I'm trying to find an example of successful treason, but haven't found any so far. What I'm looking for:

  • the treason happens at a high level: betraying a country or so
  • the successful side is the one the traitor goes over to
  • the event is documented, not simply legendary

Edit: I'm adding one more criterion:

  • no one knew who the traitor would be before the treason happened

The American Revolution isn't the kind of thing I'm thinking of; everyone knew where the faultlines ran before the revolution began. Benedict Arnold, on the other hand, would be closer to what I'm thinking of; he was a trusted American officer who betrayed his own side, but unsuccessfully.

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    So we should exclude cases where traitors themselves win and establish their own rule?
    – Apoorv
    Jun 12, 2012 at 12:08
  • Your analysis of the American revolution is not supported by the facts. Both sides were surprised by the revolution.
    – MCW
    Jan 14, 2016 at 9:07
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    Can anyone provide an example where people knew who the traitor was before the treason happened? Because a government who knew about someone guilty of a capital crime and then permitted the person to succeed at the capital crime is so incompent that they deserve what they get.
    – MCW
    Jan 14, 2016 at 12:18
  • Treason is the normal way things are done, don't you watch Game of Thrones or see the movie Braveheart? Jan 14, 2016 at 18:10
  • 3
    "Treason doth never prosper: what's the reason? Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason."
    – Mark
    Jan 15, 2016 at 0:22

8 Answers 8


During Persia's invasion of Greece under Xerxes, Ephialtes betrayed the bunch of Greeks at the very strong defensive position at Thermopylae by showing the Persians an alternate path around the pass. This led to the complete defeat of the Greek army and the death of the Spartan king Leonidas, and opening the way to the sacking of Boeotia and Athens. While I can see the argument that this was unsuccessful because the Persians ultimately lost the war, the fact that it gave the Persians control of a decent chunk of Greece for a year and that they lost for a wholly unrelated reason (mostly due to Salamis) would make this at least a short term success.

In the turmoil at the end of Qin, Qing Bu was one of the most important generals of Xiang Yu, who became the hegemon. After the fall of Qin, Liu Bang and Xiang Yu vied for the throne. Qing Bu later joined Liu Bang and attacked Xiang Yu in the rear, and was critical to the eventual defeat of the latter.

Towards the end of the Later Han, Liu Zhang was an independent governor of Yizhou. When he heard that Cao Cao intended to attack his northern buffer state of Hanzhong, he was convinced by his advisor Zhang Song to invite in Liu Bei to help protect Yizhou. However, both Zhang Song and Fa Zheng, who was sent to welcome Liu Bei, were secretly plotting to have him displace Liu Zhang. Despite initially protesting that he could not behave so treacherously to his own kin, Liu Bei eventually found an excuse to act. A number of other generals betrayed Liu Zhang during this conflict and Liu Bei was ultimately successful. Zhang Song didn't live to see it though. He lost his head when his brother informed Liu Zhang of his actions.

  • I don't know what you're talking about with respect to the Graeco-Persian wars. It was a pyrrhic victory for the Persians, without doubt; followed by decisive Greek victories in the next decades.
    – Noldorin
    Jun 13, 2012 at 21:12
  • Thermopylae was far from a pyrrhic victory for the Persians. Sure, they lost a lot of troops in comparison to the paltry Greek army there, but it was only a small portion of their army and was inconsequential given it neither forced them to reconsider their plans nor make a field encounter more viable for the Greeks. Such a loss of manpower was fully justified by the speed of the victory at a key defensive position. On the ultimate Persian defeat, I've added a bit to the answer to explain why I nonetheless consider this successful.
    – lins314159
    Jun 13, 2012 at 22:12
  • Okay, so I looked into this a bit more... "Pyrrhic" is probably too harsh, although historians seem quite ignorant of the numbers, except that the Persian army was much longer. It's generally thought that the Battle of Thermopylae was of moderate but not overwhelming importance in the Persian wars. Persian losses were much greater by number, but probably not very different by percentage. Historians seem to concur that the battle provided an effective test of military strength, tactics, and techniques against the Persians, as well as a huge psychological/morale boost despite the loss.
    – Noldorin
    Jun 14, 2012 at 0:01
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    In any case, +1 for your expansions.
    – Noldorin
    Jun 14, 2012 at 0:02
  • IMHO, the bit about Ephialtes is probably a myth, made much later by people who saw the 300 as so heroic that they could not possibly have been defeated without treachery being involved. Still, it makes for a good story, and doesn't really hurt anything.
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 14, 2012 at 18:08

John Harington Epigrams, book iv, Epistle 5:

Treason doth never prosper: what's the reason?
Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.


