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  • Peter Struck

    Greatest of All Time



    Last fall, Forbes magazine was all atwitter as Tiger Woods closed in on becoming “the first athlete to earn over $1 billion” in the course of his career. Presumably his fortunes will now start to droop, but Forbes missed the mark—taking the long view, Tiger was never all that well paid to begin with when compared with the charioteers of ancient Rome.

    The modern sporting spectacles we manage to stage—and on occasion be appalled by—pale by comparison to the common entertainments of Rome. The Circus Maximus, the beating heart at the center of the empire, accommodated a quarter million people for weekly chariot races. These outdrew stage plays (to the deep chagrin of the playwrights), the disemboweling of slaves and exotic carnivores in the gladiatorial combats of the Coliseum, and even the naval battles emperors staged within the city limits—real war ships with casts of thousands—on acres of man-made lakes they had dug out and drained the Tiber to fill.

    For the races, spectators arrived the evening before to stake out good seats. They ate and drank to excess, and fights were common under the influence of furor circensis, the Romans’ name for the mass hysteria the spectacles induced. Ovid recommended the reserve seating as a good place to pick up aristocratic women, and he advised letting your hand linger as you fluff her seat cushion.

    Drivers were drawn from the lower orders of society.They affiliated with teams supported by large businesses that invested heavily in training and upkeep of the horses and equipment. The colors of the team jerseys provided them with names, and fans would often hurl violent enthusiasms, as well as lead curse amulets punctured with nails, at the Reds, Blues, Whites, and Greens.

    The equipment consisted of a leather helmet, shin guards, chest protector, a jersey, whip, and a curved knife—handy for cutting opponents who got too close or to cut themselves loose from entangling reins in case of a fall. They adopted a Greek style of long curly hair protruding from under their helmets and festooned their horses’ manes with ribbons and jewels. Races started when the emperor dropped his napkin and a hapless referee would try to keep order from horseback. After seven savage laps, those who managed not to be upended or killed and finish in the top three took home prizes.

    The best drivers were made legends by poets who sung their exploits and graffiti artists who scrawled crude renderings of their faces on walls around the Mediterranean. They could also be made extraordinarily wealthy.

    The very best paid of these—in fact, the best paid athlete of all time—was a Lusitanian Spaniard named Gaius Appuleius Diocles, who had short stints with the Whites and Greens, before settling in for a long career with the Reds. 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. The figure is recorded in a monumental inscription erected in Rome by his fellow charioteers and admirers in 146, which hails him fulsomely on his retirement at the age of “42 years, 7 months, and 23 days” as “champion of all charioteers.”

    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. By today’s standards that last figure, assuming the apt comparison is what it takes to pay the wages of the American armed forces for the same period, would cash out to about $15 billion. Even without his dalliances, it is doubtful Tiger could have matched it.

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  • How much would 35,863,120 sesterces be in dollar terms today?

    Posted by Bart on Thu 12 Aug 2010

  • A sesterce was about 2.5 grams of silver. Silver currently costs about $18.00USD/oz. At roughly 28 grams per ounce, that would be 3202064 oz of silver which would be worth about $57,637,157.00USD worth of silver.

    Posted by Steve on Thu 12 Aug 2010

  • yeah but they didn't have paper money then you HAD to use silver or gold, the comparison is the value that silver could have bought @ the time. Also remember silver was closer to the value of gold in ancient times, before the discovery of massive silver deposits in the Americas.

    Posted by john on Thu 12 Aug 2010

  • OK that makes a lot of sense dude.


    Posted by Jo Dean on Thu 12 Aug 2010

  • Spain did not existed at the time, so why do you call him Spaniard. He could be also be Portuguese. Yes, this is relevant.

    Posted by Pedro Vaz on Thu 12 Aug 2010

  • Well, technically, English didn't exist either, so we're both wrong. The Romans would have called him "Hispanus," which we typically translate as Spaniard -- in deference to the shared etymology.

    Posted by Peter Struck on Thu 12 Aug 2010

  • its 31.1 grams not 28. so =

    12.44 ses / 1 troy oz silver =

    2,882,887 Troy Oz of silver =


    Posted by bender on Thu 12 Aug 2010

  • I'm not sure it's accurate that the top three took prizes; is there evidence for this? Also, what is the evidence that curse tablets were actually hurled onto the track?

    The riders seen in pictorial representations are probably coaches, not referees. See http://www.skookumpete.com/chariots.htm.

    Posted by Peter Donnelly on Thu 12 Aug 2010

  • On the top three finishers, see David Potter The Roman Empire at Bay: AD 180-395 (Routledge), p. 610, note 26.

    On starting lines, see Gager, Curse Tablets and Binding Spells (Princeton UP), p. 46.

