You’ve heard it said that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. But the pages of history are also full of stories of success and achievement well worth imitating and repeating. And in my studies, I’ve noticed some common denominators among stories of success. We can uncover what makes for success by exploring the famous quote Fortes Fortuna Adiuvat “Fortune Favors the Brave.” We can achieve our own measure and definition of success by learning from these lessons and lives of the past.
It is January 10th, 49 B.C. Julius Caesar squints as the golden sun peeks from the horizon. The frosted grass crunches under his feet as he steps toward the bank of a small river known as the Rubicon.
His mind races through all that had brought him to this moment. A year imprisoned by pirates. Climbing the social ladder in Rome. Office by office, rising to become consul of the Roman Republic. And then, governor of southern Gaul. Now his mind recalls the wars. So much bloodshed as he had extended Rome’s glory and domain to include all of the new province of Gaul.
Now jealous enemies had recalled him to Rome. And they will kill him upon his return. This lazy river makes up the border between Gaul and the Roman Republic itself. Caesar turns and sees his legions busying themselves with preparations to cross at his command. They all know what crossing the river would mean. The governor is forbidden to take his legions out of Gaul. This would be nothing short of Civil War. But these men would follow him to the ends of the earth. He had earned their love and loyalty by fighting right alongside them and eating the same coarse food as they.
He looks back at the river and sighs. So much death would come from this. But Rome was broken. And he believes that only he can fix it.
The general jumps upon his horse and snaps the reigns. “The die is cast,” he says aloud, smiling sadly.
Alea Iacta Est - “The die is cast.”
Julius Caesar used a gambling term to describe the most important decision of his life. Experience had taught him that life is a game in which luck plays a significant part. He had faced a hundred moments that could have easily been his end. However much his skills helped him avoid demise, in many cases he had simply gotten lucky.
But the great man knew that it was the skills and qualities he had cultivated in his life that brought him to that moment. While life can be random, it was his talents that let him throw the dice that day.
Fortune would indeed favor Julius Caesar. Regardless of the fact that his life would end in assassination, he changed history forever. Let’s break down how he made fortune favor him so effectively. We’ll follow English word order.
The English word “fortune” has come to mean monetary wealth, as in, “That’s worth a fortune!” But the Latin original meant “chance” and “luck,” before the word denoted riches.
It’s an acknowledgement that sheer luck will always be a factor in life. Now, I don’t mean to say that life is chaotic. While the world is full of cases where good people suffer and bad people prosper, it’s also mostly a place where certain skills and qualities do tend to get you ahead. And that’s the point of the next two words in the title.
To say that Fortune favors something is an admission that Fortune makes no guarantees. But I would rather be favored by Fortune than not! And the most important key to success lies in the final piece of the puzzle. Fortune does not just favor anyone. Instead, Fortune favors...
The Brave (Fortes)
The bravery or daring that brings Fortune’s favor is nothing short of that ultimate proactivity when you claim full responsibility for your life and its outcome.
But being brave does not always mean acting rashly and committing all your resources to some pressing endeavor.
Case in point. When the Carthaginian general Hannibal was pouring into Italy with his men, Rome did not have an army truly equipped to face this formidable enemy. Fabius Maximus slowed Hannibal down by keeping his army just shy of Hannibal’s and destroying any grain Hannibal might use to supply his forces. Now, if Fabius Maximus had engaged Hannibal in open battle, the Romans would have been slaughtered. And the Senate criticized Maximus for not facing the enemy. They made fun of him, calling him “the delayer” (cunctator).
People soon understood that this tactic had saved Rome. The historian Ennius wrote that “One man, by delaying, saved the Republic.”
Fabius Maximus was brave by refusing to face Hannibal in open battle. The easier course, in his culture, would have been to avoid the insults and charge recklessly into certain death.
But time and time again, history shows that people who take control and responsibility for their own lives tend to get ahead. Are there exceptions? Of course there are. But exceptions in this case prove the rule. Knowing this simple fact is the first step toward owning your life and increasing your chance to achieve whatever, for you, is success.
Stories of Success and Virtue
Somehow stories about people are more powerful than mere slogans about life.
