Every so often, some business magazine or other notable publication will publish a list of the richest historical figures of all time. Topping the list is usually John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil and the first person ever to earn a billion United States dollars. If it’s not Rockefeller, number one is usually somebody with “King” or “Emperor” in front of his name…which doesn’t really seem fair. After all, as Antonie de Saint-Exupéry wrote, “Kings do not own, they reign over. It is a very different matter.”
To me, that raises the question, what is the fairest way to compare the wealth of a Roman emperor to an oil baron to Jeff Bezos? What does such great wealth really mean in an economy so different from the one we have today? And which one of them really is the richest person in history?
Surprisingly, I don’t think it’s someone from the historical lists…and I decided to put together an essay to find out.