Chariot racing in ancient Greek sources

Founded 29-Oct-2010
Last update 2-Sep-2015

Homer Hesiod Sophocles Theokritos Pausanias

Homer, Iliad: Chariot race at the funeral games for Patroklos

(before 6th century BC)

When they’d made the mound,
they started to return. But Achilles checked them,
keeping soldiers there. He asked them to sit down
in a wide group. Then he brought prizes from his ship—
cauldrons, tripods, horses, mules, powerful oxen,
as well as fine-dressed women and grey iron.

First, he set out prizes for swift charioteers—
for the winner, a woman skilled in fine handicrafts
and a tripod with handles holding twenty measures.
For second place he led out a mare six years old,
unbroken and with a mule foal in her womb.
For the man who came in third, he set out a cauldron
untouched by fire, a fine piece which held four measures.
For fourth place he set a prize of two gold talents,
while the fifth-place prize was a two-handled bowl,
not yet put on the fire. Then Achilles stood up
and spoke directly to the Argives:

“Sons of Atreus,
you other well-armed Achaean warriors,
these prizes lie set out here for a contest
among the charioteers. If Achaeans
were now hosting these games for someone else,
then I myself would surely win first prize
and take it to my hut, since, as you know,
my horses are far better than the rest,
for they’re immortal, Poseidon’s gift
to Peleus, my father, who gave them to me.
But I and my sure-footed horses now
will stand down, for they’ve lost their charioteer,
a strong, brave man, so kind he’d often pour
soft oil all through their manes, while washing them
in clean water. They stand there mourning him,
manes trailing on the ground. So they won’t race.
Their hearts feel too much grief. But you others,
get yourselves prepared all through the camp,
any Achaean who has faith in his own horses
and his well-made chariot.”

Once Achilles finished speaking,
swift charioteers rushed into action. First to move,
well before the rest, was Eumelus, king of men,
dear son of Admetus and excellent with horses.
After him came forward mighty Diomedes,
son of Tydeus, driving those yoked horses
from Tros’ herd, which he’d just taken from Aeneas,
though Apollo had snatched away their owner.
After Diomedes came fair-haired Menelaus,
royal son of Atreus, driving a yoked team,
two fast creatures—his own horse Podargus
and Agamemnon’s mare Aethe, which Echepolus,
Anchises’ son, had given to Agamemnon
as a gift, so he wouldn’t have to go with him
to wind-swept Ilion, but could remain at home,
enjoying himself, for Zeus had given him great wealth.
He lived in spacious Sicyon. This was the mare
Menelaus now led up in harness, a racehorse
filled with a desire to run. The fourth contestant,
Antilochus, got his fair-maned horses ready.
He was a noble son of proud king Nestor,
son of Neleus. Swift-footed horses bred at Pylos
pulled his chariot. His father came up to him
to give him practical advice, a wise man speaking
to one who could appreciate another’s skill:

“Antilochus, you may still be quite young,
but Zeus and Poseidon have been fond of you.
They’ve taught you all sorts of things with horses,
so there’s no need to issue you instructions.
You understand well how to wheel around
beside the turning post. But your horses
are the slowest in the race, and so I think
you’ve got some problems here to deal with.
The others’ horses may be faster runners,
but the drivers are no better skilled than you.
So, dear boy, fix your mind on all that skill,
so those prizes don’t elude you. You know,
skill in a woodsman matters more than strength.
It’s skill that lets a helmsman steer his course,
guiding his swift ship straight on wine-dark seas.
And it’s skill, too, that makes one charioteer
go faster than another. Some racing drivers,
trusting their chariot and horses, drive them
carelessly, moving back and forth, weaving
on the course. They don’t control their horses.
But a cunning man, though he’s got worse horses,
keeps his eye on that turning point, cutting
the pillar close. Such a man also understands
how to urge his horses on, right at the start,
using leather reins. But he keeps control.
His mind doesn’t wander, always watching
the man in front. Now I’ll tell you something—
there’s a marker, so clear you cannot miss it.
It’s a dry stump of oak or pine standing
about six feet high. Rain hasn’t rotted it.
On both sides of that stump, two white stones
are firmly fixed against it. At that spot
the race course narrows, but the ground is smooth,
so a team can wheel around that stump.
It may be a memorial to some man
long dead, or perhaps men placed it there
to serve as a racing post in earlier times.
Swift-footed lord Achilles has made that stump
his turning point. You need to shave that post,
drive in really close as you wheel around
your chariot and horses. You should lean out
from that well-sprung platform, to your horses’ left,
giving the right-hand horse the lash, calling
to him with a shout, while with your hands
you let him take the reins. The inside horse
must graze the post, so the well-built wheel hub
seems to scrape the pillar. But be careful—
don’t touch the stone, because if you do,
you’ll hurt the horses, you’ll smash the chariot,
which will delight the others but shame you.
So, dear boy, take care and pay attention.
If you can pass them by as you catch up
right by the turning post, then none of them
will reach you with a sudden burst of speed,
much less overtake you, no, not even
if he were driving godlike Arion
behind you, that swift horse of Adrestus,
from heavenly stock, or the very horses
of king Laomedon, the finest ones bred here.”

