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The list of the wealthiest historical figures gathers published estimates as to the (inflation-adjusted) net-worth and fortunes of the wealthiest historical figures in comparison. Due to problems arising from different definitions of wealth, ways of measuring it, various economic models throughout history, as well as multiple other reasons--this article discusses the wealthiest people in the following separate historical periods: Antiquity, Middle Ages and modern period. Accordingly--because of the previously mentioned difficulties--it is not possible to determine the single richest person in all of history.
For the modern period, wealth can be measured more or less objectively via inflation adjustment, e.g. comparing the nominal GDP of the United States of the respective periods, and then converting it into contemporary United States dollars. For the medieval and ancient history, comparison of wealth becomes more problematic, on one hand due to the inaccuracy or unreliability of records, on the other due to the difficulty of comparing a pre-industrial economy to a modern one, and especially in the presence of absolute monarchy, where an entire kingdom or empire is considered the ruler's personal property. The latter factor is also an issue in the early modern to modern period, e.g. Davidson (2015) lists Joseph Stalin among The 10 Richest People of All Time for his "complete control of a nation with 9.6% of global GDP".
Excluding monarchs and autocrats, the wealthiest private individual in the history of capitalism is variously identified as Jakob Fugger (died 1525), of the early modern Fugger family of merchants and bankers, and early 20th-century American entrepreneurs Andrew Carnegie (died 1919) and John D. Rockefeller (died 1937). Frequently, one of these few people is considered to be the richest person of all time, depending on source.
While the Rothschild family rose to the status of the wealthiest family of bankers in the 19th century, their wealth was distributed among a number of family members, preventing them from appearing among the wealthiest individuals. The richest among the Rothschilds was the head of its English branch--Nathan Mayer Rothschild--the richest person of his time. Bernstein and Swan in All the Money in the World (2008) mention the top three richest Americans ever--all tycoons of the Gilded Age--respectively: John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and Cornelius Vanderbilt; Henry Ford was ranked only 12th.
According to Close (2016), the wealthiest woman in the history of capitalism, excluding monarchs, was L'Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, whose net worth was at $40.7 billion in 2015. Including monarchs, he mentions Empress Wu for Antiquity, Isabella of Castile for Middle Ages, and Catherine the Great for modern history.
Listed individuals are thought to have had a net worth of at least the equivalent of 100 billion United States dollars. Therefore, it excludes figures such as Andrew W. Mellon, Richard B. Mellon, Stephen Van Rensselaer, A.T. Stewart, Heshen, J.P. Morgan, and others.
|Name||Lifetime||Net worth (billion 2010 USD)||Description|
|400||German merchant, mining entrepreneur and banker. He expanded Fugger family's assets by spreading their operations across Europe. At one point, Fugger & family had an almost monopolistic hold on the European copper market. At his death, Jakob Fugger bequeathed to his nephew Anton Fugger company assets totaling 2,032,652 guilders. Referred to as "Fugger the Rich".|
|John D. Rockefeller||1839-1937
|336||On September 29, 1916, Rockefeller became the first person ever to reach a nominal personal fortune of US$1 billion (equivalent to US$16 billion in 2016). Rockefeller amassed his fortune from the Standard Oil company, of which he was a founder, chairman and major shareholder. By the time of his death in 1937, estimates place his net worth in the range of US$300 billion to US$400 billion in adjusted dollars for the late 2000s (decade). When considering the real value of his wealth, Rockefeller is widely held to have been the wealthiest American, as well as the richest person in modern history.|
|310||Carnegie founded the Carnegie Steel Company, which was the most extensive integrated iron and steel operations in the United States; in 1901, Carnegie sold his company for US$480 million to J.P. Morgan, who then merged his company into U.S. Steel. Capitalized at US$1.4 billion at the time, U.S. Steel was the first billion dollar company in the world. In his final years, Carnegie's net worth was US$475 million, but by the time of his death in 1919 he had donated most of his wealth to charities and other philanthropic endeavors and had only US$30 million left to his personal fortune. Carnegie's hundreds of millions accounted for about 0.60% of the U.S. annual GDP and has a real value estimated at about US$75 billion adjusted for the late 2000s (decade).|
|Nicholas II of Russia||1868-1918
|250-300||Emperor of All Russia from 1894 to 1917. Estimates of the wealth of Nicholas II remain wildly speculative. As emperor, and an autocrat, the resources under Nicholas II's command were virtually incalculable. However, the vast majority of this was officially owned by the State as Crown property. From this, supplemented by an annuity from the Treasury, he derived an annual income of 24 million roubles, from which he had to fund staff, the upkeep of imperial palaces and imperial theatres, annuities for the royal family, pensions, bequests, and other outgoings. "Before the end of the year, the Tsar was usually penniless; sometimes he reached this embarrassing state by autumn." According to the Grand Marshall of the Court, Count Paul Benckendorff, his personal wealth only amounted to between 12.5 and 17.5 million roubles.|
|Osman Ali Khan, Asaf Jah VII||1886-1967
