Historical Fortune 500: 7 of the Wealthiest People Ever
So, you think Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk is rich? Think again.
As you are about to find out, even their great wealth pales in comparison to some people from history. Prepare to be amazed...
Who are the top 5 richest people on Earth?
At the time of writing, and according to Forbes, the current richest people in the world are as follows:
- Jeff Bezos - $181.3 B (7.2 million lbs or 3.3 million kg gold)
- Elon Musk - $170.4 B (6.76 million lbs or 3.1 million kg gold)
- Bernard Arnault and family - $162.2 B (6.4 million lbs or 2.9 million kg gold)
- Bill Gates - $126.5 B (5.02 million lbs or 2.3 million kg gold)
- Warren Buffet - $99.3 B (3.94 million lbs or 1.8 million kg gold)
For reasons that will become clear later on, we have converted their net worths into kg of gold at current spot prices ($55,561 per kg).
While these values fluctuate daily, they are some monstrous sums of money without a doubt. But, how does their wealth stack up (literally and figuratively) with some of history's wealthiest individuals?
Before we take a look, it is time for some housecleaning.
The problems of comparing wealth from the past and today
When looking up the wealthiest people alive today, you'll often run into a term called "net worth". But what does this mean?
In short, the net worth of an individual (including yourself) is based on the value of their assets minus their debts. For the wealthiest people on the planet, these assets tend to primarily derive from their ownership of stock or shares in their businesses or other tangible assets like property, etc.
It is not, usually, "cold hard cash" in their bank accounts (though undoubtedly they do have a lot of that too), as some may have you believe. Not only that, and probably most importantly, their wealth is also valued in fiat currency.
This is important to note, as any claims of their net worth primarily based on the market valuation of their companies (and their relative ownership of shares). For this reason, and the fickle nature of the markets, the values can, and often do, fluctuate by the hour. If any one of them decided to sell off all their shares (liquidate), a lot of their "net worth" would be lost as things like capital gains tax — no small change. Not to mention likely triggering a massive stock price crash significantly wiping out large portions of their net worth in the process.
In order to compare historical figures' wealth with our benchmarks above, we will attempt to estimate the historical wealth of individuals on a like-for-like dollar basis, it is important to note that such comparisons are a blunt tool at best.
We will also include their estimated wealth in gold too. This might be a better tool to use.
Let's explain why.
Paper, or more commonly today, digital currency, is a relatively recent innovation. Historically currency acted as a kind of "I owe you" and could be exchanged for real money like gold or silver at a bank.
This is not the case today, at least not for all the currency in circulation. There simply isn't enough gold to cover it.
Since around 1931 in the UK, and around 1971 in the US, the pound and dollar, and other major currencies of the world, have been divorced from the gold standard. This has led at times to the rapid debasement (printing of new notes) and inflation, effectively decoupling it from anything of any physical, tangible value, like gold.
To gain an appreciation of what this means, check out the relative purchasing value of gold throughout history. You can see it ticks along fairly level until the mid-20th century when its dollar value skyrockets. This chart only runs from the 1500s onwards, but you get a general idea.
Interestingly, the devaluation of gold in the 16th-century might have been caused by one of our historical figures. More on that later.
What this all means, is that any estimates of wealth from the past are not readily applicable today. If we were still on the gold standard, would Bezos or Musk really be worth hundreds of billions of dollars? Or a fraction of that?
However, most of us think in things like dollars, rather than grams or kgs of gold, when assessing the relative price of something. For this reason, it is the best tool available to compare the past with the present with regard to wealth.
Who are some of the wealthiest people in history?
The following historical figures' wealth was, in some circumstances, so extraordinary that it is beyond our comprehension today — even for the likes of Bezos.
While we will attempt to convert their wealth to current US dollar terms to help put things into perspective, any quoted figures should be taken with a "pinch of salt".
This is for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to:
1. Records from ancient times are spotty at best.
2. Much of the wealth of these people was land-based and labor-based, which is very difficult to estimate in modern monetary terms.
3. Most of these historical figures are de facto rulers of states or empires. A large part of their wealth derived from these states or empires, and so, was this wealth the sole preserve of their ruler? Is this a fair comparison to billionaires today? We'll let you decide.
Also, try to remember this list is meant to be a bit of fun. All that aside, let's dive in...
1. Augustus Caesar might well have been the wealthiest person in history
Main source of wealth: Being Emperor of the Roman Empire and personally owning Egypt.
