Money has been making the world go round since it was first invented. Though leaders such as Genghis Khan, Joseph Stalin, Akbar I, and Emperor Shenzong ruled countries, dynasties, and empires which amassed vast amounts of wealth, there are individuals throughout history who have personally accrued record-breaking sums.
It is difficult to arrive at a precise financial figure for many wealthy individuals in history. However, estimates, which have been adjusted to reflect levels of inflation today, arrive at figures which put Jeff Bezos’ wealth to shame. From rags-to-riches entrepreneurs to dynastic, multi-generational inheritors, here are the 10 richest people in history.
Alan ‘the Red’ Rufus (1040–1093) – $194 billion
The nephew of William the Conqueror, Alan ‘the Red’ Rufus was his patron during the Norman Conquest. It paid off: in return for helping him win the throne and putting down a rebellion in the north, William the Conqueror awarded Rufus some 250,000 acres of land in England.
Upon his death in 1093, Rufus was worth £11,000, which was worth a whopping 7% of England’s GDP at the time, and certifies him as the richest man in British history.
Muammar Gaddafi (1942-2011) – $200 billion
Though much of his wealth was derived from Libya, which Gaddafi brutally ruled for 42 years, the dictator personally amassed an enormous fortune, the majority of which he funnelled out of the country in secret bank accounts, dubious investments and shady real estate deals and companies.
Shortly before his death, he sold a fifth of Libya’s gold reserves, and most of the proceeds from the sale are still missing. Upon his death, it was reported that the deposed leader had died one of the richest people in the world.
Mir Osman Ali Khan (1886-1967) – $210 billion
In 1937, Time Magazine proclaimed their cover star Mir Osman Ali Khan as the richest man in the world. As the last Nizam of Hyderabad State in British India from 1911-48, the Khan owned his own mint which he used to print his own currency, the Hyderabadi rupee. He also had a private treasury which was said to contain £100 million in gold and silver bullion, as well as a further £400 million worth of jewels.
He owned the Golconda mines, the only supplier of diamonds in the world at the time. Among the finds at the mine was the Jacob diamond, which is valued at around £50 million. Khan used it as a paperweight.
William the Conqueror (1028-1087) – $229.5 billion
When Edward the Confessor died in 1066, he was succeeded by Harold Godwinson instead of William. William angrily invaded England to enforce his claim. The subsequent Battle of Hastings saw William crowned King of England.
As the first Norman ruler of England, William the Conqueror profited from the spoils of war, seizing lands and plundering treasures across the country that would be worth $229.5 billion today. He spent his enormous wealth on everything from tapestries to castles, including the Tower of London‘s famous White Tower.
Jakob Fugger (1459–1525) – $277 billion
German textile, mercury and cinnamon merchant Jakob Fugger was so wealthy that he was nicknamed ‘Jakob the Rich’. As a banker, merchant and mining pioneer, he was Europe’s richest man during the early 16th century. His business methods were so controversial that Martin Luther spoke out against him.
His wealth even allowed him to influence politics of the time, since he loaned money to the Vatican, funded the rise of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, and bankrolled the Spanish King Charles V.
Tsar Nicholas II (1868-1918) – $300 billion
The Romanovs’ wealth was like no other family that has existed since. Though ultimately ill-fated, Tsar Nicholas Romanov ruled over the Russian Empire from 1894 to 1917, during which time they invested in palaces, jewellery, gold and art. After they were murdered, the family’s possessions and assets were largely seized by their killers.
Since he was posthumously canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church, Tsar Nicholas II is the richest saint of all time. Moreover, his net worth by today’s standards makes him wealthier than the top 20 Russian billionaires of the 21st century combined.
John D. Rockefeller (1839–1937) – $367 billion
Widely regarded as the richest American to have ever lived, John D. Rockefeller started investing in the petroleum industry in 1863, and by 1880 his Standard Oil company controlled 90% of American oil production. He attributed all of his success to God and taught Sunday School at his local church throughout his life.
His obituary in the New York Times estimated that his overall fortune was equivalent to almost 2% of US economic output. He was the first man in US history to amass a fortune of $1 billion.
Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919) – $372 billion
Born into a humble Scottish family, Andrew Carnegie went on to become both one of the richest men and the greatest philanthropist of all time. He was responsible for massive expansion of the US steel industry in the late 19th century.
He famously redistributed almost all of his wealth, giving around 90% of his fortune away to charities and educational establishments. He even offered $20 million to the Philippines as a means of buying back their country from the US, who had bought it from Spain after the Spanish-American war. The Philippines declined.
Mansa Musa (1280-1337) – $415 billion
Mansa Musa, the king of Timbuktu, is often referred to as the richest person in history, with a wealth that has been described as ‘incalculable’. His west African kingdom was the largest producer of gold in the world at a time when the metal was in high demand. Pictures of Musa depict him as holding a sceptre of gold, on a throne of gold, holding a cup of gold and with a golden crown on his head.
He famously made an Islamic Hajj to Mecca. His retinue included 60,000 people as well as 12,000 enslaved people. Everything was covered in gold and was a means of transporting gold, with the entire group reportedly carrying items worth over $400 billion today. He spent so much money during a brief stopover in Egypt that the national economy was damaged for years.
Augustus Caesar (63 BC–14 AD) – $4.6 trillion
As well as personally owning all of Egypt for a time, first Roman emperor Augustus Caesar boasted an individual fortune equivalent to a fifth of his empire’s whole economy. For context, the Roman Empire under Augustus was responsible for around 25-30% of the world’s economic output.
His rule of the vast empire from 27 BC until his death in AD 14 was changeable, however: in his final years Caesar was plagued by a succession of military failures and poor overall economic performance.