Hold Your Horses – Driving Lessons From Ancient Rome

Hold Your Horses – Driving Lessons From Ancient Rome

Jen Farren


I have a modern problem – driving. Albania is a land of aggressive drivers where few traffic signs or rules are obeyed. Drivers jump signals, go clockwise, anticlockwise and straight across at roundabouts and drive the wrong way up motorways. Meanwhile people and livestock run across the road and in the mountains, without warning, roads sometimes end by dropping off a cliff.

With little time to anticipate or react, at times driving is like a dodgem ride full of near-misses, bumps and shocks. For a new driver like me, it may be one of the worst places to drive. I looked for advice from the Stoics and found it in the surprisingly relevant parallel of the Roman charioteer.

In a tradition dating back to Greece, the charioteer also faced aggressive driving, the risk of losing control, accidents and crashes as: “one chariot crashing into another, shattering it to pieces, until the entire field of Crisa became a sea of chariot wrecks. (Electra – Sophocles).The Romans saw the chariot race as a metaphor for life – short, competitive, full of drama and danger. Life and racing are sports of chance and error and both require skill and emotional control over the self:

“Any sensible person will behave like a charioteer applying the reins to his team and will check the vigorous impulses of his affections.” Cicero

Both Plato and the Bhagavad Gita used the analogy of the charioteer to show the interplay of intellect to the emotions and senses – Plato’s charioteer has two horses: one of morality and one of impulse, he must use reason to harness them in the same direction. The Bhagavad Gita’s charioteer has the horses as the five senses and must use intellect to reign them.

What Is Up To Me


I set out to use Stoic advice to chip away the unnecessary and help me cope with my driving problem. I began, as always, with Epictetus’s ‘locus of control’- to know what is up to me and what is not. The choice to drive is up to me. What happens in the car is not. I had an illusion of control that I ‘control’ the speed and direction with the pedals, wheel and stick. But not up to me are the mechanics, weather, road, other drivers nor the unexpected, or, as the Romans would see it, interference from the Gods.

The amount of things not up to me creates fear. Seneca reminds us that accidents are only one potential result: “we suffer more often in imagination than in reality,” but in this case, the reality is that most journeys do involve close calls with disaster. More useful to me was the Stoic advice on the rehearsal of adversity: ‘those who have prepared in advance for the coming conflict…easily withstand.’ (Seneca). Mentally rehearsing the driving scenarios I feared most helped me feel more prepared and experience less shock when incidents did happen.

Hold Your Horses

Like a charioteer, as I set off every sense is on alert. I feel: “like someone set for a race waiting in the starting blocks.” (Seneca). I remind myself that now what is up to me is how to think about it. Epictetus said resisting the inevitable is like being a dog tied to a moving chariot – if it won’t run it gets dragged anyway. I decided that once in the car, I will ignore fear. In the proverb: ‘See well to your girths, and then ride on boldly.’ (Goethe)

Once on a galloping horse (or in my case my extremely aged Honda) it is clearly foolish to let fear distract from what is in front of me:

“Antilochus, you drive recklessly; hold your horses! “ Iliad, Book 23.

I need to get control. Key to this was realizing that when driving, the biggest risk is not other drivers, but being distracted by my own unrealistic demands and judgments. The Stoics say that we not upset by events but by adding judgment. Events may be a stimulus but not the cause of the upset. When driving I feel frustration – the stimulus is the antics of other road users, but the cause is my demand that people should drive safely. Is this demand realistic? No. The reality is unsafe driving is the norm here! My unrealistic demand gives me unnecessary stress and if avoided, saves my energy for driving.

The Stoics advise us to only judge our own thoughts and actions as good or bad. When driving, I judge other drivers constantly: why did he do that? Or: “what is wrong with him?” This triggers unhelpful emotions and distracts me from paying full attention. The Stoic advice is to take away opinion and there is no harm. Once behind the wheel, I tell myself to let go of unrealistic demands and stop judging, no matter how absurd or reckless the behavior I encounter.

As with the Roman Charioteer or the Stoic Sage, every moment in the car is a test of skill and virtue.

‘The mind, when imbued with the lessons of wisdom, is like a charioteer; for it restrains the desires implanted in us, and brings us back to virtue. Demophilus

Seneca’s tells of Phaeton the Charioteer –warned from flying to the Sun, he retorts:

“I like the road, I shall mount; even though I fall, it will be worthwhile to travel through such sights…harness the chariot you offered; the very things that you think fright me urge me on.”

He notes that the groveller and the coward will follow the safe path, while virtue seeks the heights. Can I reframe my driving in this way? The Roman public loved the chariot-race as it was a spectacle and involved all the senses. Well driving here certainly is a spectacle. And it certainly does involve every sense, for as a new driver every mirror, change of gear, is done consciously. I can choose to see this as a positive thing, that I experience ‘mindful driving’ in a way that experienced drivers miss as they drive on autopilot.

If all else fails, I keep my ‘nuclear option’ Stoic quote close to heart. It has never failed to cheer me – a final refuge in fatalism, in necessity and the inevitable. “You may depart life this very minute. Let that guide what you say and do.” (Marcus Aurelius). I tell myself if this could be the last drive I ever have, I may as well enjoy the ride!

About the author: Jen Farren is a freelance writer living in the Balkans. She writesabout Balkan Art, Culture and Ideas, past and present, and blogs about this at: gotirana.wordpress.comHer career is in research, analysis, writing and communications for London Underground, Police and Government. She has written for IROKO Theatre, Royal Docks Project and Heritage Lottery Fund. She has previously written ‘Star Trek & Stoicism‘. 

3 thoughts on Hold Your Horses – Driving Lessons From Ancient Rome

  1. Ali says:

    My goodness, driving in Albania sounds like an ongoing battle. Whilst I am not faced with as many ongoing challenges behind the wheel, I am very aware of a change in my attitude with regard to stressful driving situations. Last year during Stoic week I decided to take a long hard look at how I was responding to other people’s behaviour in their vehicles, and how that was affecting me. On rare occasions I had become quite an anxious driver, far too sensitive to other inconsiderate road users. I took advice from the Stoics and instead of being driven by my emotions I now concentrate on driving my car in the hope I’ll reach my destination safely.

  2. Robb says:

    Hey what a great piece. I found it very amusing but also very true. Thanks for sharing with us. Good luck on the roads.

  3. Francis Norton says:

    What a vivid and useful picture! How would the sage drive? In a bubble, I’m sure, of mindful serenity…

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.