As I have read many times, the founders of USA were conducting treason. Given that they declared independence, I guess that view can be upheld. They definitely switched sides (to their own, of course). They betrayed an Empire to do so, so I think all three conditions are met.

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    +1 You beat me to the answer. I thought of this when I saw the question, but I just woke up an hour ago (because of time zones) and was asleep when the question was posted.
    – Luke_0
    Jun 12, 2012 at 12:40
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    Indeed; this may not be the most textbook example, but it's technically very much treason still.
    – Noldorin
    Jun 13, 2012 at 21:13

British rule over the indian subcontinent started with a treason. Mir Jafar betrayed the local Nawab and went over to the Brits, paving way for the British Raj.


Every government begins with a successful act of treason against the prior government. Most government reforms begin with an act that if not successful would be deemed treason.

  • Sulla who became dictator of Rome
  • Caesar who cross the Rubicon
  • The American Constitutional convention, summoned to reform the articles of Confederation but instead created a new government that violated the core principles of the old government and was submitted to the people for approval (explicitly ignoring/discounting votes by the existing government)
  • Thomas Jefferson who purchased Louisiana in an act that he admitted was extra-legal
  • Abraham Lincoln transformed American government; the country that elected him was not the country that existed at the time of his death.
  • Napoleon (and thousands of other Frenchman) - who betrayed the country he had sworn to serve, then betrayed the committee on state security that he had sworn to serve, then betrayed the directorate he had sworn to serve, then betrayed the exile he had sworn to serve. You can list probably 10,000 other Frenchman in this category
  • Toussaint Louverture
  • Current leaders who came to power through a Coup d'etat
  • Iranian Coup

There are limitless additional examples.


Generally, its only called "treason" when the damage isn't mortal. Of course when it isn't mortal, The State has a whole lot more power to go after you than you have to stay out of its power. This is why Machiavelli observed that if you go after "The Prince" in any way, you have to kill him.

Basically, either The State falls, and you are considered a hero by the victors (who get to write history using nicer words for you) or The State doesn't fall, and going after you is its top priority for the rest of your life. So any list of successful treasons is going to have a caveat on either the word "successful" or the word "treason".

  • Not necessarily. Benedict Arnold for instance is an example of unsuccessful treason.
    – Opt
    Jun 13, 2012 at 18:39
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    @Sid - I'm confused. What part of this answer do you believe Benedict Arnold's activites contradicts?
    – T.E.D.
    Jun 13, 2012 at 19:51
  • Your last paragraph seemed to imply that if you commit treason and the State against which you did so doesn't fall, you'll be persecuted for the rest of your life by that State which I don't think is always true.
    – Opt
    Jun 13, 2012 at 21:23
  • @Sid - BA's plot (to turn over West Point to the enemy) was unsuccessful. If it had worked, and the USA survived the incident, this argument implies his life would have been rather different afterwards than it was. Even so, he still was forced into exile in Canada (and only then did he become a "turncoat" and start fighting for the Brits).
    – T.E.D.
    Jun 13, 2012 at 22:03

Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, prince de Bénévent - the fellow who moved from supporting the King to the Revolution to Napoleon to the Restored Kings qualifies a half a dozen times.

John Churchill, later Lord Marlborough and his associates also betrayed the Catholic King James II to support William of Orange. This is called the Glorious Revolution by the winners, probably something less nice by James II.

Almost any regime change could produce a bunch of examples.

  • +1 for the Glorious Revolution - both because the event deserves more prominence and because it is an excellent example to fit OP's requirements.
    – MCW
    Jan 15, 2016 at 13:40

Successful treason examples. William the Conquer 1066 (when he landed in England he instantly became subject to its laws) Future Henry IV 1399. Future Richard III 1483. Future Henry VII 1485. Future William III 1688.

  • 1
    How is an invasion treason?
    – Semaphore
    Jan 14, 2016 at 19:48

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