The Most Important Battles in History

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Podcast Transcript

History is shaped by many things. Political and religious leaders, diseases, and technologies. 

But perhaps the thing which has resulted in the most poignant inflection points in history has been the results of great battles. 

Battles where if things had gone another way, the entire world we live in would look totally different. 

Learn more about the most important battles in world history on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

This episode, I freely admit upfront, is rather subjective. What is “important” is a matter of opinion, and someone else could come up with a very different list that would be just as valid. Moreover, because of time constraints, there were many important battles that I had to leave out.

I tried to focus on battles that I thought were civilizational battles. Battles between East and West, battles between major religious groups, or battles that were foundational for great empires. 

As such, I’ve left off battles primarily between various European armies, and likewise, I haven’t listed battles between various Chinese factions who fought for or against particular dynasties. So the battle of the Red Cliffs and the Battle of Yamen will not be on the list but will be addressed in a future episode, as will the Battle Of Panipat, which took place in India in 1526.

The following is a list of battles that I think a reasonably knowledgeable person should know. You don’t need to know the details of each battle, but basically, who was fighting, who won, when it roughly took place, and why it was important.

So, with that aside, the first great battle on this list is the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. 

With respect to the more famous Battle of Thermopylae, which was the basis of the movie 300, the Battle of Marathon was arguably more important. The battle saved the Greeks from being conquered by Darius I, leader of the Persian Empire. 

It was fought primarily by Athenians on the Greek side, and its resolution in favor of the Greeks set off a century of Persia wanting to conquer Greece

This battle is famous for the story of the runner who went from Marathon to Athens to announce news of the victory. The battle is still remembered today in the race which it is named after.

The next battle is also Greeks versus Persians, the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC. 

The Battle of Gaugamela makes the list because it was the battle that once and for all ended the first Persian Empire or the Achaemenid Empire. 

It was the last great battle between Alexander the Great and the Persian King Darius III. 

Alexander, despite being outnumbered, possibly vastly outnumbered, won by making an attack straight for Darius. When Darius fled, everything fell apart for the Persians. 

Darius was killed, his family was captured by Alexander, and all of Persia came under his control. 

The next great civilizational battle would be the Battle of Zama in 202 BC. 

The Battle of Zama took place outside of Carthage and ended the Second Punic War. While it wasn’t the end of Carthage, it was the de facto end of them as serious power to compete with Rome in the Mediterranean. 

As such, it also marked the end of the Phonecians as a major civilization. 

Despite greater battles that Carthage won during this war under the leadership of their general Hannibal, it was Zama and Scipio Africanus that ended the war in favor of Rome. 

There are two important battles that were foundational for the establishment of the Roman Empire. Both of these battles ended the civil wars they took place in. 

In the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC, the forces of Julius Caesar defeated the forces of Pompey and the Roman Senate. The battle took place in Greece, and Caesar’s excellent generalship overcame a numerically superior force. 

With the defeat of the Senatorial forces, Rome was basically finished as Republic. 

The other great battle, which can be considered the bookend of this one, took place just seventeen years later in 31 BC, the Battle of Actium

Actium was actually a naval battle between the forces of Octavian, the great-nephew of Julius Caesar, and the forces of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. 

This also took place in Greece, and the decisive leader here was Ocativans’ number two man, Marcus Agrippa. 

Mark Antony’s decision to fight at sea has been questioned for two thousand years as he was not an experienced naval commander.

After the Battle of Actium, Octavian became the first Roman Emperor, known as Augustus, and set the stage for the next 500 years of Roman history. 

The next Battle is another Roman civil that took place over three hundred years later, the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312. 

I covered this in a previous episode, but this battle established Constantine as emperor, who subsequently legalized Christianity, and Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, for over 1,000 years. 

The last Roman battle on the list, or at least the last western Roman battle, is the Battle of Adrianople in 378. The battle took place in what is today European Turkey, near the Greek and Bulgarian borders. 

This was a major defeat of the Romans at the hands of the Goths. It marked the beginning of the end for the Western Roman empire, and the battle is probably most famous for the fact that the emperor at the time, Valens, died in combat. 

The last battle which has anything to do with Rome is the Battle of Yarmouk in 636. 

As I discussed in a previous episode, it was here where the Islamic Caliphate defeated the Byzantine forces, rendering the Byzantines, aka the eastern Roman empire, a small regional power for the next several centuries until the fall of Constantinople. 

It was also the point where Islam took its place on the world stage, having defeated one of the world’s great powers. 

As Islam spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa, it eventually established a foothold on the Iberian Peninsula. Many European leaders were concerned that they would eventually conquer the entire continent. 

These fears were put to rest in the year 732 at the Battle of Tours. The Iberian Moors cross the Pyrenees and marched deep into France before being stopped outside the City of Tours by Charles “The Hammer” Martel, the grandfather of Charlemagne. 

Next would be the Battle that established England and, subsequently, the United Kingdom, The Battle of Hastings in 1066. 

The Battle of Hastings was the definitive battle in which the Duke of Normandy, William the Conqueror, claimed the throne of England. It was the last successful foreign invasion of the island of Great Britain, and the Norman influence over England had a profound impact on the English language.

The golden age of Islam came to an end with the Siege of Baghdad in 1258. The Mongols had made it all the way to the Middle East, and the Caliph refused to surrender the city.

The end result was one of the greatest bloodbaths in world history. The siege only lasted thirteen days, but the slaughter afterward was calculated by Arab sources as high as 2,000,000 civilians. 

In 1532 we have the first important battle to take place in the New World, the Battle of Cajamarca

This has been called, with great justification, the massacre of Cajamarca. It took place in what is today Peru when the Spanish forces under the command of Francisco Pizarro wiped out almost the entire ruling class of the Incan Empire and captured their leader, who they later executed. 

