the richest man who ever lived -- 8/19/15

Today's selection -- from The Richest Man Who Ever Lived by Greg Steinmetz. Jacob Fugger (1459-1525 CE) lived in the formative years of the capitalist age, was Europe's first millionaire, and may have been the richest man in history:

"[Jacob Fugger] wanted to see how far he could go even if it meant risking his freedom and his soul. A gift for rationalization soothed his conscience. He understood that people considered him 'unchristian and unbrotherly.' He knew that enemies called him a usurer and a Jew, and said he was damned. But he waved off the attacks with logic. The Lord must have wanted him to make money, otherwise he wouldn't have given him such a talent for it. 'Many in the world are hostile to me,' Fugger wrote. 'They say I am rich. I am rich by God's grace without injury to any man.'

"When Fugger said [Holy Roman Emperor] Charles V, [the most powerful ruler in Europe], would not have become emperor without him, he wasn't exaggerating. Not only did Fugger pay the bribes that secured his elevation, but Fugger had also financed Charles's grandfather and taken his family, the Habsburgs, from the wings of European politics to center stage. Fugger made his mark in other ways, too. He roused commerce from its medieval slumber by persuading the pope to lift the ban on moneylending. He helped save free enterprise from an early grave by financing the army that won the German Peasants' War, the first great dash between capitalism and communism. He broke the back of the Hanseatic League, Europe's most powerful commercial organization before Fugger. He engineered a shady financial scheme that unintentionally provoked Luther to write his Ninety-five Theses, the document that triggered the Reformation, the earth-shattering event that cleaved European Christianity in two. He most likely funded Magellan's circumnavigation of the globe.

"On a more mundane note, he was among the first businessmen north of the Alps to use double-entry bookkeeping and the first anywhere to consolidate the results of multiple operations in a single financial statement -- a breakthrough that let him survey his financial empire with a single glance and always know where his finances stood. He was the first to send auditors to check up on branch offices. And his creation of a news service, which gave him an information edge over his rivals and customers, earned him a footnote in the history of journalism. For all these reasons, it is fair to call Fugger the most influential businessman of all time.

Portrait of Jakob Fugger by Albrecht Dürer, 1518

"Fugger changed history because he lived in an age when, for the first time, money made all the difference in war and, hence, politics. And Fugger had money. He lived in palaces and owned a collection of castles. After buying his way into the nobility, he lorded over enough fiefdoms to get his name on the map. He owned a breathtaking necklace later worn by Queen Elizabeth I. When he died in 1525, his fortune came to just under 2 percent of European economic output. Not even John D. Rockefeller could claim that kind of wealth. Fugger was the first documented millionaire. In the generation preceding him, the Medici had a lot of money but their ledgers only report sums up to five digits, even though they traded in currencies of roughly equal value to Fugger's. Fugger was the first to show seven digits.

"Fugger made his fortune in mining and banking, but he also sold textiles, spices, jewels and holy relics such as bones of martyrs and splinters of the cross. For a time, he held a monopoly on guaiacum, a Brazilian tree bark believed to cure syphilis. He minted papal coins and funded the first regiment of Swiss papal guards. ...

"Did success make Fugger happy? Probably not, at least not by conventional terms. He had few friends, only business associates. His only child was illegitimate. His nephews, to whom he relinquished his empire, disappointed him. While on his deathbed, with no one at his side other than paid assistants, his wife was with her lover. But he succeeded on his own terms. His objective was neither comfort nor happiness. It was to stack up money until the end. Before he died, he composed his own epitaph. It was an unabashed statement of ego that would have been impossible a generation earlier, before the Renaissance philosophy of individualism swept Germany, when even a self-portrait -- a form of art Durer created during Fugger's lifctime -- would have been regarded as hopelessly egotistical and contrary to social norms.

TO GOD, ALL-POWERFUL AND GOOD! Jacob Fugger, of Augsburg, ornament to his class and to his country, Imperial Councilor under Maximilian I and Charles V, second to none in the acquisition of extraordinary wealth, in liberality, in purity of life, and in the greatness of soul, as he was comparable to none in life, so after death is not to be numbered among the mortal.


Greg Steinmetz


The Richest Man Who Ever Lived: The Life and Times of Jacob Fugger


Simon & Schuster


Copyright 2015 by Greg Steinmetz


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment

<< prev - comments page 1 of 1 - next >>