List of wealthiest historical figures

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John D. Rockefeller is often considered the wealthiest person in modern history.[1][2]

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 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 (note that this is also an issue in 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).[3]

Marcus Licinius Crassus and Musa I of Mali are considered the wealthiest people in Antiquity and Middle Ages, respectively. Excluding monarchs and autocrats, the wealthiest private individual in the history of capitalism is variously identified as Jakob Fugger (d. 1525), of the early modern Fugger family of merchants and bankers,[4] and early 20th-century American entrepreneurs Andrew Carnegie (d. 1919)[5] and John D. Rockefeller (d. 1937).[6] Frequently, one of these few people is considered to be the richest person of all time, depending on source.

While 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 them among the wealthiest individuals.[7] The richest among the Rothschilds was the head of its English branch–Nathan Mayer Rothschild–the richest person of his time.[8] 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.[9]

According to Close (2016), the wealthiest woman in history of capitalism, excluding monarchs, is L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, whose net worth was at 40.7 billion in 2015.[10] Including monarchs, he mentions Empress Wu for Antiquity, Isabella of Castile for Middle Ages, and Catherine the Great for modern history.[11]

Early modern to modern period[edit]

Listed individuals have the lowest net worth estimate of at least 100 billion in 2010 USD. 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)[12] Description
John D. Rockefeller 1839–1937 23 On September 29, 1916, Rockefeller became the second person ever to reach a nominal personal fortune of USD 1 billion. 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. When considering the real value of his wealth, Rockefeller is widely held to be the wealthiest American, as well as the richest person in modern history.[13][14][15][16][17][18]
Andrew Carnegie 1835–1919 310[3] 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.[19] 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.[13][14]
Jakob Fugger 1459–1525 277[12]–400[4] German merchant, mining entrepreneur and banker. He expanded Fugger family's assets by making their operations European wide. At one point, Fugger & family had an almost monopolistic hold on the European copper market.[20] At his death, Jakob Fugger bequeathed to his nephew Anton Fugger company assets totaling 2,032,652 guilders.[21] Referred to as "Fugger the Rich".
Nicholas II of Russia 1868–1918 250[22]–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.[23] "Before the end of the year, the Tsar was usually penniless; sometimes he reached this embarrassing state by autumn."[23] 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.[24]

Mir Osman Ali Khan 1886–1967 210[6]–230 The last Nizam of Hyderabad State. Regarded as the wealthiest person in the world during his lifetime, his portrait was on the cover of Time magazine in 1937.[25] 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 £100m (in 2008 terms),[26] and used by the Nizam as a paperweight.[27]
Muammar Gaddafi 1942–2011 200 Autocrat of Libya during 1969–2011."After his death in 2011, reports surfaced that Muammar Gaddafi was secretly the wealthiest person in the world with a net worth of $200 billion. In the months surrounding his death nearly $70 billion in cash was seized in foreign bank accounts and real estate."
Henry Ford 1863–1947 188[6]–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 USD 188.1 billion (inflation-adjusted value in 2008 dollars).
William Henry Vanderbilt 1821–1885 52[28]–239[12] Railroad owner. Inherited much of his wealth from his father, Cornelius Vanderbilt,[29] who initiated the Vanderbilt family's involvement in railroad and shipping business. He doubled the fathers fortune, to an amount estimated between $52 billion and $239 billion.[6][12][28]
John Jacob Astor 1763–1848 120-138[30] American businessman, merchant, fur trader, and investor. In 1801, Astor's nominal wealth was some USD 250,000, and by the time of his death in 1848 his fortune had grown to USD 20 million, making him America's first multi-millionaire.[13][14][15]
Cornelius Vanderbilt 1794–1877 105[31]–205[32] American business magnate and philanthropist who built his wealth in railroads and shipping.
Stephen Girard 1750–1831 105[29]–120[33] French-born American banker. Before becoming a banker, he was a merchant and owned a fleet of trading ships.