Estimated wealth in modern dollars today: $4.6 trillion
Estimated wealth in kgs of gold today: 182.6 million lbs or 82.9 million kg
The first of Rome's Emperors and the adopted son of Julius Caesar, Augustus Caesar controlled one of the world's most powerful states, and by his own account personally "owned" Egypt. Originally named Gaius Octavius, after a mixture of political games and martial victories, Augustus would rule Rome as the first official emperor of Rome between 27 BC and his death in AD 14.
At the time of his rule, Egypt alone is estimated to have produced a major share of the world's global GDP.
If we take today's global GDP of around 87.55 trillion (in 2019), Augustus' wealth from Egypt alone would be valued today at $21.89 trillion. However, this kind of calculation is not really useful, as the total global output so long ago, in terms of money and energy, was considerably less than today — especially pre-industrialization.
The estimated global GDP around 0 AD was about $183 billion. If we use this figure instead, his wealth from Egypt would have been a much more "reasonable" $46 B. Although most of that went to the state of Rome.
Either way, not too shabby.
2. King Solomon was famously wealthy, even in his day
Main source of wealth: Gold tribute, business, and trade.
Estimated wealth in modern dollars today: $2.2 trillion
Estimated wealth in kgs of gold today: 87.31 million lbs or 39.6 million kg
The quasi-mythical ruler of Israel between 970 and 931 BC, King Solomon was famed as being extraordinarily wealthy in his day. According to sources like the Bible, the Quran, and Hadiths, his throne was said to have been coated in pure gold and included ivory inlays, golden lion statues, and even a golden footstool.
What information we have indicated his wealth came from a variety of sources, chief among them being a regular tribute in gold. For most of his reign (just shy of 40 years), it is believed he received somewhere in the region of 25 tons of gold. In one year alone, according to the Bible, he received "six hundred threescore and six talents of gold."
It is unclear if this means 666 talents, or since threescore usually means three 20s (60), 36,006, talents of gold. If the lower value, that would equate to around 40,000 lbs (18,125 kgs) of gold (just over $1 B at today's prices).
If a regular annual income, his wealth in gold at today's value would be around $40 billion alone. King Solomon's wealth was also so extreme that it is also rumored that silver became practically worthless during his reign.
3. Genghis Khan owned a lot of land but didn't seem to care for material things
Main source of wealth: Emperor of the Mongol Empire and conquest of land
Estimated wealth in modern dollars today: Roughly 1 trillion in land value
Estimated wealth in kgs of gold today: 39.7 million lbs or 18 million kg
Head of the Mongol Empire during the 12th and 13th centuries, Genghis Khan (Temüjin) was one of the world's most famous conquerors and military geniuses. Under his reign, the empire grew enormously, stretching from China to parts of Europe, it covering somewhere in the region of 22% of the Earth's total area of land (give or take).
He rose to power by uniting or subduing many of the various disparate nomadic tribes of Northeast Asia.
This amazing achievement was attained through a mixture of giving his generals semi-autonomy, as well as, clever use of mounted troops (especially archers) that would rampage across the lands. Another part of their success was the Mongols' ability to quickly adapt, and even adopt, the tactics and technology of their foes.
His reign as emperor was marked with massive decisive victories that, in turn, led to the Mongol's acquisition of huge amounts of booty. However, despite this, he never built a lavish palace, temple, tomb, or even a house for himself.
Much of the wealth gathered under his empire was divided up amongst his troops and their families. For this reason, it is difficult to actually calculate his wealth during his life.
Some have estimated that the land occupied by Genghis and his forces would be valued at $1 trillion today. However, since this land was often gifted to his loyal subjects, did it really belong to the Khan?
4. Mansa Musa was another of the world's wealthiest individuals ever
Main source of wealth: Gold mines and production
Estimated wealth in modern dollars today: about $415 billion
Estimated wealth in kgs of gold today: 16.5 million lbs or 7.5 million kg
The legendary ruler of the Mali Empire in the late-13th to early-14th-centuries, Mansa Musa was another of the wealthiest people of all time. He was so rich that his contemporaries described his riches to be "impossible to describe."
His kingdom was based in Western Africa, which is thought to have been the largest producer of gold in the world at that time. While it is nearly impossible to fully calculate his wealth in modern monetary terms, some scholars believe he may have been the wealthiest person of all time.
To put his extreme riches into context, Musa undertook a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324 and 1325 with an entourage of 60,000 companions, and 12,000 slaves, each of whom carried a 4 lb (1.8 kg) gold bar. His caravan also had around 80 camels, each carrying 50 lb (22.7 kg) to 300 lb (136 kg) bags of gold dust.
During a stop in Cairo, he spent so much gold that he singlehandedly created hyperinflation and a currency crisis in Egypt for many years.
