hard cash on a briefcase

Last week I talked about Mansa Musa, an African King with indescribable wealth. Today, I’m going to discuss more of the wealthiest people in history – from the Emperors of Song Dynasty China, Rome, and the Mughal Empire, to American Industrialists John D Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. Let’s listen, learn, and practice our English!

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Vocabulary List

  • Worth (adj) – having a particular value, especially in money
    • Our house is worth £200,000.
  • Equivalent (adj) – having the same amount, value, purpose, qualities, etc
    • She’s doing the equivalent job in the new company but for more money
  • Output (n) – an amount of something produced by a person, machine, factory, country, etc
    • Last year manufacturing output fell by 14 percent
  • Extravagant (adj) – spending too much money, or using too much of something
    • He had the extravagant lifestyle of a movie star
  • Invest (v) – to put money into something to make a profit
    • The institute will invest five million in the project
  • To finance (v) – to provide the money needed for something to happen
    • The city council has refused to finance the project
  • Monopoly (n) – (an organization or group that has) complete control of something, especially an area of business, so that others have no share
    • There are laws to stop companies becoming monopolies
  • To fund (v) – to provide the money to pay for an event, activity, or organization
    • The company has agreed to fund my trip to Australia

Was Mansa Musa the Richest Person in History?

Last week I released an episode on Mansa Musa, Sultan of the Mali Empire. He is considered to be the richest person in history by many historians. Although it is incredibly difficult to make an accurate estimate of his wealth, Musa was “incomprehensibly” and “indescribably” wealthy.

But was he the richest?

I mentioned this in the episode last week, but I want to emphasise it now. Musa was incredibly wealthy… but we don’t actually know how wealthy he was. The numbers I suggested of around $500 billion in net worth are a complete guess by historians. He could have been worth less or, more likely, considerably more!

Comparing wealth and fortunes across time and countries is incredibly difficult. What is important is not necessarily how much money a person has, but what they can buy with that money. Think about it this way: $100,000 is very different in San Francisco (one of the most expensive cities in the world) and South Sudan (the country with the lowest average income).

There is no perfect exchange rate or measurement to calculate and compare net worth. So, I thought I would introduce some other contenders for the title of richest person in history.

Ridiculously Rich Kings, Emperors, and Sultans

Augustus Caesar was the first Emperor of the Roman Empire. He reigned from the year 27BC until AD14 and is considered by many to be one of the greatest leaders in history. Augustus expanded Rome dramatically, taking over Egypt, Dalmatia, completing the conquest of Hispania, and taking over territories all over the place.

According to the historian Ian Morris, Augustus had a personal wealth equivalent to around one-fifth of the Roman empire’s entire economy. At the time, the empire produced over 25% of the world’s economic output!

In today’s money, it would mean that Augustus Caesar had a personal fortune of over $4.5 trillion. A trillion is a million million or a thousand billion… that is a lot!

Around a thousand years later, the emperors of Rome were not the wealthiest people in the world… but the emperors of China may have been. I recorded an episode on the Song Dynasty last year. It was one of the most advanced and economically powerful empires of all time.

Emperor Shezong, Song leader in the 11th century, ruled an empire which controlled over 25% of the world’s economic output (just like Augustus Caesar did a thousand years earlier).

At the same time as the Song Dynasty was dominating the economy in Asia, there were some very rich people in western Europe. Alan the Red was the nephew of William the Conque ror, the Norman ruler who conquered England. Alan owned large amounts of land across England and France… which would be worth hundreds of billions of dollars today.

Genghis Khan created one of the greatest and most expansive empirez of all time. From China to the edge of Europe… all of it was controlled by the Khan’s Mongolian Empire. The most valuable trade routes, natural resources, and wealthy societies were taken over by him.

However, Genghis Khan chose not to take the wealth for himself. He had no house, no palaces, no temple, and no tomb after he died. He shared his wealth with his soldiers and the Mongolian army was banned from taking personal loot. Genghis could have been the richest person in history, but he wasn’t interested in money… he was interested in power and influence.

