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  • That Was Genius Team

Episode 106 - A Yurt-Juggling Sensation (Whacky Races Week)

Tom's Notes:

Audience feedback

Message from Michael – cartoons wasn’t his idea but he enjoyed it. Wacky races again.

Conor – a couple of good suggestions – we’ve put these on the list

Lisa for joining the Order of the Bathroom.

I’ve chosen to talk about a famous Roman Charioteer this week. If you google this guy, there are countless shite website articles about him, we all know the type of article, 200 words of copied content from another web article, which in turn was copied from another crap web article. None of the authors of these articles have bothered to research anything around the topic or try to find the original sources for this guy’s story (frustratingly for me, although I found it eventually). It’s worth pointing out to listeners that you and I dedicate a lot of time to this podcast but we barely make any money and we have lots of other things going on in our lives, so it really isn’t possible to get to a library and read proper books about topics, we do rely heavily on credible internet content (of which there is a lot). It’s also a reason why I frequently focus my attention on sources – because they’re easy to find online and they are what they are, you’re not relying on someone else to interpret them. The reason I say this is that it explains why it’s so irritating when there are hundreds of shitty articles clogging up my search results!

Let me introduce Gaius Appuleius Diocles. The reason for his fame on the internet is because of dubious claims that he is the most well paid sports star ever, earning, it is estimated, 10 times more than the likes of Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan.

So let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start, with the goddam primary sources Sam!

In the dirtiest little crevices of the internet, I discovered a translation of Diocles’s funerary monument. According to one article I read (by a classicist), this was erected in Rome. According to another reliable source, this was found in the town of Palestrina, Roman (Prenestee) Praeneste, which isn’t far from Rome and was directly connected by a road in Roman times. I found a copy of the original text in Latin (lucky for me I found the translation), but not a picture of the monument itself anywhere. Either way, I’m fairly confident that this monument contains everything we know about Diocles. I had a good search through the Perseus website, where you can search an enormous catalogue of classical texts, and I found no reference to him.

So what does this funerary monument tell us about Diocles? Good question Sam. Let’s go through the text and explain things as they come up.

Dicoles was born in the Roman province of Lusitania, on the East coast of the Iberian Peninsula. He died aged 42 years, 7 months and 23 days, but we are not told how. The monument then gives us a list of individuals who held consulships during his charioteer career. This information tell us that he first started racing in 122AD. Later we are told that he drove four horse chariots for 24 years. So it’s reasonably safe to assume that his career ran from 122AD to 146AD.

In his early career, he raced for the whites and the greens, but it would seem that for the majority of his career he raced for the reds. Come on you reds! Everyone hates the greens, they eat too many beans! Nobody like the whites, they’re a bunch of little shites! We like the reds! They’ve got the biggest heads! Wooooooo! Go reds!

Now is a good point to explain Roman chariot racing. The earliest written reference to a chariot race is in the Iliad, where a race is held as part of the funeral of Patroclus. For those of you who don’t know the Iliad, it’s the story of the Trojan War and Patroclus is Achilles’s best bud. Whilst Achilles is throwing a tantrum and refusing to fight, Patroclus borrows his armour, leads an attack against the Trojans but gets killed by Hector. Achilles is well pissed off and eventually sorts Hector out good and proper.

“You there! Hector you big oaf! Come here and take what’s coming to you!”

“Oh put a pie in it Achilles you big girls blouse! Aren’t you supposed to be sulking? M-m-m, I’m not fighting because I’m a terrible bore!”

Chariot races became a popular sport in Ancient Greece and they were a staple of the Olympic and Pythian Games. In fact, a chariot race place a role in the mythical origins of the Olympics, let’s summarise it because it’s quite silly.

So King Oenomaus, so called because he went around making the following noice, Oenomaus, Oenomaus, (onomatopoeia joke), was having a questionable relationships with his daughter Hippodamia, so called because she looked like a hippo driving a Daimler. Lots of suitors kept coming to the King asking for Hippodamia’s big, fat hands in marriage, but he kept challenging them to a chariot race – the winner gets Hippodamia, the loser dies! Many men die, then along comes Pelops (not an onomatopoeic name, but if it were, it would be because Pelops like to poo off a diving board). Pelops, with the help of Posiedon, wins, takes Hippodamia, kills King Oenomaus and founds the Olympics to celebrate. Poseidon and Pelops were lovers by the way, because Pelops liked his men big, powerful and seaweedy.

Chariot racing also figures in Roman myth, Romulus distracted local tribesmen with a chariot race whilst his men pinched the Sabine women and made them their wives.

Interestingly, the growth of chariot racing as a sport coincided with the waning of their significance in warfare as a result of the development of cavalry warfare in the ancient world.

