The Richest People in History

When the question of personal wealth arises the name of Bill Gates will eventually pop up, without a doubt. The founder of Microsoft is for years on the very top of the lists of richest people alive with net worth of 79,2 billion dollars. That seems like a lot of money, right? Most of us, ordinary, hardworking people can’t even imagine that number, let alone own a fraction of that sum.

Perhaps it would be easier comprehend that amount if into perspective, compared to one million dollars: one billion is 1000 times a million dollars. Right, now we are somewhere. So net worth of Mr. Gates is almost 80 times that! That’s 8 followed by 10 zeroes. He is so rich that if he, hypothetically, gave 10$ to every person on Earth he would still own more than 2 billion dollars after! That said, he does donate A LOT to good causes: in 2014 he was top ranking philanthropist donating 1,5 billion dollars to Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

However, as unimaginably rich as Bill Gates is, historically he wouldn’t even make it to the top 5 of the richest people who ever lived! What?!…who are they? Interestingly, for 3 or 4 of them you haven’t even heard of at all!  Let’s see who they were:


  1. Akbar I

The greatest emperor of India’s Mughal dynasty, Akbar controlled an empire that accounted for about one-fourth of global economic output. That’s 25% of global GDP in 15th Century! Succeeding his father in 1556 he gradually enlarged the Mughal Empire to include nearly all of the Indian Subcontinent north of the Godavari river. The empire tripled in size and wealth. He built his capital Agra, the remarkable red fort by the Jamuna to dazzle his inhabitants. He was also a noted benefactor of the arts, literature and culture.

The wealth of Mughal Emperors in today’s terms is difficult to estimate, but those who ruled only the part of the Indian subcontinent were insanely rich. For example Osman Ali Khan, who ruled only the part known as Hyderabad for nearly 40 years until 1948,  was known as being the wealthiest man in the entire world. By the time of his death, his wealth amounted to approximately 240 billion dollars in today’s money!


  1. Emperor Shenzong

Emperor Shenzong ruled China’s Song Dynasty from 1067 to 1085 as the sixth Emperor. The Empire had a massive economy that accounted to about 30% of Global GDP, according to Professor Ronald A. Edwards, a Chinese economic historian of the Song Dynasty at Tamkang University. During his reign many social reforms were made. Low-interest government loans to peasants were instituted, new land surveys were made to correct tax inequities, and government revenues were increased by a program of purchasing manufactured specialties in one region and selling them in another.  Unmistakably enormously rich, Emperor Shenzong died at the age of 36 which was, for that time, considered middle age.


  1. Augustus Caesar

Augustus Caesar, born Gaius Octavius, in 63 B.C. rose to become the first Emperor of the Roman Empire. He restored peace after 100 years of civil war; during his reign the government was mostly non corrupt and he maintained a sound currency system; he extensively built roads, bridges and aqueducts throughout the expanding empire; fostered free trade among the provinces; he commissioned buildings adorned with beautiful works of art created in the classical style. During his time was a golden age of literature with writers including Virgil, Horace, Ovid, and Livy all living under the emperor’s patronage. Augustus at one point held personal wealth equivalent to one-fifth of his empire’s economy. That fortune would be the equivalent of about $4.6 trillion in 2014. While hard to confirm it’s still impressive even if only a fraction of that number was true! Stanford history professor Ian Morris says that Augustus Caesar “for a while owned all of Egypt”… so that must have been worth “something”.


  1. John D Rockefeller

John D Rockefeller was an American business magnate and philanthropist, a name you heard. Rockefeller began investing in the petroleum industry in 1863 and by 1880 his Standard Oil controlled 90% of American oil production. Adjusting for inflation, his fortune upon his death in 1937 stood at $336 billion, accounting for more than 1.5% of the national economy, making him the richest person in US history. He was a big philanthropist, he created foundations that had major effects on medicine, education and scientific research and he founded the University of Chicago and Rockefeller University.  Take that Bill Gates!

But that still doesn’t top:


  1. Mansa Musa I

Believe it or not, the wealthiest person in history comes from Africa, a continent now engulfed in poverty, thanks to imperialism. Mansa Musa I, the king of Timbuktu, ruled the area that is today the country of Mali. He made substantial fortune from gold and salt. There is a famous legend of his pilgrimage to Mecca, as he was a devout Muslim. His entourage consisted of dozens of camels each packed with hundreds of pounds of gold. Wherever he passed the economy was devastated. In the cities of Cairo, Medina, and Mecca, the sudden influx of gold devalued the metal for the next decade. Prices on goods and wares greatly inflated. To rectify the gold market, Musa borrowed all the gold he could carry from money-lenders in Cairo, at high interest.

While figures are difficult to calculate, it is estimated that Mansa Musa’s adjusted net worth today would be a whopping 410 billion dollars!  If you can imagine how much that is…