Image: Chariot race re-enacted
Axel Schmidt  /  AP file
A charioteer re-enacts the race from the "Ben-Hur" saga in a modern replica of a Roman  chariot at Berlin's Mariendorf race track on Aug. 8. Classical scholar Peter Struck says a second-century charioteer named Gaius Appuleius Diocles ranks as history's most richly paid athlete.
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updated 9/1/2010 2:08:57 PM ET 2010-09-01T18:08:57

Ultra millionaire sponsorship deals such as those signed by sprinter Usain Bolt, motorcycle racer Valentino Rossi and tennis player Maria Sharapova, are just peanuts compared to the personal fortune amassed by a second century A.D. Roman racer, according to an estimate published in the historical magazine Lapham's Quarterly.

According to Peter Struck, associate professor of classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania, an illiterate charioteer named Gaius Appuleius Diocles earned “the staggering sum" of 35,863,120 sesterces (ancient Roman coins) in prize money.

Recorded in a monumental inscription erected in 146 A.D., the figure eclipses the fortunes of all modern sport stars, including golfer Tiger Woods, hailed by Forbes magazine last fall “sports' first billion-dollar man.”

Diocles, “the most eminent of all charioteers,” according to the inscription, was born in Lusitania, in what is now Portugal and south-west Spain, and started his spectacular career in 122 A.D., when he was 18.

Life for a charioteer in Rome wasn’t easy. Often slaves who could eventually buy their freedom, these racers engaged in wild laps of competition at the Circus Maximum, running a total of about 4,000 meters (nearly 2.5 miles).

“After seven savage laps, those who managed not to be upended or killed and finish in the top three took home prizes,” wrote Struck.

Experienced charioteers drove hard-to-manage chariots driven by four or even more horses.

Their sporting equipment included a leather helmet, shin guards, chest protector, a jersey, a whip and a sharp knife with which to cut the reins if the chariot overturned.

Although drivers did not have their helmets or whips blessed by generous sponsorship, they could rely on stables or factions, basically teams similar to today’s Formula One: the Reds, Greens, Blues and Whites.

“The drivers affiliated with teams supported by large businesses that invested heavily in training and upkeep of the horses and equipment,” said Struck.

Diocles won his first race two years after his debut with the Whites, four years later, he briefly moved with the great rivals the Greens. But had the most success with the Reds, with whom he remained until the end of his career at the age of  “42 years, 7 months, and 23 days.”

He is said to have won 1,462 of his 4,257 races and finished second 861 times, making nine horse “centenari” (100-time winners) and one horse, Pompeianus, a 200-time winner.

The inscription details his winning tactics: he “took the lead and won 815 times,” took the competitors by surprise by “coming from behind and winning 67 times,” and “won in stretch 36 times.”

Although other racers surpassed him in the total number of victories — a driver called Pompeius Musclosus collected 3,599 winnings — Diocles became the richest of all, as he run and won at big money events. For example, he is recorded to have made 1,450,000 sesterces in just 29 victories.

Struck calculated that Diocles’ s total earnings of 35,863,120 sesterces were enough to provide grain for the entire population of Rome for one year, or to fund the Roman Army at its height for more than two months.

“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,” wrote Struck.

“Even without his dalliances, it is doubtful Tiger could have matched it,” he added.

Copyright © 2010 Discovery Communications, LLC. The leading global real world media and entertainment company.

Explainer: Good times in ancient times

  • Courtesy Betsy Bryan  /  JHU

    Summertime fun isn't a modern invention: Ancient cultures liked to let the good times roll as well. Some celebrated with a few drinks. Others partied hard through the night. There were days at the spa, nights at the theater and time to play a little ball. The evidence for the good times in past eras comes from archaeologists who painstakingly dig through ancient remains. The fruits of their efforts help piece together tales showing how today's leisurely shenanigans are just the latest incarnation of cultural customs quite old.

    Take the ancient Egyptians, for example. Not only did they drink beer to excess, they had an annual "festival of drunkenness" dedicated to the cause. Participants got wasted, had gratuitous sex and woke the next day to blaring music, according to an Egyptologist excavating a temple in Luxor where the festivities occurred. The debauchery even had a point: re-enactment of a myth about an evil goddess who became a savior after being tricked into drinking mass quantities of beer. This drawing is based on a wall painting that depicts the festivities. Click the "Next" button above to learn about six more good times in ancient times.

    - John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • Wari brewskis

    The Wari, an Andean culture that pre-dated the Incas, made and drank their beer in style. Archaeologists working on a mountaintop in Peru discovered a 1,000-year-old brewery that churned out 475-gallon batches of spicy beerlike chicha. Elegant shawl pins found on the brewery floor indicate that elite women staffed the facility. The brewery was burned to the ground in a final festival that ended with ritualistic smashing of beer mugs in the embers. One of the mugs pieced back together is pictured here.

  • Roman hot-tub party

    Andrew Medichini  /  AP

    For a wealthy, 2nd-century Roman said to be friends with the Emperor Hadrian, nothing, apparently, beat a good hot-tub party. His two-story villa, spread out over 5 acres, included a lavish bath complex with mosaic floors and marble latrines. Archaeologist Darius Arya, who is leading the dig, told The Associated Press that such baths were popular places for Romans to pass their days: "You could eat well, you could get a massage, you could have sex, you could gossip, you could play your games, you could talk about politics - you could spend your whole day here." In this image, archaeologists work on the ruins.

  • Wine-tasting in China

    PNAS

    Oenophiles may lack the vocabulary to describe it, but an archaeological chemist is confident residues he found on 9,000-year-old pottery shards from the ancient Chinese village of Jiahu are from the world's first fermented beverage. The winelike liquid was made with rice, honey and fruit of the hawthorn tree or wild grape. About 6,000 years later, the wine makers had become a bit more sophisticated: The rice and millet wines found in sealed bronze vessels from the Shang Dynasty, including the one pictured here, were flavored with herbs such as chrysanthemum and pine resins.

  • Greek theater

    Georgia Tech

    Theater as we know it today has its roots in ancient Greece, where tragedy and drama played to swelling crowds. These productions trace their roots to songs sung at festivals related to the cult of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and the madness it inspires. Pictured here is the great theater at Epidaurus, which dates to the 4th century B.C. Scientists recently discovered that the limestone seats serve as an acoustic filter, hushing background noises from the unruly crowd and reflecting the voices of the actors on stage.

  • Play ball, Maya-style

    Image: Mars Polar Lander
    Andrew L. Demerest

    The Maya, like many ancient Mesoamerican cultures, gathered to cheer at ball games long before the dawn of soccer. Known as "pitz" among the Maya, participants in the ancient ballgame used their hips, knees and elbows to send a rubber ball through stone hoops attached to the sides of the court. Pictured here is a 1,300-year-old stone altar recovered from looters who took it from the royal ball court at Cancuen. It depicts King Taj Chan Ahk Ah Kalomte playing ball with another king. The game was often more ceremony than sport, used to seal alliances with neighboring kings.

  • Cana's miraculous wine?

    Ariel Schalit  /  AP

    According to the Bible, Jesus once turned water to wine. The miracle, said to be his first, happened at a Jewish wedding in the Galilee village of Cana where the celebratory drink had run dry. In 2004, archaeologists working in modern-day Cana found pieces of stone jars, including the one pictured here, that are thought to have contained wine. The site could well represent the biblical Cana. However, other researchers have found pieces of stone jars at a site several miles to the north that could also date back to the time of Jesus and is thus also a candidate for the biblical Cana.

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