    Posted by Peter Struck on Thu 12 Aug 2010

  • Yes, I spoke too soon. H.A. Harris in Sport in Greece and Rome devotes several pages to Diocles (pp. 198ff), who himself on one occasion even won 1,000 sesterces for fourth place.

    Posted by Peter Donnelly on Thu 12 Aug 2010

  • Did he died?

    Posted by Bob B Bobberson on Sat 14 Aug 2010

  • I hate to be pedantic - but these figures are so wrong its painful!

    What has been forgotten is inflation. Today's armys are much bigger.

    If I was to do the calculation, I would work on the statistic involving the grain. If this character had the wealth to buy all the grain to supply the city of Rome for a year, we need to know how much that was, and convert it to today's prices.
    I found a value of 60 million modii of grain would supply Rome for a year. In modern values, that is around 218,000 tonnes of Grain. July's market price was $195 per tonne.

    That means that $42 million would feed ancient Rome for a year - or a fraction of Tiger Woods fortune.

    Posted by Oli Rhys on Sat 14 Aug 2010

  • The economies are so different that pointillist comparisons based on commodity prices are bound to go wrong. I'm arguing that it's better to use relative value.

    Posted by Peter Struck on Sat 14 Aug 2010

  • This(below) was to the Telegraph(online) for their renditioning/copying of a story that furher falsifies the History of the Chariot..

    The Roman armed forces(normally between 40-50%) with their very best and ever present Germanic mercenaries the "Angle and Saxon" never even seen a chariot till Julius Caesar had his ass kick by the Britons in 55 BC and he lied about that even at that time (see contempory Roman Historians of that period)
    That is why they the Roman were extremely surprised when they laid eyes on the network of "roads" that connected the towns and cities of Britannica..90 years later
    The Telegraph's newsboys really should study the history of the country before trying to tell us that Mario from Rome earned more that Georgie Best from the Emerald Isle.

    When the children of these newsboys grow up there will be a New History being told and where in hell are they then going to hide their faces while their children look on with that look that only children can express..It is quite shamefull
    Tell them to walk around Londinium for a couple of hours and have a look for a very big woman with her two daughters.They are riding in a vehicle that was feared by all Romans a hundred years later ..after Julius.

    The Real/True History of Ancient Briton as yet is to be told..I wonder who owned the media in the Caesars,Caractacus's and King Llud's time..Surely it could not be the very same families ,as the Romans had already kicked their ass's out of Rome.
    Just occured to me..of course... these printers of news(any) just got in a big boat and went over to Hollywood and thats where today's "journalists" find their material...of course..silly me
    "Ben Hur" Chariot Race..of course..of course...If Charlton Heston is still with us..ask your reporters to give him a call for verification..Straight from the horses mouth so to speak.


    troedyrhiw-greenmeadow.blogspot.com ..go here for further reading

    Posted by Caractacus on Sat 14 Aug 2010

  • I think silver is a poor comparison. Before modern times, when silver was not produced as a byproduct of the electro-refining of copper, and before silvers most important industrial use disappeared, the gold::silver ratio was seldom over 20. Right now it is ~67.

    According to wikipedia (Roman_currency) 100 sesterces equaled 1 gold Aureus, which was a coin of about 7.3 grams of gold. Doing the math, I get 2,618,007.76 grams of gold = 84,170.904 troy oz. At a current market price of about $1200/oz. that would be $101,005,084. This is twice the silver estimate, but is on the same order of magnitude. Tiger is two orders higher.

    Posted by Walter Sobchak on Sat 14 Aug 2010

  • To quibble about whether he was Spanish and Portuguese misses the point, firstly there was no such thing as Spain or Portugal - Nationalism not yet being a concept, and secondly the tribal groups and genetic make-up of those areas 2000 years ago was totally different to now, with modern-day Spain and Portugal being colonised and settled by various other ethnic group in the interim period.

    Of course, simply put he would have been a 'Roman'.

    Posted by Mike on Sun 15 Aug 2010

  • A better comparison would be to look at his total winnings as a percent of GDP. The highest estimate for the Roman Empire I could find was 20.8 bn sesterces, putting his total winnings as 0.0017% of GDP. Tiger's on the other hand is only 0.00012% of the US GDP. 14.5 times smaller. Back in the day, wheat would have been a far higher percent of someone's income then today - economies generally grow (a lot over millennia) - so using a direct wheat/precious metals comparison isn't a fair reflection the guy's (immense) wealth

    Posted by Oli on Sun 15 Aug 2010

  • The real question is what did he do with all the money?

    Was he sneaking round Rome making use of his fame with all the young ladies he could manage? Then one day his glamorous wife found out to Empire wide scandal?

    In the words of one Tiger's favourite artists
    "Why you at the bar if you ain't poppin' the bottles?
    What good is all the fame if you ain't f****** the models?"

