They probably don’t know it, but Fernando Alonso, Michael Schumacher and all the champions in motorsports, whether Formula 1 or other specialties, had a historical predecessor who surpassed them all in victories and fame, and by a wide margin. We’re talking about Gaius Appuleius Diocles, the most famous charioteer of Antiquity, a Spaniard who stirred genuine passion among racing enthusiasts. And all this without the need for television broadcasts.

We don’t know much about him, and the sources for the few available data are only two, both epigraphic inscriptions from the ruins of Palestrina and Rome. The first is a stele found in the sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia, located in that municipality in Lazio and built in the 2nd century BC – believed to be under the command of Sila – on a site of a previous cult (part of its surface was later occupied by the Palazzo Barberini).

The goddess Fortuna was quite peculiar, simultaneously daughter and mother of Jupiter, so there was great devotion to her among those who needed luck for something. It is understood that charioteers turned to her for favor in their risky profession.

Gaius Appuleius Diocles likely did so frequently. However, the inscription corresponds to the last period of his life when he had already retired from racing to enjoy his well-earned wealth and social prestige. The text says:

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It can be translated as “Offered to Fortuna Primigenia by Gaius Appuleius Diocles, the first charioteer of the red team, a Spaniard by nationality. His children are Gaius Appuleius Nymphidianus and Nymphidia“. Diocles’ origin is made explicit, and we learn the names of his two offspring, who commissioned a statue in honor of their father, of which this stele was the base. A posthumous honor to the man who bequeathed them a fortune, and whose death circumstances and date are unknown. It is suggested that he may have died after 146 AD, indicating a lifespan of around 42 years, given his birthdate circa 104 AD. The other documentary source, likely made at his death, mentions 42 years, 7 months, and 23 days.

The second document is also epigraphic, a larger tombstone containing much more biographical information. It was on a wall of Nero’s Circus, the private stadium begun by Caligula on the Vatican Hill (then outside the walls), in the villa belonging to his mother Agrippina the Elder but completed by his nephew.

The circus, adorned with an obelisk brought from Egypt (the same one now in St. Peter’s Square, as the basilica was built over it), was privately owned but sometimes opened to the public. Hence, fans erected plaques there in honor of their favorite charioteers.

In reality, Diocles’ plaque is lost, and what we have today are copies of its content. Still, it holds immense value as one of the most direct testimonies about chariot races in general and this individual in particular.

Text from Diocles’ tombstone, on Wikipedia

And what does it tell us? First, it identifies him as a Hispanic-Lusitanian, somewhat vague, with some suggesting his birthplace in Lamecum (modern-day Lamego, Portugal), and others – more likely in some novel – in Emerita Augusta (modern-day Merida, Spain), more likely for the former because he was nicknamed the Lamecus (in fact, a statue has been dedicated to him there), although it is possible that he began his professional life in the Hispanic city, capital of the Lusitanian province (others point, however, to Ilerda, Lérida).

Since Diocles is a name of Greek origin (not necessarily from mainland Greece), he might have descended from a freedman family (his father was a minor transporter), a common occurrence among athletes of his time. In any case, the text states that he debuted in the world of racing during the consulship of Acilius Aviola and Cornelius Pansa in 122 AD, at around 18 years old; a reasonable age as charioteers usually started very young – even younger.

However, he didn’t win his first competition until two years later, during the consulship of Manius Acilius Glabrio and Gaius Belicius Torquatus.

Quadrigas in a Roman race (Jean Léon Gérôme)/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

At the beginning, he belonged to the white faction. The stele makes an effort to detail for which team he raced in each stage of his life because it was important, as each faction, identified by a color (white, blue, green, and red; two more were added temporarily in Byzantine times), attracted large masses of supporters, die-hard fans who often ended up in fierce clashes, known as “furor circensis.”

In 128, Diocles switched to the green faction, but it wasn’t until 131, now part of the red team, that he began a string of consecutive victories. Since the Palestrina stele only mentions his affiliation with the red faction, it’s possible that it refers only to his most successful period or that the other inscription does not talk about teams but sponsors, as proposed by the historian and Jesuit Juan Francisco Masdeu in 1790.

The text states that he spent 24 years driving quadrigas, that is, chariots pulled by four horses, taking the start 4,257 times and winning an impressive 1,462 occasions, with the rest mostly ending up in second place or, failing that, among the top four. 110 of those victories were “a pompa“, i.e., the first horse races held each day, the most prestigious (and well-paid) ones. Similarly, it details that 1,064 of his victories were in individual races, where only the best participated, one from each team, sometimes replacing the quadriga with the “siga” (a chariot pulled by six horses); in fact, it describes that he drove vehicles with up to seven animals.

According to the inscription, Diocles went through the other factions, winning substantial sums with all of them and making famous both illustrious opponents he defeated (such as Avilius Terentius from his own team) and some horses he used (like one he made a “ducenarius”, a champion in 200 races, though his name hasn’t been revealed; but the names of the five he once harnessed together for one of his most brilliant victories are known: Pompeyanus, Abigeus, Lucidus, Cotinus, and Galata).

He also won races starting from the last position and climbing up, something he did deliberately for the sake of the spectacle. All of this earned him a lasting legacy for his “unprecedented feats and records“, including winning twice on the same day. Quite an achievement, considering that each race meant risking his life, and most charioteers died young, given the high speed and the light weight of the chariot, making overturns (“naufragium“) common. As charioteers had their reins wound around their torso, they often ended up dragged by the horses in their wild gallop without having time to use the knife they carried to cut them (the helmet and arm and leg bandages were just a precarious protection).

Thus, Diocles surpassed other racing legends like the blue Pontius Epaphroditus or the green Pompeius Musclosus (who recorded more victories but of lower prestige) and accumulated a fabulous wealth, totaling around 35 million sesterces. According to estimates, today it would be equivalent to about 15 billion dollars, and in any case, it was enough to pay for the annual supply of grain to the entire city of Rome or cover a fifth of its military budget for a year. Undoubtedly, the highest-paid athlete of all time.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on June 20, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en Cayo Apuleyo Diocles, el auriga invencible que está considerado el deportista mejor pagado de la Historia


Historia crítica de España y de la cultura española (Juan Francisco Masdeu)/Días geniales o lúdricos (Rodrigo Caro)/Breve historia de Hispania (Jorge Pisa Sánchez)//El circo romano (Ludwig Friedlaender)/Life, death, and entertainment in the Roman Empire (David Stone Potter y D. J. Mattingly)/Greatest of all time. Lifestyles of the rich and famous Roman athletes (Peter T. Struck)/Wikipedia.

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