The Richest People in History
(Up until the Industrial Revolution)
Click here for a larger, more legible version of the infographic that you can explore in-depth.
When we think of wealth today, we often think of the massive personal fortunes of business magnates like Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, or Warren Buffett. However, it is only since the Industrial Revolution that measuring wealth by one’s bank account has been a norm for the world’s richest.
For most of recorded human history, in fact, the lines around wealth were quite blurred. Leaders like Augustus Caesar or Emperor Shenzong had absolute control of their empires – while bankers like Jakob Fogger and Cosimo de Medici were often found pulling the strings from behind.
This infographic focuses on the richest people in history up until the Industrial Revolution – and in the coming weeks, we will release a second version that covers wealth from then onwards (including figures like Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Jeff Bezos, etc.).
Is This List of People Definitive?
While it is certainly fun to speculate on the wealth of people from centuries past, putting together this list is exceptionally difficult and certainly not definitive.
Firstly, much wealth in early periods is tied to land (Genghis Khan) or entire empires (Augustus, Akbar), which makes calculations extremely subjective. What is most of Asia’s land worth in the year 1219? What separates personal fortune from the riches of an empire that one has full control of? There are a wide variety of answers to these questions, and they all influence the figures chosen to be represented.
Secondly, records kept from Ancient eras are scarce, exaggerated, or based on legends and oral histories. Think of King Solomon or Mansa Musa – these are characters described as immeasurably rich, so trying to put their wealth in modern context is fun, but certainly not guaranteed to be historically accurate.
Lastly, wealth and conversion rates can be approached in different ways as well. Take Crassus in the Roman Republic, who had a peak fortune of “200 million sesterces”. Well, that’s a problem for us in modernity, because that stash could be worth anywhere from $200 million to $169.8 billion, depending on how calculations are done.
So, enjoy this list of the wealthiest historical figures, but keep in mind that it is mostly for fun – and that the list of the wealthiest people in history changes depending on who you ask!
About the Money Project
The Money Project uses intuitive visualizations to explore ideas around the very concept of money itself. Founded in 2015 by Visual Capitalist and Texas Precious Metals, the Money Project will look at the evolving nature of money, and will try to answer the difficult questions that prevent us from truly understanding the role that money plays in finance, investments, and accumulating wealth.
Which Countries Have the Most Wealth Per Capita?
How do the rankings of the world’s most affluent countries change when using different metrics to measure wealth per capita?
Which Countries Have the Most Wealth Per Capita?
Our animated chart this week uses data from the ninth Credit Suisse Global Wealth report, which ranks countries by average wealth, calculated as gross assets per adult citizen.
While using such a metric certainly gives a quick snapshot of wealth per capita, it doesn’t necessarily show the complete picture.
Some argue, for example, that calculating the mean doesn’t factor in the gap between the richest and poorest in a population—also known as wealth inequality. For this reason, we’ve compared this number to median wealth for each country, providing a separate angle on which countries really have the most wealth per capita.
Mean or Median: Which Makes More Sense?
Below, we’ve visualized a hypothetical example of two groups of people, each earning various sums of money, to show how average (mean) and median calculations make a difference.
What can we observe in both datasets?
- Total wealth: $2,000
- Total people: 15 people
- Average wealth: $2,000 ÷ 15 = $133
However, that’s where the similarities end. In the first group, wealth is distributed more evenly, with the disparity between the lowest-paid and highest-paid being $300. The median wealth for this group reaches $100, which is close to the average value. In the second group, this gap climbs to $495, and the median wealth drops sharply to only $30.
Scaling up this example to the true wealth of nations, we can see how the median wealth provides a more accurate picture of the typical adult, especially in societies that are less equal.
Let’s see how this shakes out when ranking the world’s most affluent countries.
Ranking Top Contenders on Wealth per Capita
When it comes to wealth per capita, it’s clear that Australia and Switzerland lead the pack. In fact, the data shows that both nations top the lists for both mean and median wealth.
However, both nations also have the highest absolute household debt-to-GDP ratios in the world: in 2018, Switzerland’s levels reached nearly 129%, while Australia followed behind at 120%.