Nestor, Neleus’ son, spoke and sat down in his place,
once he’d gone over all the details with his son.
Then Meriones, the fifth contestant in the race,
harnessed his fine-maned horses, and all the racers
climbed in their chariots. They gathered up the lots,
which Achilles shook. The first to tumble out
was for Antilochus, Nestor’s son. Mighty Eumelus
was next, then came spearman Menelaus,
son of Atreus. After him, Meriones
drew his place. Last of all, and by far the best,
Tydeus’ son drew for his horses’ lane.
They took their places in a line. Then Achilles
showed them the turning point far out on the plain.
Beside it he’d placed an umpire, godlike Phoenix,
his father’s follower, to observe the racing
and report back truthfully. Then all together,
they raised their whips above their horses, lashed them
with the reins, and shouted words of encouragement
to urge them forward. The horses raced off quickly,
galloping swiftly from the ships. Under their chests
dust came up, hanging there like storm clouds in a whirlwind.
In the rushing air their manes streamed back. The chariots,
at one moment, would skim across the nourishing earth,
then, at another, would bounce high in the air.
Their drivers stood up in the chariots, hearts pounding,
as they strove for victory. Each man shouted out,
calling his horses, as they flew along that dusty plain.
When the swift horses were starting the last stretch,
racing back to the grey sea, their pace grew strained.
Then the drivers each revealed his quality.
The swift-footed horses of Eumelus raced ahead,
followed by Diomedes’ team from Tros’ breed
not far behind—really close, almost as if they’d charge
right up the back of Eumelus’ chariot.
Their breath felt hot on his broad shoulders and his back,
for, as they ran ahead, they leaned right into him.
Now Tydeus’ son would have passed Eumelus,
or made the issue doubtful, if Phoebus Apollo,
angry at him, hadn’t struck the shining whip
out of his hand. Then from Diomedes’ eyes
tears of rage streamed out, once he saw Eumelus’ team
running even faster than before, while his own
were at a disadvantage, running with no whip.
But Athena had observed Apollo as he fouled
the son of Tydeus. She came running at top speed
after that shepherd of his people, then gave back
his whip, putting strength into his horses.
Then, in anger, she went after the son of Admetus.
The goddess snapped his chariot yoke. The horses swerved,
running all around the course. The shaft dropped down
and hit the ground—this threw Eumelus from the chariot
beside the wheel. On his elbows, mouth, and nose
the skin was badly scraped. Above his eyebrows,
his forehead had a bruise. His two eyes filled with tears,
his strong voice failed him. Tydeus’ son swerved aside,
then drove his sure-footed horses far ahead,
outdistancing the rest, for Athena had put strength
into his team, to give Diomedes glory.
Behind him came Atreus’ son, fair-haired Menelaus.
But then Antilochus called to his father’s horses:

“Get going, you two. Push yourselves. Move up now,
as fast as you can go. I’m not asking you
to try to beat those horses up ahead,
the team of that warlike son of Tydeus,
whom Athena has just helped run faster
to give their driver glory. But overtake
those horses of the son of Atreus—
quick now—don’t let them get too far ahead.
You don’t want to suffer shame from Aethe,
who’s just a mare. Why are you falling back,
you strong horses? Let me tell you something
which is sure to happen—if you slack off now
and I win some inferior prize, then Nestor,
his people’s shepherd, will stop feeding you.
He’ll take out his sharp bronze and kill you both,
here and now. So keep on after them.
Pick up the pace—as fast as you can run!
My task will be to think of something,
devise a way of getting past them there,
where the road narrows. I won’t miss my chance.”

