15 Epic Battles that Changed the Course of History
You may have won the battle but you haven't won the war, as the saying goes. And yet, on numerous occasions throughout history, battles have been decisive in winning the war for one side or another.
Here are 15 battles that changed the course of our lives today. If they had been won by the other side, the victors might have had completely different plans for how the world was to be governed and what culture was to be adopted.
1. The Battle of Muye (1046 BC)
The Battle of Muye is an example of a force overcoming the odds and completely changing the course of history. An army of approximately 50,000 Zhou tribe soldiers was completely outnumbered in their fight against more than 500,000 soldiers of the rulers of the time, the Shang Dynasty.
The Zhou tribe defeated the Shang Dynasty soldiers, however, thanks in part to a great number of defections from the soldiers of the ruling power to the side of the Zhou troops.
170,000 slaves, for example, were given weapons by the Shang Dynasty to help defend the capital city of Yin. As they were opposed to the rulers for their corruption — slavery might have had something to do with it too — they ended up helping the Zhou troops win the Battle of Muye, which led to the end of the Shang Dynasty.
2. The Battle of Marathon (490 BC)
In 490 BC, Greek soldiers fought against Persian invaders sent by King Darius I. The Persian forces, numbering 20,000 soldiers, were sent as a retaliation for the ancient Greeks' support for the Ionians, who had revolted against the Persians.
Though they were outnumbered, the Greeks drove the Persian forces back. More than 6,000 Persian soldiers were defeated compared to 200 of the Greeks. The battle was a pivotal moment in the Greco-Persian Wars, as it was the first time the Greeks had defeated the Persians, and it showed the ancient Greeks that the Persians could be defeated.
The idea for the marathon race as part of our modern Olympics is actually derived from a misrepresentation of a messenger running from Athens to Marathon before the battle — in reality, he ran from Athens to Sparta.
3. The Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC)
A largely fictional recounting of the Battle of Thermopylae has recently gained popular attention thanks to the 2006 Hollywood blockbuster 300.
The truth is that the real battle involved more than 300 Spartans — estimates are closer to 2,000 soldiers, made up of Spartans, Helots, Thebans, and Thespians. These troops held the narrow coastal pass at Thermopylae against the armies of the Persian King Xerxes.
Though the Spartan forces were greatly outnumbered, they managed to buy time for Greek forces to arrive and push back the Persian army. It is known by historians as a great example of tactical use of terrain for a force's advantage, as well as the strength of a patriotic army defending its homeland.
4. The Battle of Arbela (331 BC)
Also known as the Battle of Gaugamela, this was the most important victory in Alexander the Great's campaign of conquest that directly led to the fall of the Persian Achaemenid Empire.
Though the Persian army had war elephants on their side, Alexander the Great won due to his tactical prowess and intelligent use of light infantry.
After being defeated in battle, the Persian king of the time, Darius III, was murdered by one of his own subjects, a satrap (provincial governor) named Bessus. Alexander the Great is said to have been greatly saddened by the way his worthy adversary had been betrayed; he gave Darius III a full ceremonial burial before tracking Bessus down and having him executed.
5. The Battle of Zama (202 BC)
The Carthaginian general Hannibal is widely described as one of the greatest military leaders in history. Though his marching of 80 war elephants over the Alps and Pyrenees is the stuff of legend, it, unfortunately for him and his troops, marked the demise of his campaigns.
The Battle of Zama is now known as general Hannibal's greatest defeat. This was largely due to clever tactics by Roman troops who found that they could distract and scare the Carthaginian war elephants with loud horns. When the elephants charged, the Roman troops then opened ranks, allowing the animals to charge through them before chasing them off.
6. The Battle of Tours (732 AD)
The Battle of Tours, also known as the Battle of Poitiers, saw an invading Muslim army, led by Spain's Moorish General Abd-er Rahman, cross the Western Pyrenees and reach Tours, France in a bid to expand its influence further into Europe.
The Muslim forces, however, were met by the Frankish forces of Charles "The Hammer" Martel. Unfortunately, surviving historical documents of the time doesn't allow us to determine the exact location of the battle or the number of soldiers. What is known, however, is that the Frankish troops won the battle without cavalry.
Many historians have since argued that had Abd-er Rahman prevailed, Islam would have become the dominant religion in Europe.
7. The Battle of Hastings (1066)
In 1066, the Norman invader William the Conqueror killed King Harold II and defeated his forces on Senlac Hill near Hastings, England. In a dispute that might have influenced the fictional world of Game of Thrones, William the Conqueror claimed that the throne of England was rightfully his, as the former king, Edward the Confessor, who was his distant cousin, had promised it to him in 1051.
On his deathbed, however, Edward changed his mind and decided the crown should go to nobleman Harold Godwinson. William defeated the newly crowned king, before marching to London, which surrendered to the Norman (French) invader. King William, I was crowned on Christmas Day in 1066.
The battle is known as one of the most important in the history of England. The Anglo-Saxons had ruled the land since the Roman times — for over 600 years. With the Norman takeover, the Anglo-Saxon English of the time was mixed with Norman French, leading to the English language we know today.
