Under my byline

Ten figures

Posted in Books by Rrishi on 28 February 2009

The first dollar billionaire was a Rockefeller, but others have been far wealthier

Louis XIV, by Charles Le Brun, 1661Modern billionaires are positively middle-class. Strictly in money terms, individually they account for a far smaller share of national GDP than their predecessors in the past. In 2008 dollars, long-dead billionaires would be worth many times more. (Forbes did the numbers in 2007, and Wikipedia users extrapolated to 2008.)

Outsize wealth doesn’t always result in (or from) fascinating lives, which means that not all the super-rich make good subjects for books. And some are too secretive. Still, here are 10 of the most entertaining from the last two millennia.



The only Roman famous chiefly for being rich, Crassus was reportedly worth 200 million sestertii ($170 billion in 2008) at his death in 53 BCE, in the disastrous battle against the Persians at Carrhae in Syria. Born rich, Crassus made his family unimaginably wealthier by speculating in slaves, silver mining and real estate.

He was also a politician (a contemporary of Julius Caesar, whom he supported with his great wealth) and military commander — famously associated with the effort to squash the slave revolt of Spartacus. In Gareth Sampson’s military history, Crassus has a central role.

Gareth C Sampson, Crassus, Carrhae...The Defeat of Rome: Crassus, Carrhae and the Invasion of the East
Gareth C Sampson
Pen & Sword
pp 224




Being physically deformed, and thought dim-witted, Claudius survived the purges of Tiberius and Caligula to become emperor of Rome (and richest man in the world) in 41 CE, as the last male member of Augustus’s family.

To everyone’s surprise, Claudus turned out to be a good administrator. Under him Britain was reconquered for Rome. And a modern Briton wrote a fictional life of Claudius in two immortal volumes — the poet (and much else) Robert Graves. Don’t miss it.

Robert Graves, I, ClaudiusI, Claudius and Claudius the God
Robert Graves
pp 468; pp 544




Among the flashiest and longest-ruling of princes (72 years), the man who turned Versailles into the grandest palace in Europe from a mere hunting lodge (destroying the bills so as not to cause consternation), and the man who earned his sobriquet of “Sun King”, Louis XIV was a great deal richer than anybody around today.

Naturally he is a rich subject for biographers — of which there have been dozens. Here are two: one Louis’s contemporary (delightfully revealing), and another ours (a great story).

Philippe Erlanger, Louis XIVLouis XIV
Philippe Erlanger
pp 496

Memoirs of Louis XIV and His Court and of the Regency
Louis de Rouvroy, Duc de Saint-Simon
Free ebook on the Internet



“History’s first billionaire”, they call him: this oilman was worth $1 billion on September 29, 1916. In 2008 dollars, that would be about $330 billion. But the original Rockefeller was more than just a robber baron — he was certainly a strong-arm capitalist — he was also the original billionaire philanthropist. His good-works dollars (starting with church donations) went a long way in supporting modern medical and scientific research and education.

Ron Chernow, TitanTitan: The Life of John D Rockefeller, Sr
Ron Chernow
pp 832




Carnegie’s name today may be associated with the many libraries and educational institutions he devoted most of his money to, but he made his millions the old-fashioned American way — in the railways and steel, as a robber baron.

Carnegie brought a similar aggressiveness to his philanthropy, writing that “Whatever I engage in I must push inordinately; therefore should I be careful to choose that life which will be the most elevating in its character.” (His entertaining autobiography is available online as a free ebook.)

Peter Krass, CarnegieCarnegie
Peter Krass
pp 612




Time magazine gave Asaf Jah VII a cover story in 1937 as the “Richest Man In The World”. He may have been worth $225 billion in 2008 dollars. In his 37-year rule, Hyderabad state saw the first electricity supply, railways, airport. Courtier Sidq Jaisi’s diary is a firsthand account of the life of the Nizam’s court, and includes character sketches of courtiers like the poet Josh Maleehabadi. Jaisi reveals the contrast between the last nizam, who was fairly austere in his personal tastes, and his extravagant son.

Sidq Jaisi, The Nocturnal CourtThe Nocturnal Court: Darbaar-e-Dürbaar, The Life of a Prince of Hyderabad
Sidq Jaisi
Trans. Narendra Luther
pp lxiv + 96




There’s been a film loosely based on the life of this Indian über-capitalist, starring a pot-bellied Abhishek Bachchan (Mani Ratnam’s Guru, 2007), and a whole lot of gossip and newspaper inches, but scarcely any non-hagiographical books.

One major unauthorised biography saw the light of day, but has not been published in India because the Ambanis promise to sue. So Dhirubhai Ambani’s life still remains to be told — and when the definitive book is written, it will surely be a bestseller. In the meantime, look for the unauthorised version.

Hamish McDonald, The Polyester PrinceThe Polyester Prince: The Rise of Dhirubhai Ambani
Hamish McDonald
Allen & Unwin
pp 296




The only woman on this list came out of a severely troubled childhood and youth to gain visibility on TV in her 20s and 30s. Her super-successful talk show premiered in 1986, and now her empire has grown to encompass print as well as online media.

Winfrey has set the tone for all talk shows since. Barack Obama said she “may be the most influential woman in the country”. There are many books about her, mostly forgettable. Ilene Cooper’s is easy to read, and cheap.

Ilene Cooper, Up Close: Oprah WinfreyUp Close: Oprah Winfrey
Ilene Cooper
pp 208




Steelman and victor of Europe — despite the current recession — Mittal has made an old-style commodity the foundation of his astonishing success. He has taken the first steps, the first giant leaps, towards consolidation of the world’s fragmented steel-manufacturing industry.

He has possibly the biggest home in London (save the Queen’s), and certainly the greatest fortune in the kingdom. In Cold Steel, a journalist and a PR consultant tell the inside story of Mittal’s major coup: the takeover of Arcelor in 2006.

Bouquet & Ousey, Cold SteelCold Steel: Lakshmi Mittal and the Multi-Billion Dollar Battle for a Global Empire
Tim Bouquet and Byron Ousey
Hachette India
pp 340




Buffett’s stock-picking sense is renowned, and there are many devoted emulators of “Buffettology”, even during this recession. Not only does this billionaire make wise investments, he can actually write. Collections of his essays are bestsellers, deservedly so, because Buffett has a sharp but not unkind wit.

He’s famous for being reticent and living simply in a modest home in Omaha, Nebraska, and he and Bill Gates together have committed to leave most of their wealth to charity. If anything, it’s difficult to be too critical of him, and that’s the only flaw of this major recent biography.

Alice Schroeder, The SnowballThe Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life
Alice Schroeder
pp 976


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