In A Nutshell
While Tiger Woods is the modern athlete with the most career earnings, he has nothing on a second-century Roman charioteer named Gaius Appuleius Diocles. The former has amassed over $1 billion, while the latter earned the equivalent of over $15 billion over a 24-year career, giving him the title of the highest-paid athlete of all time.
The Whole Bushel
Today’s athletes seem like they receive an absurd amount of money for playing what is essentially just a game. (Granted, most sports require an unbelievable amount of skill and conditioning.) But even Tiger Woods, the first modern athlete to earn over $1 billion in his career, has nothing on the athletes of ancient Rome and the brightest of its stars: Gaius Appuleius Diocles.
Diocles was a charioteer and the most prolific of his day. Starting his career at the age of 18, he raced for over 24 years, an extremely uncommon length of time because of the inherent dangers of chariot racing. (It was basically seven laps of “anything goes” racing around the track, with each driver also armed with a curved sword, in case his opponents got too close.) For his career, Diocles took part in 4,257 races, winning 1,462 of them. (He also got 2nd or 3rd place in another 1,438 races.) Nearly every one of his races was in the four-horse chariot and he frequently beat the best of the best of his competitors.
His patented move was a strong dash to the finish, as he won nearly one-third of his races by coming from behind on the last stretch. After retiring, a monument was erected in Rome, by his fellow racers and adoring public; it’s why we know the specific numbers involved with Diocles’ life. He retired at the age of 42 years, seven months, and 23 days and earned 35,863,120 sesterces in prizes, which comes out to around $15 billion in today’s dollars. (It was enough to provide grain for the entire city of Rome for one year.) In addition, Diocles was most likely illiterate, helping further the stereotype that athletes are just stupid jocks.