8. The Siege of Orleans (1429)
The French were victorious at the siege of Orleans, France, in 1429 largely thanks to the efforts of the now-famous teenage peasant Joan of Arc — as legend has it, the teenager's vision of God led her to fight in the Hundred Years' War.
The French troops used diversionary tactics against the English siege forces to enable Joan to enter Orlean with supplies. In the following week, important English forts were stormed, turning the tides on what was previously looking to be a successful six-month siege of the city.
The victory also changed France's fortunes in the Hundred Years' War and is now known as a pivotal moment leading to a French victory. Historians today believe that the battle saved France from centuries of English rule.
9. The Battle of Vienna (1683)
The Battle of Vienna marked the beginning of the end for Turkish domination in Eastern Europe at a time when the Hapsburg Empire and the Ottoman Turks were contesting the rule of central Europe and the control of Hungary. It saw the Commonwealth and the Holy Roman Empire collaborate for the first time against the Ottoman Turks.
Historians say the battle was a great turning point in the Ottoman-Habsburg wars, a 300-year dispute between the Holy Roman and Ottoman Empires. Victory for the Ottoman Empire might have seen them go on to rule and exert their influence over Europe.
The battle is also notable for the largest known cavalry charge in history. The charge, which was led by the Polish Winged Hussars, helped to break the siege and was carried out by 20,000 cavalry units.
10. The Siege of Yorktown (1781)
The surrender of Yorktown played an integral role in the eventual formation of the United States. One of the most significant battles during the Revolutionary War, the Siege of Yorktown led to the defeat of British forces, led by General Charles Cornwallis, by a combination of American and French troops.
The fight at Yorktown was the last major land battle of the Revolutionary War. Not long after the battle, victory was declared by George Washington's American Continental Army troops. Cornwallis was also eventually captured, paving the way for the Treaty of Paris in 1783, which ended the war and created the United States of America.
11. The Battle of Waterloo (1815)
The Battle of Waterloo was Napoleon Bonaparte's last crushing defeat. It brought an end to the French statesman's large empire that had ruled over much of continental Europe after years of successful military campaigns.
The Battle of Waterloo was fought on what is Belgium today and was known as the United Kingdom of the Netherlands at the time.
Napoleon's forces were defeated by a coalition of British and Prussian troops led by the Duke of Wellington, in a battle that is famous for large cavalry charges that led to the end of the Napoleonic Wars.
12. The Battle of Gettysburg (1863)
The defeat of the Confederate forces at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania resulted in a large number of casualties — nearly 100,000 — and is cited by historians as a pivotal moment in the American Civil War.
After the victory of Union forces against the southern Confederates, Abraham Lincoln gave one of his most famous speeches, in which he said:
"From these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
13. The Siege of Stalingrad (1942)
The siege of Stalingrad lasted for almost six months and was the largest confrontation to occur during World War II. In August of 1942, Adolf Hitler bombarded the industrial city of Stalingrad (now known as Volgograd) with air assaults before sending infantry in to attack in an attempt to seize control from the Soviet Union.
Fights raged on for months as the Russian winter came on in full force. The Russian army was so desperate that they enlisted volunteer citizens, some of whom were not even assigned a weapon. By February 1942, however, the resilience of the Soviet forces, as well as the brutal conditions and supply shortages, led the German forces to surrender.
Almost 2 million people died during the siege. The battle would be the last time the Germans would advance on the eastern front.
14. Storming the beaches of Normandy (1944)
Stalingrad was decisive for the eastern front during World War II and the invasion of Normandy, commonly referred to as D-Day, played a large part in the eventual decline of German forces on the western front and, ultimately, the surrender of the Axis powers.
The battle saw the largest amphibious invasion in history with over a million soldiers landing on the coast of Normandy within a month.
D-Day, which specifically refers to the start of the invasion on June 6, 1944, has famously been recreated in several well-known films and is seen as one of the most important moments in World War II. It led to the Allied forces retaking much of France, greatly denting the morale of the German military, and forcing them to reopen a settled front.
15. The Battle of Okinawa (1945)
The Americans knew that securing the airbases on the island of Okinawa was crucial to their plans of launching an invasion on Japan. The Battle of Okinawa, which ended with U.S. forces securing the island, was the last major battle of World War II and it directly led to the dropping of the atomic bomb, by the U.S., on Hiroshima.
During the battle, Japanese forces deployed several kamikaze pilots, helping them sink 36 U.S. ships, including strategically important aircraft carriers. 12,520 Americans were killed during the battle, while approximately 110,000 Japanese soldiers lost their lives.
The fighting came to an end when Japanese General Ushijima and his Chief of Staff, General Cho, realized they could no longer win and committed a ritual suicide on June 22. After the Battle of Okinawa, the U.S. forces were depleted and tired from their campaigns.
Knowing that 2 million Japanese troops awaited them on mainland Japan, President Harry S. Truman decided to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki — these are the only two uses of atomic bombs in armed conflict to date. On August 14, 1945, Japan surrendered, marking the end of World War II.
All of these battles could have had had an enormous cultural impact had they turned out differently. From imported goods to architectural and engineering knowledge, different rulers have brought different cultural benefits as well as disastrous doctrines to entire regions. Did we miss any decisive historical battles from the list? Be sure to let us know.