In ancient Rome, an auriga was a slave with gladiator status, whose duty it was to drive a biga, the light vehicle powered by two horses, to transport some important Romans, mainly duces (military commanders).
While in Greece these were mostly free men, sometimes even owners of horses, in Rome they were usually slaves, who however could earn their freedom by accumulating victories, fame and money, as happened for the young charioteer Scorpo, who lived in I century AD, under the empire of Domitian.
Auriga in ancient Greece
Unlike the other Olympic athletes, an auriga did not compete naked, probably for safety reasons given the fuss raised by the running horses and the frequency with which bloody accidents occurred. Competitors wore a robe called xystis: it was knee-length and tied tight at the waist with a wide belt, while two straps that crossed on the upper back prevented the xystis from swelling in the air during the race. Like modern jockeys, charioteers were chosen for their limited weight and, since they also had to be quite tall, they were often teenagers.
In the Mycenaean era, the auriga and the owner of the chariot and horses were the same people and therefore the winning auriga received its prize. At the time of the Panhellenic Games, however, the owners had slaves to which they had wagons brought, and the prize was therefore won by the owners. Arsecila, the king of Cyrene, won the chariot race at the Pythic Games of 462 BC, when one of his slaves was the only one to complete the race. In 416 BC the Athenian general Alcibiades made seven wagons owned by him participate in the race, obtaining the first, second and fourth place; as is obvious, it was certainly not he who guided the seven wagons at the same time. Philip II of Macedonia also won an Olympic chariot race to prove that he was not a barbarian but, if he had ventured to drive the chariot, he would certainly have been considered at a social level even lower than that of a barbarian.
Auriga in ancient Rome
The Roman auriga, unlike the Greek ones, wore a helmet and other body protection and tied the reins around their waist, while the Greeks held them in their hands. Due to this latter custom, the Romans could not leave the reins in the event of an accident, so they often ended up being dragged by the horses around the track until they were killed or managed to free themselves: for this reason they brought with them a knife to succeed to break away from such situations.
Another important difference is that it was auriga itself that was considered the winner of the race, despite the fact that they were generally slaves as happened in the Greek world. He was rewarded with a wreath of bay leaves and probably money; if he could win enough races he could have enough money to buy his freedom. The auriga could become famous throughout the Empire simply by surviving the competitions since the life expectancy of a chariot driver was not very high. One of these famous charioteers was Scorpo, who won more than 2,000 races before being killed in an accident on the goal when he was just 27 years old. Three Roman emperors are also known to have competed and won in chariot races: Tiberius, Nero, and Caligula.
Auriga was a fundamental figure in Greek mythology, as well as in the battles fought in ancient times.
Homer mentions among the Trojans and their allies many drivers of battle chariots, who almost all lost their lives alongside their commanders. Famous is the case of Hector who had to change auriga more than once: the first, Eniopeo, was killed by Diomedes, the second, Archeptolemo, by Teucer, while the third, Cebrione, was a victim of Patroclus: Cebrione was Ettore’s half brother, as the son of King Priam and a slave. Homer also narrates the death of two other Priamids, Antifo and Iso, specifying that they fought on a single chariot, and in this case too auriga, Iso, was a natural son of the Trojan king: both were killed by Agamemnon. These soon after slew the two sons of Antimachus: Peisander and Hippolochus, respectively warrior and charioteer in the chariot on which they fought.
Two other pairs of brothers fighters on a cart that were formed by Phegeus and Ideo, sons of Dares, and that made up Laogono and Dardano: the text does not specify what were the coachmen; Ideo was the only one to save himself, while Fegeo was killed by Diomedes, and the other two fell at the hands of Achilles. Returning to Agamemnon, he is also remembered as the Iliad killer Oileus, partner and driver of the Trojan Bienore, he too was a victim of the Achaean commander.
The Auriga of the Paflagon king Pilemene, named Midone, was killed by Antiloco, who later also killed the coachman (unnamed) of Asio, who fell shortly before under the blows of Idomeneo. Faithful Auriga young Axylus, noble Arisbe, was his servant Calesius, and the two went down together in the afterlife, killed by Diomedes. The beautiful Molione, which for the Asian kings Thymbraeus was both coachman both squire, was shot dead by Odysseus after the killing of the same Thymbraeus (by Diomedes).