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They came, they saw, they made pots of money

Marcus Licinius Crassus made his money in ways that would make the dodgiest property dealer proud. With the help of his slaves he would watch as buildings caught fire, then rebuild them and pocket a tidy profit.

Such was his success in real estate speculation that he became a pillar of society, forming an alliance with Pompey the Great and “discovering” Julius Caesar before coming to a sticky end when his enemies poured molten gold down his throat.

A more extensive example of the land grab came 1,000 years later. One of the wealthiest Englishmen of all time was Alan Rufus, aka Alain le Roux, a man largely forgotten by history. As one of William the Conqueror’s trusted henchmen he took part in the Battle of Hastings and the Harrying of the North — the massacre of much of the population of northeast England. He was rewarded with land that stretched from top to bottom of the country.

The systematic use of violence and ethnic cleansing in which Rufus played a key role redrew the map of England, creating an entire political and economic establishment that survives to this day.

For a single event that projected wealth, nothing can beat the hajj of Mansa Musa. The leader of the Malian empire took thousands of lavishly dressed foot soldiers and slaves with him on his great pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324. He dispensed so much gold en route that he triggered a global crash in its value.


Musa’s reign married ostentatious riches and public displays of piety. Wealth and power were inextricably linked. Yet within two centuries of his death his kingdom had been destroyed, his name erased from history.

Few remember Cosimo de’ Medici for his less than ethical banking practices. His place in history was secured instead through his sponsorship of great artists and writers and the construction of glorious churches in early Renaissance Florence. The practice of lending money, usury, is condemned in the Bible. Yet de’ Medici and the various popes he sponsored struck a deal to get them all off the hook.

The Dutch East India Company was the first example of shareholder capitalism, with small investors back home enjoying the spoils of lucrative trade — the 17th-century equivalent of a successful initial public offering. The company directors found the tactics of their governor-general, Jan Pieterszoon Coen, a little too brutal and vulgar for their taste. But the enjoyment of riches outweighed any ethical concerns they might fleetingly have had.

A little over 100 years laterRobert Clive turned the East India Company into a dominant force in global trade, enshrining British rule over the subcontinent for two centuries. Clive’s fondness for the baubles of wealth and his failure to show contrition in parliament when events transpired against him were his undoing. The parallels with 21st-century bankers are uncanny.

Alfred Krupp was the quintessential 19th-century entrepreneur. His steel business traded with anyone — the Russians, the British, the French — but when it needed to shore up its credentials back home in Germany it pandered to the patriotic demands of the Kaiser.

It is easy to understand why the American “robber barons” of the same era are seen as the precursors of today’s super-rich. By carving up the railroads, steel and oil industries and banks, they created untold wealth for a few. Their parties and mansions form the backdrop to the debate about 21st-century excess.

More intriguing are the ideological similarities. Andrew Carnegie’s market manipulation, use of favourable government tariffs from his political friends and ruthless mergers took him to the top. His work The Gospel of Wealth, which brings together the notions of genetic superiority, free market and philanthropy, has become required reading for the turbocharged billionaire of the modern age.

Published in 1889 it sets out the nobility and obligations of men who make money. No regulation or meddling should stand in the way of the glorious task of acquiring wealth.

Once this has been achieved, however, the fortune should be invested back into society. The worst sin these men can commit is to die rich. Inheritance is a dirty word. Modern governments have followed the first part of this stricture, while passing over the second.

This article was provided by Kayaking Plus Blog