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In today’s world we see many professional athletes showcasing their talents in their respective sport, and also in media through various endorsement deals.
These sports superstars are idolized, seen as role models, and are envied for the life in which they live in comparison to the average working person. Not much has changed over the course of 2 millenia.
The sports stars of the past were gladiators and charioteers instead of players of American Football, soccer, golf, basketball, tennis, baseball, etc. The fame and fortune was there, but on a completely different level.
With that we uncover the life of the world’s 1st sports billionaire, Gaius Appuleius Diocles!
As a modern example, in 2009 golfer Tiger Woods was heralded as the first athlete to earn over $1 billion. That is nothing to scoff at, but it’s small potatoes when compared to the earning potential of those in the Circus Maximus.
One charioteer, Gaius Appuleius Diocles, amassed a fortune 35,863,120 sesterces in prize money. That would be the modern equivalent of $15 billion (£9.6 billion.
Just take a moment to let that sink in.
We’ll come back to explain how Diocles was able to earn so much money. Let’s start though by taking a look at the man.
Gaius Appuleius Diocles, a most likely illiterate man, was an ancient Hispano-Roman during the 2nd Century AD. In 104 AD, he was born In Lamecum (current Lamego) belonging to Emerita Augusta, capital of Lusitania (now Mérida, Spain).
As a child, Diocles lived at Lamecum with his father who worked and owned a transport business. It was here that the boy would race chariots.
His main renowned victory outside of Lusitania was in Ilerda (now Lleida, Catalonia, Spain). This success gave him international fame and encouraged him go to Rome, where he was known as the Lamecus (since he was born in Lamecum).
Within Lamecus a statue of Diocles was erected on top the fountain in front of the garden, known as Jardim do Campo, located in the center of town. One can still see the tile panel painted by the famous painter Jorge Colaco where he portrays Diocles fitness as the supreme racing athlete driving quadrigas.
According to Roman author Tertullian, chariot racing originally just 2 teams, White and Red, sacred to winter and summer respectively. This grew into 4 teams (Red, White, Green, and Blue), with each team having up to 3 chariots each in a race.
Members of the same team often collaborated with each other against the other teams, for example to force them to crash into the spina (a legal and encouraged tactic). Drivers could switch teams, much like athletes can be traded to different teams today.
At age 18, Diocles began driving for the White team. After 6 years, he switched to the Green team. After 3 years with Green, he began driving for the Red team where he stayed
There is evidence which suggests that Diocles sought not only money but personal glory, another supposedly modern condition, with his choice of team. Of all the teams, the Greens and Blues were the most successful and popular.
Diocles began his career at age 18 as a White, before making a move to the Greens at age 24. This was a seemingly plum spot for any young charioteer.
Yet he transferred to the less popular, and potentially less stacked, Reds at age 27. This move had to have made financial sense and may have had personal motivations as well, since it was the worst of the 4 factions.
It is entirely possible, considering his weakness for showmanship, Diocles wished to be a single, shining star. His switch from the Greens, where he was one of many popular charioteers on a team with a storied history of them, so that he could write his own history with the Reds makes sense.
Diocles remained a Red until his retirement at age 42. That length as a charioteer was an accomplishment in itself.
The higher level of pay did not come without its perils for Diocles and his contemporaries. With little more than a leather helmet, shin guards and simple chest armor for protection, racers endured 7 grueling laps of competition, which often ended in the deaths of rivals unfortunate enough to be upended.
He most commonly came from behind to win his races. Records show that he won only 34% or 1,462 out of the 4,257 quadriga races he competed in though.
The Roman chariot racer’s career earnings, marked down with admirable permanence in a stone inscription erected in Rome in 146 AD by his fellow charioteers and fans, totaled 35,863,120 sesterces. With his earnings, Diocles could do any of the following: feed grain to all of Rome for an entire year; compensate the 5 most handsomely paid Provincial Governors’ salaries; or could bankroll the Roman Army, then at its world conquering height, for a fifth of a year.
Dr. Peter Struck, from the University of Chicago, said “By today’s standards that last figure, assuming the apt comparison is what it takes to pay the wages of the American armed forces for the same period, would cash out to about $15 billion.”
The 2nd Century “Champion of all Charioteers” made his fortune even without the sponsorship and marketing fees that bolster the pay of his modern counterparts in the sporting world. That’s something Tiger Woods could not claim.
Spurned by Forbes’s glee at Tiger Woods approaching the one billion mark, Struck’s brief article in Lapham’s Quarterly caught like wildfire. The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, and the Discovery Channel were but a few of the outlets to breathlessly report Diocles’s immense wealth.
Aside from the romance which still smolders in the West for the Classical Era, the sheer size of the figure demanded enthusiastic attention. Fifteen billion dollars is such a sum, for one man, as to be staggering.
It is like the distance between stars, or the death tolls of certain Eastern Front battlefields. These are numbers so large as to be almost concepts.
While the news outlets salivated over Diocles’s immense fortune, it missed an important lesson encoded within his statistics. The Romans, as devout followers of sport as any modern society, kept meticulous records with regards to chariot racing; not only the charioteers of the 4 factions, but also stats on the horses as well, which were famed athletes in their own right.
Roman obsession with panem et circenses (bread and games) showed what the people valued most, the grain dole and chariot races in the Circus. The very phrase panem et circenses denotes this unhealthy preoccupation with materialistic stuff, a scope whose parallel can certainly be drawn in our modern terms.
Some races were worth more than others, and records show Diocles to have been a rather singular talent. 1,064 of his wins came in high stakes single entry races, wherein the Reds, Greens, Blues, and Whites would each offer unto the cruel Circus their best charioteer, who would fend of his adversaries without the aid of his teammates.
Diocles also notched 110 victories in opening races following grand processions in which the racers were a part. Such contests were like a Heavyweight Title Fight, where a bigger draw yields a bigger paycheck.
The life expectancy of a charioteer was not very high, so drivers could become celebrities throughout the Empire simply by surviving. One such celebrity driver was Scorpus, who won 2,048 races before being killed in a collision with the meta when he was about 27 years old.
Because many charioteers died quite young, this made Diocles’ career unusually long and stand out even more. By the time of his rather unusual death (calm and quiet after retirement), Diocles passed away in Praeneste, (present Palestrina, Italy)
Diocles is also notable for owning an extremely rare ducenarius, or a horse that had won at least 200 races.
We’re glad you joined us on today’s adventure. Make sure to join us again for who knows what we’ll uncover next.
Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!
Potter, David Stone. Life, Death, and Entertainment in the Roman Empire. University of Michigan Press, 1999. ISBN 0-472-08568-9.
Van Duisen, Michael. “The Highest-Paid Athlete Of All Time Is An Ancient Roman”. KnowledgeNuts. 11 September 2013.
Wardrop, Murray. “Wealth of today’s sports stars is ‘no match for the fortunes of Rome’s chariot racers’”. Telegraph.co.uk, 13 August 2010.