A battle may change the course of history in some cases, or it may just be a minor incident during a larger conflict. Here are twelve of the biggest and most important historical battles, from the defeat at Marathon to the Siege of Stalingrad.
The Twelve Iconic Battles that Changed the Course of History
- The Battle of Muye (1046 BC)
- The Battle of Marathon (490 BC)
- The Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC)
- The Battle of Arbela (331 BC)
- The Battle of Zama (202 BC)
- The Battle of Tours (732 AD)
- The Battle of Hastings (1066)
- The Siege of Orleans (1429)
- The Battle of Vienna (1683)
- The Siege of Yorktown (1781)
- The Battle of Waterloo (1815)
- The Siege of Stalingrad (1942)
1. The Battle of Muye (1046 BC)
A force defying the odds and utterly altering history is demonstrated at the Battle of Muye. In their battle with more than 500,000 troops of the ruling Shang Dynasty at the time, an army of about 50,000 soldiers from the Zhou tribe was vastly outnumbered.
Nonetheless, the Zhou tribe was able to defeat the soldiers of the Shang Dynasty in part because of the large number of soldiers that turned against the governing power and joined the Zhou army.
The Shang Dynasty, for instance, equipped 170,000 slaves with weapons to aid in the defense of Yin’s capital. They ended up assisting the Zhou warriors in winning the Battle of Muye, which brought an end to the Shang Dynasty because they resented the rulers for their corruption—slavery may have also played a role.
2. The Battle of Marathon (490 BC)
In 490 BC, Greek soldiers engaged in brutal warfare against Persian invaders that were sent by King Dairus 1. The 20,000 Persian forces were sent by the King in retaliation for the ancient Greek’s support for the lonians, who had rebelled against the Persians.
The Greeks forced the Persian army back despite being outnumbered. More than 6,000 Persian soldiers were defeated compared to 200 of the Greeks.
Being the first time the Greeks had beaten the Persians, the fight was crucial in the Greco-Persian Wars since it proved to the ancient Greeks that they could compete with the Persians.
In reality, the myth that a messenger sprinted from Athens to Marathon before the battle—when in fact, he ran from Athens to Sparta—is where the idea for the marathon event as a feature of our modern Olympics originated.
3. The Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC)
The 2006 Hollywood film 300 brought the Battle of Thermopylae to the attention of the general public.
The actual combat featured more than 300 Spartans; estimates place the number of soldiers at closer to 2,000 warriors, including Spartans, Helots, Thebans, and Thespians. These soldiers resisted the army of Persian King Xerxes at the Thermopylae’s small coastal route.
Despite being severely outnumbered, the Spartan warriors were able to buy time until Greek reinforcements could come and drive the Persian army back. It is regarded by historians as a superb illustration of how to use the terrain to a force’s advantage and of the power of a patriotic army protecting its native country.
4. The Battle of Arbela (331 BC)
This battle, also known as the Battle of Gaugamela, was the pivotal triumph in Alexander the Great’s conquering campaign that ultimately brought down the Persian Achaemenid Empire.
Despite the Persian army’s use of war elephants, Alexander the Great prevailed thanks to his adept use of light troops and tactical acumen.
The Persian king of the day, Darius III, was killed by one of his own subjects, a satrap (provincial governor) named Bessus after he was defeated in war. Alexander the Great is believed to have been very upset by the manner his worthy enemy had been betrayed, that he gave Darius III a full ceremonial burial before tracking down and killing Bessus.
5. The Battle of Zama (202 BC)
Many people consider the Carthaginian general Hannibal to be one of history’s greatest military leaders. Although his march of 80 war elephants over the Alps and Pyrenees is legendary, it regrettably signaled the end of his campaigns and his army.
Today, the Battle of Zama is regarded as General Hannibal’s biggest defeat. This was largely because Roman troops used cunning tactics to find that they could use their loud horns to distract and frighten the Carthaginian war elephants. The Roman soldiers then broke ranks when the elephants charged, allowing the animals to charge through them before pursuing them away.
6. The Battle of Tours (732 AD)
In an effort to further entrench its power in Europe, an invading Muslim army under the command of the Moorish Commander Abd-er Rahman of Spain crossed the Western Pyrenees and arrived at Tours, France, during the Battle of Tours, also known as the Battle of Poitiers.
