A Day at the Races

A new spectacle provides a living history lesson


By: By Mark Edward Harris


Jordan Tourism Board
877-733-5673, 703-243-7404 (Virginia office)

The Roman Army and Chariot Experience (RACE)

The Roman Army Chariot Experience in Jerash, Jordan, takes visitors back in time. // (c) Mark Edward Harris
The Roman Army Chariot Experience in Jerash, Jordan, takes visitors back in time.

The city of Jerash (known as Gerasa in antiquity) is 30 miles north of Jordan’s capital of Amman. Conquered by Pompey in 63 B.C., it’s considered one of the most important and best preserved Roman cities in the Near East and, in its golden age, it was one of the 10 Roman cities in the Decapolis League (Damascus, Philadelphia, Raphana, Scythopolis, Gadara, Hippos, Dion, Pella, Gerasa and Kanatha).

Today, visitors to Jerash will feel transported back two millennia to the days of the Roman Empire. In the newly restored hippodrome, Circus Gerasa, demonstrations of Roman military exercises, gladiator fights and chariot races take place as guests view the spectacle from its original stone seating. The event, named the Roman Army and Chariot Experience (RACE), is presented in co-operation with the Jordan Ministry of Tourism and the Jordan Tourism Board.

On a recent visit, the audience quieted down when trumpets signaled the festivities were about to begin. They were instructed to decide the fate of a defeated gladiator with either a thumbs up or a thumb sideways — the latter being the correct way to signal what has been translated through history as a thumbs down. Actors dressed like Roman legionnaires of the Arabia and Judea-based VI Legion Ferrata arrived in the hippodrome to the beat of martial music. They demonstrated their weapons and battle tactics, including the throwing of pilae (spears) and wielding the famous short sword, known as the gladius.

Finally, the centurion cried out in Latin, "Are you ready for war?"

The legionnaires responded in a chorus: "Ready, ready, ready."

Next, the legionnaires attacked a ragtag army assembled opposite them using classic battle formations such as the testudo and the wedge. The legion ended their demonstration with shots from the scorpion and the catapult — full-size war machines that are deadly accurate.

The army marched out and the gladiators entered the arena, saying, "Ave, imperator, morituri te salutant!" ("We who are about to die, salute you.")

After several spirited sparring matches, four chariots — each led by two horses and manned with a charioteer — entered the hippodrome. They paraded the grounds before taking their positions in the carceres (starting gates). The starter was announced by a fanfare of trumpets. He dropped a white handkerchief and the racers were off. Seven laps around the hippodrome produced a winner, who received a palm frond, the classical symbol of triumph.

Historians believe that chariot competitions took place in Greece even before the Olympic Games. The four-horse chariot quadriga was the form entered in the first Olympiad in 680 B.C. The two-horse chariot race became an official event in 408 B.C. Chariot racing was extremely popular throughout the Roman Empire until Emperor Justinian I forbade it in 532 A.D. having become distressed by the public disorder associated with the ardent excitement of the fans. It did, however, continue in parts of the Eastern Empire, including Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), for another 500 years.

Much more than entertainment, these reenactments are living history for adults and children alike, and visitors will come away from the experience with a sense of the fascinating history that took place in Jerash.