There is a story passed down in my family. My paternal grandfather, born in 1912, was a mere toddler when he jumped up on a wagon hitched to team of horses. The dear boy only wanted to help his father with the chores. He managed to whip the reins and the confused horses began to run. They charged toward a valley just on the other side of the main barn. Now, it falls down precipitously there. As I’ve looked at it, I’m amazed my grandfather wasn’t killed. But just as the team tumbled over the edge, my grandfather jumped off. The wagon and the hitched horses fell end over end down into the valley, killing the animals.
My great-grandfather, a man who held me as an infant but whom I never knew, came running. He picked up his son and said to him, “Are you alright?”
To understand why even typing these words brings tears to my eyes, you need to realize that that team of horses was a loss of what today would equal thousands of dollars. But my great-grandfather cared nothing about money in that instant. His precious son was safe.
I recently stumbled upon an anecdote in the Analects of Confucius:
“The stable being burned down, when he was at court, on his return he said, “Has any man been hurt?” He did not ask about the horses.”
I was struck by how this simple story, the virtual equivalent of what is passed down in my family, is somehow so much more powerful than merely telling people a principle. I mean, I could tell you, “Value people more than property.” But grounding that virtue in a story is more meaningful.
So what does it mean that “Fortune Favors the Brave”? It means that those who own their lives and live them proactively will tend to succeed more than those who passively wait for whatever will happen next. And there is no magic formula for success. Only you can find for yourself that cultivated combination of qualities and skills--virtues--that will optimize you chance for success in your particular situation.
But there are two important ways in which learning the stories of success from the past will help you in your specific situation today.
First of all, you may derive actual ideas from the successes of the past that you can apply directly to your needs.
An example comes from the story of the Athenian Demosthenes. He had lost his family’s inheritance and was unable to speak well enough in public to make a convincing legal challenge against those who had wronged him. And so, regardless of how unfair the situation was, he embarked on a plan to train himself in the art of speaking. He had two main problems, unclear speech and a weak cardiovascular system that left him winded after just a sentence or two. He started to practice speaking with small pebbles in his mouth. This forced him to be very careful with his pronunciation. The result was that when he had mastered speaking with that impediment, his normal speech was dramatically improved. He also practiced speaking while running up and down steep areas. Now, I’d love to tell you that as a result of all this work he got back his whole inheritance. But that’s not how it happened. He won his appeal but did not receive the property. He did, however, develop an ability to speak that would eventually catapult him into Athenian politics and great recognition. He also, interestingly, become one of the best long distance runners Athens had and became a noted and successful participant in the various athletic competitions such as the Olympiad.
What we can take away from the story of Demosthenes is that mastery of a skill may be achieved by practicing it under less than ideal circumstances. In my language studies, I have found, trying to apply the Demosthenes method, that reading a passage with the page turned upside down forces me to concentrate such that I actually can study for longer stretches of time. If this sounds crazy to you, so does putting pebbles in your mouth and running up and down hills. But it worked for Demosthenes. And it worked well enough for me that I was able to serve as an Arabic linguist at the Top Secret National Security Agency.
Perhaps the most important result of learning the stories of past success is that it is an inspiration that can strengthen us as we face the trials and tribulations of our own lives. But this inspiration is more than merely an encouragement.
The ancient Romans spoke of each person possessing a genius, or internal spark of the divine. This word and the related term ingenium meant the same as our English words genius or talent.
Seneca describes how all this relates to success when he writes that:
“No age is closed to great geniuses.”
But Cicero teaches us that working hard is more important than natural talents:
“Constant practice applied to one thing often beats out both genius and natural talent.”
When we learn the lives of those who were endowed with a genius for finding success or who compensated for a lack of talent by arduous practice, we can, as it were, catch a bit of their spark and make it our own. Inspired by their example, we can find the strength to do what we know must be done, even when we find our energy to do it lagging.
So what is it that you need to do in order to find your definition of success?
That is for you to discover for yourself. But the good news is that you are not alone. You have companions who have walked on this journey of self-discovery as well. Meeting them will help you find the answer for yourself.
 The quote exists in a number of forms. The first use of the quote I use above appears in Terence, Phormio: 204. Vergil gives us a variant quote, audaces Fortuna iuvat, “Fortune favors the bold.” (Aeneid 10:284, textual variant).
 Plutarch, Fabius.
 Confucius, Analects 10.11
 Plutarch, Demosthenes 11
 nullum saeculum magnis ingeniis clausum est. Epistolae 102.
 assiduus usus uni rei deditus et ingenium et artem saepe vincit. Pro L. Cornelio Balbo Oratio Ad Iudices, XX.45.