The measure of any tycoon is the resonance of his name. Those that last and whose wealth remains outlandish not just in their lifetime, but in that of their children and grandchildren, should become proverbial, a synonym for great riches and high living. America's Rockefellers and Gettys can certainly lay claim to that, as may Bill Gates in the very near future. The banking dynasty of the Rothschilds, however, spread itself so wide and was so extravagantly successful that they went one step further, inspiring a song that is now deeply embedded in Western culture. 'If I Were a Rich Man', from the musical Fiddler on the Roof, was inspired by 'Ven ikh bin Roytshild', or 'If I were a Rothschild' - a monologue from Sholem Aleichem, a preeminent Yiddish playwright and author. This Jewish folklorist was writing at the end of the 19th century, but the Rothschilds have been so consistently successful that it would have made sense at any point in the past two centuries.
Aleichem's story is about a patriarch struggling to keep his family close and within the Jewish faith, and that is very much the story of the Rothschilds, too. Control has been the secret of their success and, by intermarriage and adherence to their religion, they have retained their wealth while other dynasties have faded away. It has helped that generation after generation, the Rothschilds have produced bold and astute business brains, but their bond and shared values have been the key to their position as one of the wealthiest families in the world.
Their ascension began in a ghetto of 18th-century Frankfurt. The name 'Rothschild', which means 'red shield' in old German, was first used in the late 16th century, but it was Mayer Amschel Rothschild, born in 1744, who made it worth singing about. He transformed his father's local money-changing business into a finance house and then began its expansion, posting each of his five sons to a different European location: Frankfurt, Naples, Vienna, London and Paris.
This dispersal is symbolised in the family crest by five arrows, but it's significant that they are held tightly together in a fist: the Rothschild brothers may have been in different lands, but they remained in contact and under the instruction of their father. Mayer Rothschild encouraged them not only to work together, but also to intermarry. Four of his grandsons married their first cousins, and this was a pattern that continued until the late 19th century, when descendants started marrying into other patrician families or financial dynasties.