|210||The last Nizam of Hyderabad State in British India. Regarded as the wealthiest person in the world during his lifetime, his portrait was on the cover of Time magazine in 1937. As a semi-autonomous monarch, he had his own mint, printing his own currency, the Hyderabadi rupee, and had a private treasury that was said to contain £100m in gold and silver bullion, and a further £400m of jewels (in 2008 terms). Among them was the Jacob Diamond, valued at some £50m (in 2008 terms), and used by the Nizam as a paperweight.|
|188-199||Henry Ford was an American automotive engineer, entrepreneur, and founder of the Ford Motor Company. Through his designing of the Model T Ford and employing the assembly line means of rapid production, he was able to lower the base price of his product in order to reach a wider market. As production increased, Ford further reduced prices and increased salaries to reduce worker turnover. This resulted in a rapid increase in output, with Ford production rising from roughly 18,000 cars in 1909 to over 1 million cars in 1920. Despite Ford stating that his focus was increasing Ford Motor Company's benefit to society and to its employees, even at one point being sued by the Dodge brothers based on this premise, his company was massively profitable. His highest earnings were recorded at age 57 and he died at the age of 83 in 1947 at a net worth of US$188.1 billion (inflation-adjusted value in 2008 dollars).|
|John Jacob Astor||1763-1848
|120-138||American businessman, merchant, opium smuggler, fur trader, and investor. In 1801, Astor's nominal wealth was some US$250,000, and by the time of his death in 1848 his fortune had grown to US$20 million, making him America's first multi-millionaire.|
|105-205||American business magnate and philanthropist who built his wealth in railroads and shipping.|
|105-120||French-born American banker. Before becoming a banker, he was a merchant and owned a fleet of trading ships.|
|William Henry Vanderbilt||1821-1885
|52-239||Railroad owner. Inherited much of his wealth from his father, Cornelius Vanderbilt, who initiated the Vanderbilt family's involvement in railroad and shipping business. He doubled his father's fortune, to an amount estimated between $52 billion and $239 billion.|
Absolute rulers or conquerors are sometimes listed for the territory they controlled rather than for their immediate personal wealth (Davidson (2015) for TIME.com listed Akbar I, Genghis Khan and Emperor Shenzong of Song for their imperial possessions, while Alan Rufus is listed for his immediate possessions within the feudal system of Norman England).
|Musa I of Mali||c. 1280 - c. 1337||Mansa Musa, or Musa I of Mali is considered one of the richest men in history. Musa was the tenth emperor of the Mali Empire, one of the prosperous Sahelian kingdoms that developed along the Saharan slave trade routes in the later medieval period. Mansa Musa made his fortune by exploiting his country's salt and gold production. Musa is said to have brought several tonnes of gold to Mecca when he made a pilgrimage there in 1324. Reported as being inconceivably rich by contemporaries, "There's really no way to put an accurate number on his wealth."|
|William the Conqueror||c. 1028-1087||William the Conqueror became personally enormously wealthy from spoils of war during the Norman Conquest of England.|
|Basil II||958-1025||Byzantine emperor from 960 to 1025 at the time of the Eastern Roman Empire's greatest medieval territorial extent, also a time of considerable prosperity for the Empire.|
|Alan Rufus||c. 1040-1093||Alan Rufus, 1st Lord of Richmond, was a relative and companion of William the Conqueror (Duke William II of Normandy) during the Norman Conquest of England. By 1086 he had become one of the richest and most powerful men of England.|
|William de Warenne,
1st Earl of Surrey
|d. 1088||Fought alongside William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings and was rewarded with considerable land holdings in England.|
10th Earl of Arundel
|c. 1306-1376||English nobleman and admiral. Succeeded to the Earldom of Surrey in 1347.|
|John of Gaunt||1340-1399||Third son of King Edward III of England. Duke of Lancaster. Owned land in almost every county in England, with a household comparable to that of a monarch.|
For Classical Antiquity, even more than for the High Middle Ages, the definition of personal wealth becomes difficult to compare with the modern period; especially in the case of divine kings, where an entire empire might be considered the personal property of a deified emperor.
|Marcus Licinius Crassus||c. 115 BC - 53 BC||Crassus inherited a fortune of 7 million sesterces after the death of his father in 87 BC. After several years of exile, Crassus was able to rebuild his family fortune by seizing the property of executed convicts for himself. Crassus also expanded his wealth by trading in slaves and by purchasing whole neighborhoods of Rome as they burned, for drastically less than market value. Crassus was known in Rome as Dives, meaning "The Rich". It is believed that Crassus expanded his personal fortune to 170 million sesterces, while Pliny the Elder surmised his fortune to be valued even higher, at 200 million sesterces. This would place Crassus's net worth equal to the total annual budget of the Roman treasury.
Crassus has often been listed among the "wealthiest individuals in history", although depending on the estimate of the "adjusted value" of a Roman sesterce, his net worth may also be placed in the range of US$200 million to US$20 billion.
|Augustus Caesar||63 BC - AD 14||Listed by Time Magazine with "$4.6 trillion" because he "personally owned all of Egypt".|
|Croesus||died c. 546 BC||The name of Croesus, a historical king of Lydia, was proverbial for wealth already in antiquity; this is probably due to his being the first ruler to issue true gold coins with a standardised purity for general circulation and not necessarily for his personal wealth.|