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Oct 19, 2017






WHEN COMPARING WEALTH across history, we run into challenges. It's not just a matter of adjusting for inflation—much of premodern wealth was held in stuff, and the value of that stuff (land, gold, etc.) is highly sensitive to time.

Another issue is that wealth is a relative measure that doesn't equate well to standards of living across centuries. King Louis XIV was one of the richest men of his day, but his money could not fix his rotting teeth.

Ultimately we chose to rank wealth in terms of the economic power it represented by comparing each individual's riches to the total economic output, or gross domestic product (GDP), at the time. This ranking, developed through hours of interviews with economists and historians, gives a rough estimate of their wealth in today's dollars and within context.

It's by no means perfect, but perhaps the governing rule of lists like this is to not let the perfect become the enemy of good—or at least the enemy of fun.


LIFETIME: 1162–1227 COUNTRY: Mongol Empire WEALTH: Lots of land, not much else

Genghis Khan is undoubtedly one of the most successful military leaders of all time. As head of the Mongol Empire, which at its height stretched from China to Europe, he controlled the largest contiguous empire in history. Despite his great power, however, scholars say Genghis Khan never hoarded his wealth. On the contrary, his generosity was key to his influence.

"One of the bases of his success is sharing the spoils with his soldiers and other commanders," says Morris Rossabi, a distinguished professor of history at the City University of New York.

Jack Weatherford, author of Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, explains that Mongol soldiers, unlike many premodern armies, were banned from taking personal loot. After an area was conquered, every item taken was inventoried by official clerks and then later distributed among the military and their families.

The leader still received a share of the spoils, but he wasn't ostentatious. "He built no palace for himself or family, no temple, no tomb, and not even a house," says Weatherford.


LIFETIME: 1955–present COUNTRY: U.S. WEALTH: $86.7 billion

As the richest living person, Bill Gates' wealth is refreshingly easy to determine. According to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, the Microsoft cofounder's net worth is $86.7 billion. Going forward, however, Gates will face competition for his richest-person-alive title. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos briefly topped the Billionaires Index in July when a rally in Amazon stock pushed his net worth roughly $1 billion north of Gates'. Bezos's time at the top was short—the retailer's shares sold off later that day, leaving Gates in front again—but the day Bezos takes over the throne more permanently could be coming soon. Bezos's net worth increased $20 billion in the past year, while Gates' wealth went up by "only" $4 billion.



LIFETIME: 1040–1093 COUNTRY: England WEALTH: $182 billion

The nephew of William the Conqueror, Rufus joined his uncle in the Norman Conquest. He died with 11,000 pounds, according to Philip Beresford and Bill Rubinstein, authors of The Richest of the Rich, which they say amounted to 7% of England's GDP at the time. That would equate to $182 billion in today's dollars.


LIFETIME: 1839–1937 COUNTRY: U.S. WEALTH: $385 billion

Rockefeller began investing in the petroleum industry in 1863, and by 1880 his Standard Oil company controlled 90% of American oil production.

According to his New York Times obituary, Rockefeller's net worth was valued at roughly $1.5 billion based on a 1918 federal income tax return and estimates of his overall fortune. That's the equivalent of almost 2% of U.S. economic output according to data compiled by MeasuringWorth (the U.S. did not keep official records on national income until 1932).

The same economic share today would be equivalent to $385 billion.


LIFETIME: 1835–1919 COUNTRY: U.S. WEALTH: $404 billion

Rockefeller gets all the press, but Andrew Carnegie may be the richest American of all time. The Scottish immigrant sold his steel company to J.P. Morgan for $480 million in 1901. That sum equates to slightly over 2.1% of the U.S. GDP at the time, giving Carnegie economic power equivalent to $404 billion in 2017.


LIFETIME: 1878–1953 COUNTRY: USSR WEALTH: Complete control of a nation with 9.6% of global GDP

Stalin is an uncommon figure in modern economic history: a dictator with absolute power who also controlled one of the largest economies in the world. Since it is virtually impossible to separate Stalin's wealth from the wealth of the Soviet Union, this combination has led multiple economists to nominate him as one of the richest people of all time.

