The richest athlete ever

The football trading season has just ended, leaving a lot of traded players with paychecks that are grossly obscene, far in excess by several orders of magnitude for what is reasonable for any game.  (I'm talking about real football here...the thing with the round ball that you kick...)   In England alone they spent 630 million pounds on football players.  That comes to something just short of one billion dollars.

So are these guys the richest athletes ever?  Actually, no.

The richest athlete of all time is a Roman chariot racer, one Gaius Appuleius Diocles.

Diocles was an illiterate Spanish lad who, it turned out, was really, really good at driving chariots.  He joined the White Faction at age 18.  Romans devoutly supported one of four teams: the Reds, Whites, Blues and Greens.  Fans regularly rioted over which team was best.  Diocles didn't care.  He raced for the Whites for some years, then moved to the Greens, and ended his career with the Reds.  In that time he had 1,462 victories from 4,257 starts.  But that doesn't tell the full story, because most of his races were against other top-of-the-line racers.  His standard was to race four horse teams, but he was also one of the first to race a seven horse chariot without a yoke (the mind boggles).

Then as now, crazed sports fans loved statistics, all of which they engraved on his memorial.  Diocles seems to have worked out what all modern racers know: that the start matters a lot.  In 815 of his victories he led from the start.  It was clearly his strategy to make sure he led at the first turn.  In another 502 he won at the last moment in a neck-and neck race.  In only 67 did he come from the back to win.  When he didn't win, he came second 861 times and third 576 times.

His total winnings, listed on his monument that was erected by his admiring fans, amounted to 35,863,120 sesterces.  Someone once tried to convert that to modern currency by comparing it with army pay Roman vs modern.  It comes to about 15 billion dollars, overwhelmingly the richest athlete ever.


Colin Smith said...

Fascinating. The only way I can justify the high salaries these athletes get is to consider the fact that for many of them, their working career is relatively short. Most burn out when they hit their 40s. And if sport is all they know, they need to have amassed a good amount of money to live on the rest of their lives.

Which leads me to wonder how long Diocles raced? I imagine chariot racing was far more dangerous than even real football, and I can't imagine people building long careers doing it. At some point they would be too old, or crushed under a wheel (or horse). I'm sure it would be nice for them to have a nice retirement fund (or inheritance for your family).

Gary Corby said...

Hi Colin, I know Diocles retired with his family to a quiet town outside Rome: a place called Praeneste. He died at 42, which is unusually young even by the standards of the times. He certainly took a lot of damage as a charioteer, but at least he didn't die in a race, and he did live long enough to have a son and daughter.

The mortality rate for chariot drivers in both Rome and classical Greece was incredibly high. Greek chariot racing was probably even more dangerous. When I wrote Sacred Games, the chariot race in that book is, if anything, very mild by the standards of the times with only five or six deaths during an Olympic race. A few years before the Sacred Games race there was a race in which forty chariots crashed out. Most of those would have been fatalities.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Last I heard, he tested positive for a banned substance, was ordered to forfeit his victories, and appealed that order to the office of baseball commissioner Bud Selig, where it remains unruled on until today.

In re Blues and Greens, of an evening when I visited Istanbul, I used to walk over to the Hippdrome and contemplate the Late Antique sculptures on the base of the the Obelisk of Theodosius (Thutmose III). The place was a lot quieter late at night then than it had mean during the Nika riots.
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Gary Corby said...

I'm trying to think of something that would count as a banned substance for a Roman,, the mind boggles.

Yes, the Nika riots were very cool. Unless you were in the middle of them I guess. Stephanie Thornton's first book The Secret History does them in detail.

I'm jealous you were in Istanbul, Peter. I really loved it when I was there.

Peter Rozovsky said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter Rozovsky said...

Don't get too excited; I was there in 1997. And I like Procopius's Secret History for the dirty parts

Is Stephanie Thornton's book specifically about the riots? The sculptures on the cobelisk base are interesting art historically because they have that mesmerizing, hieratic effect that marked the shift away from Classical taste. Those zoned-out, bug-eyed facial expressions are conducive to contemplation.

Gary Corby said...

Stephanie's Secret History is about the life of the Empress Theodora, who as you probably know was deeply involved in the whole crisis.