Difference between revisions of "Who were the richest men in the Ancient World"

(No difference)

Latest revision as of 04:56, 28 September 2021

A bust of Alexander the Great

The vast majority of people who lived in the Ancient World were impoverished. However, several men were unbelievably rich and were among the wealthiest people who ever lived. They were mainly rulers who gained their wealth through war, conquest, and the enslavement of the defeated. Unlike today, when wealthy entrepreneurs and business people dominate the rich list, the rich were nearly always rulers or members of the elite in the past.

Here is a list of some of the Classical World's wealthiest individuals. There are no reliable records of the wealth of these individuals, and there is some controversy among historians as to how to measure a person's net worth in the Graeco-Roman era. However, it is possible to estimate the Ancient World's wealthiest using documentary evidence and estimates of how much a state's resources they managed.

Alexander the Great

A mosaic with Roman Slaves

Alexander III, king of Macedonia (356-323 BC), was perhaps the most significant military commander. He inherited a mighty army from his father, Phillip II, and several gold mines. Alexander was a wealthy monarch even before he set off on his conquests, from his revenues from the mines, which were worked by slaves. They proved to be crucial to his ability to wage war. Alexander campaigned in the Balkans and later Greece to secure his position. Then he launched an invasion of the Persian Empire, then the most powerful state in the world.

In 333 BC, he defeated a large Persian army at the River Gracus, then he moved inland and inflicted a historic defeat on the Persian Empire at Issus (330 BC). As he entered the Persian Empire, he seized many treasures, which was the custom of war at the time. It also appears that many cities and local rulers were forced to give monies and goods to the Macedonian army. Alexander had a great many expenses, and the costs of maintaining his army were staggering. One of his significant sources of revenue was selling captives into slavery. There were no rules of war in the Ancient World, and the conqueror could do as he pleased with the conquered. One scholar recorded two dozen instances when the Macedonian Conqueror sold vast numbers of people into slavery.

After the siege of Gaza, he sold the entire population into slavery. In 335 BC, the victor of Issus "auctioned 30,000 Greek captives for 25 tons of silver" [1]. Alexander also collected a large amount of treasure from Egypt. When he finally defeated the Persians', he seized the Emperor's treasury.

Moreover, the land that was conquered by Alexander became part of his private estate, and he could dispose of it as he wished. It is estimated that the Macedonian king controlled a sizeable portion of the World's GDP during his reign. One modern historian reckons that he earned 17,000,000 pounds of silver during his years of conquest [2]. However, he was a notorious spendthrift and once bought a dog for almost 100 pounds of silver. Moreover, much of his wealth was misappropriated or wasted. By the time of his death in Babylon in 323 BC, Alexander was almost certainly the richest man alive.


Carcus Licinius Crassus (115-53 BC) was born into a wealthy and noble family. However, his family lands and wealth were seized when the 'populist' leaders Marius and Cinna came to power. Crassus was left one of the many impoverished aristocrats in Rome at this time. His fortunes changed when Sulla became a dictator. He served in the dictator's army, and as a result, he was able to benefit from the proscriptions of Sulla. Sulla executed many of his enemies and seized their property [3].

Because of his role in the confiscations, Crassus was able to restore his family's fortunes. He was a brilliant entrepreneur and financier. He used his political connections to great effect. The wily politician was able to acquire mines which earned him a great deal of money. Crassus also engaged in the slave trade, one of the most lucrative businesses in the Ancient World. Like many other wealthy men throughout history, he made most of his money through real estate speculation. He would buy ruined and derelict buildings, restore them, and flip them for a hefty profit.

Crassus was ruthless when it came to making money. There was no fire fighting service in the city of Rome, so he formed one out of his slaves. He would send them to fires and offer their services in return for a price. If the property owners could not afford the fee, Crassus would offer to buy the burning building. With little choice, many property owners sold their property for meager prices. As a result, Crassus became the biggest property owner in Rome, and he became notorious for charging high rents [4]. Crassus attempted to conquer Parthia in 53 BC but was captured and killed. According to legend, the Parthians killed him by pouring gold into his mouth and eyes, as a symbol of his greed for money [5]

Julius Caesar

Caesar (100-44 BC) was one of the greatest generals who ever lived. He was also a consummate politician. He was born into a noble if impoverished family and was associated with Rome's 'popular' party. The young Caesar was not wealthy and was obliged to borrow money from moneylenders at exorbitant rates of interest to finance his political campaigns [6]. He was elected Pontifex Maximus, an essentially religious position, allowing him to stave off bankruptcy. Caesar entered into a political arrangement with Pompey and Crassus, which effectively partitioned the Roman Empire between them [7]. Julius was given the command of several legions and control of a province. He used his position to conquer the rest of Gaul. Caesar was able to plunder a great many wealthy fortresses and cities, making him fabulously wealthy. He also captured many men, women, and children, whom he sold into slavery, making him an absolute fortune. Caesar also made money by selling conquered lands and commercial concessions to Roman entrepreneurs. For the first time in his life, the great commander was financially secure. After the death of Crassus at the Battle of Carrahae (55 BC), the agreement with Pompey ended, and soon Caesar was fighting a civil war with his old ally and many of the Roman senatorial elite. The Civil War was won by Caesar, and during many battles, he amassed a great deal of treasure and made himself dictator of Rome. By 44 BC, he was the richest man in the Roman Republic, if not the world, and his fortune was vast, and he used it to maintain his power. However, his passion and his wealth were resented by many members of the Senatorial elite, and he was assassinated. After his assassination, he left his considerable fortune to his adopted son Octavian and the population of Rome.


