Rich as Croesus
June 15, 2017 8:20 PM   Subscribe

Who was the wealthiest single person in all of human history?
posted by the man of twists and turns to Society & Culture (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Mansa Musa I
posted by Confess, Fletch at 8:24 PM on June 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

Mansa Musa.
posted by pompomtom at 8:25 PM on June 15, 2017

Wikipedia has a longlist.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:32 PM on June 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

Mansa Musa reportedly made a pilgrimage to Mecca with a train of 60,000 people, during which he handed out so much gold to the poor that he crashed the currency of every country he went through, causing catastrophic inflation, which he attempted to fix on his way back to Mali by buying the gold back. The depression in his wake lasted a good ten years.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:52 PM on June 15, 2017 [20 favorites]

It's not really coherent to say Musa in the 1300s was the wealthiest person of all time. That's based on adjusting for inflation, but how can you make such an adjustment going back to the Middle Ages? Inflation refers to how prices of certain things increase over time. But what things are those? Do they include computers, phones, cars, TVs, or recordings of music? Those things aren't more expensive now than they were in the 1300s; they simply didn't exist in the 1300s. How can you factor that into inflation? People in the 1300s didn't even have electricity or indoor plumbing! And good luck getting health care if you ever travel back in time to the Middle Ages.

The economist Donald Boudreaux has pointed out that most Americans today are "richer" than John Rockefeller was 100 years ago. Boudreaux asked how much money you'd demand as compensation for traveling back in time and living during that period. Well, how much money would need to be willing to live in the 1300s, even in the most luxurious setting in the world? I'll bet you wouldn't do it for any money, because your current situation offers so much more material comfort than Musa could have possibly enjoyed.

Musa, and everyone in the world at the time, lived in dire poverty by our standards. So while he was relatively wealthy for his time, he cannot be considered anywhere near the wealthiest person of all time. You and I and most people we know are wealthier than Musa.
posted by John Cohen at 9:01 PM on June 15, 2017 [12 favorites]

Last year it was 8 men, then down to 6, and now almost 5.

Pick whichever one you like.
posted by The Pluto Gangsta at 9:44 PM on June 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

That's based on adjusting for inflation, but how can you make such an adjustment going back to the Middle Ages?

Inflation in the Middle Ages is often measured in terms of the wage of a day labourer. How much labour your money can command is a reasonable - if not the only (and if not free of complication) - way to compare wealth across time.

Some people would be willing to go back to the 1200s in order to be Genghis or Kublai Khan, though it's doubtful that money by itself could've bought you either of those positions. The wealthy are merely wealthy.

Speaking of the Khans, though, this list includes people like Stalin, who surely had single-handed command over (if not traditional ownership of) more economic power than anyone else in history.
posted by clawsoon at 1:06 AM on June 16, 2017

> Speaking of the Khans, though, this list includes people like Stalin, who surely had single-handed command over (if not traditional ownership of) more economic power than anyone else in history.

That's a ridiculous idea. In the first place, "rich" means "traditional ownership"; I don't see the point of stretching it to include vague ideas of influence over wealth. In the second place, Stalin did not have "single-handed command" over anything; he was tremendously powerful and could have pretty much anybody killed he wanted dead, but that's not at all the same thing. He had to deal with a whole bunch of people with their own ambitions, ideas, and power centers, and he often couldn't accomplish what he wanted to. And finally, the Bolsheviks despised the very idea of personal wealth as a matter of ideology; obviously that didn't stop them from grabbing a bunch of good stuff and living well by the standards of the time and place, but none of them lived in the traditional gold-plated-everything "wealthy" style—it would have been completely unacceptable, just as it would have been unacceptable to, say, insist on French being the official language of the Kremlin.
posted by languagehat at 8:38 AM on June 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

Every pope ever?
posted by wenestvedt at 8:41 AM on June 16, 2017

Yes, John Cohen points out the problem here--in order to compare wealth, wealth needs to be translatable into a term that's constant across time. The things money can buy have changed so radically, in nature and in function, that it's virtually impossible to find such a constant. Augustus commanded the greatest empire in the West, but even a modestly middle-income person in the present day such as myself has access to radically better health care. How do you weigh jewels against cell phones? Huuuuuuge tracts of land against the ability to travel around the globe in less than 24 hours? Or, in reverse, an entire civilization abasing itself to you as against the computer?

It's also worth noting that when Croesus himself took Solon around, showed him his own immense wealth, and then asked him who the happiest man on Earth was, Solon mentioned some random guy who had several kids who grew up healthy, who participated in his community life, and who at last died on the battlefield, where his people raised a trophy to honor him. (Croesus did not take it well.)
posted by praemunire at 9:04 AM on June 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

Every pope ever?

The fundamental problem with this is the same as languagehat pointed out about Stalin - it confuses personal wealth with state wealth. As head of the Roman Catholic Church, the pope theoretically controls a lot of wealth (Today, that it is. The early popes, when the Church was a minor persecuted sect, were certainly not in control of vast funds.). However, he can't just go out and buy a solid gold jet because he feels like it. He is acting as head of the Church, and anything he spends is in service of that. Even during the more kleptocratic periods of Church history, most of the Pope's spending was on stuff like painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel - in service of glorifying God (in theory) or at least the Church itself.

That's not to say popes didn't live well - I think it was Alexander VI who had solid gold utensils. But that was still as a function of their being head of state, rather than personally. Think of King Leopold II - the Congo was not part of Belgium, he instead owned it as a personal fief. Elizabeth II has vast holdings, but mostly as a function of being monarch of England. Balmoral Castle, on the other hand, is hers personally, and thus should count. Louis XIV may have said, "L'etat, c'est moi" but it doesn't make sense to count the entire value of France as his personal wealth.


* Numerous popes were poor. St. Peter, you will recall, was a fisherman by trade. Telesphorus was an anchorite monk - he had given away everything he owned, and sat on a pillar in the desert. Pope Francis is a Jesuit, an order that has a specific vow of poverty.

* Even if we count Church wealth as being owned by the pope, the Church had numerous hard times. Early on, of course, it had basically nothing. Its temporal power was very minimal prior to the mid-sixth century. Even in later periods, there were numerous times a pope took the throne to find his predecessor had spent virtually every cent.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:46 AM on June 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

« Older Recent Russian history?   |   Sadly, a replacement for OneNote is needed Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.