Antilochus finished. His horses, frightened
by their master’s threat, ran faster for a stretch.
Suddenly brave Antilochus saw up ahead
a place where the road was hollowed out and narrow,
with a channel in the ground where winter rains
had backed the water up, washing out some of the road
and making all the ground subside. Menelaus
was coming to this spot, leaving no space at all
for a second chariot to move along beside him.
But Antilochus guided his sure-footed horses
off the track, charging up a little to one side.
Atreus’ son, alarmed, shouted at Antilochus:

“Antilochus, you’re driving like an idiot!
Pull your horses back! The road’s too narrow.
It gets wider soon—you can pass me there!
Watch you don’t hit me. You’ll make us crash!”

Menelaus shouted, but Antilochus kept going,
moving even faster and laying on the whip,
as if he hadn’t heard. They raced on like this
about as far as a discus flies when tossed
with a shoulder swing by a powerful young man
testing his strength. But then the son of Atreus’ team
slowed down and fell behind, reined in deliberately,
in case the sure-footed teams somehow collided
and overturned their well-sprung chariots in the road,
leaving their drivers, for all their eagerness to win,
sprawling in the dust. Then fair-haired Menelaus,
in anger at Antilochus, yelled out:

you’re more reckless than any man alive!
Damn you! Achaeans were all wrong to think
you were a man with some intelligence.
But even so, you still may not win the prize,
without the need to swear you won it fairly.”

Menelaus yelled this, then called out to his horses:

“Don’t slow down or stand there sad at heart.
Their feet and limbs will tire before yours do,
for those two horses are no longer young.”

Menelaus spoke. Excited by their master’s shout,
his horses ran on even faster.

Meanwhile, the Argives,
sitting all together, kept watching for the horses
racing on the dusty plain. The first to spot them
was Idomeneus, leader of the Cretans.
He sat some distance from the crowd, in a higher spot,
a fine lookout. The man in front was still far off,
but when he called his horses, Idomeneus
recognized his voice and could see quite clearly
the horse in front—it was all brown, with a mark
as round and white as a full moon on his forehead.
Idomeneus stood up and called out to the Argives:

“My friends, leaders and rulers of Argives,
am I the only one to see those horses,
or can you glimpse them, too? It seems to me
that another team is now in front,
with another charioteer approaching.
Going out, Eumelus’ mares were in the lead,
but they must have run into some trouble
out there, somewhere on the plain. I saw them
wheeling round the turning post in front.
Now I can’t see them anywhere, though my eyes
keep searching the entire Trojan plain.
Perhaps the charioteer let go the reins
and couldn’t guide his chariot round the post
and failed to make the turn. I think he fell
out there somewhere and smashed his chariot.
His horses must have panicked in their hearts
and run away. But stand up. Look for yourselves.
I can’t see all that clearly, but the man
seems to be of Aetolian descent,
an Argive king, mighty Diomedes,
son of horse-taming Tydeus.”

At that point,
swift Ajax, son of Oileus, mocked Idomeneus
with these insulting words:

why are you always nattering? Those prancing mares
are still far distant, with a lot more ground
to race across. And of all the Argives here
you’re not the youngest—those eyes in your head
don’t have the keenest vision. But for all that,
you still chatter on. You don’t need to babble,
when there are better men than you around.
Those same mares as before are out in front,
Eumelus’ team, and he’s standing there, as well,
holding the reins.”

The leader of the Cretans,
furious with Ajax, then replied:

“You’re great at insults,
Ajax, but really stupid. In everything,
you’re the most useless Argive of them all,
because your mind is dull. Come on then,
let’s bet a tripod or a cauldron on it—
which horses are in front—so you’ll learn
by having to pay up. As our umpire,
let’s have Agamemnon, son of Atreus.”

At Idomeneus’ words, swift Ajax, son of Oileus,
jumped up at once, in a rage, ready to answer
with more angry words. At that point, their quarrel
might have got much worse, but Achilles himself
stood up and said:

“No more of this,
Idomeneus and Ajax, no more angry words,
no more insults—that’s not appropriate.
You’d both feel angry if another man
behaved this way. So sit down with the group
and watch for horses. It won’t be long
before their eagerness to win brings them here.
Then you can both see the Argive horses,
who’s in the lead and who’s behind.”

