Jordan? Messi? Nope, highest-paid athlete ever was Roman charioteer, historians say

Forbes has Michael Jordan as highest-paid athlete ever, but historians say no

As it does annually, Forbes Magazine last week released its list of the highest-paid athletes in the world, with Argentinian soccer star Lionel Messi scoring the top spot this year after earning a reported $127 million over the past 12 months.

RELATED: Lionel Messi tops Forbes list of highest-paid athletes

Each year the list is released by Forbes, it’s also a reminder for historians to dispute the magazine’s claim that Michael Jordan is the highest-paid athlete of all-time, as cited in a 2017 article.

Some say the highest-paid athlete of all time is a man by the name of Gaius Appuleius Diocles, a chariot racer in Rome who evidently made quite the bank back in his day, roughly 2,000 years ago.

Born in 104 AD, Diocles was the Jordan and Messi of his day, reportedly winning 35,863,120 sesterces for his dominance on the chariot-racing circuit. 

Based on a calculation equating the budgets of the Roman and United States armies, that figure would amount to more than $15 billion in today’s dollars, making him the highest-paid athlete of all-time, according to Peter Struck, a historian and professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

In a book, "The Career of Diocles, Roman Charioteer," professor Robert B. Kebric, of the University of Louisville, said Diocles was selective in which races he ran in and often "went for the gold."

Diocles won 1,462 races of the 4,257 four-horse races he competed in over a 24-year-career before retiring at the age of 42, according to an article on

Struck said upon Diocles' retirement, a monument was erected in his honor by fellow charioteers and admirers in the ancient city of Lamecum in the Roman Empire, which detailed the number of sesterces he won and calls him "champion of all charioteers."

We can only imagine how many Twitter followers Diocles would have had if the social media platform had existed, or how much additional money he would have made in endorsements if TV and radio were around.

But judging by his reported $15 billion equivalent in winnings and all the admirers he had, it sounds like he had plenty of fame and fortune to rival Jordan and Messi. 

About the Author:

Keith is a member of Graham Media Group's Digital Content Team, which produces content for all the company's news websites.