A day at the Hippodrome was a big event when Constantinople was the jewel of the Eastern World. Festivals – religious and secular – triumphs, marriages, births, events of all sorts, particularly when an unpopular Emperor was trying to curry favour with a fickle people – were celebrated with chariot races surrounded by pomp and ceremony. So popular were these races that the political parties took their colours from the four racing teams. The colour you supported indicated not only who was your favorite team but what political party you belonged to. In his marvelous triptych history of Byzantium hardly a chapter goes by without John Julius Norwich making some reference to the Hippodrome and the races as part of not only daily life but the tumultuous history of Constantinople.
This piece of carved stone, found in the Byzantine Collection at the Bode Museum, served two purposes – as a game of chance played in one of the arcades of the Hippodrome and as a pictorial record of a day at the track.
Betters would choose a coloured ball – no doubt reflecting their Hippodrome favorite – and the balls would be released at the top of the snaking ramp and through a series of holes and channels find their way to the bottom – the first to arrive, of course, being the winner. The game would have been over in less than a minute – sort of like playing the slots today.
The game iself is pretty simple but the carvings on the lottery “machine” are a fairly detailed record of the events of the day.
The back is a representation of the great gate of the Hippodrome and each of the other three panels follows the progress of the race.
As music is played a banner is raised proclaiming the opening of the races.
Lots are choosen for positions at the starting gate using a revolving amphora. The starting signal is given and the charioteers take off; each one championed by a “goader” on the sidelines urging them on.
Two charioteers via for lead and the current leader reaches back to thwart the progress of his competition by startling his horses with his whip.
The winner is proclaimed, given a purse for his efforts and receives the adulation of a lady who admires him from her window.
The race day over, to a final burst of music the banner is lowered.
According to Norwich often the races could turn ugly. But today has been a good day – no riots, no emperor deposed, no generals blinded, no charioteers killed by a disappointed crowd but then this version is only a game!
17 novembre – Sant’Elisabetta d’ungheria