Chariot race in Rome's Circus Maximus, as if seen from the starting gate. The Palatine Hill and Imperial palace are to the left, by Jean Léon Gérôme (1876) (Public Domain)

The Life Of A Celebrity Roman Chariot Horse

“The horses burst through the sky and with swift-hooved feet cut a dash through the clouds, which blocked their way as borne on wings they passed the east wind.” (Ovid, Metamorphoses II.157–60) The Formula One of the Roman world was the high-adrenalin sport of chariot racing where rival teams of superstar charioteers and horses destroyed the opposition in front of thousands of roaring fans. It may seem strange to skip forward to 20th-century Hollywood now, but it is here that we can get some idea of just how risky chariot racing was. The closest we can get to the reality of this Roman sport is by taking a look at what was perhaps the most dangerous shoot in film history: the chariot race in the 1925-silent movie Ben-Hur.

Depiction of the famous chariot race crash of Ben Hur (Carrera de carros romanos fotograbado) (Poniol/ CC BY-SA 3.0)

The fact that the film industry had established no animal rights laws yet means the experience of the horses in Ben-Hur might be comparable to those on ancient circus tracks. During filming, a cash prize was offered to the stuntman who rode his chariot into first place, and second unit director B. Reeves Eason did not worry himself about the welfare of the horses on set: ‘If it limped, they shot it.

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