Huge Ambitions, Colossal Failures

Seven charismatic figures in history. From Xerxes to Hitler, they all nurtured dreams of unrestrained grandeur and power. They all failed. But their vast ambition, overvaulting self-regard and sense of mission continue to fascinate us.


  • Herodotus, The Histories
  • Scullard, From the Gracchi to Nero
  • Craughwell, How the Barbarian Invasions shaped the Modern World
  • Bryce, The Holy Roman Empire
  • Golo Mann, German History of the 19th and 20th Century


  • Xerxes – God of War: Having inherited an empire that spanned most of the world known to the Persians, Xerxes conceived the plan of swallowing up the western Mediterranean. His first target was a tiny, disunited tribal collective of Greeks. But although his 2 million strong army drank the river dry and denuded the fields of corn, they were defeated by the cunning of their victims.
  • Caesar – The Man Who Would Be King: The Republic was dying; and no-one knew it better than Caesar. After 8 years of conquest in Gaul, he felt ready to bring the Senatorial class to its knees and take up the purple—as ruler of the greatest empire of the ancient world.
  • Geiserich, Attila and the Challenge to the Empire: The Vandal king Geiserich had his hands on the Empire’s throats when he died. Having control of the entire Mediterranean, he left his successors with a chance they blundered away. Attila the Hun attempted a coup on land, but over-reached himself and paid the supreme price. Yet history might have changed either way—two grand dreams coming to nought
  • Frederick II – The Hammer of the World: Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Frederick did not see eye to eye with the Popes on most political question, and least of all religion. At last he recognised in them the enemies of civilisation and resolved on an all-out war on the Papacy, with the aim (nothing less) of taking the papal throne for himself.
  • Wallenstein – The Poisoned Chalice: A mere officer in the army, and a protestant to boot, Wallenstein took the hint of his astrologers to make a supreme gamble: to offer his services as commander in chief to the catholic Habsburg Empire. In due course, his demands on the penniless Emperor grew so large that only the choice remained him of replacing the Emperor!
  • Hitler – Dreams of Total Conquest: A corporal in the army during World War I, Hitler’s ‘gift of the gab’ put him in control of the national socialist movement. Elected prime minister in 1933, he lost no time preparing Germany for the war from which he expected that it would put him on the top rung of all conqueror in human history.

By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  1. Gain an appreciation of how the ambitions of individual people can bring convulsions to whole civilisations and eras.
  2. Understanding how social fragility can open doors to ruthless conquerors.