The Richest People in History, From Ancient Times to the Present


The richest people of all time have come from all walks of life, from emperors and kings to industrialists and entrepreneurs. Their paths to immense wealth have been equally diverse, spanning realms such as commerce, military conquest, and groundbreaking innovation. While it is difficult to say definitively who was the richest person in history, it remains a challenging endeavor. Some prominent contenders for this illustrious distinction include Mansa Musa, the 14th-century ruler of the Mali Empire; John D. Rockefeller, renowned as the architect of Standard Oil; and Andrew Carnegie, the iconic steel tycoon. It will be interesting to see who emerges as the richest person in history in the years to come.

1. Mansa Musa (1280-1337), also known as Musa I of Mali, was a prominent West African ruler who reigned over the Mali Empire during the 14th century. He is widely regarded as one of the richest individuals in history, with a net worth of over $400 billion in today’s dollars. His wealth came from the gold and salt trade, and he was known for his lavish spending, including a pilgrimage to Mecca. During his journey, he made a stop in Cairo, the capital of Egypt, where he spent such a significant amount of gold that it had a profound and almost devastating effect on the Egyptian economy.

richest person in the world
King Mansa Musa as depicted in the Catalan Atlas. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

2. John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937): The American oil tycoon was the first person to become a billionaire, with a net worth of over $340 billion in today’s dollars. He founded the Standard Oil Company, which at one point controlled over 90% of the oil industry in the United States. John D. Rockefeller’s wealth was staggering in 1918. He was estimated to be worth nearly 2% of the United States’ GDP, which included the Rockefeller Center

Richest People in History
Portrait of John D. Rockefeller, 1907 / Photo: Wikimedia Commons

 

3. Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919): The Scottish-American industrialist stands as one of the iconic American billionaires, amassing a staggering net worth equivalent to over $310 billion in today’s currency. His meteoric rise to wealth was rooted in the steel industry, a sector where he left an indelible mark. Carnegie believed that the wealthy had a moral obligation to give back to society, and he donated billions of dollars to build libraries, universities, and other public institutions.

Richest People in History
Andrew Carnegie in National Portrait Gallery / Photo: Wikimedia Commons

 

4. Catherine the Great (1729-1796): The Russian empress was one of the most powerful rulers in European history. She is estimated to have had a net worth of over $200 billion in today’s dollars, which she accumulated through her control of the Russian economy and her military conquests. Boasting an empire that accounted for nearly 5 percent of the global GDP, the title of the longest-reigning female Russian monarch is undoubtedly a well-deserved accolade, securing her position among the world’s elite.

Catherine the Great
Catherine II by J.B.Lampi (1780s, Kunsthistorisches Museum) / Photo: Wikimedia Commons

 

5. Augustus Caesar (63 BC-14 AD): This Roman emperor ranks among the most affluent rulers in ancient history. He is estimated to have had a net worth of over $40 trillion in today’s dollars, which he accumulated through his military conquests and his control of the Roman economy, and his inheritance from his adoptive father, Julius Caesar.

Richest People in History
Augustus of Prima Porta / Photo: Wikimedia Commons

 

6. Joseph Stalin (1878-1953): The Soviet dictator’s wealth is estimated to have surpassed a staggering $100 billion in modern currency. His wealth came from his control of the Soviet economy, as well as from the proceeds of forced labor and looting. Three years before Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953, the gross domestic product (GDP) of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was nearly 9.5% of the global GDP. This made the USSR one of the richest nations in the world at the time.

Joseph Stalin
Joseph Stalin (1878–1953) / Photo: Wikimedia Commons

 

7. Empress Wu Zetian (624-705): This distinguished Chinese empress stands as one of the most formidable leaders in Chinese history. She is reputed to have had a net worth of over $70 billion in today’s dollars, which she accumulated through her control of the Chinese economy, and her marriages to two emperors.

Empress Wu
Empress Wu (Wu Zetian) / Photo: Wikimedia Commons

 

8. Akbar the Great (1542-1605): As a prominent Mughal emperor, he held a place of immense influence in Indian history. He is reputed to have had a net worth of over $60 billion in today’s dollars, which he accumulated through his control of the Mughal Empire, as well as through his military conquests and promotion of trade.

Akbar the Great
Akbar the Great (1556-1605) / Photo: Wikimedia Commons

 

9. Emperor Shenzong of Song (1048-1085): This illustrious Chinese emperor ranks among the most prosperous rulers in Chinese history. He is reputed to have had a net worth of over $50 billion in today’s dollars, which he accumulated through his control of the Song Dynasty economy, as well as through his promotion of technological innovation and tax collection.

Emperor Shenzong
Emperor Shenzong of Song (r.1067–1085) /Photo: Wikimedia Commons

 

10. Genghis Khan (1162-1227): The formidable Mongol conqueror is believed to have possessed a net worth exceeding $200 billion in modern currency, primarily accrued through his relentless military campaigns. It is difficult to estimate Genghis Khan’s wealth accurately because much of it was in the form of non-liquid assets, such as land and livestock.

Genghis Khan
Taizu, better known as Genghis Khan / Photo: Wikimedia Commons

 

11. Elon Musk, Bernard Arnault & family and Jeff Bezos (Modern Era): As of my last knowledge according to Forbes, Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, Bernard Arnault the CEO of luxury goods conglomerate LVMH, and Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, and were among the richest people in the world in the 21st century. Their wealth was primarily tied to their respective companies’ stock prices, and rankings among the richest individuals can fluctuate.Elon Musk, Bernard Arnault and Jeff Bezos

 

 


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