And in the 16th century, the Mughal empire in North India became the world’s largest economy. Akbar I (like Augustus Caesar and Emperor Shezong) controlled a quarter of the world’s economic output. The Mughal society was supposedly one of the wealthiest and extravagant societies in the world!

The Wealthiest Businesspeople Ever

You may have noticed something about the people I’ve mentioned so far. Mansa Musa, Genghis Khan, Alan the Red, Akbar I, Augustus Caesar, and the emperor Shezong were all monarchs or family of monarchs. They were royals, emperors, and national leaders. Their personal wealth is connected to their empires and countries.

How about the richest businesspeople in history? The richest people who were not royals or leaders? People who made their money in industry and trade?

Jakob Fugger

Jakob Fugger was born in 1459 in the city of Augsburg in the Holy Roman Empire (modern day Germany). He was known as Jakob the Rich – which tells you a lot about his reputation and wealth.

He was part of the Fugger family of merchants, and along with his brother moved the family business into the textile, metal and mining industries. Jakob invested in mines in Silesia and leased copper mines in modern day Slovakia which would become the most important mine in Europe in the 16th century.

Fugger built trading relationships with some of the most powerful states of early modern Europe including the Habsburg family and Roman Curia. He also had a close relationship with the Holy Roman Empire and Catholic church. Jakob Fugger’s immense wealth was equivalent to over $400 billion today.

He traded extensively in some of the most valuable industries in Europe. Fugger also traded spices in Asia and the Portuguese empire and financed explorations around the globe.

Jakob Fugger was deeply involved with European politics. He financed the election of Charles V as the new Holy Roman Emperor, loaned money to King Henry VIII of England, and funded many of the changes in 16th century Europe. Martin Luther, the founder of the Protestant Christian movement, was supposedly inspired due to the corruption in the Catholic church – corruption that was funded by the Fugger family.

Jakob Fugger is barely known today, but he was one of the richest people to ever live. And with an estimated wealth of at least $400 billion, he was twice as rich as the world’s richest man today.

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Marcus Licinius Crassus

Marcus Licinius Crassus was known as the richest man in Rome. As he lived over 2000 years ago, it is difficult to estimate his wealth accurately… but he was almost certainly the richest person in the world while he was alive.

Crassus’ wealth was equivalent to the entire budget of the Roman Republic… he was as rich as the country in which he lived! That certainly makes him a contender for one of the richest people in the world.

Crassus was born into a moderately wealthy family, but his father and older brother were killed in a civil war around the year 89BC. Marcus Licinius Crassus fled from the conflict, hiding out in Spain for years to avoid the same fate as his family.

Eventually, an army was assembled to retake Rome and Crassus joined the effort with his own troops from Spain.

How did a Roman general become one of the richest people in history? After the army took back Rome, the lead general named Sulla seized property across the Republic. The idea was to confiscate the property from enemies of Rome and sell it to raise funds.

Crassus took charge of this process… and he sold most of property to himself. He became the richest man in Rome after taking the property for his own benefit!

He also stole objects from the Temple of Jerusalem and created one of the first, and most infamous, fire brigades in the world. If a building was on fire, a group of slaves led by Crassus would quickly arrive. Crassus would offer to buy the building at a very cheap price. If the owner refused, they would let the building burn. If the owner agreed, the slaves would save the building from the fire!  

Crassus was tremendously wealthy. He was also incredibly unpopular! His wealth was largely built by stealing and tricking citizens of Rome.

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John D Rockefeller

John D Rockefeller was perhaps the richest American to ever live. He was born in New York state in 1839 and his father was a traveling salesman. His family moved the Cleveland, Ohio, in 1853 where John studied at school briefly.

At the age of 16 Rockefeller started working as an office clerk at a Cleveland firm that bought and sold commodities. A few years later, he established his own firm.

The 1860s in the USA was the start of the North American oil industry. The first oil well was established in 1859, and early investors quickly tried to make fortunes in the industry. Rockefeller was one of the most successful.

In 1863 Rockefeller invested in an oil refinery in Cleveland and two years later he bought the refinery outright. In 1870, Rockefeller founded the Standard Oil Company of Ohio which quickly gained a monopoly over the oil industry. They bought rival companies and by 1882 the Standard Oil Trust controlled 90% of oil refineries and pipelines in the USA.