Bust of Augustus

Augustus was the name given to Octavian by a grateful Roman Senate. He rose to prominence when he was adopted by his grand-uncle, Julius Caesar. The young Octavian's family was not very wealthy. Still, after the assassination of Caesar, he inherited a massive fortune, and much of it was in the form of gold and silver [8]. The wealth left to him by Caesar was crucial in his rise to power. He allied with Lepidus and Mark Anthony, called the Second Triumvirate. They defeated the assassins of Caesar at the Battle of Philippi, and they later portioned the Empire among themselves.

However, Octavian (as he was still known) fell out with Mark Anthony and battled him for sole control of the Roman Empire. The heir of Caesar defeated Mark Anthony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium. Octavian obtained a great deal of personal and political power for many years, and he is now regarded as the first Emperor. During this time, Augustus, as he was now known, became fabulously wealthy, even as the vast majority of the population existed at a subsistence level[9]. He controlled the Imperial Treasury, and much of the Empire's wealth flowed into his funds. Moreover, he bought many estates and was the largest property owner in the Empire [10].

However, what made Augustus rich and subsequent Emperors was their revenues from Egypt. This was the richest province in the Empire, and it contributed up to one-quarter of the total taxes to the Imperial Treasury [11]. The First Roman Emperor reformed Egypt, and the economy boomed. He ensured that there was a booming trade between Egypt and India and the east coast of Africa. Moreover, the end of the civil wars allowed trade and commerce to flourish, which greatly benefitted the Roman Emperor and the founder of the Julian-Claudian Dynasty. It is estimated that he controlled as much as one-quarter of all the wealth in the Roman Empire.


Statue of Trajan

After the death of Augustus, the Empire remained prosperous, and Emperors such as Nero and Claudius were very wealthy. Of all the successors of the First Emperor, the only one who could rival his wealth was Emperor Trajan. He was one of the greatest Roman Emperors and a great military leader. After a palace coup ousted the cruel Domitian, he came to power, and he carried out a great many reforms. Trajan also improved the administration of taxes and the Imperial Treasury, much-reducing corruption, and this helped greatly improve his financial position [12]. Then he turned his attention to the conquest of new territories.

In two brutal wars, he conquered the Kingdom of Dacia. As a result, he had many captives that he sold as slaves and made a fortune. Moreover, Dacia was rich in mines, and Trajan earned huge revenue from these. Trajan then sought to emulate Alexander the Great and invaded the Parthian Empire. He effectively annexed the Western part of this Empire and turned them into Roman Provinces. Trajan plundered cities and enslaved many people, and his treasury overflowed with gold and silver[13].

At one point, he was undoubtedly one of the richest of all Roman Emperors. However, he became bogged down in a guerrilla war, and much of his wealth was spent on financing the campaign in Parthia in his later years. Trajan left the Imperial Treasury depleted, and it took his successors many decades to restore Rome's finances.

Who was the richest man in the Ancient World?

It is tough to definitively state who was the richest man in Ancient Rome and Greece. This is because of a scarcity of records and no agreed way to measure individuals' wealth. However, it is possible to estimate how rich these historical figures were. Trajan was very wealthy, but much of it was transitory and spent in his failed attempt to conquer the entirety of Parthia.

Crassus was the wealthiest person in the Ancient Word who was not a ruler. Julius Caesar was fabulously wealthy and was probably the wealthiest person who ever lived in the Roman Republic. Alexander the Great was also wealthy, and his enslavement of whole groups and war-loot made him the richest man in the world and possibly the richest who lived up to that point in time.

However, Augustus, the man who established the Imperial system in Rome, was probably the richest man in the Ancient World. This was because he controlled the Imperial Treasury and his careful management of the Roman budget. He was not extravagant and did not engage in needless wars and, as a result, controlled a significant share of not only Rome's wealth but that of the entire Ancient World.

Further Reading

Morris, Ian. The Ancient Economy. Berkeley (University of California Press, 1999) Brunt, Peter A. "The 'fiscus' and its development." The Journal of Roman Studies 56, no. 1-2 (1966): 75-91.

Hopkins, Keith. "Taxes and trade in the Roman Empire (200 BC-AD 400)." The Journal of Roman Studies 70 (1980): 101-125.


  1. Holt, Frank Lee. The treasures of Alexander the Great: how one man's wealth shaped the world (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2016), p 119
  2. Holt, p 145
  3. Brunt, Peter Astbury. Social conflicts in the Roman Republic (Londres: Chatto and Windus, 1971), p 114
  4. Cadoux, Theodore J. "Marcus Crassus: A Revaluation." Greece & Rome 3, no. 2 (1956): 153-161
  5. Plutarch, The Life of Crassus, 12.2
  6. Plutarch, The Life of Julius Caesar, 6. 2
  7. Wacher, John. The Roman World (London, Routledge, 2013) p. 198
  8. Plutarch, The Life of Augustus, 5.2
  9. Milanovic, Branko, Peter H. Lindert, and Jeffrey G. Williamson. Measuring ancient inequality (Geneva, The World Bank, 2007), p. 114
  10. Carcopino, Jerome. Daily life in ancient Rome: the people and the city at the height of the Empire (Yale, Yale University Press, 2003), p. 156
  11. Shotter, David. Augustus Caesar. (London, Routledge, 2005), p. 113
  12. Carcopino, p. 118
  13. Bennett, Julian. Trajan: Optimus Princeps (London, Routledge, 2003), p 113