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Detail from Chariot Race by Jean-Leon Gerome

Gaius Appuleius Diocles, The $15 Billion Athlete of the Ancient World


There is much discussion about today’s highly paid athletes, be they football stars or Olympic competitors. According to Forbes, the top five highest-paid athletes in 2016 were Cristiano Ronaldo ($88 million), Lionel Messi ($81.4 million), LeBron James ($77.2 million), Roger Federer ($67.8 million), and Kevin Durant ($56.2 million). Yet to history’s highest paid athlete, these figures are a pittance. Even the few sports stars that have managed to break $1 billion in total revenues, such as Tiger Woods, cannot compete with the highest paid athlete of all time - Gaius Appuleius Diocles, a Roman charioteer who reportedly earned over $15 billion in today’s dollars.

A Rising Star

Gaius Appuleius Diocles was born in approximately 104 A.D in Lamecum, the capital city of Lusitania, province of Emerita Augusta (modern-day Portugal). His father owned a small-time transport business and the family was comparatively well off. Diocles is believed to have started racing at the age of 18 in Ilerda (modern-day Catalonia) and quickly gained a reputation good enough to get himself called up to the ‘big leagues’ in Rome. Known there as the Lamecus, Diocles brought considerable renown to his hometown.

Once in Rome, Diocles began driving for the White team. In Rome at this time, “competitors were affiliated to teams – not dissimilar to those of today’s Formula 1 – which invested in training and development of horses and equipment” with the players of the lowest team, the White team, “usually drawn from the lower orders of society” (Wardrop, 2010). Being a natural charioteer, Diocles was called up to the Green team at age 24. He then transferred to the Red Team at age 27. “This was a bold move because of the popularity of the Greens, but Diocles suffered no apparent damage” (Kebric, 2005).  Some historians speculate that Diocles switch from the popular Greens to the Reds had a simple motivation: wealth and glory. The Greens were undoubtedly the most popular and attracted the greatest racers. By switching to the Red team, Diocles ensured that he would stand out as the greatest of the Reds – and reap the financial benefits that went along with it. Being the best in the field also seems to have allowed Diocles to perfect his showmanship. Many of his victories took the form of a ‘come from behind’ crossing of the finish line at the last possible moment. The crowds loved it. Any race with Diocles quickly became the ‘featured event’ of the day. This naturally helped Diocles make even more money.

“It [greed, fame seeking, etc.] is not limited ... to the modern period,” Struck says of the misconception “that people are somehow greedy now and they didn't used to be.” He chuckles. “That's not the case. In fact, it's an underlying human phenomenon. People always want to have social capital, the respect of their peers, more of that is better. And they want to have money, and more of that is better. And I don't know of a society in which that's not the case.” (quoted from Zarley, 2015).

A statue of Gaius Appuleius Diocles

A statue of Gaius Appuleius Diocles (CC 1.0)

Champion of Charioteers

The 2 nd -century star did not make his money through sponsorships or marketing gambits. Instead, the earnings came solely from the prizes he won over a 24-year-long career. Of the 4,257 four-horse races he competed in, Diocles won 1,462 races and was placed in an additional 1,438 races (mostly finishing in second place). The ‘champion of charioteers’ is one of the best-documented ancient athletes, most likely because he was such a star at the famous Roman Circus Maximus. Many students of history know that the Circus was merely a way for the flagging Empire to pacify the masses of poor and downtrodden. Contemporaries, too, were aware of the ulterior motives behind the Emperor’s support of the weekly chariot races. Writing in the 1 st century AD, poet and satirist Juvenal wrote, “Long ago the people shed their anxieties, ever since we do not sell our votes to anyone. For the people – who once conferred imperium, symbols of office, legions, everything – now hold themselves in check and anxiously desire only two things, the grain dole and chariot races in the Circus” (Mandal, 2016).

This situation was quite all right with Dicoles. “Twenty-four years of winnings brought Diocles – likely an illiterate man whose signature move was the strong final dash – the staggering sum of 35,863,120 sesterces in prize money,” wrote Professor Peter Struck, the undergraduate chair of classical studies at the University of Chicago, in an article for Lapham’s Quarterly. “His total take home amounted to five times the earnings of the highest paid provincial governors over a similar period—enough to provide grain for the entire city of Rome for one year, or to pay all the ordinary soldiers of the Roman Army at the height of its imperial reach for a fifth of a year.”

A chariot race in the Circus Maximus

A chariot race in the Circus Maximus (public domain)

A Lucky Survivor

Diocles is famous not only for his obscene wealth but because he lived to retire at the age of 42. Many charioteers died in their mid-twenties. Diocles lucked out. He took his massive earnings and bought an expanse of land in the Italian countryside, near the small town of Praeneste (modern-day Palestrina). There, he lived out the remainder of his days in a quiet life of ease. His son and daughter later erected a dedication to his name at the site.

Top image: Detail from Chariot Race by Jean-Leon Gerome (opacity / flickr)

By Kerry Sullivan


Kebric, Robert B. "The Career of Diocles, Roman Charioteer."  Roman People. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill, 2005. 73-77. Print.

Mandal, Dattatreya. "A Roman Was A Highest Paid Athlete In History Of Mankind."  Realm of History. Realm of History, 21 May 2016. Web.

Struck, Peter T. "Greatest of All Time: Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous Roman Athletes."  Lapham’s Quarterly. Lapham’s Quarterly, 02 Aug. 2010. Web.

Wardrop, Murray. "Wealth of Today's Sports Stars Is 'no Match for the Fortunes of Rome's Chariot Racers'"  The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 13 Aug. 2010. Web.

Zarley, B. David. "The Fifteen Billion Dollar Athlete."  VICE Sports. VICE, 23 Mar. 2015. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.

Kerry Sullivan's picture

Kerry Sullivan

Kerry Sullivan has a Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Arts and is currently a freelance writer, completing assignments on historical, religious, and political topics.

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