‘As Gods Among Men’ by Guido Alfani review

Guido Alfani’s As Gods Among Men: A History of the Rich in the West explores how history’s wealthiest men made their fortunes, but says little about why they did so.

‘Death and the Miser’ by Thomas Rowlandson, 1801. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Public Domain.

The rich, like the poor, are always with us. In fact, over many centuries – as this wide-ranging and ambitious book tells us – the richest in society have captured more and more of the overall wealth of Western societies. Since the time of classical Greece, as empires have risen or fallen, their fortunes and the power which goes with them have grown and grown. Only the Black Death of the 14th century and the two world wars of the 20th have checked or reversed the trend – and only then for a time. It has always resumed. In modern times, neither the recession following the 2007-08 financial crisis nor the Covid pandemic have dented the apparently inexorable upward movement in the wealth of the rich and ultra-rich.

Guido Alfani, an economic and social historian at Bocconi University in Milan, deftly interweaves stories of individual and family wealth into his narrative. There is Alan Rufus, a companion of William the Conqueror, who controlled the staggering amount of more than seven per cent of the national income of England and was perhaps the richest man – other than monarchs – who ever lived in Britain; Elon Musk could not aspire to such wealth. Then there are the Medici of Florence, the Fuggers of Augsburg, together with the wealthy of the Netherlands, France and, overwhelmingly in recent decades, Americans: Andrew Carnegie, the Rockefellers, John Pierpont Morgan (who in 1907 single-handedly stopped the collapse of the American financial system) and most recently the tech billionaires.

The core of the book, however, is an analysis of how these men (and they were almost all men) built and maintained their fortunes, why they did so and what their societies thought of their achievements. Throughout two millennia most of the rich have been rich because of inheritance. They had rich fathers or uncles; the prime examples are nobles, closely associated with royal dynasties. There have been periods when great fortunes have been made, such as the opening up of Atlantic trade in early modern times and the second industrial revolution of the late 19th century, but those who made their wealth then are small in number compared to the recipients of inheritances. In such periods, predictably, merchants, entrepreneurs and financiers typically sought to use their new-found riches to try to insert themselves into the older elites – and to pass on their wealth to their children and grandchildren.

Alfani says little about the initial motivation of the founders of rich dynasties. Presumably they did not set out to become billionaires, with more money than they could possibly spend, but once they became wealthy they often seem to have been unable to stop accumulating. He describes this as the ‘curse of Smaug’, after Tolkien’s dragon who piled up more and more treasure. Some – Andrew Carnegie, for example – did decide to give away their wealth, but he was an exception. Rich men during the medieval and early modern periods were encouraged to give away some or all of their wealth to charity in the hope of saving their souls; some did, but in later ages gifts to charity have diminished. Although a few such as Bill and Melinda Gates have set up foundations to distribute some of their wealth, Gordon Brown has recently pointed out that ‘the top one per cent typically declare donations averaging just £10 a week, much of which they can set against tax, their generosity extending to just 0.21 per cent of their income’.

Oddly, the book also has little to say about how the rich spent their wealth. Alfani describes the beautiful buildings with which the wealthy of Renaissance Italy endowed their cities, but why, for example, did hundreds of British landowners decide, in the middle of the 18th century, to do away with the older formal gardens around their mansions and employ Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown and many other designers to set out sweeping landscapes? It is sometimes argued that they were trying to save money in maintenance, but few of them needed to do so; the Duke of Marlborough alone spent what equates to £35 million today to build a larger lake beside Blenheim Palace. Fashion, allied to what Thorstein Veblen was later to describe as ‘conspicuous consumption’, was a powerful motivation; it has led, today, to massive ocean-going yachts, private jets and the helicopters which the (current) prime minister uses to save himself a few minutes. The rich care little for the consequences; the richest one per cent of humanity are responsible for more carbon emissions than the poorest 66 per cent.

Alfani persuasively links together increasing inequality with the exercise of political power to maintain or increase the privileges of the rich. The Reagan-Thatcher reforms of the 1980s were accompanied by severe reductions in high marginal rates of income tax and by capital gains being taxed less than income; successive reductions in inheritance taxes were specifically designed to make it easier to preserve inherited wealth. The rich now lobby and donate to political parties in Britain and America to abolish such taxes entirely, although they are paid by only four per cent of the British population; we have regressed considerably since Winston Churchill argued in 1924 that death duties were a ‘corrective against the development of a race of idle rich’. Meanwhile, the wealthy take advantage of tax deductions for charitable gifts to direct money to their preferred causes at the expense of priorities decided by governments and other democratic institutions. They demand the right to spend their money as they wish, rather than contributing to the common good.

It may be that, as Alfani argues, the rich can never win public esteem. They will always attract jealousy, even if they have achieved their wealth by innovation and hard work. But now, as ever, they need to be careful in displaying their wealth; as a few of them have recently realised, ‘it’s taxes or pitchforks’.

  • As Gods Among Men: A History of the Rich in the West
    Guido Alfani 
    Princeton University Press, 440pp, £30
    Buy from bookshop.org (affiliate link)

Roderick Floud is the author of An Economic History of the English Garden (Allen Lane, 2019).