For the Romans, the Circus Maximus in Rome was the home of chariot racing and they were the main event of the ludi publici. This venue seated well into the hundreds of thousands of spectators – far more than the Coliseum. Constantinople also had a very large hippodrome completed in 330AD by Emperor Constantine. Emperor Constantine also enlarged the Circus Maximus too. The Hippodrome was very glamorous and had an Egyptian Obelisk, a tripod from the Oracle of Delphi and four bronze horses that were looted during the Fourth Crusade, taken to Venice and used to decorate St Marks cathedral. The Byzantines really did love their chariot racing, but back to Rome…

Four to eight chariots usually took part in a 7 lap race around the Circus Maximus. These chariots had up to 10 horses, although usually 2, 4 or 6 horses and Diocles’s monument records his victories in 3 horse races.

Charioteers were grouped into 4 different factions all funded and run by different groups of powerful Romans. In Dicoles’s time, these factions were the reds, the whites, the blues and the greens. These factions were notoriously rowdy and there are lots of references to chariot racing crowds and the factions in Roman literature. Quickly moving to Constantinople again and the Byzantines, these factions were the major reason for the Nika Riots during the reign of Justinian. The factions destroyed half of Constantinople and tens of thousands of people were killed. That’s quite a riot.

Racing was exceptionally dangerous and it’s fair to say that the prospect of violence, massive crashes, horrible injuries and deaths were a major part of the chariot racing appeal. Let’s be honest, that hasn’t changed much really has it? People often watch motorsport for the crashes and killing off beloved characters in movies, television series and books has always been a source of drama. If you haven’t watched it yet, Sean Bean gets his head chopped off. Charioteers often found themselves being dragged along by eight horses with the remnants of a smashed chariot around them. Think Ben Hur, watch Ben Hur, it’s brilliant. The charioteers even carried little knives that they could use to cut themselves free from the reigns when this happened. Some chariot races were even in teams, so you’d have 2-3 chariots from the same factions competing against 2-3 chariots from another faction. Much like professional road cycling, the teams would work for the strongest chariot but unlike modern cycling this involved blatant, dangerous blocking and obstructing opposition. I can’t foresee this being dangerous.

It’s worth pointing out that these charioteers, like the Gladiators, were most often slaves who could, if they were lucky, be released from their slavery. There’s another comparison that can be drawn here with modern sport where success as an athlete can be a ticket out of the lowest social strata.

The violence of chariot racing makes it all the more remarkable that Diocles raced for 24 years, and he wasn’t like, for example, a modern boxer who fought one or twice a year. Diocles raced 4,257 times. Winning 1,462. That’s 177 races per year, or a race every 2 days (although the races would usually be clumped together at the ludi publici). It is hard to believe that this guy never crashed or injured himself, so he must have been quite the sight. He was probably covered in scars and bony lumps where broken bones had been healed. Luckily, the Romans were had very advance medicine, Pliny the Elder details how Charioteer injuries were treated with wild boar dung, collected in the spring and dried. Emperor Nero apparently had boar poo mixed with ash and diluted to make a lovely tonic in the hope of making himself a better charioteer, and a lovely kisser. Probably more effective were the opiates that had been around for centuries.

Diocles’s monument describes him as ‘the greatest charioteer ever’ and you really have to admire the details of his career in his monument. I won’t go into these details, because they are rather boring, just lists of races won and the prize purses. Now, I wonder whether Diocles was really the greatest charioteer ever, or just the luckiest, because this really is a ‘throw eggs against a wall’ situation. Or more accurately, ‘tie slaves to a chariot and make them compete in a fucking dangerous chariot race’ situation. I suspect Diocles, like most very successful sportsmen, was both – a statistically lucky individual, and also very talented at what he did.

So let’s get on to the mullah. How much did Diocles earn according to the monument? 35,863,120 sesterces to be exact. This is 5 times as much as the highest paid provincial governors at the time for the same time period, enough to pay the entire Roman army for a few months, and enough to supply grain to the entire population of Rome for a year. It is obviously difficult to accurately come up with a modern equivalent value for 35million sesterces, but people have tried, and the range is boggling, from the tens of millions of USD to the billions. I can’t help but feel that some people have made a sensible attempt to calculate a figure, whilst others have just pulled one out of their arses. The figure 15 billion USD is oft repeated. This figure is massively larger than any modern sports person.

Because what we know about Diocles is limited to his funerary monument, firstly, we don’t know if this is total bollocks. NEWSFLASH, it’s not unusual for men to exaggerate their sporting achievements. Assuming he did earn all this money, we don’t know how he spent his money or whether he was free to do what he liked with his money, or whether he actually received all that money. I can imagine that there were lots of other people behind the scenes who took a cut of Diocles’s prize money like the people who owned the horses and the people who funded the team in the first place. Regardless, Diocles seemed to do pretty well, that is assuming he didn’t die horribly at the age of 42, unable to move because of his injuries, suffering from early onset of Alzheimer’s like noughties professional rugby players and covered in wild boar dung.

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