Which was the world's richest empire in ancient times (1 AD to 1600 AD)?



Andrew Roberts

It all depends when in the period, what you define as China, India, Rome.... (see note below) and which metric you use, but on a GDP per capita basis (output per person), as borders moved and names changed, you get:

·1 - 600 AD - Rome (Italy)

·600 - 1200 AD - Islamic Caliphate(s) (Iraq, Turkey, Iran, ...)

·1200 - 1550 AD - Italy (But not an empire, at best an Italic League)

·1550 - 1850 AD - Netherlands (But not an empire, but largely the Dutch Republic)

Note: between 1AD and 1870 AD South Asia's, GDP per capita has never been greater than that of China, though between 1870 and 1977 it was, and largely unified as a constituent part of the British Empire, or as a Union of nations in the current Republic.


公元元年 - 600 :罗马(意大利)

公元600 - 1200 :伊斯兰王国(伊拉克、土耳其、伊朗、…)

公元1200 - 1550:意大利(不是一个帝国,充其量是一个意大利联盟)

公元1550 - 1850:荷兰(不是一个帝国,跨越荷兰共和国的大部分地区)


Also have a read or the original source for the debate: World history by per capita GDP along with:

·How would the Roman empire and India's GDP compare in 1 AD?

·How did the Roman and Chinese Empires' GDP compare between 1 and 1000 AD?

Then have a play with the raw data on: Historical Statistics of the World Economy: 1-2008 AD - knoema.com

Or just grab it in Excel format here: Home Maddison

A few GDP Per Capita charts in different formats:

Note: The nation states of India and China are post WWII inventions, for a list of the numerous empires that have controlled part of the territory they now occupy, see: List of empires.










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Joseph Boyle

By current boundaries, the areas now known as India and China alternated for largest economy. China was larger in the 1500s, then sustained damage in the 1600s during the Qing takeover with India pulling ahead, then had a very strong 1700s becoming the largest economy in history.

Before that, I haven't seen a detailed analysis. One could guess that other periods of war like the Mongol conquest or the disintegration of the Han and Tang dynasties were low points for China. For India, I don't think census records survived as well as for China.




Sunny Mewati, Studied Economic History

Larger estimated population

India's GDP was indeed bigger than China's (surprising) and the Roman Empire (almost impossible to believe) according to just one economist, Angus Maddison who quantified historical GDP's dating back to 1 AD in his famous book Contours of the World Economy 1-2030 AD. It is easy to see the many flaws in his claim once you read his research and its criticism by other leading economists.


Comparing national incomes across time is overtly simplistic on Quora and elsewhere while it is not that simple among academics studying economic history. A little before the advent of the industrial revolution, most economics lived as subsistence farmers. This is true for all societies before the mid of 18th century. Because everyone lived at subsistence and subsistence across countries is very constant (everyone has the same minimal needs), the country with the larger population had the higher GDP.


Historical GDP = Population * Per-Capita income (almost same for every country)

历史GDP =人口*人均收入(几乎每个国家都一样)

Because of a poor record at written history and lack of a tradition of census, it is hard to determine what India's population was historically before the British came and instituted a census department. Maddison says in the book, "India does not have statistical records of the same sort as Western Europe, China or Japan, and there is consequently a wide range of views". Estimates of India's population vary a lot and every period of observation. For example, Clark(1967)'s estimate for 1 AD is 70 million while Birraben (1979) is 46 million.


22-46 million.png

*A table of alternative estimates of India's population from Statistical Appendix B of Maddison's book.


For China on the other hand, we have excellent statistical records of census dating back as far as the Qin dynasty. We know with a very small margin of error what China's population was all across history.


Maddison used the upper estimates of each period of observation to conclude that India's GDP is was the highest in the world. This is disputed a lot in academia because some of those estimates are too large to be considered true given technological development of that time and many of them are just 'conjectures'. If you use McEvedy and Jones (1978)'s estimates of Indian population, then Indian GDP is lower than both Roman Empire and China.



Pranav Telang, Student

At the close of the sixteenth century, India's wealth sustained more than a hundred million people. There was an abundance of arable land and the state of Indian agriculture compared favourably with any of the western European countries. Right down to the subsistence-oriented peasant, everyone saw a good return on land and labour. There was a large and vigorous skilled workforce turning out not just cotton but luxury items for the barons, courts and ruling classes. Consequently, the economy produced a fabulous financial surplus. For example, the annual revenues of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb are said to have amounted to $450 million or more than ten times those of his contemporary Louis XIV of France. According to an estimate of 1638, the Mughal court of India had accumulated a treasure equivalent to $1.5 billion.


By the early eighteenth century, India was the leading manufacturing country in the world. Of course, manufacturing then meant handloom textiles and handicrafts. There was a large commercialized sector with a highly sophisticated market and credit structure, manned by a skilful and in many instances very waelthy commercial class. Methods of production and of industrial and commercial organization could stand in comparison with those in vogue in any other part of the world. India had developed an indigenous bankingsystem. Merchant capital had emerged with an elaborate network of agentss, brokers and middlemen. Its bills of  exchange were honoured in all the major cities of Asia.


So definitely, India back then was one of the richest country.



Supreeth Dev M

This is because of what was considered as wealth centuries ago.


Today, the world's richest resources is energy and power(power as in, ability to dominate over others). If you have an oil deposit, every country will be fighting to become your friends. And of course, the country with the best military power gets to be your friend. Those days, they used to consider the fertility of lands, precious metals and precious gems as the wealth. And India had abundant of them. Until 18th century, India was the only source of diamonds in the world.



Lokesh Giri, Spiritual, Seeker, Indian

Western Europe was slightly Richer in GDP Per Capita. But India and China because of their huge populations had bigger GDP than any other  country/empire.

China and India were  each 5-10 times bigger than the third biggest economy until 17th century revolution in Europe.

It is hard to predict which one of China and India were the biggest, both seem pretty close.





Sachin Sharma, Computer Engineer and history lover.

Being rich is not a title which remains forever.

No,  i wouldn't say that India was the richest country in the world.

But yes India was one of the rich countries. Till 1700 India contributed about 22%-23% GDP of world economy.

India was a country which had raw materials in abundance, this is one of the main reasons why foreigners invaded India.

India was called 'the golden bird' as people used to get paid by either gold ornamentals or by golden coins very often.

It was the scenario that kings and their families were extremely extremely rich, and average people were satisfied with their lives as they didn't have as much requirements as we do have now.

And those people who were poor were also able to live their lives as surrounding people would help them.

Population was very less.

Let me tell you all an interesting fact.

When the population of India was very less, then the government declared a reward of offering a large peice of land for the family who have 12 or more children, to increase the population. I hope that the government must impose a rule to decrease the population now.







Sunil Kumar

For 1850 years out of 2000 years, India was the richest country in the world and had the biggest economy in the world.

India was the leading economic power of the world from the 1st year of the first millennium till 1700 - with 32 per cent share of world’s GDP in the first 1000 years and 28 per cent to 24 per cent in the second millennium till 1700. India lost its economic might due to colonial conquests only.

23-conquests only.png

Referred from - Nikhil Sharma



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