The lively, casual style of the painting is well suited to the self-possessed, athletic bearing of the charioteers and to the expectant atmosphere of the scene that is enhanced by the figures’ shared looks. Behind the charioteers is the double line of a graphically rendered arch that would seem to delineate the vaulted passageway through which they have just entered the racetrack. At such a moment, excited crowds would have greeted charioteers with the roar of their cheers. Without doubt, successful charioteers were superstars among athletes. Dio Chrysostom, writing around the turn of the second century, described Alexandrian spectators flinging their clothes in excited abandon at charioteers, then ‘‘departing naked from the show’’ (as in Humphrey 1986: 511). This zeal continued throughout Late Antiquity as poems were written about them and statues erected in their honor. Fans associated in factions with teams known by the colors worn by their Charioteers: the most famous and long-lived were the Blues and Greens; the other two teams were the Reds and Whites. (The Whites may have been represented on the left side of this composition before it was damaged.) These color-coded teams competed in racecourses across the Empire. Factions were empire-wide as well. Even the emperor had to favor a color, although it does not seem to have mattered which, with financial support and leverage for recruitment. This practice further linked circus entertainment to politics and to the potential volatility of agitated mobs. The first mention of factions in Alexandria is dated to 315; in a late mention dated to the early seventh century, a bishop John of Nikiu
Figure 45.3 Charioteer papyrus, from Antinoe, c.500. After Weitzmann: 1977; Courtesy the Egypt Exploration Society.
(a town in the Delta) wrote of murderous violence between Blue and Green factions in Egypt on the eve of the Sassanian Persian invasion of 611.
Events within hippodromes were never far from affairs of state or political demonstrations. The Lageion received imperial funding when, following a destructive fire, it was rebuilt by the emperor Zeno (ruled 474-91). The hippodromes in Rome, Constantinople, and Antioch were incorporated within imperial palace complexes. More generally, in Late Antiquity, decrees were read and posted in such public venues, and this was where imperial subjects voiced their requests to the emperor, and where the assembled crowds could be incited to riot. Spectacles presented in hippodromes included political punishments, in which prisoners might be forced to perform sacrifices to the traditional gods or be put to death. Executions were sometimes done on a massive scale and even presented as theatrical displays: this was the context of Roman persecutions of Jews and Christians.