As Achilles spoke, Tydeus’ son came charging in
really close to them. He kept swinging his whip
down from the shoulder, so his horses raced ahead,
raising their hooves up high as they ran the course.
Clouds of dust kept falling on the charioteer,
as his chariot made of gold and tin raced on,
drawn by swift-running horses, who left behind
only a slight trace of wheel rims in the dust,
as the team flew speeding by. Diomedes pulled up
right in the middle of the crowd. Streams of sweat
dripped from the horses’ necks and chests onto the ground.
He jumped down from his gleaming chariot, leaning the whip
against the yoke. Strong Sthenelus didn’t wait for long
to get the prizes—he retrieved them right away,
giving the woman to his proud comrades to lead off
and the two-handled tripod to carry with them.
Then he untied the horses from their harnesses.

Next in came the horses driven by Antilochus,
grandson of Neleus, who just beat Menelaus—
he won by cunning, not by his horses’ speed.
But Menelaus was bringing his swift horses in
very close behind. The space between the two
was as far as a horse is from the chariot wheel,
when it strains to pull its master fast across the plain—
its tail ends touch the spinning wheels behind it—
there’s not much space between them, as they move
at top speed on the plain—that’s about how far
Menelaus lagged behind noble Antilochus.
At first, he’d been about a discus throw behind,
but he was quickly catching up, for the spirit
in Agamemnon’s mare, the fair-maned Aethe,
kept getting stronger. Had the course been longer
for both contestants, he’d have surely passed him,
without leaving the result in doubt. The next one in
was Meriones, Idomeneus’ brave attendant,
a spear-throw length behind splendid Menelaus.
His horses were the slowest, and he himself
had the least skill at driving in a chariot race.
Last one in was Admetus’ son, well behind the rest,
driving his horses in front of him and pulling
his chariot behind. Seeing Eumelus coming in,
swift-footed lord Achilles felt sorry for him.
Standing among Argives, he spoke his words had wings:

“The best man brings up his sure-footed horses
in last place. Come, let’s give him a prize,
as seems fitting—the award for second place.
Let Diomedes take the first-place prize.”

Achilles spoke. They all agreed with his suggestion.
So now he would have given Eumelus the mare,
as Achaeans had agreed, but Antilochus,
great-hearted Nestor’s son, stood up to claim his right.
Addressing Achilles, son of Peleus, he said:

“Achilles, I’ll be angry with you,
if you carry out what you’ve proposed.
For you want to rob me of my prize,
claiming that his chariot and swift horses
ran into trouble—as he did himself,
though he’s an excellent charioteer.
But he should have prayed to the immortals—
in the race he would not have finished last.
If you’re feeling sorry for Eumelus,
if he’s someone your heart is fond of,
in your hut there’s lots of gold. You’ve got bronze,
sheep, women slaves, and sure-footed horses.
Why not take some of that and then give him
an even greater prize sometime later on?
Or do it now. Achaeans will applaud you.
But I won’t give up the mare. If someone
wants her, let him try doing battle with me,
hand to hand.”

Antilochus finished speaking.
Swift-footed, god-like Achilles smiled, delighted
with Antilochus, who was a close companion.
In reply, he spoke these winged words:

if you’re telling me to give Eumelus
some other prize inside my huts, I’ll do it.
I’ll give him the breastplate I took away
from Asteropaeus. It’s made of bronze,
with a casting of bright tin around it.
For Eumelus it will have great value.”

After saying this, Achilles ordered Automedon,
his close companion, to fetch the breastplate from the hut.
He went and brought it back and gave it to Eumelus,
who was delighted to receive the armour.
But then Menelaus stood up before them all.
His heart was bitter with unremitting anger
against Antilochus. A herald put the sceptre
in Menelaus’ hand, then shouted out for silence
among the Argives. God-like Menelaus spoke:

“Antilochus, you used to have good sense,
before all this. Now look at what you’ve done.
You’ve brought my skills here into disrepute,
fouling my horses when you hurled your team
in front of me out there, that team of yours
which is far inferior to mine. Come now,
you leaders and rulers of the Argives,
judge between the two of us—and fairly,
so Achaeans armed in bronze will never say,

‘Menelaus beat Antilochus with lies,
when he received that mare. Though his horses
were much slower, he used his influence,
his rank and power.’

