The Richest People in History

Who had more money, Caesar Augustus or Stalin? It’s a fairly simple question but with a very difficult answer to pin down. The following ranking of the richest people in history is based on an extensive compilation of information from economists and historians by Time. It is really difficult to make this kind of list because comparing a fortune today with a fortune from two thousand years ago requires taking into account several factors.

Gold Duabi Market

That said, it is cautioned that the following list is a rigorous, if widely debatable, attempt to determine who the wealthiest historical figures were given their economic influence.

5 – Joseph Stalin, USSR

Stalin represents a very strange figure in the history of modern economics. Basically, he was a dictator with absolute power capable of controlling one of the largest economies on the planet. Although it is virtually impossible for us to isolate Stalin’s fortune from the Soviet Union, this unique combination of economic power and complete control of the USSR leads many economists to nominate him as one of the richest people in history.


And the logic behind this conclusion is very simple. OECD data reveals that in 1950, three years before Stalin’s death, the USSR contributed an impressive 9.5% to world economic output. Extrapolating this percentage to 2014 figures, the level of production would have meant about US$ 7.5 billion.

And while that colossal amount of money didn’t fall into Stalin’s hands, the man had the power to allocate the resources of the Soviet economy to anything he could think of.

“He had a lot of power, and because of this power he had everything he wanted. He controlled one-sixth of the planet’s surface without being accountable to anyone,” says George O. Liber, a historian at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Although it is not clear to the expert whether this made Stalin a wealthy person in the traditional sense of the word. According to Liber, Stalin may have had wealth, but it was not his. He really controlled the wealth of the state.

Despite this, it is difficult not to include Joseph Stalin in the list of the most economically powerful historical figures. His wealth may be up for debate, but there is no doubt that the prime minister’s personal influence on the economy is unrivaled in modern history.

4 – Akbar the Great, India

In history books he is referred to as the greatest emperor of the Mughal Empire. Yalaluddin Muhammad Akbar had at his command an empire that generated a quarter of the world’s economic outputFortune magazine columnist Chris Matthews quotes economic historian Angus Maddison as speculating that GDP per capita in Akbar’s era was comparable to that of Elizabeth’s England, with the difference that “there was a ruling class whose extravagant lifestyle surpassed that of society in Europe.”

Akbar the Great

This assertion that the social leadership in India surpassed its European counterpart in wealth can also be seen in Branko Milanovic’s research, whose conclusions point to the Mughal Dynasty ruling one of the most successful empires in history in obtaining wealth from its population.

3 – Song Shenzong, China.

The Song dynasty, which lasted from 960 to 1279, established one of the most economically powerful empires in history. According to Professor Ronald A. Edwards, a historian of China’s economy during the Song dynasty at Tamkang University in Taipei, at its peak the nation contributed between 25% and 30% of global economic output.

Shenzong Emperor Song Dynasty

All of this wealth came from two primary areas: technological innovations and its admirable ability to tax citizens that, according to Edwards, were centuries ahead of European governments. The professor also points out that the Song dynasty was extremely centralized, meaning that the emperor possessed enormous control over the economy.

2 – Caesar Augustus, Rome.

Caesar Augustus

Not only was Emperor Caesar Augustus at the helm of an empire that generated between 25% and 30% of the world’s economy, but according to Ian Morris, a professor of history at Stanford University, at one point Augustus boasted a personal fortune equivalent to one-fifth of his empire’s economy. Bringing that figure to the numbers recorded in 2014, we would get an impressive $4.6 trillion. In addition, Morris points out, for a time Caesar Augustus personally took over all of Egypt. This is something really hard to overcome.

1 – Musa I, Mali.

It is often said of this king that he was someone so rich that it is difficult to explain, and that is why he is often referred to as the richest person who ever lived in history. At a time when gold was in high demand, the Mali Empire was one of the largest producers of the metal in the world and at the head of it all was Mansa Musa, the king of Timbuktu.

Mansa Musa

How rich was Musa? There really isn’t an accurate way to value your fortune. Records are often incomplete and rare, and contemporary sources often describe the fortune of this “king of kings” in terms that seem impossible at the time.

Tales of his famous pilgrimage to Mecca – according to which Mansa Musa spent so much that it triggered an economic crisis in Egypt – mention extensive caravans of camels, each loaded with tens of kilos of gold. Richard Smith, a professor of history at Ferrum College in Virginia, estimates that annual gold production in Mali amounted to about 1,000 kilograms. Other stories tell of an army of 200,000 men, including some 40,000 archers – troops that even in modern times would be difficult to deploy in the field.

But to try to determine the fortune of King Musa is to miss the horizon. As Rudolph Ware, a history professor at the University of Michigan, points out, Musa’s fortune was so immense that people struggled to describe it.

“This is the richest guy you’ve ever seen, that’s the point. They tried to find words to define that. We have paintings of him carrying a golden scepter sitting on a golden throne holding a golden cup with a golden crown on his head. Imagine all the gold you think a human being could have and multiply it by two, that’s what all these stories are trying to convey to us.”

References: Fortune and Time