10 richest people who ever lived – net worths, ranked: Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos don’t come close to Genghis Khan, oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller or ‘trillionaires’ Catherine the Great and Joseph Stalin
Forbes estimates the serial tech entrepreneur’s fortune at be about US$220 billion, thanks to his portfolio of companies including electric car manufacturer Tesla, rocket producer SpaceX and tunnelling project The Boring Company.
It is however important to note that the further we go back in time, the harder it is to put an accurate or fair figure on how relatively rich an individual was as, well, times were much different back then. Wealth was based on gold, land, salt and power – and not all academics agree on the valuations.
But we’ve done our best stocktaking, and according to several sources, and the work of a number of historians, these are richest people to ever walk the earth – after factoring in inflation and the worth of commodities in the day – in 2022 dollars.
10. John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937)
Estimated net worth today: US$340 billion
According to numerous sources including Celebrity Net Worth, John D. Rockefeller built up a fortune that would be worth around US$340 billion in today’s money.
The American business magnate and philanthropist established the Standard Oil Company in 1870, which controlled 90 per cent of US refineries and pipelines by the early 1880s, according to the website History. While the New Yorker faced controversy for monopolising of the industry, Rockefeller also played a big part in giving back to the community, donating about US$500 million to educational, religious and scientific causes through the Rockefeller Foundation.
9. Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919)
Estimated net worth today: US$372 billion
Money.com states that this Scottish-born industrialist stacked up the equivalent of around US$372 billion by leading the expansion of the American steel industry in the 19th and early 20th century.
He eventually sold his Carnegie Steel company in 1901 to JP Morgan for US$480 million (in the currency of the day). Carnegie also donated 90 per cent of his earnings to philanthropic causes by the time of his death in 1919.
8. Catherine the Great (1729-1796)
Estimated net worth today: US$1.5 trillion
The Russian monarch inherited and controlled a vast network of land, wealth and political power, after assuming the throne in 1762 – investments worth 5 per cent of Russian GDP, or the equivalent of US$1.5 trillion today, according to Luxuo.
7. Augustus Caesar (63BC-14AD)
Estimated net worth today: US$4.6 trillion
The founder of the Roman empire needs no introduction as one of the greatest and most famous rulers in history.
Augustus Caesar’s empire produced around 25 to 30 per cent of the world’s global output, and around a fifth of that was his own personal wealth, according to Luxuo. That means he would have been worth around US$4.6 trillion today.
6. Joseph Stalin (1878-1953)
Estimated net worth today: US$7.5 trillion
Money.com says that it’s virtually impossible to separate Stalin’s wealth from the wealth of the Soviet Union, with economists claiming that his complete control of the USSR makes him one of the richest people to ever live.
Data from The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) indicates that in 1950, the USSR made up about 9.5 per cent of the global economic output (about US$7.5 trillion in today’s money).
Though Stalin didn’t technically “own” the money, he did have the power to “control the wealth of the country”, points out George O. Liber, a professor of history at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
5. Empress Wu (624-705)
Estimated net worth today: US$16 trillion
The first and only female emperor of China was intelligent, politically savvy – and famous for being ruthless when it came to bumping off her opponents. She ruled the country when the economy of China accounted for around 23 per cent of global GDP, which would be around US$16 trillion today.
4. Akbar I (1542-1605)
Estimated net worth today: US$21 trillion
Abu’l-Fath Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar, popularly known as Akbar the Great, was the third emperor to rule the Mughal empire.
Thanks to his ability to extract wealth from the population, Money.com claims that he ruled over an empire valued at 25 per cent of the global GDP. Comparable to the wealth of Elizabethan England at the time, the extravagance of Akbar I’s lifestyle nevertheless easily “surpassed that of the European society”, according to economic historian Angus Maddison.
3. Emperor Shenzong (1048-1085)
Estimated net worth today: US$30 trillion
The sixth emperor of China’s Song dynasty ruled over an immensely economically powerful empire worth 25 to 30 per cent of the world’s GDP at the time, according to Money.com. Historians claim that the kingdom was light-years ahead of European governments when it came to effective tax collection, and its technological innovations and centralised form of governance also added to their wealth.
2. Genghis Khan (1162-1227)
Estimated net worth today: US$120 trillion
It is believed that Genghis Khan was so powerful, and his Mongol empire so wide-reaching, that his DNA can be found in as many as 16 million men today, according to a 2003 scientific report.
And, having created the largest empire of all time – which covered most of China and Central Asia during his lifetime, and stretched as far as Poland and Vietnam afterward – The Richest estimates that he would have been worth about US$120 trillion in today’s money.
1. Mansa Musa (1280-1337)
Estimated net worth ... “Incomprehensible”
The African ruler was famous for making the most extravagant pilgrimage to Mecca of all time, with the BBC reporting that the king left Mali with about 60,000 men, from royal officials to camel drivers and slaves. He spent so much gold in Cairo during his three month stay there that he destabilised the local economy, affecting the price of gold in the region for the next 10 years!
- The likes of Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Gautam Adani may be worth billions, but their riches pale in comparison to the entrepreneurs, emperors and rulers of days past
- Russia’s Catherine the Great and Joseph Stalin sat atop trillions, Mali’s Mansa Musa had insane amounts of gold, and Genghis Khan founded the world’s biggest empire – so who’s on top?