We live in an age of incredible wealth, where the world’s business leaders have been able to accumulate wealth on a truly massive scale. However, we may not actually be living at the same time as the wealthiest person ever to exist. As the modern economy has developed, it has become significantly easier to precisely measure wealth and net worth, allowing us to know exactly how much money someone has. In earlier times, these calculations are not so simple, and of course, for most historical figures exact records no longer exist. As a result, knowing who was the richest person ever to live is a bit challenging, and it’s not an exact science. Rather than argue for one specific candidate, we’ll take a look at several key historical figures, who we know had wealth beyond most people’s imaginations.
Mansa Musa is frequently cited as the wealthiest person to ever live. He was the Emperor of the Malian Empire in the 14th century, and his travels throughout Africa were well-documented and give us an idea of the scale of his wealth. He traveled with a moving city of over 60,000 people and would give away huge quantities of gold to the poor as he moved around. He also built prolifically, including many mosques, some of which are still standing. His lavish spending caused inflation and sent prices for normal goods soaring, but he in turn invested in gold in an attempt to bring prices down to normal. This level of singular impact on economics is quite difficult to imagine in the modern world!
In terms of European banking dynasties of yore, the Rothschilds are definitely the most famous name. But as their wealth was divided among many family members operating in different cities, none can individually be considered the wealthiest person ever. Jakob Fugger was a German banker living in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. His inflation-adjusted net worth is estimated to exceed $400 billion, and at one point his wealth represented 2% of the GDP of Europe. After building his first fortune in the Italian textile trade, he eventually diversified into banking and at one point held a virtual monopoly on the European copper market.
John D. Rockefeller
Back in 1916, Rockefeller was actually the very first person to achieve a personal wealth of $1 billion (which, today, is worth closer to $16 billion). Rockefeller amassed his fortune from the Standard Oil company, of which he was a founder, chairman and major shareholder. At one point, Standard Oil had a virtual monopoly in the U.S. market, with about 90% of market share, although competitors technically always still existed. The company’s vast American empire included 20,000 domestic wells, 4,000 miles of pipeline, 5,000 tank cars, and over 100,000 employees. The Rockefeller wealth, distributed through a system of foundations and trusts, continued to fund philanthropic, commercial, and political aspirations throughout the 20th century.