In fact, I myself
will judge the case, and no Danaan,
I claim, will find fault with me in any way,
for justice will be done. Antilochus,
come here, my lord, and, as our customs state,
stand there before your chariot and horses,
holding that thin whip you used before.
With your hand on your horses, swear an oath,
by the god who surrounds and shakes the earth,
that you didn’t mean to block my chariot
with some trick.”

Antilochus, a prudent man, replied:

“Don’t let me offend you, king Menelaus.
I’m a younger man than you—you’re my senior
and my better. You know how a young man
can do foolish things. His mind works quickly,
but his judgment’s suspect. So be patient
in your heart. That mare I was awarded
I freely give you. And if you requested
something greater from my own possessions,
I’d want to give it to you right away,
rather than lose your good will, my lord,
for ever and offend against the gods.”

The son of great-hearted Nestor finished speaking.
He led out the horse, then placed it in the hands
of Menelaus, whose heart melted like the dew
on ripening ears of corn, when fields are bristling
with the crop—that’s how, Menelaus, your heart
softened in your chest. He spoke to Antilochus—
his words had wings:

“Now, indeed, Antilochus,
I’ll give up my anger with you. Before now,
you haven’t been too reckless or a fool.
This time your youth overcame your judgement.
In future, you shouldn’t try to do such tricks
against your betters. Another Achaean
would not have won me over quite so fast.
But you’ve worked very hard, endured a lot—
you, your noble father, and your brother—
in my cause. So I’ll agree to your request.
What’s more, though she’s mine, I’ll give you the mare,
so all these people here will recognize
my heart’s not arrogant or unyielding.”

Saying this, Menelaus gave the mare to Noëmon,
a comrade of Antilochus, to lead away.
Menelaus carried off the shining cauldron.
Meriones then collected the two talents
for his fourth-place finish. But the prize for fifth place,
the two-handled jar, went unclaimed. So Achilles
awarded it to Nestor. Carrying the prize
into the crowd of Argives, he stood beside him.
Then Achilles said:

“Take this now, old man.
Let it be your treasure, in memory
of Patroclus’ burial. For you’ll see him
no more among the Argives. This prize
I’m giving you without a contest.
For you won’t be competing as a boxer,
or in wrestling, or the spear throw.
Nor will you be running in the foot race.
For old age now has you in its cruel grip.”

With these words, Achilles placed the jar in Nestor’s hands.
He was happy to accept it. Then Nestor spoke,
saying these winged words to Achilles:

“Indeed, my son, you’ve made a valid point.
For my limbs and feet are no longer firm,
my friend. Nor do I find it as easy
to extend my arms out from my shoulders,
as I did before. Would that I were young,
my strength as firm, as it was that day
Epeians buried lord Amarynceus
at Bouprasium. His sons awarded prizes
in honour of their king. No man could match me,
none of the Epeians, my own Pylians,
nor any of the brave Aetolians.
In boxing I defeated Clytomedes,
Enops’ son, in wrestling Ancaeus,
from Pleuron, who fought against me.
In the footrace, I outran Iphicles,
who was outstanding, and in the spear throw,
I beat Phyleus and Polydorus.
I was beaten only in the chariot race
by the two sons of Actor. They pushed ahead,
for there were two of them, both really keen
to win, because they’d set the greatest prize
for that particular race. They were two twins.
One always held the reins—he was the driver.
The other used the whip. That’s the man I was,
back then, but now let younger men compete
in events like these. For I must follow
the dictates of a cruel old age these days,
though as a warrior I once excelled.
But come, you must continue with these games
to honour your companion. As for this gift,
I accept it gladly. It delights my heart
that you think of me always as your friend.
You don’t forget the honours due to me
among Achaeans. May the gods grant you,
as a reward for that, your heart’s desires.”

Nestor finished. Once he’d heard all of Nestor’s story,
Peleus’ son moved through the large Achaean crowd.

Homer, The Iliad, XXIII.257-652; transl. by Ian Johnston
(Johnstonia - the home page of Ian Johnston,

Homer, Odyssey: Odysseus returns to Ithaca

(before 6th century BC)

Just as four stallions yoked together charge ahead
across the plain, all running underneath the lash,
and jump high as they gallop quickly on their way,
that’s how the stern of that ship leapt up on high,
while in her wake the dark waves of the roaring sea
were churned to a great foam, as she sped on her path,
safe and secure. Not even a wheeling hawk,
the swiftest of all flying things, could match her speed,
as she raced ahead, slicing through the ocean waves,
carrying a man whose mind was like a god’s.

