1st century poet and satirist Juvenal had much to say about the Roman obsession with ‘bread and games’: “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”. The very phrase panem et circenses denotes this nigh unhealthy preoccupation with ‘materialistic’ stuff – a scope whose parallel can certainly be drawn in our modern terms. And mirroring our fascination with many an athlete and celebrity sport-star, the ancient Romans possibly boasted the highest paid athlete in the history of mankind. We are talking about one Gaius Appuleius Diocles – who according to classical studies professor Peter Struck (at University of Chicago), amassed around some 35,863,120 sesterces in prize money or Historical accounts state that Diocles earned 26,000 kilograms of raw gold by the time he retired. That is equivalent to about a whopping $15 billion or £9.6 billion! That’s seven times more than Michael Jordan has earned — and yet, Diocles has largely disappeared from record. How did the richest, most accomplished athlete of all time fail to cement himself in history?
What we know.
Born in 104 A.D., in a region which is now Portugal, Diocles was firmly in the middle class, relatively well off by the standards of your average Roman citizen. It would have been expected for young Gaius to follow his father into the family shipping business, but he instead started racing chariots, competing in his first race at the age of 18. We know that his style of racing was exciting, and this led to rapid provincial success. It wasn’t long before word spread of the captivating young charioteer. in 122 A.D., Diocles was invited to Rome to begin racing at the Circus Maximus, the summit of of charioteering in the empire.
We know that Diocles didn’t experience immediate success upon arriving in Rome. In fact, it would take him two years before he earned his first win in the Roman leagues. The aggressive style that caused him to win in Portugal didn’t lead to success against more accomplished racers. However, at the age of 20, things changed. Diocles altered his style entirely, and with it came wins, a lot of them.
The vast majority of charioteers were slaves, forced into competition much like gladiators. Naturally, this gave Diocles an edge. His social standing allowed him to be well fed, well rested, and better prepared than the majority of his competition — but this wasn’t enough to make it a difference on its own.
There was a definite abundance of talent that he had over most riders. The risks were ever present, though, with most charioteers being injured or killed in a matter of months after their first race. This makes Diocles’ long career even more remarkable. The reason for this high mortality rate among charioteers was innate to chariot racing, but also due to the twist that Romans put on it.
Wearing just simple leather helmets, shin guards and basic chest protectors, it wasn’t uncommon for charioteers to lose their lives during a race when turning a corner or swerving to avoid a competitor. Rather than hold the reins in their hands like the Greeks did when racing, the Romans would tie them around the charioteer’s waists.
This allowed the driver to have free hands to better steer their horses, but also meant that in the event of a crash they would be dragged around the course until they were dead, or the horses became tired. Sometimes both. As a result, drivers carried a curved knife exclusively for the purposes of cutting their reins in the event of a crash, but even then it was routinely known that should a chariot crash, the driver would likely be seriously injured or killed.
The story we know doesn’t answer the big questions
Whether through providence, skill or blind luck, Diocles managed to survive. Little is known of his post-racing career. A statue was erected in his honour at the Circus Maximus, and Diocles settled in the small town of Palestrina, in what is now the Lazio region of Italy, where he raised a family and retired. It’s said he remained extremely popular and wealthy until his death, but little else is known.
It’s remarkable how little information there is on Gaius Appuleius Diocles’ life. This isn’t simply a case where we can wave off the lack of details to the passage of time. We are intimately aware of the private lives of dozens of famous Romans, and yet a stunningly wealthy athlete who captivated an entire empire, making more money in the process than any athlete in history, had almost nothing written about his life away from racing.
We can, however, piece some things together and posit some theories about why Diocles has largely vanished to history.
Maybe Diocles wasn’t as good as the stats show?
There is evidence to support the idea that Diocles wasn’t so much good as he was a survivor.
