Bernie Sanders recently described the United States as "the richest country in the history of the world," to make a point about income inequality.

I understand that this was meant as a rhetorical point, but I'm curious how historians would evaluate such a statement literally. We're not the wealthiest nation based on per capita GDP, and it seems like it would be hard to compare our economy to historical civilizations, like for instance, The Roman Empire or the British Empire under Pax Brittanica.

Is there a way that historians measure the wealth of nations comparatively over large spans of time? And is there any measure by which a historian would definitively describe the United States as the richest country in the history of the world?

This is my first post on the history site, so please be gentle.

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    Perhaps better suited to the Politics or Economics sites. Also, it should be noted that most of the countries with higher GDP seem to base their economies largely on resource extraction.
    – jamesqf
    Apr 23, 2017 at 17:52
  • I'm not sure that a historian is best equipped to judge this. (1) the question is about current events, (2) economists, not historians define "richest", (3) the question is arguably trivial - pick the largest GDP, (4) Who cares? If the answer is "yes", does it have any meaning outside Sanders political rhetoric? If the answer is "no", does it have anty meaning outside Sanders political Rhetoric? If the answer affects policy, then it is certainly not a history question. tl;dr - what does this have to do with history?
    – MCW
    Apr 23, 2017 at 19:23
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    @MarkC.Wallace I suppose I was thinking that a historian would have insight into how one would compare a contemporary country's economy with one from the past, but all points about this being off-topic are well-taken. I'll be aware of that in any future questions on the history stackexchange. Thanks. Apr 23, 2017 at 19:31
  • (1) don't take it harshly; if you skim the site, you'll see I'm hypercritical to everyone. (2) I wonder if the question were revised to, "How does one compare a current GDP to economies from the past?" or something like that. Would that get you the answer you want while keeping me free from politics & current events? Not perfect - people will argue that historical GDP is a fiction, but I think if you're doing economic history you may need a time based model of historical GDP. We can calculate the rough total of all goods and services produced in Pax Brittanica for example.
    – MCW
    Apr 23, 2017 at 19:42
  • Comparing incomes or other dollar figures in any way is likely extremely misleading. There are many things people in modern societies can buy that were simply unavailable in prior societies. Apr 24, 2017 at 19:45

2 Answers 2


You basically answered your own question:

...it seems like it would be hard to compare our economy to historical civilizations, like for instance, The Roman Empire...

Although aspects of economics have been discussed in the far past, according to the wiki entry:

The publication of Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations in 1776, has been described as "the effective birth of economics as a separate discipline.

So a groundwork for comparison may be available only for the modern era(which does include the British Empire, but definitely not the Romans; systems were just too different). Even what would seem simple like comparing the value/cost of constructions in the past to those of today becomes complicated by issues comparing labor costs, slave labor values, values of materials extracted by such labor, ect.

Perhaps, as suggested in comments, experts in economics might have some standards to compare these values, and might be a better fit to answer this question.

  • You do not need economists for this, only records of the accumulated wealth. Apr 24, 2017 at 17:15

It all bows down to what you mean by "rich". Depending on how you define the wealth of a nation, you can get very different results.

Here is a link that describes seven ways to compare the dollar of 1774 to the current one. It has other examples of such comparisons (in UK, Spain, ...). The most ancient one is with the 1270 pound. For each comparison, it uses a wide range of indicators separated in three categories (comm). In short, for each indicator, you have to pick the commodities, incomes or projects the Roman empire (or another country) could buy/provide/finance. Then, once you picked these, you combine them and compare it to the same indicators for modern US.

Regarding commodities, it summed up to asking questions such as "how much pounds of flour could the roman empire have purchased"? For most commodities, the contemporary US would be advantaged, since the means of production are much more efficient.

Regarding incomes, it can be summed up to asking questions such as "how many people could the Roman Empire employ as state worker (or some equivalent)"? The low cost of hiring a slave or convincing someone to do a 20-year long military service in ancient times would definitely give an advantage to the roman empire. However, the US population being larger, it could still catch up. Note that for an honest comparison, slavery should probably be banned.

You also have relative questions, like "what is the percentage of this country's GDP compared to the world's GDP"?

Once you get your answer, it only has meaning with a full description of the indicator.

In order to remove ambiguity and still be right, Mr Sanders could have said something like "the US is the country able to make the biggest pile of hot dogs in the history of the world" (indicator: ability of a country to pile pile up hot dogs). However, it is not really appealing in a political meeting.

  • You were doing fine until you returned to politics in the final paragraph. Why would GDP care about whether a Roman worker were a State worker or a non-state worker?
    – MCW
    Apr 24, 2017 at 17:53
  • Of course, one could also compare how many tomatoes, avocados or potatoes a modern American could buy vs. a Roman in 1 CE, a question which may lead to deciding no civilization prior to today's date can be a competitor. Apr 25, 2017 at 0:21

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