Who’s the Richest Person Ever?

Some folks are unfathomably rich. Based on Bloomberg, at Jan. 13, 2021, Tesla’s Elon Musk is the wealthiest man alive, with $202 billion to his name.1 That is about the combined gross domestic product of Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia, which have approximately 76 million people between them.2

Surely in our contemporary world, where technology enables the consolidation and creation of truly incomprehensible wealth, we’re living one of the wealthiest individuals in history. Turns out, we’re not. The world’s wealthiest individuals lived in earlier times, in eras where pure wealth was harder to quantify.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are one of the wealthiest people on earth now, but in terms of the wealthiest individuals of all time, they do not make the cut.
  • In history, there are wealthier people compared to contemporary billionaires, particularly once you consider those whose wealth and spending could affect the general health of the economy during the times in which they dwelt.
  • Mansa Musa, the 14th-century emperor of the Malian Empire, spent so broadly that it caused hyperinflation in Cairo and Medina
  • Emperor Atahualpa was so rich that gold and silver introduced into Europe after his departure caused high inflation and an economic downturn.

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From Genghis Khan to J.P. Morgan

Estimating wealth in bygone eras is tough because what it means to be wealthy fluctuates widely from epoch to epoch. How can you appreciate the landholdings of Persian emperors? Does the weight in ounces of Genghis Khan’s hoard by $1,859.60 (the latest price of gold per ounce, as of Jan. 2021) actually let you know what his riches was worth at the moment? 3

In markets where there was no such thing as a legitimate currency, taxes were levied in grain, and literacy could too have been rocket science, slapping dollar amounts on things is an exercise in rampant speculation.4

But that does not make it any less fun. Take Marcus Licinius Crassus, with an estimated net worth of 170 million sesterces.5 The first worth investor, he purchased entire swathes of Rome when they were on fire and just sent his army of enslaved architects and contractors to put out the flames if the owners paid up. When Spartacus led a rebellion in 73 BCE, Crassus personally fielded two legions.6 Legend has it that he died when molten gold was poured in his mouth, representing his thirst for wealth.7

We don’t need to return to antiquity to locate individuals with truly unsettling riches, however. John D. Rockefeller had anywhere from $300 billion to $400 billion, based on the quote.8 J.P. Morgan was the U.S. lender of last resort before the Federal Reserve was created, stabilizing the market through a gigantic loan to the authorities after the Panic of 1893.9

But rather than attempting to measure wealth in absolute terms, perhaps it’s better to look at who, in their own time and place, was so wealthy they personally defined the value of money. In all of history, there are two individuals who commanded so much prosperity relative to everybody else who spending it (voluntarily or not) could send the market of the known world into a tailspin.

Tesla’s Elon Musk, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and Microsoft’s Bill Gates would be the contemporary world’s wealthiest people.10

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Mansa Musa

In 1324, Mansa (“Emperor”) Musa of the Malian Empire went on hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. His entourage consisted of approximately 60,000 people and a quantity of gold which sent ripples through the entire Mediterranean world. He showered the towns he visited with gold, giving it away to the poor and, according to one account, building a new mosque each Friday.11 He spent notably lavishly in Cairo and Medina, and the sudden influx of cash sent prices for everyday goods soaring.12 13

Recognizing that he had caused a wave of hyperinflation to plague an whole region, he embarked on a quantitative easing program, snapping up all of Cairo’s gold loan in a high rate of interest.14 He was a one-man macroeconomic cycle.

Atahualpa

But what about the Americas? In 1532, a brutal war of succession between half-brothers Atahualpa and Huáscar was only coming to an end, and the Incan Empire was beginning the process of recovery.15 When dealing with the Incan Empire, problems of financial circumstance are especially hairy. It’s the only complicated, large-scale civilization to develop with no semblance of a market. There was no idea of cash at all.16

Rather, the whole state was arranged as a sort of family unit, with the Inca (the Emperor) controlling everything: food, clothing, luxury goods, houses, and individuals. As a guy, you served the emperor as a farmer, laborer, craftsman, or soldier. In exchange, you’re supplied with everything you had to survive.17

When Spanish conquistadors ambushed Atahualpa in Cajamarca and took him as a captive, he had been able to muster a ransom unlike any other, filling a large room with gold.18 His power was so unquestioned he could have entire temples stripped of gold, and he’d.19 There was nothing in the empire he didn’t, in theory, own.

While the figure is largely meaningless in context, the ransom he paid will be worth approximately $1.5 billion now.20 The Spanish killed him gutted his empire, but the billions of dollars’ worth of silver and gold which flooded into Europe after 1500 caused high inflation and a protracted economic downturn.18 Much of the huge quantities of gold which sank Europe’s economy in the 16th century came from Atahualpa.21

The Bottom Line

If you are blown away by the notion that over 100 people control as much wealth as half of the world today, imagine how focused money was.22 Even if Bill Gates took the most extravagant holiday he could fathom, he likely could not create a regional currency crisis. If someone were to kidnap any billionaire, would any ransom they might need send a continent into recession?

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