If America wants to be like Rome, we have to start paying our athletes more

That’s the message I take from this post by Peter Struck, a professor at U Penn who writes a blog about interesting things from history. Struck is writing in response to the news a year or so ago that Tiger Woods has become the first athlete to earn $1 billion in the course of his career. For comparison, he points us to the charioteers of ancient Rome, who were apparently the absolute hottest attraction in the Roman entertainment scene.

No, this is not a picture of Gaius Appuleius Diocles.

The hottest of the hot, a Spaniard named Gaius Appuleius Diocles, apparently earned so much money that after his retirement–at age 42–a monument was erected to immortalize the staggering amount of his collective winnings. As Struck writes:

His total take home amounted to five times the earnings of the highest paid provincial governors over a similar period—enough to provide grain for the entire city of Rome for one year, or to pay all the ordinary soldiers of the Roman Army at the height of its imperial reach for a fifth of a year. By today’s standards that last figure, assuming the apt comparison is what it takes to pay the wages of the American armed forces for the same period, would cash out to about $15 billion. Even without his dalliances, it is doubtful Tiger could have matched it.

I’m a little skeptical of Struck’s strategy for translating Diocles’ earnings, as it seems to me there are a lot of variables about the size and cost of the armed forces that are uncontrolled for. I think in terms of comparing him to modern athletes, a better strategy might be to ask what percentile of earners he fell into against the percentile rank of Woods and the like. But whatever his actual  “adjusted” salary turned out to be, its pretty clear it would have been far more than what our average athlete makes today. I think it’s even possible that by this metric, he would project out to have made a lot more than $15 billion, quite a feat given the fact that the general public in this day and age probably has a lot more disposable income to put into seeing athletic competitions than the amount that was available when just a few wealthy statesmen were organizing these things.

In other words, the next time someone tells you that the US is on its way to becoming “just a modern Roman empire,”  make sure to include in your rebuttal the fact that we aren’t yet nearly obsessed enough with sport.

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About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

2 Responses to If America wants to be like Rome, we have to start paying our athletes more

  1. Evan West says:

    Who wants America to be the next Rome? That’s a terrible fate.

  2. Colin West says:

    I mean, I’m not advocating it, per se. I suppose you could draw the opposite conclusion that if we don’t want to wind up like Rome, we should be careful not to pay our athletes too much… ;-)

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