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 time 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. various economists nominate 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 individuals in the history of capitalism are variously identified as Jakob Fugger (died 1525), of the early modern Fugger family of merchants and bankers, prominent figures of India's Delhi and Bengal Sultanate and Mughal Empire, 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.
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 (d. 1836)—the richest person of his time. Bernstein and Swan in All the Money in the World (2008) mention the top four richest Americans ever—all tycoons of the Gilded Age—respectively: John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, William Henry 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, Razia Sultana and Isabella of Castile for Middle Ages, and Catherine the Great for modern history.
Early modern to modern period
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 Mellon, Richard B. Mellon, Stephen Van Rensselaer, Alexander Turney Stewart, Heshen, J. P. Morgan, and others.
|Ranking (Present World Billionaires If Alive)||Name||Country of Origin||Lifetime||Net worth equivalent (billion USD)||Description|
|1||Jakob Fugger|| Augsburg
|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"|
|2||John D. Rockefeller||United States||1839–1937
|350-420||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 2019). 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 (if using his wealth as a percentage of US GDP) place his net worth in the range of US$300 billion to US$400 billion. Using the inflation model, in adjusted dollars for late 2017, his net worth would be US$350 billion.|
|3||Andrew Carnegie||United States||1835–1919
|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).|
|4||Osman Ali Khan, Asaf Jah VII|| Hyderabad State
|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). The major source of his wealth was the Golconda mines, the only supplier of diamonds in the world at that time. Among them was the Jacob Diamond, valued at some £50m (in 2008 terms), and used by the Nizam as a paperweight.|
|5||Henry Ford||United States||1863–1947
|188–199||Henry Ford was an American automotive engineer, entrepreneur, and founder of the Ford Motor Company. By designing the Model T Ford with mass production in mind and employing the assembly line method of rapid production, he was able to radically lower the base price of his automobiles and 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)|
|6||John Jacob Astor||United States||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.|
|7||Cornelius Vanderbilt||United States||1794–1877
|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.|
|9||William Henry Vanderbilt||United States||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 (inflation adjusted).|
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 the four Mughal Emperors, Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb and their ancestors Genghis Khan and Timur for their imperial possessions, while Alan Rufus is listed for his immediate possessions within the feudal system of Norman England).
|Name||Country of Origin||Lifetime||Description|
|Musa I of Mali||Mali Empire||c. 1280 – c. 1337||Mansa Musa, or Musa I of Mali is considered one of the richest people ever. Musa was the tenth emperor of the Mali Empire, one of the prosperous Sahelian kingdoms that developed along the trans-saharan 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, deflating the value of gold across much, if not all, of North Africa. Reported as being inconceivably rich by contemporaries, "There’s really no way to put an accurate number on his wealth."|
|William the Conqueror|| Normandy
(part of modern-day France)
(part of the modern-day United Kingdom)
|c. 1028–1087||William the Conqueror became personally enormously wealthy from spoils of war during the Norman Conquest of England.|
|Basil II||Eastern Roman Empire||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||Angevin Empire (included parts of modern-day France, the United Kingdom, and Ireland)||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
|Angevin Empire||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
|England||c. 1306–1376||English nobleman and admiral. Succeeded to the Earldom of Surrey in 1347.|
|John of Gaunt||England||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 such as the pharaohs and Roman Emperors, where an entire empire might be considered the personal property of a deified emperor.
|Augustus||63 BC – AD 14||Listed by Time Magazine with "$4.6 trillion" because he "personally owned all of Egypt".|
|Marcus Licinius Crassus||c. 115 BC – 53 BC||Crassus inherited a fortune of 7 million sesterces after the death in 87 BC of his father, Publius Licinius Crassus. 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.
|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.|
- Thad Morgan, "This 14th-Century African Emperor Remains the Richest Person in History" Archived 2019-05-01 at the Wayback Machine, History.com, March 19, 2018
- Jacob Davidson, time.com The 10 Richest People of All Time, 30 July 2015
- 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 (in 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.")
- listed at 372 billion US$2014 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."
- GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History p. 65
- All the Money in the World (2008) by Bernstein and Swan, p. 17 "Introduction"
- 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.
- 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.
- Peter Geffcken: Fugger – Geschichte einer Familie: "Die Handelsherren mit dem Dreizack". In: DAMALS 7/2004
- "Anton Fugger". Encyclopædia Britannica.
- Thomas, Ryland; Williamson, Samuel H. (2020). "What Was the U.S. GDP Then?". MeasuringWorth. Retrieved September 22, 2020. United States Gross Domestic Product deflator figures follow the Measuring Worth series.
- "The Men Who Built America: Andrew Carnegie". History.com.
- Staff (15 July 2007). "The Wealthiest Americans Ever". New York Times. Retrieved 30 September 2014.
- "Richest Americans in History". Forbes. 24 August 1998. Retrieved 22 December 2009.
- "The Nizam of Hyderabad". Time.
- "Globalisation of Golconda".
- "Making money the royal way !". Retrieved 8 February 2019.
- McCaffrey, Julie (3 February 2012). "Exclusive: The last Nizam of Hyderabad was so rich he had a £50m diamond paperweight." Mirror.co.uk. London.
- Bedi, Rahul (12 April 2008). "India finally settles £1million Nizam dispute". The Daily Telegraph. London.
- "Exhibitions at National Museum of India,New Delhi(India)". 2 April 2009. Archived from the original on 2 April 2009.
- 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.
- Hargreaves, Steve. "The richest Americans in history".
- "The richest Americans". Forbes. Archived from the original on September 16, 2009. Retrieved 22 December 2009.
- Fortune Magazine's "richest Americans" Archived 2009-09-13 at the Wayback Machine. Fortune estimated his wealth at death at $105,000,000, or 1/87 of the nation's GDP.
- Gus Lubin, business insider The 20 Richest People Of All Time, 2 September 2010
- "William Henry Vanderbilt". www.newnetherlandinstitute.org.
- "Meet Mansa Musa I of Mali – the richest human being in all history". 2012-10-16. Retrieved 2016-09-17.
- "10 Richest People of All Time". 2016-09-04. Retrieved 2016-09-17.
- Jacob Davidson. "The 10 Richest People of All Time". CNNMoney..
- "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."
- The Domesday Book: England's Heritage Then and Now, ed. Thomas Hinde (UK: Coombe Books, 1996)
- Jonathan Sumption, Divided Houses: The Hundred Years War III (London: Faber & Faber, 2009), p. 9.
- Wallechinsky, David & Irving Wallace. "Richest People in History Ancient Roman Crassus". Trivia-Library. The People's Almanac. 1975–1981. Weborn 23 December 2009.
- "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
- Philip Beresford, William D. Rubinstein, The Richest of the Rich: The Wealthiest 250 People in Britain since 1066, Harriman House, 2011, ISBN 978-0-85719-065-9.
- 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, ISBN 978-0-80651-800-8.