Blog/America's Economic History
Posted Sep 11, 2018 by Martin Armstrong
QUESTION: Mr. Armstrong; You are a history buff. Who was the richest person in ancient times? Has there ever been a trillionaire?
ANSWER: The Roman Emperor Augustus. He is believed to have been worth in current dollar terms nearly $5 trillion. The only other person to have reached the trillion dollars net worth status was King Solomon of Judaea. After Octavian/Augustus defeated Marc Antony and Cleopatra, he then possessed the entire wealth of Egypt. In this respect, the wealth really did belong to him. The Roman system was that a governor paid the tax to the state and he had the right to mine that province for taxes which were always in excess. So in this perspective, the wealth of Egypt truly did belong to Octavian/Augustus.
Some have attributed the entire wealth of nations conquered and argued that Genghis Khan was worth probably $100 trillion dollars. However, Genghis Khan may have been the ruler, but this was not exactly the same as the Roman system. All taxation was not the personal property of Genghis Khan as was the case for a governor of a province in the Roman Empire.
Marcus Licinius Crassus was perhaps one of the richest private men in Roman history. He amassed an enormous fortune through real estate speculation buying confiscated property seized by Marius from the supporters of Sulla. Crassus’s wealth is estimated by Pliny at approximately 200 million sestertii. Plutarch says the wealth of Crassus increased from less than 300 talents at first to 7,100 talents. An Attic (Greek, Athens) talent was the equivalent of 60 minae or 6,000 drachmae. A silver Drachm was generally 15mm in diameter with a weight of 4.20 grams. In Roman terms, this was about 26 kilograms (57 lb). If we take Plutarch’s measurement of wealth, that would be 42.6 million denarii.
A Roman soldier earned 225 denarii a year. Today, the average soldier in the US army earns $48,538 per year. That would approximately be $9.189 billion. If we take Jeff Bezos who is reported to be worth $164 billion based upon his stock in Amazon, that works out to the annual salary of 3.4 million soldiers compared to Crassus’ worth being 189,333 soldiers. However, the real difference is that Crassus’ wealth is cash whereas Bezos’ wealth is the current value of a stock. If he tried to sell it for cash, the value would be significantly less.
Crassus’ son, Publius Licinius Crassus (c 86BC – 53 BC), served under Julius Caesar. He did issue coins during the Republic as a “moneyer” who was a person authorized to issue the coins during the Roman Republic. The Senate actually controlled the quantity of money to be produced. There would be a “State of the Union” type of address to the Senate where they would be given the account of money on hand and what they expected the annual expenses would be. The Senate would then authorize the number of coins to be issued that fiscal year. The Quaestors handed the raw bullion and they would turn that over to the official who was the “moneyer” for that year. The moneyers would decide on the design to be issued which often celebrated his ancestors. The coinage would be struck and then handed back to the Quaestors for the expenditure of the government. The office of a moneyer continued into the Imperial period.