The Wealthiest Athlete in History May Have Been a Roman Charioteer
This year's list of top-earning athletes was full of the usual suspects: Roger Federer at $106 million, Cristiano Ronaldo at $105 million, all while Lionel Messi earned a mere $104 million.
We often assume that modern athletes, even with inflation accounted for, earn more than athletes in the past. Markets are bigger. We have sophisticated sponsorship channels. Yet it's very possible our assumptions are wrong. One man, from thousands of years prior, might have them all beat.
However, his story couldn’t have been more different.
The beginnings of a megastar
For many, charioteering is an ‘escape the coal mines’ type of job. They were slaves or indentured servants and didn’t want to be. Charioteering was seen as a better escape than fleeing or gladiatorial combat.¹
Other competitors were simply middle and upper-class young men, who had a high tolerance for risk and an insatiable thirst for glory.
The latter would best describe Gaius Appuleius Diocles. Born in 104 AD, he was from a middle-class family in the Roman city of Lamecum (now in Portugal). His father owned a transport company. The business gave Gaius access to horses and his equine training began at the earliest age.
Locals identified his talent in his early teens and he pivoted chariot training. He won at the regional level, making a name for himself in his home city. Then, his dream to compete in Rome came true just after he turned 18.²
It’s important to pause and recognize that chariot racing was the crowned king of all sports in the Roman Empire. The Circus Maximus was in the heart of the city and dwarfed the Colosseum in size. Hundreds of thousands of people could watch. It was the only sport women were allowed to attend. Massive resources consolidated around this one sport.
To be champion, was to be a singular figure in society.
Riding a chariot was even harder than you’d imagine
Note above that he is on a two-wheeled chariot. Standing on it, involved balancing yourself in one direction or the other, depending on the circumstance. Take note of his back foot, which is at the ledge of the chariot’s floor panel. Great charioteers possessed a cat-like sense of balance. With a wide stance, they could lean back, and lift the weight of the wagon off of the horses, freeing them up for more forward speed.
Even further complicating things, they were steering two or four horses at the same time. Races weren’t known for their short duration or stability. Great charioteers needed skill, coordination, strength, endurance, and a Noah-like ability to control horses.
Chariot riding was extremely dangerous and profitable
Each race featured 12 chariots that did seven laps around the huge track, totaling a full 9-mile race.
People didn’t just attend to see who won, they came for the chaos. Races had frequent pileups. Racers got trampled, injured, killed, and the crowds loved it. They were the same people who attended gladiatorial events.
The drama of life and death races had a unique appeal in Roman culture and was embedded in their religion. Notably, the audience often spiraled out of control too. It wasn’t uncommon for competing factions to brawl and throw stones at each other, shutting down entire events.
The involvement of society’s wealthiest players, and the cumulative money of the masses, brought great fortune to those who won, both in prize money, gambling, and their own ‘stock’ value.
Racers even came to represent different products and businesses. Chariot racing is history’s first example of sports sponsorships and one origin of Gaius’s fortune. He won 1,462 of the 4,257 races he competed in. Equally remarkable, he competed until age 42, in a sport that kills many of its participants in their mid-20s.
Was he the richest athlete of all time?
Part of the reason I used ‘may’ in the title is that there were some generous conversion methods used on his fortunes. One estimate translated his 35,863,120 sesterces to nearly $15 billion. As a financial analyst, I can assure you that historical inflation isn’t that easy to measure, particularly after moving a couple of hundred years back.
However, it’s clear that Diocles was a very, very wealthy man. The lowest estimates, using gold conversion, put his net worth north of $100 million. Classics professor, Peter Stuckey, asserts he is easily the highest paid of all time, his earnings being enough to feed all of Rome for an entire year or, conversely, fund the entire Roman military for several months.³
Where did his money go?
The history gets murky on the latter parts of his life. But there are some educated guesses one could make.
Money had a very different meaning in this era. It didn’t get you the latest iPad or sports car. However, there were similar trends and patterns in spending for the rich. Wealthy athletes often bought the latest and greatest of their ‘toys’, entertainment, food, and wine. Women and bathhouses were popular indulgences.
His townhome in Rome produced a number of great artists after his passing. It was common for wealthy men to patronize talented young people in their education or to set up funds for such endeavors. One could also speculate he owned several homes, and a ranch with horses, as was common with successful charioteers. Human beings have always spent money close to where their interests sit.
It’s safe to assume he didn’t just hoard all of his money. The persona that pursues sports glory has rarely been associated with a complete lack of indulgence. Per Roman law, at the time of his passing, his money went to the state or his next of kin, which there is also no record of.
In light of all this, two facts seem undeniable. First, Gaius Appuleius Diocles was a very talented charioteer. Second, he died a very, very wealthy man.
 Potter, David (1999) Life, Death, and Entertainment in the Roman Empire
 Struck, Peter ( 2010). “Greatest of All Time” Lapham’s Quarterly.
 Nardo, Don (1999) Greek and Roman Sport