Here is a full ranking of the top 20 countries by mean and median wealth:
|Rank||Country||Mean wealth per adult||Country||Median wealth per adult|
|#1||🇨🇭 Switzerland||$530,244||🇦🇺 Australia||$191,453|
|#2||🇦🇺 Australia||$411,060||🇨🇭 Switzerland||$183,339|
|#3||🇺🇸 United States||$403,974||🇧🇪 Belgium||$163,429|
|#4||🇧🇪 Belgium||$313,045||🇳🇱 Netherlands||$114,935|
|#5||🇳🇴 Norway||$291,103||🇫🇷 France||$106,827|
|#6||🇳🇿 New Zealand||$289,798||🇨🇦 Canada||$106,342|
|#7||🇨🇦 Canada||$288,263||🇯🇵 Japan||$103,861|
|#8||🇩🇰 Denmark||$286,712||🇳🇿 New Zealand||$98,613|
|#9||🇸🇬 Singapore||$283,118||🇬🇧 United Kingdom||$97,169|
|#10||🇫🇷 France||$280,580||🇸🇬 Singapore||$91,656|
|#11||🇬🇧 United Kingdom||$279,048||🇪🇸 Spain||$87,188|
|#12||🇳🇱 Netherlands||$253,205||🇳🇴 Norway||$80,054|
|#13||🇸🇪 Sweden||$249,765||🇮🇹 Italy||$79,239|
|#14||🇭🇰 Hong Kong||$244,672||🇹🇼 Taiwan||$78,177|
|#15||🇮🇪 Ireland||$232,952||🇮🇪 Ireland||$72,473|
|#16||🇦🇹 Austria||$231,368||🇦🇹 Austria||$70,074|
|#17||🇯🇵 Japan||$227,235||🇰🇷 South Korea||$65,463|
|#18||🇮🇹 Italy||$217,727||🇺🇸 United States||$61,667|
|#19||🇩🇪 Germany||$214,893||🇩🇰 Denmark||$60,999|
|#20||🇹🇼 Taiwan||$212,375||🇭🇰 Hong Kong||$58,905|
The United States boasts 41% of the world’s millionaires, but it’s clear that the fruits of labor are enjoyed by only a select group—average wealth ($403,974) is almost seven times higher than median wealth ($61,667). This growing inequality gap knocks the country down to 18th place for median wealth.
The Nordic countries of Norway and Denmark can be found in the top ten for average wealth, but they drop to 12th place ($80,054) and 19th place ($60,999) respectively for median wealth. Despite this difference, these countries also provide a strong safety net—including access to healthcare and education—to more vulnerable citizens.
Finally, wealth in Japan is fairly evenly distributed among its large middle class, which lands it in seventh place on the median wealth list at $103,861. One possible reason is that the pay gap ratio between Japanese CEOs and the average worker is much lower than other developed nations.
With reducing income inequality as a priority for many countries around the world, how might this list change in coming years?
Footnote: All data estimates are using mid-2018 values, and reflected in US$.
How Much Student Debt Does Each State Hold?
Crippling student debt in the U.S. has reached a record high of $1.5 trillion nationwide. Today’s map breaks down which states bear the highest burden.
How Much Student Debt Does Each State Hold?
Education may be priceless, but the costs of obtaining it are becoming steeper by the day.
Almost half of all university-educated Americans rely on loans to pay for their higher education, with very few graduating debt-free. Total U.S. student debt has more than doubled in the last decade—reaching a record high of $1.5 trillion today.
Today’s data visualization from HowMuch.net breaks down the average student debt per capita, to uncover which states shoulder the highest burden in this growing crisis.
Students are Paying Through the Nose
Before diving into the graphic, let’s take a quick look at why student debt is racking up. The ballooning costs to attend college today compared to thirty years ago is one driving factor.
Source: The College Board 2018 report.
What’s more, these figures don’t include the expenses for accommodation and other supplies, which can add another $15,000-$17,000 per year.
The United States of Student Debt
In the state map above, it’s immediately obvious that Washington D.C. tops the list. While the nation’s capital is the most educated metropolitan area in the country, it also suffers from $13,320 in student debt per capita.
At approximately 147% above than the national average of $5,390, Washington D.C.’s debt burden per capita is almost double that of the state in second place. Georgia comes in with $7,250 debt per capita, 34.5% above the national average.
|State||Student Debt per Capita||Difference from Average|
|District Of Columbia||$13,320||147.1%|
Rounding out the five states with the most student debt per capita are Maryland, Minnesota, and Ohio, in that order. On the flip side, Wyoming has the least debt per capita ($3,610), which is 33.0% lower than the national average. Hawaii follows right behind at $3,780, and 29.9% below the national average.
Interestingly, a growing population on the West Coast helps to lower the debt burden for states like California, even despite the strong presence of prestigious schools. Home to Stanford, USC, UCLA, CalTech, and more, the Golden State surprisingly only has $4,530 in debt per capita.
The Last Straw?
Today’s Americans are more educated than ever before, but the sticker shock is causing some whiplash. This overall trend of spiraling student debt has significant implications on a person’s life trajectory. With many graduates unable to repay their loans on time, more of them are delaying major life milestones, such as starting a family or becoming a homeowner.
In efforts to curb this crisis, many 2020 presidential hopefuls have already started proposing plans to cancel or forgive student debt—with close attention on mid- to low-income households that would benefit the most from reduced loans.
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