Homer, The Odyssey, XIII.81-89; transl. by Ian Johnston
(Johnstonia - the home page of Ian Johnston,

Hesiod, Shield of Herakles: Chariot racing scene depicted on the shield

(before 6th century BC)

Beside them, horsemen had hard work, and about a prize
they had a fight and toil. On well-plaited chariots
drivers stood and sent on swift horses
slackening the reins, and they rattled and flew,
the well-jointed chariots, as wheel hubs screeched loudly at it.
So they had hard work everlasting, and never for them
was victory achieved, but they had a contest undecided.
A great tripod was set out for them within the course,
a golden one, splendid work of prudent Hephaestus.

Hesiod, Shield of Herakles, 305-313; transl. by James Huddleston
(The Chicago Homer)

Sophocles, Electra: Chariot race at the Pythian Games at Delphi

(5th century BC)

So far Orestes fared as I described. But when a god sends harm, not even the strong man can escape. For on another day, when with the rising sun there was held the race of the swift-footed horses, he entered it along with many charioteers. One was an Achaean, one from Sparta; two masters of yoked cars were Libyans; Orestes, driving Thessalian mares, came fifth among them; the sixth was from Aetolia, with chestnut colts; a Magnesian was the seventh; the eighth, with white horses, was of Aenian stock; the ninth hailed from Athens, built of gods; there was a Boeotian too, making the tenth chariot.

They took their stations where the appointed umpires placed them by lot and ranged the cars. Then at the sound of the bronze trumpet, they started. All shouted to their horses, and shook the reins in their hands; the whole course was filled with the clatter of rattling chariots; and the dust flew upward. All of them in a confused throng kept plying their goads unsparingly, so that one of them might pass the wheel-hubs and the snorting steeds of his rivals; for both at their backs and at their rolling wheels the breath of the horses foamed and smattered.

Orestes, driving close to the near edge of the turning-post, almost grazed it with his wheel each time and, giving rein to the trace-horse on the right, he checked the horse on the inner side. To this point, all the chariots still stood upright. But then the Aenian’s hard-mouthed colts carried him out of control as they passed out of the turn from the sixth into the seventh lap and dashed their foreheads against the rig of the Barcaean. Next, as a result of this one mishap, the cars kept smashing and colliding with each other, and the whole race-ground of Crisa swelled with shipwrecked chariots.

Seeing this, the clever charioteer from Athens drew aside and paused, allowing the equestrian flood to pass in mid-crest. Orestes was driving last, keeping his horses behind, as his trust was in the race’s end. But when he sees that the Athenian is alone left in, he sends a shrill cry ringing through the ears of his swift colts, and gives chase. Bringing yoke level with yoke the two of them raced, first one man, then the other, showing his head in front of the other’s chariot.

Up to now the ill-fated Orestes had driven upright safely through every circuit, upright in his upright car. But then he slackened his left rein while the horse was turning and unwittingly struck the edge of the pillar, breaking the axle-box in two. He spilled forward over the chariot-rail and was caught in the trim reins, and as he fell to the ground, his colts were scattered into the middle of the course.

But when the crowd saw that he had fallen from the chariot, a cry of pity went up for the young man who had done such deeds and was allotted such bad fortune—now dashed against the earth, now tossed with his feet to the sky until the charioteers with difficulty reigned in the gallop of his horses and freed him, so covered with blood that no friend who saw it would have known the pitiful corpse. Immediately they burned him on a pyre, and chosen men of Phocis now bring the sad dust of that mighty form in a small urn of bronze, so that he may find due burial in his fatherland.

Such is my story—it is grievous even to hear, but for us witnesses who looked on, it was the greatest of sorrows that these eyes have seen.

Sophocles, Electra, 696-763; transl. by Richard C. Jebb
(Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1894)

Theokritos, Idylls: The childhood of Heracles

(3rd century BC)

But the art of driving chariot horses, and how to round the
Turning-post in safety, and not to graze the wheel’s hub, Amphitryon
Taught his son with loving care; he himself had won many a prize in the
Swift races at Argos, nurturer of horses, and the chariots he had driven
Had survived intact, except that time had ruined their leather reins.