You can easily see their logic. Data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development shows that in 1950, three years before Stalin's death, the USSR made up roughly 9.6% of global economic output. As of 2017, that level of production would be equivalent to nearly $7.2 trillion dollars.

While that money didn't belong directly to Stalin, he had the ability to leverage Soviet economic might for any reason he chose. "He had enormous power, and through his power he could have anything he wanted," says George O. Liber, a professor of history at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.


LIFETIME: 1542–1605 COUNTRY: India WEALTH: Ruled empire with 25% of global GDP

The greatest emperor of India's Mughal Dynasty, Akbar controlled an empire that accounted for about one-fourth of global economic output, or nearly $19 trillion in today's dollars. The late economics historian Angus Maddison speculated that India's GDP per capita under Akbar was comparable to Elizabethan-era England, but with "a ruling class whose extravagant lifestyle surpassed that of the European society."

The assertion that India's elite class was wealthier than its counterparts to the west is backed up by data from economist Branko Milanovic, whose research shows the Mughal Dynasty was one of the most effective empires of all time at extracting wealth from the population.


LIFETIME: 1048–1085 COUNTRY: China WEALTH: Ruled empire with 25% to 30% of global GDP

China's Song Dynasty (960–1279) was one of the most economically powerful empires of all time. According to Ronald A. Edwards, a Chinese economics historian of the Song Dynasty at Tamkang University in Taiwan, the nation accounted for 25% to 30% of the world's economic output during its peak. That would amount to as much as $22.5 trillion nowadays.

The empire's wealth came from both its technological innovations and extreme skill at tax collection, which Edwards says was hundreds of years ahead of European governments. The professor also notes that the Song Dynasty's government was highly centralized, meaning the emperor held enormous control over the economy.


The Roman ruler at one point owned all of Egypt.

GENGHIS KHAN The Mongolian military leader often shared the wealth with his soldiers.


LIFETIME: 63 BC–14 AD COUNTRY: Rome WEALTH: $3.7 trillion

Not only was Augustus Caesar in charge of an empire that accounted for 25% to 30% of the world's economic output, but Augustus at one point also held personal wealth equivalent to one-fifth of his empire's economy, according to Stanford history professor Ian Morris. That fortune would be the equivalent of about $3.7 trillion in 2017. "For a while," Morris adds, Augustus "personally owned all of Egypt."


LIFETIME: 1280–1337 COUNTRY: Mali WEALTH: Richer than anyone could describe

Mansa Musa, the king of Timbuktu, is often referred to as the wealthiest person in history. According to Ferrum College history professor Richard Smith, Musa's West African kingdom was likely the largest producer of gold in the world—at a time when gold was in especially high demand.

Just how rich was Musa? There's really no way to put an accurate number on his wealth. Records are basically nonexistent, and contemporary sources describe the king's riches in terms that are impossible for the time.

Some tales of his famous pilgrimage to Mecca—during which Musa's spending was so lavish it caused a currency crisis in Egypt—mention dozens of camels, each carrying hundreds of pounds of gold. (Smith says one year of Malian gold production probably weighed a single ton.) Other records claim Musa's army was 200,000 strong, including 40,000 archers—troop numbers even modern armies would have a difficult time bringing to the field.

But to get caught up in the king's exact wealth is to miss the point. As Rudolph Ware, an associate professor of history at the University of Michigan, explains, Musa's riches were so immense that people struggled to describe them.

"This is the richest guy anyone has ever seen," says Ware. "There are pictures of him holding a scepter of gold on a throne of gold, holding a cup of gold with a golden crown on his head. Imagine as much gold as you think a human being could possess and double it. That's what all the accounts are trying to communicate."

When no one can even comprehend your wealth, that means you're pretty darned rich.

Mansa Musa (above) wears a gold crown and holds a piece of gold and a golden scepter.


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