In our modern society we have celebrity athletes of different sports, but this is not simply a continuation of historical tradition. Rome was the society that first grew athlete-superstars was Rome. After their collapse, Europe endured a period of centuries known as the Dark or Middle Ages in which there were no celebrity athletes. It was not until the Industrial Age and the organization of modern sports that athletes began to again capture the popular imagination as celebrated stars.
Rome was the first Republic and the grandfather of Western culture. It was a society that flourished as a “melting pot” of peoples with citizen representation in government—and grew the world’s first Middle Class—before corrupting into a tyranny that ended in the destruction of human consciousness. There were two Romes: the long period of growth during the Republic, and its shorter stagnation and decline as an Imperial power.
Celebrity charioteers were a feature of Imperial Rome, and it is Imperial Rome that holds the common imagination today. There has been a reawakening in modern times of ancient forces, whether these forces are (or can be made) positive or not. The destructive element of Rome’s manic celebrity was the power of distraction. Chariot racing was the “circus” of Juvenal’s famous quote about “Bread and Circuses”:
…for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.