How is failure portrayed in history?

History is full of tremendous successes but also quite a few remarkable failures. Figures such as Neville Chamberlain are examples of how with the passing of time can alter short term successes and turn them into dramatically flawing failures. However history, an ever-changing subject being almost purely subjective, portrays events and personas as a contrast of their successes and failure.What we perceive as a failure is as much as what we perceive as a success and in different historical periods this has fluctuated around the morals and religions beliefs of the time. Today we remark that success requires the acquisition of wealth and fame and failure along the path to aquire this is common.

The ancient romans held ‘success’ as a measure of three counts 1) a large amount of money 2) a large amount of fame 3) a large amount of military success. The last point was held in such high esteem that upon the failure in Teutoburg Forest in 9 CE many of the officers committed suicide rather than bare the shame of such a cataclysmic defeat. For the Romans defeat was a disgrace worse than death and the Battle is still regarded today as “Rome’s greatest defeat” by many historians. Never had so many Romans been killed in a single conflict; the three legions who took part in the battle would never fight again and were disbanded by 79 CE. The battle is considered one of Rome’s most infamous failures and frankly produced no positive outcome under the Roman measures of ‘success’, none that is for the Romans.

In contrast the Ancient Grecians portrayed failure in a different light. They were largely sympathetic to the unfortunate circumstances in which many people in their society were facing. As many of the Athenian values, the act of pity on the unfortunate was written into several notable plays. One of the most outstanding is Oedipus the King by Sophocles in 429 BC. The main themes are fate and free will and a people’s willingness to ignore painful truths. The underlying message is that terrible things can happen to good people just as often as they occur to bad people; fate is not determined by free will. Success and failure was a matter of circumstance to the Athenians and one’s lack of success was not scorned upon as the cultural principles of Ancient Greece were far more accepting of failure then the Romans. Athenian culture was at the height of it’s prosperity and respected qualities in its population of openness, respectfulness, a rational mind and acceptance of authority. Part of this meant putting the Gods into a less important position in politics and favored ideas of community in their government failure to accept accept this and fate could take a turn for the unfavorable.

Crisitian teaching encompases the greek sence of community, in pity and caring for others, however bases it around spiritualness and divinity. Jesus, in 30AD, gave a speech to his followers. Today this is celebrated as “The Sermon On The Mount”  and is one of the most quoted aspects in the New Testament.  It’s teachings form the core of Christian morals and directly confronts a view on failure and success . These extracts show how the humbleness of accepting failure in pursuing the moral right will be rewarded according to Christian teachings ;

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”

Here success is directly linked to devotion; if you are successful in fulfilling christian values then success shall be given to you in other aspects of your life however one must be pyes enough to be heard or metaphorically you must be knocking on the right door. This second example follows this further looking using Gates as an analogy.

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

This phrase indicates that the easy (the wide gate) is most likely to lead to failure and one must struggle if to become successful. In essence nothing comes to those because of ‘fate’ but out of self will and determination. This is in complete contrast to Greek philosophy as it insinuates that one must deserve success and that bad things do not happen to everyone only those who have taken ‘the wide gate’. It was said that when Jesus had finished his sermon the crowds were amazed  because “he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law” – again showing that greek visions of success within the confines of the law were no longer upheld, at least within the christian religion. 

The idea that success ought to be deserved was upheld in Napoleon Bonaparte’s regime with the introduction of “carriere ouverte aux talents” or “careers open to the talented” which celebrated the fact that talented individuals could rise through the ranks of the enlightened french army despite their background. This new policy meant that officers could be established based on merit rather than social positioning.This was a new system of meritocracy in France that allowed for military, scientific and artistry to be celebrated and developed regardless of social class. The “ordre national de la Légion d’honneuris one way in which Napoleon comorated military prowess in particular and became the highest decoration in france upon its establishment in 1802.To Napoleon success was all that mattered. He followed the Romans thinking; to fail, or more precisely to be defeated in battle was a disgrace himself. Napoleon was also clear of the difference between success in genders, female in this age were to have children – to be infertile was to be a failure.


Napoleon recognised that success did not depend on spiritualism but that in the developing western world conquest and acquisition were the prizes of true success. The ideas of meritocracy which Napoleon installed, underlines multiple systems including confucianism, social darwinism and platonism. Many historical references can be made to figures who have not been given merit in their lifetime but when more liberal or meritocratic values were upheld their life was only then celebrated. Figures such as Vincent Van Gogh are example of this. Success may span longer than a lifetime, in a way that is not linked to spirituality. Today Success is directly liked to fame or acknowledgement and part of this is the role that success has altered our perception of history as we look for the successes and failings of characters, events and policies.

However these modern perceptions of success are based around materialism and personal wealth or influence. Buddhism looks at success skeptically and looks to the perception of failure according to western thinkers as . Siddhārtha Gautama became Buddha or “the enlightened one” and strive to succeed by giving up his worldly positions to achieve a spiritual status. Failure, then to Buddhists, is  simply to possess. What a capitalist would deem as a failure (to not obtain wealth) would theirfore be a success to a Buddhist.

The western world, having developed from the Roman civilisation, upholds their values of success and failure. Failure today is something to be ashamed of – it’s why failing a test leads to embarisment and shame. This is a comfort to any unsuccessful business owner.

However the only unilaterally accepted accomplishment that you are deemed to have succeeded is knowledge. It is universally appreciated ; being wise is theirfore the equivalent of success.


2 thoughts on “How is failure portrayed in history?

  1. barrycjacobsen

    My dear-

    Excellent blog, keep up the terrific work! It is a delight to see someone of your generation with such a deep and abiding interest in history.

    If I may be so bold, can I make a small correction to your comments regarding the Roman defeat at Teutoburg Forest?

    You mischaracterize it as “Rome’s greatest defeat” (or at least suggest that some historians so describe it). This is simply not the case. While politically catastrophic at the time, halting Roman expansion into Germany; in terms of military defeats it ranks far from the worst.

    The loss of much of three legions with the attendant 9 auxilia cohorts and ala amounted to about 20,000 dead; a sizable number. But compared to Rome’s worst military defeat, at Arausio in 105 BC at the hands of the Cimbri and Teutones, these numbers pale.

    At Arausio, at least four times as many Romans were killed (80,000 is the low estimate); and perhaps as many as 6 times as many (120,000).

    Rome’s second greatest defeat was at Cannae in 216. There, the Romans suffered the loss of between 53,500–75,000 Roman and Italian Allied dead or captured.

    One needs to take care making bold statements such as “greatest defeat”. If incorrect, and so detected by the reader, it can tend to cast doubt on the rest of the piece.

    But that aside, good points in this article. I never considered that the Greek attitude toward the downtrodden (life’s “losers”) may have been a factor in the rapid expansion of Christianity in the Greek east in the first century.

    I look forward to your future posts!


    1. Thank you ! It’s really exciting to find and share things outside of the curriculum but I clearly still have things to learn. WordPress is great because keen historians (such as yourself) are always so eager to share their knowledge. In fact it’s an interesting topic I may write a page on “what was Rome’s ‘greatest’ defeat” – at any rate I will certainly look further into it. I’m glad you enjoyed the article and took something from it!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s