Middle Ages[edit]

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).[3]

Name Lifetime Net worth (billion 2010 USD)[12] Description
Musa I of Mali c. 1280 – c. 1337 Mansa Musa, or Musa I of Mali is considered to be the richest man to ever walk the face of the Earth with his wealth at $400 billion (at the time of his death in 1331).[34] 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 ruled made his fortune by exploiting his country’s salt and gold production.[3][35][36] 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" (Davidson 2015).[37]
William the Conqueror d. 1087 209[29]–230[38] The estimate "209 billion" is based on the spoils of war William made in the conquest of England, apart from his subsequent position as monarch.[38]
Basil II 958–1025 170[6] Byzantine emperor from 960 to 1025.
Alan Rufus c. 1040–1093 149[39]–180[29] 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 134[29][39]
Richard FitzAlan, 10th Earl of Arundel c. 1306–1376 108[29][39]–120
John of Gaunt 1340–1399 101[29][39]–110

Antiquity[edit]

Marcus Licinius Crassus is held to be the wealthiest person in Roman history, as he had a personal net worth equal to the treasury of Rome.[40]

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.

Name Lifetime Description
Augustus Caesar 63 BC – 19 August 14 AD Listed by Davidson (2015) with "$4.6 trillion" because he "personally owned all of Egypt".[3]
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.[40] 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 a remarkable 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 USD 200 million to 20 billion.[41][42] Santoso (2008) has "$169.8 billion" for Crassus.[6]

