Some people have unbelievable wealth. Forbes estimates that Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, will be the richest person living as of April 8, 2021, with a net worth of $177 billion. That is greater than the combined GDP of Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar, which together have about 76 million people.
Surely, we are among the wealthiest people in history in our contemporary environment, where technology allows for the creation and consolidation of truly inconceivable wealth. It seems that we are not. The richest people in the world lived in earlier times, when it was more difficult to quantify pure wealth.
- Even if Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are among the richest persons in the world right now, they don’t rank among the richest people in history.
- If you take into account those whose wealth and spending could have an impact on the overall health of the economy during the times in which they lived, there are richer persons in history than the present billionaires.
- Emperor Atahualpa was so wealthy that gold and silver released into Europe after his death created significant inflation and an economic downturn. Mansa Musa, the 14th-century ruler of the Malian Empire, spent so lavishly that it generated hyperinflation in Cairo and Medina.
J.P. Morgan and Genghis Khan
Because what it means to be affluent differs greatly from century to era, it is challenging to estimate wealth in the past. What do you think the Persian rulers’ land holdings are worth? Do you actually know how much Genghis Khan’s treasure was worth at the time if you increase its weight in ounces by $1,754.85 (the most recent price of gold per ounce as of April 2021)?
Placing dollar figures on objects is an exercise in wild guesswork in economies where there was no such thing as a legitimate currency, taxes were paid in grains, and literacy could have passed for rocket technology.
But that doesn’t lessen how much fun it is. A good example is Marcus Licinius Crassus, who was thought to be worth 170 million sesterces. The original value investor, he purchased entire sections of burning Rome and only sent his army of enslaved architects and builders to extinguish the fires if the owners paid up. Crassus personally fielded two legions in 73 B.C. when Spartacus began a revolt. According to legend, he passed away when molten gold was put into his mouth to represent his greed for wealth.
However, we don’t have to look all the way back to antiquity to identify individuals with truly disturbing riches. Depending on the assessment, John D. Rockefeller possessed $300 billion to $400 billion. Prior to the creation of the Federal Reserve, J.P. Morgan served as the nation’s lender of last resort and helped to stabilize the economy by making a sizable loan to the government in the wake of the Panic of 1893.
But perhaps it’s preferable to consider those who, in their own time and place, were so wealthy that they individually determined the worth of money, as opposed to trying to assess riches in absolute terms. There have only ever been two people in history who had such a disproportionate amount of wealth compared to everyone else that squandering it (voluntarily or not) might cause the global economy to collapse.
The three richest people in the contemporary era are Bernard Arnault, CEO of LVMH, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.
Mansa Musa, the Malian Empire’s emperor, made the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, in 1324. Around 60,000 individuals made up his retinue, and he carried with him so much gold that it reverberated throughout the entire Mediterranean region. He showered the places he traveled through in gold, distributing it to the needy and, according to one legend, constructing a new mosque each Friday. He was particularly extravagant in his spending in Cairo and Medina, and the sudden infusion of cash drove up the cost of basic necessities.
He personally started a policy of quantitative easing, acquiring all of Cairo’s gold on loan at a high rate of interest, after realizing that he was directly responsible for a wave of hyperinflation that afflicted an entire region. He was a macroeconomic cycle all by himself.
What about the Americas, though? Atahualpa and Huáscar’s bloody succession battle was just drawing to a conclusion in 1532, and the Incan Empire was starting its path of recovery. The Incan Empire has particularly challenging economic context challenges. It is the only sophisticated, extensive society that has ever arisen without even the appearance of a market. Money was not even a concept.
Instead, the entire state was structured as a sort of family, with the Inca (the Emperor) in charge of everything, including the provision of food, clothing, luxury items, homes, and citizens. You served the emperor as a man by working as a farmer, laborer, craftsperson, or soldier. You were given all you required to survive in return.
Atahualpa was captured by Spanish conquistadors after they attacked him at Cajamarca, yet he was able to raise a ransom unlike any other, filling a sizable room with gold. He could have had entire temples taken of their treasure, and he did, such was the extent of his power. Theoretically, he owned everything in the empire.
The ransom he paid would be equivalent to about $1.5 billion today, despite the fact that the number is basically worthless in context. Despite the fact that the Spanish destroyed his empire and killed him, severe inflation and a protracted economic downturn were brought on by the billions of dollars’ worth of gold and silver that entered Europe after 1500. Atahualpa was the source of a large portion of the enormous gold hauls that destroyed the 16th-century European economy.
Imagine how concentrated money was in the past if you’re as shocked as I am by the concept that less than 100 people today own as much wealth as the entire planet.
Bill Gates probably couldn’t trigger a local currency crisis, even if he went on the most lavish vacation he could imagine. Would any ransom demanded if a millionaire were kidnapped cause a region to enter a recession?
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