Gaius Appuleius Diocles: The Greatest Roman Charioteer

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Uncovering the Records of Ancient Rome’s Highest-Earning Athlete: Gaius Appuleius Diocles

Gaius Appuleius Diocles was a Roman charioteer who is widely considered to be one of the greatest athletes of ancient times. He lived during the 1st and 2nd century AD and is known for his incredible record of winning over 1,462 races in his 24-year career as a charioteer.

Diocles was born in the Roman province of Lusitania, which is now modern-day Portugal. He began his career as a charioteer at the age of 18 and quickly rose to fame for his skill and athleticism. He competed in races all over the Roman Empire, including in Rome itself, where he won many prestigious races at the Circus Maximus.

Diocles was known for his ability to drive four-horse chariots, known as “quadrigae,” with incredible speed and precision. He also had a reputation for being a fierce competitor and a master of strategy, often outsmarting his opponents in races. He was considered one of the most successful charioteers of his time, with a winning percentage of over 95%.

Jean Léon Gérôme – Chariot Race (source)

In Rome, chariot racing was highly popular among all social classes, including slaves and the Emperor. The sport was further boosted by private betting, although public gambling was not allowed. Many charioteers, known as aurigae or agitatores, started as slaves but were able to earn enough money to buy their freedom through success in the races.

According to historian David Matz, Diocles won a majority of his races as a single driver (1,064 wins), a popular race-type for both drivers and spectators. Unlike team competitions, a win in a single race was a result of an individual’s talent and luck. The only records of his existence and career are inscriptions in Rome and Praeneste, which reveal that in his 24-year racing career, he won 1,462 of his 4,257 four-horse races and finished second in another 1,438. He also won the most prestigious race 110 times, which was held immediately after the ceremonial opening parade. One of Diocles’ techniques was to stay back until the final moment, then push ahead of the opposition for a clear victory. He also won 815 times by leading from the start. His records and advertising are important materials for understanding the behavior and methods of Roman chariot racing.

A Roman circus with a chariot race. Coloured engraving, ca. 1804-1811 (source)

He competed for three of the four most renowned chariot racing stables (factiones), known as the Reds, Whites, Blues, and Greens, and distinguished by their racing colors. Fans developed a strong loyalty to one of the factions, by declaring themselves partisans of their preferred faction. By creating “clubhouses” in Rome and later in other imperial towns, the factions promoted this kind of allegiance. The finest charioteers, whose fame rivaled that of contemporary sports figures, competed among the four stables for their services. They were immortalized in several sculptures and monuments. The most well-liked factions were the Blues and Greens. Caracalla and Vitellius, two emperors, backed the Blues. But the Greens, who were first mentioned in 35 CE, were the ones who were most well-liked.

A mosaic from the third century CE shows a charioteer and horse from each of the four circus factions—Red, White, Blue, and Green (Palazzo Massimo all Terme, Rome).
A mosaic from the third century CE shows a charioteer and horse from each of the four circus factions—Red, White, Blue, and Green (Palazzo Massimo all Terme, Rome). (source)

Diocles began his career at the age of 18 with the Whites and after six years, he switched to the Greens. During this time, he suffered some kind of injury on the race-track and his record with the Greens was not as successful as his previous team. Historian David Matz suggests that Diocles may have somehow offended the Green team management, who punished him by restricting his opportunities and denying him access to their best horses. He left the Greens after only three years and raced for the Reds for 15 years before retiring to the small but luxurious town of Praeneste at the age of 42. It is believed that he passed away in or shortly after 146. Diocles’ total earnings over his 24-year career were 35,863,120 sesterces (HS).

It is unclear his status as a slave or free individual. In addition to his success as a charioteer, Diocles was considered as a “public hero”.

Diocles retired from racing at the age of 42. His legacy lived on, and he was remembered as one of the greatest athletes of all time. His incredible record of 1,462 wins stood for centuries, and it was not until the 19th century that it was finally surpassed.

Today, Diocles is remembered as a symbol of ancient Roman athleticism and one of the greatest athletes in history. His legacy continues to inspire sportsmen and sportswomen around the world.

Featured image source: wikimedia
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