The Spanish did it through duplicity, surprise, and superior firepower. It also helped that their victims were totally unarmed. 

The Battle of Cajamarca resulted in the effectual end of the Incan Empire, the greatest in South America at the time, and the dominance of Spain on the continent. 

The next battle is another sea battle. This was the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. 

As previously mentioned in my episode on Philip II, Catholic Spain tried to end the Protestant rule of England via a direct invasion of the island. The failure of the Armada ensured that Protestantism would remain a force not only in Britain, but in Europe. 

The next battle was also a battle of religions, and it can be considered a bookend to the Battle of Tours, the Battle of Vienna in 1683. This was the last great Ottoman attempt to conquer Vienna and to drive deep into the heart of Christian Europe. 

The war resulted in the loss of most Ottoman lands in Central Europe, including all of Hungary. After this point, the Ottoman Empire began a long decline until its eventual dissolution in 1922. 

The next great Battle was another new world battle. The Battle of Yorktown in 1781. 

In terms of the total number of soldiers involved, this might be one of the smallest battles on the list. However, it resulted in the end of the American Revolution and the establishment of the first independent country in the western hemisphere. 

The American Revolution set the stage for other revolutions against established European powers in France and Latin America

Approximately one century after the battle, the United States would have the largest economy in the world. 

The French Revolution and the subsequent establishment of the French Empire under Napoleon threw Europe into turmoil. Despite several significant battles, such as the Battle of Austerlitz, Napoleon’s rule eventually came to an end in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo

After Waterloo, Napoleon was exiled to the remote island of Saint Helena and was never a force to be reckoned with again. 

The only other 19th-century battle I’ll put on the list is the Battle of Gettysburgh in 1863. This was the largest battle of the American Civil War and marked the beginning of the end for the Confederacy. 

While it wasn’t the end of the war, afterward, everyone pretty much knew the writing was on the wall as the Confederate advance into Pennsylvania was their last hope at some sort of compromise victory. 

Going into the 20th century, the scale of the wars change due to industrialization and technology. 

It is difficult to just pick one battle from the first world war as so many of them involved massive bloodlettings that achieved absolutely nothing. 

After some thought, I’m going to go with the First Battle of The Marne, which took place in the opening weeks of the war in 1914. 

The Battle of The Marne stopped the initial German invasion of France and put them on the defensive. It was this action early in the war which could be viewed as the reason why the war devolved into defensive trench warfare.

I’ll end with what I think were the three most important battles of the Second World War. One from the Eastern Front, one from the Western Front, and one from the Pacific. 

The first is the turning point in the war in the Pacific, which took place in June 1942, the Battle of Midway

The Battle of Midways was a naval battle that was named after Midway Island, the closest land to the site of the battle. It was the largest battle between aircraft carriers in history. 

Japan lost all four of its aircraft carriers in the battle, whereas the Americans had one which was damaged and later sunk after the battle. 

It marked the beginning of the end of the Japanese and turned the tide of the Pacific War. 

The next battle was one of the largest battles in history. The battle wasn’t a demonstration of great tactics or leadership, rather, it was a raw struggle to survive on both sides. This was the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942. 

From August 1942  to February 1943, the Soviets and Germans fought tooth and nail for the tiniest pieces of territory. The Germans eventually surrendered in the winter, and the stubbornness of Hitler in refusing to fall back marked the beginning of the end for the Germans. 

The last battle on my list is the greatest amphibious landing in history. Unlike the Battle of Stalingrad, which was a war of attrition, this was probably the greatest feat of military logistics ever. The Invasion of Normandy in June 1944.

Millions of people were involved in the planning, preparation, and eventual invasion of Europe by the Allies. The process took years and when it finally took place, within a matter of weeks they had hundreds of thousands of personnel and a logistical chain to supply all of them. 

So, as I mentioned before, this list should not be considered to be exhaustive. There are many more important battles that I left off, but I do think most historians would look at this list and agree on the majority of it. 

Some of these you might be familiar with and some of them you might never have heard of before. 

Either way, these events, some of which took place thousands of years ago, were pivotal moments that shaped the history of the world that we live in today. 

The Executive Producer is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener John Higham over on the Facebook Group. He writes: 

I was initially pulled into Gary’s orbit by the smorgasbord of cool topics. However, it slowly dawned on me that Gary has visited far more places than I have, and as someone who has traveled around the world, albeit for a measly year, I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. At first, it was a twinge of jealousy, but it slowly devolved into mild irritation. Was I continuing to binge episodes so I could become conversant on the history of the chicken? Or was my motivation simply to see if I could grow my list of places I had been and Gary had not from two to three?

And then it hit me. At the end of an episode I recently listened to, Gary confessed that Everything Everywhere is classified as a Class 1 addictive substance. Are there nanobots mixed in my Ka’Chava that compels me to obey Gary’s every command? Is there really a completionist’s club with free sodas in the ‘fridge? 

PS — Seriously groovy podcast. Nine and three-quarters stars! You won my loyalty with the Universe 25 episode when you explained it’s just cool data and, in so many words, said anyone who says differently has an agenda. It made me think you need an episode on Confirmation Bias. And the Dunning-Kruger Effect. And bees. 

Sorry about docking you a quarter of a star, so you didn’t get a perfect 10/10, but you failed to mention my favorite data point about potatoes; 1 in 4 people would not exist today if it had not been for the existence of the potato.

Thanks, John! All of those episode suggestions are good ones and I’ve added them to the great list of future episodes….and I’m really sorry about the potatoes. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a Boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.