Seven kilometres from the Stadio Olympico in Rome, the venue for Friday’s opening clash of the Euro 2020 championship, lie the ruins of the Circus Maximus and all its silent ghosts. The first and biggest sports arena of the ancient world, this is where emperors, senators, citizens, plebs and slaves came to drink, yell, eat, gamble, grumble, marvel, laugh and sometimes die.
These days it’s a serene public park but there was a time when crowds of 200,000 packed into the ‘largest circuit’ to watch sports meetings that could carry on for weeks. That’s three times the capacity of the Olympic stadium which normally seats 70,000 fans but is restricted to just a quarter of that for the Friday’s premiere between Italy and Turkey.
Uefa could hardly have chosen a better location to light up their championship. The fans will be sitting near where their ancestors first cradled Italian sporting passions and can be relied on to chant and cheer with a gusto that helps spark the tournament across a Covid-quietened continent. The level of gusto that once noisily echoed on the old stones of a city that was obsessed with sporting contests.
If you take a stroll from the football ground to the Circus Maximus you are bound to pass some archaeological excavations along the way, although an equivalent of a modern-day betting shop (Paddyus Unpowerus?) has yet to be uncovered. This is not to say that the old Romans didn’t gamble. But when their bets went down, they needed a different means to express their anger at corrupt horsemen and incompetent trainers than carping at a noisy bank of bookies television screens.
So, they reached for their ‘curse tablets’ and happily, the archaeologists have unearthed plenty of these. Curse tablets were thin sheets of lead, normally inscribed with a malicious demand that one of the crueler of the Roman Gods unleash calamity onto somebody who had done them a wrong. Even the mildest would make a present-day Arsenal fan sound measured.
Here’s one left by a furious punter who seems to have blown his savings on a chariot race and wants retribution. “Bind the Charioteers hands, remove their victory, their exit, their sight, snatch them from the chariots, twist them to the ground, so they fall and are dragged all over the racecourse, especially at the turn, with damage to their bodies, with the horses they drive. Now. At once.”
Chariot racing was originally part of an aristocratic religious ritual but grew to become an obsession among all classes throughout Rome, Italy and the empire. Teams were selected from each of four factions and identified by the colour, blue, green or white. Like today, fans chose their favourites early and remained true for life.
If a preferred charioteer transferred to another team, they would simply alter their emotion from adoration to hatred and carry on regardless. Think of the AC Milan supporters on Friday when the Italian keeper, Gianluigi Donnarumma, appears on screen. The ‘Maradona of goalkeepers’ has reportedly decided to swap veneration at the San Siro for the money of PSG. The old Roman ethos that loyalty to team and colour came before individual glory still resonates strongly in Italy. He will never be forgiven.
Chariot drivers are known to have been small, light and wiry but the names of very few individuals survive. (Note: Ben Hur was makey-up.) One, a Gaius Apuleios Diocles, was said to have won over a thousand races and his preferred strategy, like Lewis Hamilton or Danny Mullins today, was to grab a lead early and make it difficult for opponents to pass. A race consisted of seven anti-clockwise laps around two turning poles, about 4km of courage and carnage, while a couple of hundred thousand Italians in the Circus Maximus screamed with despair or delight. Another charioteer, Cardelus, seems to have been less successful than Diocles and annoyed one spectator so badly that even his poor old mammy is mentioned on the curse tablet.
“I invoke you, » it says, “so that you may help me and restrain and hold in check Cardelus and bring him to a bed of punishment, to be punished with an evil death, to come to an evil condition, him who his mother Fulgentina bore.”
Horse racing was not the only sport to boil the blood of early Italians. Athletics was hugely popular, particularly boxing, wrestling, archery, running, jumping and throwing things — activities designed to help build the skills young men needed to batter backward barbarians into submission.
Records survive which indicate that some rudimentary forms of cricket and hockey were also played and an underground tomb decorated with a motif of two men seemingly playing ‘keepie-uppies’ with a ball made from an animal bladder suggests that when football eventually does come home, it comes home to Rome.
Appropriately, Friday’s Euro 2020 opener will be staged in a stadium located on the Viale Dei Gladiatori, the Avenue of Gladiators. Turkey are fitting opposition too. In the film Gladiator, Maximus’ nemesis, the Emperor Commodus, (yes, a total psychopath), really did fight in the Colosseum. He believed himself to be the reincarnation of the fabled hero Hercules but was still careful enough only to fight maimed or disabled opponents armed with blunt wooden weapons just in case he was mistaken.
Rome had plundered ancient Turkey for centuries and Commodus’ father, Marcus Aurelius, once even banned sports meetings in Antioch as a punishment for mutiny. The Turks have long memories.
Roman passion, thousands of years in the making versus opponents fully entitled to delayed vengeance, which they hope to find, like Maximus Decimus, in this game or the next.
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