Theocritus, Idylls, 24.119-123; transl. by Anthony Verity
(Oxford University Press, New York, 2002)

Pausanias, Description of Greece: Hippodrome at Olympia

(2nd century AD)

When you have passed beyond the stadium, at the point where the umpires sit, is a place set apart for the horse-races, and also the starting-place for the horses. The starting-place is in the shape of the prow of a ship, and its prow is turned towards the course. At the point where the prow adjoins the porch of Agnaptus it broadens and a bronze dolphin on a rod has been made at the very point of the ram.

Each side of the starting-place is more than four hundred feet in length, and in the sides are built stalls. These stalls are assigned by lot to those who enter for the races. Before the chariots or race-horses is stretched a cord as a barrier. An altar of unburnt brick, plastered on the outside, is made at every Festival as near as possible to the center of the prow, and a bronze eagle stands on the altar with his wings stretched out to the fullest extent. The man appointed to start the racing sets in motion the mechanism in the altar, and then the eagle has been made to jump upwards, so as to become visible to the spectators, while the dolphin falls to the ground.

First on either side the barriers are withdrawn by the porch of Agnaptus, and the horses standing thereby run off first. As they run they reach those to whom the second station has been allotted, and then are withdrawn the barriers at the second station. The same thing happens to all the horses in turn, until at the ram of the prow they are all abreast. After this it is left to the charioteers to display their skill and the horses their speed.

It was Cleoetas who originally devised the method of starting, and he appears to have been proud of the discovery, as on the statue at Athens he wrote the inscription:

Who first invented the method of starting the horses at Olympia,
He made me, Cleoetas the son of Aristocles.

It is said that after Cleoetas some further device was added to the mechanism by Aristeides.

The race-course has one side longer than the other, and on the longer side, which is a bank, there stands, at the passage through the bank, Taraxippus, the terror of the horses. It has the shape of a round altar, and as they run along the horses are seized, as soon as they reach this point, by a great fear without any apparent reason. The fear leads to disorder; the chariots generally crash and the charioteers are injured. Consequently the charioteers offer sacrifice, and pray that Taraxippus may show himself propitious to them.

The Greeks differ in their view of Taraxippus. Some hold that it is the tomb of an original inhabitant who was skilled in horsemanship; they call him Olenius, and say that after him was named the Olenian rock in the land of Elis. Others say that Dameon, son of Phlius, who took part in the expedition of Heracles against Augeas and the Eleans, was killed along with his charger by Cteatus the son of Actor, and that man and horse were buried in the same tomb.

There is also a story that Pelops made here an empty mound in honor of Myrtilus, and sacrificed to him in an effort to calm the anger of the murdered man, naming the mound Taraxippus (Frightener of horses) because the mares of Oenomaus were frightened by the trick of Myrtilus. Some say that it is Oenomaus himself who harms the racers in the course. I have also heard some attach the blame to Alcathus, the son of Porthaon. Killed by Oenomaus because he wooed Hippodameia, Alcathus, they say, here got his portion of earth; having been unsuccessful on the course, he is a spiteful and hostile deity to chariot-drivers.

A man of Egypt said that Pelops received something from Amphion the Theban and buried it where is what they call Taraxippus, adding that it was the buried thing which frightened the mares of Oenomaus, as well as those of every charioteer since. This Egyptian thought that Amphion and the Thracian Orpheus were clever magicians, and that it was through their enchantments that the beasts came to Orpheus, and the stones came to Amphion for the building of the wall. The most probable of the stories in my opinion makes Taraxippus a surname of Horse Poseidon.

There is another Taraxippus at the Isthmus, namely Glaucus, the son of Sisyphus. They say that he was killed by his horses, when Acastus held his contests in honor of his father. At Nemea of the Argives there was no hero who harmed the horses, but above the turning-point of the chariots rose a rock, red in color, and the flash from it terrified the horses, just as though it had been fire. But the Taraxippus at Olympia is much worse for terrifying the horses.

On one turning-post is a bronze statue of Hippodameia carrying a ribbon, and about to crown Pelops with it for his victory.

Pausanias, Description of Greece, VI.20.10-19; transl. by W. H. S. Jones and H. A. Ormerod
(Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.; William Heinemann Ltd., London, 1918)