    Posted by Tonythetiger on Mon 16 Aug 2010

  • I thought Michael Schumacher was the first athlete to reach a billion dollars in earnings. Unless Schumi isnt considered an athlete - which is kinda odd, coz I've seen fat golfers but I aint never seen a fat F1 driver.

    Posted by pat on Mon 16 Aug 2010

  • Very interesting. Well, maybe the money is not as much as Tiger's, but chariot races in the Roman and Byzantine empires were a different matter from a golf course, not to mention the supporters; Nika riots started after a race in Constantinople and they almost led to the fall of the emperor!

    Posted by Paolo B. on Mon 16 Aug 2010

  • I see that nobody here is going to learn anything..
    other than showing they have not lost their grade 7 arithmetic skills.

    Mr Struck...are you proud of the quality of discussion that your "Classical Tale" has inspired here.
    Being/lecturing from "New Wales"(Pennsylvania),one would have assumed(by default)that the "Classical Cymric" would have generated far more interesting and factual tales of yesterday's heroes..Even King George's rationale for calling it "Pennsylvania" is superior in "classical tale telling" than the Spaniard without a country

    Posted by caractacus on Tue 17 Aug 2010

  • I enjoyed the spirit of the article, and am willing to forgive a few real or speculative inaccuracies.(Careful you don't trip over each others' peacock feathers, guys.)This would be a worthwhile discussion for a Western Civ class--I hope somebody out there is a teacher!

    Posted by jane on Thu 19 Aug 2010

  • Peter, Do you have a good link with regards to the origin of the chariot in Briton and No. Europe? Was it a simple cultural diffusion spreading west from Anatolia starting C.2000 BCE? Is it known/suspected what peoples brought it to Britain from the continent? Or did the Iceni et al develop it on their own?

    Posted by Diomedes on Thu 19 Aug 2010

  • Nice story. I'd agree that relative wealth is the more relevant measure here, as it determines how much of one's society one could "purchase". Probably % of GDP would be a better measure, especially since feeding the roman army for 1/5th of a month seems a pretty ill defined amount. Regardless, either measure is reasonable. Putting it in terms of actual commodities (grain, silver, or gold) doesn't make sense due to fluctuations of relative value of those commodities. That said, I suppose an army can be viewed as a "commodity" that has some "value", so maybe this further argues for using %GDP.

    As far as the use of Spaniard, its not a huge issue, but the proper way to phrase it would be to say "from the Iberian peninsula", assuming that was the meaning of the term "Hispanus". Using Spaniard is simply a modern way of writing it, and was not intended to offend the Portuguese.

    Posted by JohnnyFisma on Fri 20 Aug 2010

  • Can you folks imagine how much Gaius Diocles would have earned if back then they had product endorsements and TV ads too...? :)

    Posted by Uffe on Fri 20 Aug 2010

  • Hispania was province of the Roman Empire. Iberia is a geographical denomination used for Spain and Portugal since before the roman conquest. Spain may be phonetically very different from Hispania in English language. However, in Spanish, Spain is "Espania" and phonetically is very similar to Hispania, despite of 2000 years lapsed since the name of Hispania was first used. Hispania had already a political status under the roman empire and its people were known as hispanus. Hispanus became roman citizens and some of the greatest roman emperors where hispanus as Adrian or Trajan The Kingdom of Spain did not historically appear until the visigoths inherited Hispania from the romans and ruled Hispania as a Kingdom for the first time. Portugal as an independent Kingdom did not exist until centuries later on occasion of the Reconquista of Spain from the moors.

    Posted by zagal on Sat 21 Aug 2010

  • enjoyed the article and the repartee... really entertaining!

    Posted by Mystry on Tue 31 Aug 2010

  • Actually, it wasn't Spain, but Brooklyn, NY and Gaius was a cab-driver in the weekly cab-races thru the Broadway district of NYC carrying people to their party-down haunts. He made TONS more money then Tigah Whoopum but he sank it all into sesterces stocks which dropped like a rock when El Bruti plunged the butterknife into JC's buttocks.

    Posted by BUTCH on Thu 2 Sep 2010

  • Trying to work out equivalent salaries from Roman sesterces to the US dollar is a bit of a pointless exercise. Especially if you are going to base it on rates of pay in the army which is a dubious standard for many reasons, one of which is that Romans took part of their pay in spoils and land.

    The takeaway remains that people have paid stupid amounts of money to athletes throughout history.

    Posted by ABC on Fri 3 Sep 2010

  • Comparisons of amounts of money from one era to another are always problematic, and generally misleading.

    In this case the conversion rate is quite obviously and blatantly wrong.

    Prof. Struck says that 35,863,120 sesterces ~ $15 billion.

    That would mean that 1 sestertius ~ $420, or 1 As ~ $105.