The company was a true monopoly. They owned the oil producers, the pipelines, the refineries, and the companies selling oil. They even built the oil barrels and employed scientists! Rockefeller was the largest shareholder of one of the biggest monopolies in American history.

After decades of court cases, the US Supreme Court ruled that Standard Oil was too big and breaking anti-trust (anti-monopoly) laws. The company was broken down into around 30 smaller companies. Rockefeller, as an incredibly wealthy individual, had also been accused of corruption, bribery, and being too powerful.

Rockefeller retired from the company in the 1890s and gave away most of his money to charity. He founded universities as well – for example, he funded the foundation of the University of Chicago. John D Rockefeller passed away at the age of 97.

As the largest shareholder of one the most valuable and powerful companies in history, Rockefeller was also one of the wealthiest people in history. His income tax return in 1918 was equivalent to 2% of the US economic output… which in 2014 would be around $350 billion!


Andrew Carnegie

Rockefeller gave away much of his income, but he was inspired to do so by perhaps an even wealthier American: Andrew Carnegie!

Andrew Carnegie was born in Dunfermline Scotland and moved with his family to the USA in 1848 at the age of 13. His parents had supported an unsuccessful political and religious movement in Scotland and had to sell all their possessions to afford the trip across the Atlantic Ocean.

The family settled in Pennsylvania. Andrew, a 13-year-old boy, worked all day in a cotton mill to help his family’s money problems. He then went to work as a messenger and later telegraph operator. His skills with the telegraph got him a job with the Pennsylvania Railroad and he became superintendent at the age of 24.

Although Carnegie lacked formal education, he was given the chance by a local resident to read books from a library. This was a rare opportunity for working class boys in the USA.

Carnegie’s business career started with a piece of advice from his boss at the railroad. His boss told Carnegie that the Adams Express Company was about to sell 10 shares and he recommended Carnegie buy some. After mortgaging their house, Carnegie bought the 10 shares for $500 dollars and quickly started to receive dividends.

Carnegie continued to invest while working on the Railroads. He invested in the first company to put sleeping cars on US trains, and by the age of 30 had invested in oil wells, iron, steamboats, and the rail roads.

But it was his investments in the steel industry that made him one of the wealthiest people in history. The Carnegie Steel Corporation, founded by Andrew in 1892, was the world’s largest steel company. He sold it to JP Morgan in 1901 for $480 million in 1901… equivalent to 2.1% of the US economic output or around $370 billion in 2014 money.

Carnegie is known and remembered for his charity. He built public libraries in his hometown of Dunfermline, Scotland, and eventually Carnegie libraries were constructed across the English-speaking world.  In fact, he spent $55 million (in the 19th century that was an incredible amount of money) just on libraries. If you remember, Carnegie educated himself through a library.

Carnegie had decided early on that he would be giving away his entire fortune (his wife even signed an agreement to give away all the money when they married). Carnegie paid for church organs, established influential charities and trusts, and funded universities and colleges. His goal was to give away his money to fund world peace and education.

Andrew Carnegie has influenced modern day billionaires like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates – Carnegie wrote in his book The Gospel of Wealth that “The man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.” He was immensely wealthy, like everyone else mentioned today. But he did not come from royalty or a rich family. He was a poor immigrant with no formal education, who went from working in cotton mills and on the railroad to owning the largest steel company in the world!!


Final Thought

Who was the wealthiest person in history? The question is too difficult to answer. The emperors of China, Rome, India, Mongolia, and more controlled vast amounts of wealth and land. Mansa Musa owned most of the world’s gold.

And the industrialists of Europe and America controlled oil and steel production. Comparing wealth across time is always going to be impossible.

But I thought it was important to end today’s episode with Andrew Carnegie – the richest man in America, who gave away his entire fortune to support education and world peace, and who came from a working-class Scottish immigrant family!

What do you think? Who was the wealthiest person in history? Is there anyone that I missed from today’s episode?

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!