5. Jacob Fugger apparently also did pretty well for himself
Main source of wealth: Banker, and business owner and money lender to Kings and Popes
Estimated wealth in modern dollars today: $277 billion (possibly $400 billion)
Estimated wealth in kgs of gold today: 11 million lbs or 5 million kgs to 15.9 million lbs or 7.2 million kg
Jacob Fugger might just be the world's first true businessman. A banker by trade, he personally lent money to kings and popes throughout the mid-15th to early-16th centuries.
He had multiple interests, and assets, in mines, banks, and trade, but also helped fund various wars and even helped the Hapsburgs become the most important dynasty in Europe. Allegedly, he may even have been a factor behind the Christian Reformation, after loaning money to allow Albrecht of Brandenburg to buy a position of power in the Church, an act seen by reformers as a major source of corruption.
This, and its aftermath, would eventually result in Martin Luther publishing his 96 Theses. An event that would send shockwaves through Christendom.
At the time of his death in 1525, Fugger apparently bequeathed to his nephew, one Anton Fugger, the grand sum of 2,032,652 guilders. A guilder, or guiden in Dutch and German, was a coin of pure gold that weighed roughly 0.007 lbs (3.3 grams).
Estimates of his wealth in today's money do vary, but at higher estimates of $400 billion, he would have personally owned 2% of the total GDP of Europe at the time.
6. William the Conqueror was also very rich
Main source of wealth: Conquering England
Estimated wealth in modern dollars today: $228-230 billion
Estimated wealth in kgs of gold today: 9.1 million lbs or 4.1 million kg
The alleged illegitimate son and descendant of Viking settlers in Normandy, William the Conqueror was also one of the wealthiest people in history. After being, in his eyes, usurped by Harold Godwinson to succeed Edward the Confessor, William decided to invade England and claim his rightful inheritance.
After gathering his forces ready to invade, bad weather delayed the invasion in 1066. In the same year, another claimant to the throne, Hardrada, invaded England and was duly defeated by King Harold II at the Battle of Stanford Bridge.
Shortly after, William and his invasion force made landfall in late 1066. Harold martialed his forces once again, marched south, and met William at the Battle of Hastings — leading to a close, but decisive victory for the Normans.
His successful — and kind of lucky — invasion of England is one of the most significant events in British history.
It also made William fabulously wealthy. By adding much of England and Wales to his household's landholdings, he became one of the world's most powerful, and wealthy, individuals of all time.
His adjusted net worth today would be somewhere in the order of $228-$230 billion.
7. Atahualpa appears to have also been incredibly well off
Main source of wealth: Emperor of the Incan empire and vast supplies of gold
Estimated wealth in modern dollars today: At least $1.5 billion but likely hundreds of billions
Estimated wealth in kgs of gold today: At least 0.6 million lbs or 0.27 million kg
Over to the Americas now and the once-mighty Incan Empire. Ruler of the empire in the early-16th century, Atahualpa was once of the world's wealthiest people of all time.
His reign was marked with internal strife and civil war, as well as invasion from overseas by an alien people — the Spanish. After dealing with a brutal war of succession between his half-brother Huáscar, the Incan Empire was beginning to recover until the new threat literally appeared over the horizon.
Incan society was an interesting one in the history of the world, acting more like a giant family unit than an empire as they are generally understood. Resources like food, clothing, housing, etc, were all controlled centrally and distributed according to a citizen's status. The common people would serve the empire as farmers, laborers, soldiers, or whatnot and be provided with everything they needed to survive.
His reign came to an end with the arrival of Spanish conquistadors. They managed to ambush and capture Atahualpa at Cajamarca in 1532.
To secure his release, a ransom consisted of a large room filled with gold (and twice that in silver). Despite making good on his promise, the Spanish killed him anyway and gutted his empire.
So much gold was taken from the Incan empire that the European economy experienced very high inflation and a prolonged economic slump. According to some modern estimates, the ransom he paid would be valued at something like $1.5 billion today.
Estimating his wealth, and that of the Incans' is very tricky as, although they undoubtedly had access to large reserves of gold, their civilization did not have the same concept of a market or money as the Europeans. Gold, for example, appears to have been considered a sacred item rather than a precious material good to the Incans.
But, with the empire and its people long gone, we may never really know.
And that history fans is your lot for today. While these historical figures were certainly incredibly wealthy in their day, it is very hard to convert that wealth to a meaningful value in today's money.
That being said, if they were alive today, we have no doubt that they would likely still be featured in Forbes Fortune 500 list. Assuming, of course, that such things as publications like Forbes would exist under continent-spanning empires!