Rags to riches

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Rags to riches refers to any situation in which a person rises from poverty to wealth, and in some cases from absolute obscurity to heights of fame—sometimes instantly. This is a common archetype in literature and popular culture (for example, the writings of Horatio Alger, Jr.).


The concept of "Rags to riches" has been criticised by social reformers, revolutionaries, essayists and statisticians, who argue that only a handful of exceptionally capable and/or mainly lucky persons are actually able to travel the "rags to riches" road, being the great publicity given to such cases causes a natural survivorship bias illusion,[1] which help keep the masses of the working class and the working poor in line, preventing them from agitating for an overall collective change in the direction of social equality.[2][3]

Pre-20th-century fictional examples[edit]

Historical examples[edit]

  • The Roman Emperor Diocletian, born in poverty and whose father was a former slave (by some sources, the emperor himself was born in slavery).[4]
  • Genghis Khan, who was homeless with just his mother and his siblings. He went on to create the largest land empire in history (however, Genghis was the son of a Mongol chieftain).
  • Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici, born in poverty, founded the Medici bank, the Medici were a common family.
  • Pope Leo III was of commoner origin and attained the high position in spite of violent opposition from the nobility, who considered the papacy as their preserve.
  • George Thomas (soldier), born into a poor Irish farming family, Thomas became a mercenary in India eventually rising to become a wealthy Raja.
  • Pope Gregory VII, Hildebrand, was a commoner, perhaps the son of a blacksmith. His bad reputation was partially due to horror at his high social mobility.
  • Chandragupta Maurya of India, who from a humble beginning founded the Maurya Empire.
  • Mahmud of Ghazni, son of a Turkic slave, who founded the Ghaznavid Empire.
  • Baibars, a slave who rose to become the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt through his military prowess.
  • China's Emperor Gaozu of Han and Hongwu Emperor who were both born into peasant families, but eventually founded two of the nation's most illustrious imperial dynasties.
  • Emperor Xuan of Han brought up a commoner despite royal blood, later rose to become a capable ruler.
  • Emperor Guangwu of Han lived life as a peasant at one point in his life despite being a distant royal. He eventually restored the Han dynasty.
  • Emperors Justin I, Justinian the Great and Theodora came from peasant families. Later became Emperors of the Eastern Roman Empire. Theodora was a courtesan and actress. Later became Empress.
  • Nader Shah, founder of the Afsharid dynasty, was the orphaned son of a goat-herder who established the most powerful empire in modern Persian history.
  • Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a famous example in late medieval times, helped unify pre-modern Japan.
  • Wei Zhongxian of Ming Dynasty China, a gambler who castrated himself and entered the Imperial Palace where he ended enormous power under the reign of the Tianqi Emperor. He eventually committed suicide upon banishment by the Chongzhen Emperor.
  • Catherine I of Russia, born into a peasant family, married Peter the Great, and became Empress of Russia following a palace coup.

Pre-modern and modern times[edit]

Thousands of people have risen from poverty to riches; some are:

Use in art and media[edit]

TV and films[edit]

Computer gaming[edit]




  • A term used in many team sports when a team goes from a poor finishing position one season to a strong finishing position the following season.[14]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Taleb, 2001. "Part II: Monkeys on typewriters; Survivorship and other Biases"
  2. ^ Peña, 2012. Chapter 5 "From Rags to Riches"
  3. ^ Weiss, 1969. P.35
  4. ^ Diokletian U.tetrarchie
  5. ^ i100 staff. article. published by The Independent 2014. Retrieved 6 December 2015. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h Huffington Post. article. published by Huffington Post 14 January 2013. Retrieved 6 December 2015. 
  7. ^ Smith, Ben (10 September 2013). "Zlatan Ibrahimovic: From teenage outcast to world great". BBC Sport. Retrieved 5 February 2017. 
  8. ^ Crowell, Merle (December 1922). "The Amazing Story of Martin W. Littleton". The American Magazine. Springfield, Ohio: The Crowell Publishing Company. pp. 16, 78–88. Retrieved 26 February 2016. 
  9. ^ Flores, Wilson Lee (July 28, 2010). "Why Henry Sy cried when he saw his father". The Philippine Star. Retrieved 5 February 2017. 
  10. ^ Imbd - bio [Retrieved 6 December 2015]
  11. ^ Data-page published by Forbes magazine magazine 6 December 2015 [Retrieved 6 December 2015]
  12. ^ The Pursuit of Happyness - Rotten Tomatoes
  13. ^ Suskin, Steven (2010). Show Tunes: The Songs, Shows, and Careers of Broadway's Major Composers (4th ed.). Oxford University Press. p. 243. ISBN 978-0-19-531407-6. 
  14. ^ Roosters storm into NRL grand final - www.smh.com.au

External links[edit]