    Here is a list of prices in the 1st century CE which looks reasonable.

    Since a loaf of bread cost about 2 asses in Rome, Prof. Struck's conversion rate would mean that a loaf of bread cost $210.

    A tunic at Pompeii cast about 15 sestertii. $6300 for a tunic?


    Posted by Mark Davidson on Fri 3 Sep 2010

  • It's certainly possible that a reasoned and careful analysis could support the claim that Roman charioteers were the highest paid athletes of all time.

    However, the assumption that the costs of maintaining the army of Rome and the United States Armed forces are somehow equivalent is so wrong-headed it makes my teeth hurt.

    Posted by vincere on Fri 3 Sep 2010

  • Actually, Mr Davidson, those figures look reasonable to me. It's called supply and demand. The industrial revolution and the green revolution each yielded huge surpluses of output/supply. The remarkable thing isn't that bread & tunics in Rome were so expensive, but that for us they're so plentiful to be so cheap. That's also the problem with tying these calculations to fiat currencies like paper, silver, and gold. (*All* currencies being "fiat currencies," of course.) The global supply of gold, for example, has doubled since 1960, per the USGS.

    Today, we have abundance in so many things we have no appreciation for how fabulously wealthy our forebears would have to be to have the same supply of goods.

    Posted by Hal on Fri 3 Sep 2010

  • It's true, vincere. The US armed forces cost so much less than the army of Rome.

    Posted by Hal on Fri 3 Sep 2010

  • Nicely written article. Too bad so many of the comments seem to take the discussion too seriously. Nevertheless, that makes for some amusement so I shouldn't complain.

    I think the line about "fluffing the seat cushion" is the best! LOL!

    Posted by Arnold D'Souza on Sat 4 Sep 2010

  • The task of converting his wealth to a modern figure is quite difficult. Percentage of army pay or GDP are flawed. If Tiger Woods was Canadian would you use Canada's GDP or army instead? Or is America used because of some shared status as the world superpower?

    Expressing it as a multiple of the per capita GDP would be a bit more reasonable, but changes in productivity are problematic as is the fact that Romans probably had a lot of "home production" (ie, growing your own food) that probably doesn't make its way into such measures.

    Maybe someone could do a distributional comparison (eg, Tiger words is richer than 99.998% of the population, Gaius, richer than 99.776% but they're probably both so far in the tail of the distribution that there might be difficulties there as well.

    Commodity prices aren't good either because things like wheat and silver are much more common now. The relative prices have changed so much.

    In short, any conversion to modern US dollars will be fraught with flaws. Suffice it to say, he was very very rich, and accept that we can't pin it down much better than that.

    Posted by Nylund on Sat 4 Sep 2010

  • A sesterce was 1/4 from a denarius so far from over 2 g of silver since a denarius was 3,5 g of silver. Maybe somwhere around .9 g. Anyway the silver was scarcer in the ancient times so you cannot have the equivalent amount based on it's price today.

    Posted by Bri on Sun 5 Sep 2010

  • Its really good to know that professional athlete's get paid good, as i feel that they have a short time of income, and once they reach the peak of their career they are supposed to retire! All what they earn is all what they have to survive the rest of the life!

    Posted by Robert Smith on Mon 6 Sep 2010

  • It's a shame that everyone's getting caught up in the dollar discussion. This article was obviously somewhat tongue-in-cheek. So, in the words of the joker, "why so serious?"

    The main idea in this article is that in relative terms, Tiger Woods is not the richest athlete in history. Ultimately, money is only a means to measure wealth. Even if you try to peg it to the value of a commodity, it's still only a way to measure. Who cares how much grain costs now, or how much silver is worth now? Our values, in every sense of the word, do not calibrate with the Romans' values.

    Suffice it to say the concept of highly-paid athletes with throngs of fans is not a new one.

    Posted by Tamahome Jenkins on Tue 7 Sep 2010

  • Gaius Appuleius Diocles was not a Spaniard (that did not exhist at the time). He was Lusitanian!

    Posted by Abel on Tue 7 Sep 2010

  • Any photo of the lapide/ara monument? and the latim inscription?

    Posted by Portugal Romano on Wed 2 Feb 2011

  • I’m not certain the comparison that was made between the earnings of Tiger Woods and the charioteer mentioned in your article are totally accurate. Even though the Roman Empire had an impressive military force I doubt seriously that the Roman military budget could compare with what the U.S. spends on defense on a percentage basis. I think I’ll go with Tiger as the highest earning athlete ever even though I’m not really a Tiger fan. http://www.onlinemoneythruaffiliates.com/

    Posted by James Morgan on Tue 26 Jul 2011

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Peter Struck is Associate Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Birth of the Symbol: Ancient Readers at the Limits of their Texts. Professor Stuck is a member of the Lapham’s Quarterly editorial board.
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