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lmost a year into what has been a year marked by a pandemic, do you ever just watch indoor (or even outdoor) sporting events, with thousands of people chanting, screaming, and spitting, and go “How did we ever think THAT was safe?”

However, those 10, 20, or even 50-thousand-person events pale in comparison to the spectacles of the past.

Once a week during the 2nd century CE, the Circus Maximus of Rome, an oval-shaped “stadium,” filled with at least 150,000 people to watch chariot races.

The drivers would run around a track the size of more than eight American football fields (43,000 square meters or 465,000 square feet), trying to keep their balance and finish ahead, for money and glory.

A Mockup of the Circus Maximus of Rome. Plan de Rome du Cinquantenaire à Bruxelles. (Source: Pascal Radigu)

The race started with a napkin drop by the emperor. Seven grueling laps later, with some forfeits along the way due to upending, the ones able to finish the race in the top three would get prizes and glory in the eyes of the people and the other charioteers. One such man was Gaius Appuleius Diocles.

A Legend of Ancient Rome

Diocles was born in 104 CE in Lamecum, the capital of the Lusitania province, current-day Lamego, Portugal.

Ever since he was a child he seemed destined for chariot racing: his father owned a small-time transport business and he grew up surrounded by horses. When he was young, he earned his first victory, in the Catalonian city of Ilerda, current-day Lleida, Spain.

His fame and reputation grew quickly and, at just 18 years of age, he went to Rome to compete against the best racers in the Roman Empire. There, he became known as Lamecus, putting his hometown on the map.

He started his career with the White Team. Five years later he joined the Greens, and after three years he settled down with the Reds, where he would remain for the last 16 years of his chariot-racing career.

Over those 24 years, he participated in 4257 four-horse races. That’s 177 races a year, or one race every two days.

Of those 4257, he came first in 1426, with a winning percentage of 34,3%. He was not only a winner but also a showman, with the coming-from-the-back-to-win on the final sprint being his specialty.

Mosaic depicting a charioteer and horse from the Russata (Red) faction, 3rd century AD.(Source: Carole Raddato). Palazzo Massimo all Terme, Rome.

His longevity and desire to win made him a legend in Rome. He was an outlier: due to the grueling nature of the sport, the chariot-racer life expectancy hovered around the mid-20s at the time. This allowed him to earn the staggering sum of 35,863,120 sesterces, on prize money alone.

That figure is recorded on an inscription erected in Rome by his admirers and fellow charioteers to celebrate his retirement at “42 years, 7 months, and 23 days,” going out as a “champion of all charioteers.”

Over his 24-year career, he earned a little under 36 million sesterces, or 1.5 million sesterces a year. But how much is that in today’s money?

Comparing the Stars

On Forbes’ highest-paid athlete of all-time list, Tiger Woods comes in at number two, with an impressive 1.7 billion dollars (around 1.4 billion euros).

At number one, with 2 billion dollars (1.6 billion euros), comes His Airness, Michael Jordan.

But how do they stack up against the athletes of the first millennium CE?

According to professor Peter Struck, from the University of Pennsylvania’s Classical Studies department, Lamecus’s earnings amounted to five times the earnings of the highest-paid provincial governors, over those 24 years.

That’s enough to provide grain for the entire city of Rome for one full year — or to pay all of the ordinary soldiers of the Roman Army (at the height of its power) for a fifth of a year.

Professor Struck claims that, by today’s standards, assuming the apt comparison is what it takes to pay the wages of the American armed forces for that same period, Lamecus’s earnings over his 24-year chariot-racing career would be around $15 billion (12.2 billion euros).

The Fountain of Lamego, with a statue of Gaius Appuleius Diocles. (Source: Vitor Oliveira)

That’s seven and half times more than Michael Jordan, making Gaius Appuleius Diocles, a man born in one of the furthest corners of an Empire that stretched from the Northern Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, the highest-paid athlete of all time.

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