We know that Diocles won a lot, and historians have told us that his style captivated the empire — but the charioteer might have stumbled upon a way to break the sport in his favor. Accounts of Diocles on the track note that he routinely trailed in races, sometimes lagging in last place, only to surge ahead on the final straight, routinely snatching victory from defeat and ruining everyone else’s day in the process.
This made for incredible drama, which caused crowds to fall in love with him — but Diocles’ racing style also meant he was largely able to avoid the fray in front of him. When everyone else had to deal with wrecked chariots, he had more time to react. What if Diocles wasn’t the most dominant racer every time he took the track, but rather the veteran who simply managed to survive? Fuscus, a famous charioteer, managed to win 53 races by the age of 24, when he died (presumably on the track). It’s believed that Fuscus began racing the same year as his death, and the history books record him as the only charioteer to win his first career race. If we extrapolate out Fuscus’ career to a span of 24 years he would have won 1,272 races — almost on par with Diocles.
We also need to take into account how often Diocles raced. Chariot racing in the ancient world is most akin to modern Formula 1, but these were exceptionally short races compared to modern sport. Races involved seven one-mile laps around the Circus Maximus, with 12 chariots in each race. Careers and lives hinged on the 10-15 minutes spent on the track. There wasn’t room for error: one mistake and a race would be over for a charioteer.
It was routine for charioteers to race multiple times per week, sometimes in a single day during holidays. Diocles averaged between three and four races a week for the length of his career. Porphyrius the Charioteer, arguably the most decorated charioteer in Roman history, had 374 wins attributed to him. While that’s a far cry from Diocles, he did something Diocles didn’t: Win the diversium. This entailed winning for one team, then changing teams mid-day and winning again, this time racing for the team in last place. It was considered the highest honour in the charioteering world, and Porphyrius was hailed for doing it twice in a single day.
So while Diocles was the most prolific charioteer in history, at least in Rome, he wasn’t regarded as the greatest. Diocles was a volume charioteer, which was difficult in its own right — but didn’t earn the same level of “greatness” ascribed to others.
What happened to all that money?
We have very clear ideas on what someone could spend billions on now: Buying companies, real estate, material goods, vacations — but in the Roman Empire the prospect of spending as much money as Diocles earned was far more difficult. There was the concept of land ownership for sure, but wealth was more of a social status indicator than something to be spent. In order to become a member of the Roman senate during the Imperial era, a prospective senator would, barring intervention from the Emperor, need to be of senatorial class (i.e. be the son of a senator), and have one million sesterces on hand.
Generally speaking, this was the pinnacle of aspirations for a Roman citizen, but unless Diocles somehow managed to find favor with the Emperor, it was out of his grasp despite his wealth. Instead, he largely escaped the public eye after retiring from racing, and retreated into seclusion on his land in Latium.
Why did he disappear from history?
Born into a wealthy family, with no record of siblings, it would have been expected for Diocles to take over his father’s shipping business. This would have been an extremely comfortable life compared to that of the average Roman citizen. Instead, he left for the capital to compete in one of the empire’s most dangerous sporting events.
This isn’t the story of an athlete using sport to improve their station in life. Rather, it reads like someone actively looking to throw their life away for the possibility of glory. Imagine for a moment that Diocles was the family’s black sheep, and it explains many of his motives.
This was a life defined by doing the opposite of societal norms, from competing as a charioteer in the first place, to quietly retiring in the Italian countryside to raise a family, in fairly meagre surroundings — leaving very little on the historical record, outside the knowledge that he was the winningest charioteer of all time, and a small memorial at the Circus Maximus, a painting with a small inscription and nothing more.
He apparently didn’t desire a world of high society. He could have funded an army if he wanted to. He could have bought huge tracts of land or been a patron for the arts. He could have commissioned epic poems to be written in his honour. He could have ordered lavish sculptures and statues to cement his place in history and ensure his legacy resonated through the centuries. But he didn’t.
The real story of Gaius Appuleius Diocles is lost to history. Perhaps that was the plan all along.