But, Charles “The Hammer” Martel’s Frankish armies faced off against the Muslim forces. Sadly, the site and size of the conflict cannot be pinpointed due to a lack of sufficient historical documents. What is known, however, is that the Frankish troops won the battle without cavalry.
Many historians are of believe that had Commander Abd-er Rahman won the battle, Islam would have replaced Christianity as the dominant religion in Europe.
7. The Battle of Hastings (1066)
William the Conqueror, a Norman invader, assassinated King Harold II in 1066 and routed his army on Senlac Hill, close to Hastings, England. William the Conqueror argued that the throne of England was legitimately his since the previous king, Edward the Confessor, who was a distant relative of his, had promised it to him in 1051. This dispute may have had an impact on the fictional world of Game of Thrones.
But, while he lay on his dying bed, Edward changed his mind and determined that Harold Godwinson, a nobleman, should receive the crown. Prior to advancing to London, which was capitulated to the Norman (French) invader, William had vanquished the newly anointed monarch. In 1066, on Christmas Day, King William I was crowned.
The battle is regarded as one of the most significant in English history. Since the period of the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons had ruled the region for more than 600 years. The Anglo-Saxon English of the time was combined with Norman French during the Norman conquest, creating the modern English that we use today.
8. The Siege of Orleans (1429)
The now-famous young peasant Joan of Arc, who, according to mythology, was inspired to fight in the Hundred Years’ War after seeing a vision of God, helped the French win the siege of Orleans, France, in 1429.
To allow Joan to enter Orlean with supplies, the French soldiers deployed distraction strategies against the English siege forces. Important English forts were assaulted the following week, changing the course of what had been expected to be a successful six-month siege of the city.
The victory was a turning point in the Hundred Years’ War for France as well, and it is now recognized as such. The fight, according to historians today, freed France from centuries of English dominance.
9. The Battle of Vienna (1683)
During a period when the Hapsburg Empire and the Ottoman Turks were vying for control of Hungary and the authority of central Europe, the Battle of Vienna signaled the beginning of the end of Turkish dominance in Eastern Europe. Fighting the Ottoman Turks, saw the Commonwealth and the Holy Roman Empire working together for the first time.
According to historians, the fight marked a significant turning point in the Ottoman-Habsburg Wars, a 300-year conflict between the Ottoman and Holy Roman Empires. If the Ottoman Empire had won, they might have continued to control and influence Europe.
The battle is famous for having witnessed history’s largest known cavalry charge. 20,000 cavalry forces participated in the charge, which was led by the Polish Winged Hussars and served to end the siege.
10. The Siege of Yorktown (1781)
The eventual creation of the United States was greatly influenced by Yorktown’s capitulation. The Siege of Yorktown, one of the Revolutionary War’s most important battles, resulted in the American and French forces’ victory over British forces under the command of General Charles Cornwallis.
The Revolutionary War’s final significant land battle was fought at Yorktown. The American Continental Army soldiers of George Washington proclaimed victory shortly after the conflict. The final arrest of Cornwallis also paved the stage for the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which put an end to the war and established the United States of America.
11. The Battle of Waterloo (1815)
Napoleon Bonaparte suffered his final, devastating loss in the Battle of Waterloo. After years of successful military operations, it brought an end to the French statesman’s vast empire that had governed most of continental Europe.
The Battle of Waterloo was fought in what is Belgium today and was known as the United Kingdom of the Netherlands at the time.
In a conflict known for its massive cavalry charges, the Duke of Wellington’s alliance of British and Prussian forces beat Napoleon’s army and put an end to the Napoleonic Wars.
12. The Siege of Stalingrad (1942)
The greatest conflict to take place during World War II was the siege of Stalingrad, which lasted for approximately six months. Adolf Hitler attempted to wrest authority away from the Soviet Union in August 1942 by first bombarding the industrial city of Stalingrad (now known as Volgograd) with air strikes.
Months of fighting continued as the harsh Russian winter set in. Because of their severe need, the Russian army recruited volunteers, some of whom were not even given weapons. However, the Soviet forces’ tenacity, coupled with the harsh conditions and supply shortages, forced the German soldiers to submit by February 1942.
The siege resulted in nearly 2 million deaths. The conflict was the last time the Germans would make headway on the eastern front.