Croesus d. 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.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ The Rockefellers: The Legacy Of History's Richest Man, Forbes 2014
  2. ^ Guinness World Records claims John D. Rockefeller was the richest person.
  3. ^ a b c d e Jacob Davidson, time.com The 10 Richest People of All Time, 30 July 2015
  4. ^ a b Daniel Eckert,So wurde Jakob Fugger zum reichsten Menschen der Historie ("This is how Jakob Fugger became the wealthiest person in history"), Die Welt, 6 June 2016 (German). "Auf heutige Verhältnisse hochgerechnet läge das Vermögen des Bauernenkels bei unglaublichen 400 Milliarden Dollar (354 Milliarden Euro). In die Nähe dieses Wertes kamen nur die Rothschilds, die in ihrer Glanzzeit im 19. Jahrhundert die mächtigste Bankiersfamilie der Welt waren" ("Adjusted to current-day conditions, the net worth of the farmer's grandson would be close to astonishing 400 billion dollars (354 billion Euro). Only the Rothschild family, at their peak in the 19th century the most powerful family of bankers, came close to such a figure."
  5. ^ listed at 372 billion 2014 USD by Jacob Davidson, time.com The 10 Richest People of All Time, 30 July 2015: "Rockefeller gets all the press, but Andrew Carnegie may be the richest American of all time. The Scottish immigrant sold his company, U.S. Steel, to J.P. Morgan for $480 million in 1901. That sum equates to about slightly over 2.1% of U.S. GDP at the time, giving Carnegie economic power equivalent to $372 billion in 2014."
  6. ^ a b c d e f Alex Santoso, 10 Richest People of All Time and How They Made Their Fortunes (neatorama.com), 9 July 2008. Santoso (2008) ranks Rockefeller #1 at peak net-worth $318.3 billion (2007 US dollar), followed by Carnegie at $298.3 billion.
  7. ^ Nathan Mayer Rothschild (d. 1836) is listed at 450 billion 2010 USD by Jason Bacchetta, Top 10: Richest Men (of All Time) | inStash, August 31, 2010, apparently this is not his personal net worth but the wealth of the Rothschild family combined. "After the [Napoleonic] war, Nathan Rothschild bragged of turning his 20k pound fortune into 50 million pounds in only 17 years. In 1820, 50 million pounds would be equivalent to 32 billion pounds today [2012]. [...] In 1850, Jacob Rothschild’s recorded net worth was 600 million francs, which was significantly more than all the other French bankers combined. In today’s US dollars that would be equivalent to $11.4 billion." How Much Money Do The Rothschilds Have?, Bilzerian Report, 16 March 2012.
  8. ^ GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History p. 65
  9. ^ All the Money in the World (2008) by Bernstein and Swan, p. 17 "Introduction"
  10. ^ Kerry Close, The 10 Richest Women of All Time, time.com, 1 February 2016. Bettencourt ranks at #6 in this list, after five ancient rulers and monarchs of the Middle Ages and early modern period.
  11. ^ Kerry Close, The 10 Richest Women of All Time, time.com. Empress Wu ranks at #1 in this list, Catherine the Great at #3, and Isabella of Castile at #5.
  12. ^ a b c d e Jason Bacchetta, Top 10: Richest Men (of All Time) | inStash, August 31, 2010
  13. ^ a b c Staff (15 July 2007). "The Wealthiest Americans Ever". New York Times. Retrieved 30 September 2014. 
  14. ^ a b c "Richest Americans in History". Forbes. 24 August 1998. Retrieved 22 December 2009. 
  15. ^ a b "The richest Americans". Forbes. Archived from the original on September 16, 2009. Retrieved 22 December 2009. 
  16. ^ "The Rockefellers". PBS. Retrieved 2007-05-29. 
  17. ^ "The Richest Americans". Fortune magazine. Retrieved 2007-07-17. 
  18. ^ "The Wealthiest Americans Ever". The New York Times. July 15, 2007. Retrieved 2007-07-17. 
  19. ^ "The Men Who Built America: Andrew Carnegie". History.com. 
  20. ^ Peter Geffcken: Fugger – Geschichte einer Familie: "Die Handelsherren mit dem Dreizack". In: DAMALS 7/2004
  21. ^ "Anton Fugger". Encyclopaedia Britannica. 
  22. ^ Santoso (2008) has "Peak wealth: $253.5 billion" for Nicholas II.
  23. ^ a b Massie, Robert K. Nicholas and Alexandra, New York, Atheneum, 1967, p64
  24. ^ Clarke, William The Lost Fortune of the Tsars, St. Martin's Griffin; Reprint edition, 1996, p101.
  25. ^ "The Nizam of Hyderabad". Time. 
  26. ^ Bedi, Rahul (12 April 2008). "India finally settles £1million Nizam dispute". The Daily Telegraph. London. 
  27. ^ Shah, Tahir. "Alan the Red, the Brit who makes Bill Gates a pauper." Times Online. The Sunday Times. 7 October 2007. Web. 19 9ay 2010.
  28. ^ a b New Netherland Institute, William Henry Vanderbilt [1821-1885], Industrial/Commercial Leader, newnetherlandinstitute.org
  29. ^ a b c d e f g Gus Lubin, business insider The 20 Richest People Of All Time, 2 September 2010
  30. ^ Steve Hargreaves, The richest Americans in history, #3. John Jacob Astor, CNN/Money, June 2, 2014
  31. ^ Fortune Magazine's "richest Americans". Fortune estimated his wealth at death at $105,000,000, or 1/87 of the nation's GDP.
  32. ^ Steve Hargreaves, The richest Americans in history, #2. Cornelius Vanderbilt, CNN/Money, June 2, 2014
  33. ^ Steve Hargreaves, The richest Americans in history, #4. Stephen Girard, CNN/Money, June 2, 2014
  34. ^ "Meet the 14th Century African king who was richest man in the world of all time (adjusted for inflation!)". Retrieved 2016-09-17. 
  35. ^ "Meet Mansa Musa I of Mali – the richest human being in all history". 2012-10-16. Retrieved 2016-09-17. 
  36. ^ "10 Richest People of All Time". 2016-09-04. Retrieved 2016-09-17. 
  37. ^ Jacob Davidson. "The 10 Richest People of All Time". CNNMoney. .
  38. ^ a b "Estimate from historian William Rubenstein via The Times, converted to dollars at average rate since ’07 (1:1.7) and adjusted for inflation."The 20 Richest People Of All Time, 4 September 2010. "Although he became a monarch, we're counting the spoils of war before he took the throne, based on what he gave out to his sons Odo and Robert." "he left the equivalent of $229.5 billion to his sons."
  39. ^ a b c d "Estimate from historian William Rubenstein via The Times, converted to dollars at average rate since ’07 (1:1.7) and adjusted for inflation." The 20 Richest People Of All Time, 4 September 2010
  40. ^ a b Wallechinsky, David & Irving Wallace. "Richest People in History Ancient Roman Crassus". Trivia-Library. The People's Almanac. 1975 - 1981. Web. 23 December 2009.
  41. ^ "Often named as the richest man ever, a more accurate conversion of sesterce would put his modern figure between $200 million and $20 billion." Peter L. Bernstein. The 20 Richest People Of All Time
  42. ^ "Roman Money - Current Value". GlobalSecurity. Retrieved 28 October 2011. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Philip Beresford, William D. Rubinstein, The Richest of the Rich: The Wealthiest 250 People in Britain since 1066, Harriman House, 2011.
  • Michael Klepper, Robert Gunther, The Wealthy 100: From Benjamin Franklin to Bill Gates-A Ranking of the Richest Americans, Past and Present, Citadel Press, 1996.