The Truth About Gladiators: They Were Just Highly Paid MMA Fighters
Today's top athletes earn incomes that one could argue aren't entirely proportional to the work they do. It's easy to chalk this up to modern "athlete worship," but what if we told you that the highest-paid athlete of all time did not live in this century? Or the last one? In fact, to find the most highly paid athletes, we would have to go all the way back to antiquity--to the days of the Roman gladiators and charioteers. You may be surprised to learn that sports was big business to the Romans. There are a lot of gladiator myths out there, so let's take a look at the lucrative world of sports in ancient Rome.
The Romans Loved Their Sports
Romans loved sports and displays of athletic strength and endurance. They were originally private affairs held in the indoor gymnasiums and outdoor arenas on the estates of the wealthy elite. The ability to hold such events was a sign of the wealth and privilege of the upper classes. Under Emperor Nero, not usually thought to be a man of the people, these sporting events became public. First, public gymnasiums were constructed, then enormous arenas and amphitheaters. These facilities were large enough for epic gladiator fights, Olympic games, and Ben Hur--style chariot races.
Rome's Circus Maximus
The Circus Maximus was Rome's mass entertainment venue, like Netflix is to us today. It was the largest sports arena in the whole Roman Empire, holding up to 150,000 spectators. That's bigger than Michigan Stadium's "Big House" and equivalent to North Korea's Rungrado May Day Stadium.
The Circus Maximus was the pinnacle of the Roman sports industry and served as the model for present-day sports stadiums. Even with all those seats, people flocked to the stadium the day before sporting events in order to get a good one. They passed the time drinking, eating, fighting, and lusting. Just waiting for the spectacle to begin was a spectacle in itself. In fact, the Romans had a term for it—furor circensis.
The Gladiators and Their Games
The ancient gladiator games were violent, hand-to-hand combat events held for entertainment purposes. The fighters were encouraged to showcase Rome's military philosophy of fighting hard and dying honorably. Although it is true that the gladiators were often slaves or prisoners of war, it is a myth that they were simply tossed into the ring to fight to the death. Roman spectators demanded more than that. In fact, they appreciated top athletes and equally matched fights. As such, fighters were trained at gladiator schools where they worked out, practiced swordplay, and fighting techniques. They were fed well to keep up their strength and build their muscles. To the wealthy sponsors and patrons of the games, the gladiators were a commodity. A top gladiator could draw a huge crowd of fans. He could become a superstar.
Gladiator School—Not Just for Criminals and Slaves
It's also a myth that gladiators were all slaves or POWs. To be sure, some were, but others volunteered to enter the schools. Some were seeking fame and fortune in the arena, others the thrill of the games, and still others just a roof and three squares. No matter the reason, there seemed to be no shortage of gladiators willing to fight in the Circus Maximus and other such arenas. Just like film school, however, participation in the gladiator schools did not automatically mean the student would become a star. To keep the caliber of the entertainment high, only the strongest and best fighters were sent to the arenas, but gladiator school could open other doors as well. Marc Antony, for example, selected his personal bodyguards from a gladiator school.
Chariot Races and Their Superstar Drivers
One of the most popular events of the gladiator games was chariot-racing. Like the fighters, chariot drivers could be former slaves or convicts who were forced to participate in the races, or they could be top athletes. It was a real human rights roll of the dice. The best chariot drivers attracted huge fan bases and were brought back again and again for spectacular races. Chariot drivers and gladiators could also keep their winnings, which came in the form of gold and land. These fighters were the superstars of ancient Rome. Everyone knew them by name, and they were the big-ticket draws for the games. Fame and fortune came to those who excelled at the gladiator games.
The Highest Paid Athlete in History
So appreciative were the Romans of their star athletes that they showered them with wealth and honor. One such athlete was Gaius Appuleius Diocles, a charioteer who lived from 104 to 146 AD. Diocles spend 24 years as a chariot driver, reaching the pinnacle of his profession. To say he was a superstar is an understatement: Diocles was the best of the best. According to the inscription on his monument in Rome, Diocles earned 35,863,120 sesterces in prize money in his lifetime. This sum is equivalent to more than $15 billion in today's money. That's five times the salary of government officials at the time and about the same amount as all the soldiers in the Roman army. None of today's professional athletes have come close to reaching this amount.
A Millennium of Gladiator Games
Gladiator games were the most popular form of entertainment in ancient Rome for close to 1,000 years, from the 1st century BC to the 2nd century AD. They were much more popular than plays and musical entertainment. The games came to an end after Rome adopted Christianity and the death and violence associated with the games became viewed as brutal and barbaric, but plenty of textual evidence remains for us to paint a picture of the gladiator games and the furor circensis that they inspired in the people of Rome. In addition to all the decadence and violence fans engaged in before and during the games, they loved to root for their favorite athletes and teams ... who were often divided by the colors of their attire. Sound familiar? Yep. Roman gladiator games were basically just Super Bowls.