Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Fifteen Decisive Battles of History, Part One

In 1851, the English historian Sir Edward Shepherd Creasy published his famous work, Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World. It was very influential in his time and has been continually reprinted for the last century-and-a-half. The selections Creasy made, of course, reflect the mind of a Victorian English gentlemen, all of them involving European nations and several of them involving Britain itself. It's still a great read, however, and has spawned a veritable industry of popular historical writing involving numbered things (i.e. "Twenty Most Influential Scotsman", "Ten Most Important Inventions", and so forth).

I feel that has as much right as Sir Edward Creasy to think up a list of the fifteen most decisive battles in world history. Since it is far too much for a single blog post, I plan on splitting them up over the next three weeks. Anyway, here are the first of my choices for the fifteen decisive battles of history. I've decided to go in chronological order, rather than in order of importance.

Salamis, 480 BC
In 480 BC, all appeared lost for the Greeks. The gallant three hundred Spartans under Leonidas had been massacred defending the pass at Thermopylae and Athens had been razed to the ground. It seemed that the city-states of ancient Greece were about to be incorporated into the Persian Empire, the mightiest realm the world had ever seen.

According to the historian Herodotus, the Greeks had a bit more than 370 ships. The total number for the Persians is less certain, but it was clearly a vastly large force. Tricked by Themistocles into attacking up a narrow strait, thereby reducing the importance of their numerical advantage, the Persians were caught in a deadly trap. The Persian fleet was wrecked, utterly shattering the plans of the Emperor Xerxes to continue with the invasion of Greece.

Unlike Marathon ten years earlier, which was only a temporary victory, the Battle of Salamis marked a decisive turning point in the struggles between the Greeks and the Persians. Never again would the Persians seriously threaten to conquer Greece. Had the Greeks failed, their city-states would have become just another province of the Persian Empire. The entire cultural legacy of ancient Greece - democracy, science, drama, philosophy - would have been snuffed out like a candle covered by a jar. It would have meant nothing less than the destruction of Western civilization.

Gaugamela, 331 BC
If Salamis ensured that Greek culture would survive, Gaugamela ensured that it would triumph. The long struggle between the Greeks and the Persians came to an end on that dusty field in what is now northern Iraq (indeed, where the forces of ISIS and its Kurdish enemies are now locked in battle).

Alexander the Great, having inherited the kingdom of Macedonia and a semi-unified Greece from his father, had led a great army on one of the most astounding campaigns of conquest in the history of the world. Having beaten the Persians at the battles of Granicus River and Issus, and subdued the city of Tyre after an epic siege, Alexander now faced a huge Persian army under Emperor Darius III. He was massively outnumbered, with roughly 40,000 Greeks and Macedonians up against at least 100,000 Persians and perhaps many more. The historian Plutarch maintained than the Persians fielded a million men, which is obviously impossible, but there is no denying that the Persian army was of an enormous size.

It didn't matter, though. Through a brilliant set of tactical maneuvers, Alexander tricked Darius into opening a gap in his line. While the Greek infantry desperately held against the Persian advance, Alexander charged through the gap with his cavalry, tearing the Persian army into pieces. The Persian army was largely destroyed and the rule of Darius broken forever. A year after the battle, Darius had been assassinated by one of his own nobles and the Persian Empire had effectively ceased to exist.

Because of the results of Gaugamela, Greek culture became entrenched throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East as the dominant way of life. From Spain to the Indus Valley, Greek colonies would become centers of commerce and intellectual life. This would continue through Roman and Byzantine times, infusing what became Western civilization with its dynamic energy. Had the Persians crushed Alexander at Gaugamela, obviously, things would have turned out very differently.

Qin Conquest of Chu, 224 BC
Western civilization remains the most dominant culture force in the world today, as it has been since the early modern period, but it is far from the only one. China was the most advanced society in the world for many centuries and one of the stories of the 21st Centuries is the return of China to a position of power, after having been dominated by the West for a century beginning in the mid-1800s.

Despite its immense size and population, China exists as a single nation rather than a collection of numerous nations, as is the case in Europe. This is due to the military campaigns of a single individual, Qin Shi Huang, known to history as the "First Emperor". It was his brilliant if unimaginably brutal leadership that brought to an end the so-called Warring States Period and unified China as a single nation.

Of the seven powers vying for control during the Warring States Period, the most powerful was Qin. Under Qin Shi Huang, Qin had finally embarked on a conquest of the remaining states. In 244 BC, the rival state of Chu was the only remaining challenge to complete Qin dominance of China. In a series of brutal battles, Qin forces eventually crushed the Chu and incorporated into the Qin orbit. This victory assured the unification of China under Qin Shi Huang and effectively marks the beginning of China as a single political entity.

Zama, 202 BC
The Second Punic War brought the Roman Republic to the edge of total destruction. In a series of brilliant victories, the Carthaginian general Hannibal had destroyed one Roman army after another. For more than a decade-and-half, Hannibal's army left a path of devastation across southern Italy. It was during this time that Rome's answer to Hannibal, the young general Scipio, learned the art of war by leading Roman armies to victory in Spain.

Having secured Spain, Scipio convinced the Roman Senate to let him invade Africa and attack Carthage itself. Hannibal was recalled to defend the city and the two generals finally met in battle on the plans of Zama. It was one of the few times in history when two truly great captains fought against one another in battle. In the end, Scipio crushed Hannibal's army and ensured Roman victory in the war.

The Battle of Zama made certain that Rome would become the dominate power in the Mediterranean. Half a century later, Carthage would be wiped out by Rome in the Third Punic War. The Hellenistic states of the eastern Mediterranean would be incorporated by Rome during the same period. When the Roman Republic morphed into the Roman Empire in the late 1st Century BC, its territory stretched from Spain to the Middle East and would endure for half a millennium.

Rome played a crucial role in the cultural development of Western civilization. It transmitted Greek culture, as well as its own concepts of law, literature, and engineering, into what became Medieval Europe. By providing a long and stable political structure in Europe for so long, Rome also made it possible for Christianity to be born, develop, and spread through the entire region. Had Hannibal won the Battle of Zama, it's entirely possible that Rome would not have progressed further and there might never have been anything called "The West" at all.

Yarmouk, 636
In the 7th Century, seemingly without warning, the mighty armies of Islam exploded out of the Arabian peninsula and embarked on a campaign of conquest across the Middle East. It marked the final destruction of what was left of classical civilization and changed the world forever.

Few in the mighty empires of Byzantium or Persia had paid little notice to events in the Arabian peninsula during the early 7th Century, where Mohammed had founded the dynamic Islamic religion and quickly united the various tribes under his leadership. Following the death of Mohammed in 632, the Muslims began raiding northwards into Byzantine territory, capturing several cities. To counter the Arab threat, the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius mobilized an army and ordered it south in 636.

The two armies met in the Battle of Yarmouk during the summer. The Arabs were led by a general named Khalid ibn al-Walid, a master of mobile desert warfare. Using rapid movements to counter the Byzantine numerical superiority, the Muslim army won a complete victory, slaughtering much of the Byzantine army and forcing the survivors to retreat. The conquest of the Levant, modern Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Lebanon, was solidified.

Had the Byzantines prevailed over the Muslims at Yarmouk, the great Islamic conquests of the 7th and 8th Centuries might never have happened and Islam might never have expanded into the global force that it is to this day. As it was, the Muslim victory at set the stage for a vast series of conquests that would eventually take Islam as far as Spain in the west and India in the east. The world would never be the same.

Next week, battles #6 through #10.

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