Bring it on home.
Despite the prominence of chariot-racing in the popular view of Roman life (and indeed in Roman life itself), the literature in English remains scanty. There are two essential scholarly works. Alan Cameron’s Circus Factions, though it does not deal with the physical aspects of the sport, is important for understanding the context. For how races were actually conducted, we must turn to J.H. Humphrey’s Roman Circuses: Arenas for Chariot Racing, a large, beautifully illustrated volume that marshals all the evidence available to the author in 1984. In the following essay, all references to numbered figures refer to Humphrey’s book.
Little of the evidence is in literary form; most surviving observations are from moralists whose chief concern was the effect of the races on the spectators. The best actual narrative of a race is from the fifth-century poet Sidonius (see Appendix). His gripping play-by-play commentary on a four-team race conveys wonderfully the atmosphere of a hippodrome, probably the Circus Maximus itself. He is also informative about the posture of the charioteers, the way teams cooperated, and the rules of fair play, in particular that it was legal to crowd another chariot if not actually to bump it. His description of a wreck resulting from such a maneuver is gruesome, suggesting a great many limbs broken if not actually twisted in the spokes as he describes. The sport was undoubtedly harder on horses than on men.
Inevitably, better representations in the form of mosaics, reliefs, lamps, and other decorative art survive from the late Roman period than from the republic and early empire. The following discussion should be considered relevant chiefly to racing in the Circus Maximus during the fourth and fifth centuries.