Who is richest person of all time? From Mansa Musa to Jeff Bezos

None of history’s wealthiest people are alive today

John D. Rockefeller was the wealthiest American who ever lived
(Image credit: General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)

There was much fanfare this week when Amazon boss Jeff Bezos was named the wealthiest person of all time.

While his estimated $105.1 billion fortune is technically the largest ever accrued by one individual, this does not take into account inflation or a number of other factors, including how wealth is actually measured.

Unsurprisingly, the list of the richest people who have ever lived contains no women. The majority are American and together they controlled a combined $4.317 trillion (£3.2 trillion).

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

What is the methodology used to calculate wealth?

Determining the richest man - and it has always been a man - in history is somewhat subjective.

“Should the measure be simple inflation-adjusted wealth, or should it be wealth relative to gross domestic product? Since currency is a fairly modern invention, how should ancient assets be valued? And should it be economic "influence" rather than pure cash, asks CNBC.

TIME Money uses the benchmark of "economic power," comparing an individual's wealth to the country's GDP, but other lists use different parameters.

Celebrity Net Worth uses the annual rate of inflation to adjust historic fortunes – a formula that means $100 million in 1913 would be equal to £2.230 billion today. They also used the recent price of gold and oil to calculate modern-day wealth.

So who is the richest person in the history of the world?

Mansa Musa I of Mali - $400 billion

Few will have heard of the first king of Timbuktu, but Mansa Musa is by far and away the richest person who has ever lived.

Ruling West Africa’s Malian Empire in the early 14th Century, Musa’s fortune has been estimated at around $400 billion in today’s money, and was derived from his country’s vast salt and gold deposits, which at one time accounted for half the world’s supply.

A devout Muslim, he constructed hundreds of Mosques across Africa, many of which still stand today. However, after his death a bitter civil war broke out among his heirs for control of his vast fortune.

John. D. Rockefeller - $340 billion

Often cited as the richest person who ever lived, Rockefeller is the wealthiest American ever, and was the first person to have a net worth of over $1 billion in the money of the time.

At the time of this death his estate was worth an estimated $340 billion in today’s money, almost 2% of total US economic output. His Standard Oil company was broken up by the US government for being a monopoly, but is constituent companies, including Amoco, Chevron and ExxonMobil, are still household names today.

Andrew Carnegie - $310 billion

Some estimates place Carnegie above Rockefeller in terms of total wealth. Like Rockefeller, the Scottish-born Carnegie, who later made his name with his philanthropic donations, had an effective monopoly over steel in the US. He sold his Carnegie Steel Company to JP Morgan for $480 million in 1901, which works out to £310 billion today.

Nikolai Alexandrovich Romanov (Tsar Nicolas II) – $300 Billion

Tsar Nicholas II ruled Russia until the overthrow of the monarchy by the Bolsheviks in 1917. The all-powerful autocrat’s wealth totalled nearly $900 million dollars at the outbreak of the First World War, which adjusted for inflation would make his worth $300 billion in today’s money.

The Independent notes that he is also the richest saint in human history after the Russian Orthodox Church canonised him.

Mir Osman Ali Khan - $230 billion

Also known as The Nizam of Hyderabad, Mir Osman Ali Khan was the absolute ruler of the princely state from 1911 until it was subsumed into the newly independent India in 1948.

For a good part of the 20th century he was known as the richest man in the world with an estimated fortune of $230 billion in today’s money. He had a personal collection of gold worth more than $100 million along with $400 million worth of jewels, including the famous Jacob Diamond, that sold for $95 million last year and which he used as a paper weight. He once owned more than 50 Rolls Royces.

Muanmmar Gaddafi - $200 billion

The Libyan dictator was famed for his cruelty and opulence but it was only after his death in 2011 that reports began to emerge about the true extent of his wealth. Nearly $70 billion was seized in foreign bank accounts and real estate in the years leading up to his demise, and it is estimated that he siphoned off around $130 billion in oil revenue over the course of his rule.

Henry Ford - $199 billion

The automobile tycoon who perfected the production line has become a by-word for American entrepreneurship. He was also one of the country’s richest ever businessmen, worth $199 billion in today’s money at the time of his death in 1947.

Who’s not on the list?

Historical figures such as Genghis Khan, William the Conqueror, Mughal Emperor Akbar I, China’s Song dynasty Emperor Shenzong, and Rome’s August Ceasar all controlled vast empires and accumulated staggering wealth. However, their personal fortune (versus the wealth of the area they ruled over) is difficult to calculate, although some have estimated their fortune would run into the trillions of dollars in today’s money.

To continue reading this article...
Continue reading this article and get limited website access each month.
Get unlimited website access, exclusive newsletters plus much more.
Cancel or pause at any time.
Already a subscriber to The Week?
Not sure which email you used for your subscription? Contact us