5 Epic Battles That Changed History Forever

History is filled with battles that have shaped world events. Here are the true game changers.

Battles can make or break states and change the destiny of nations forever. As such, they represent some of humanity’s most important events. While there have been dozens of important, interesting battles over the past five thousand years of recorded warfare, here are five that changed history forever, though by no means is this list exhaustive. Instead, I have selected a wide range of battles from across different regions and times and have specifically avoided focusing on more well-known modern battles, many of which will be covered by The National Interest soon to mark the end of the Napoleonic Wars and World War II.

Milvian Bridge (313)

This seemingly random skirmish should have been just another battle in a series of long-forgotten skirmishes in the civil wars that consumed the Roman Empire during much of the third century. However, the fact that Constantine the Great won the battle to become the Roman Emperor was a major event in world history.

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Constantine, who was fighting to become emperor, arrived near Rome to fight an army twice the size of his. The night before the battle, he allegedly saw a cross or chi-rho sign in the sky with the words “by this sign, you shall conquer.” He ordered his soldiers to paint the cross onto their shields and won the subsequent battle, becoming emperor in the process. He then began to patronize Christianity, leading to its spread from a small persecuted sect to the official religion of the empire by 380. His actions led to the establishment of an organized sort of Christianity that would play an important role in the Western world’s subsequent development. It is also inconceivable that Islam would take root and become so widespread had Christianity not first changed the religious orientation of much of the world away from polytheism toward monotheism.

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Manzikert (1071)

Though not as well known as the later fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Battle of Manzikert was the what led to the inevitable crash of the Byzantine Empire, the Crusades, and the rise of Turkish power in Anatolia (the peninsula that makes up most of Turkey today).

The base of Byzantine power was Anatolia, rather than Greece itself. Just compare the population of Greece today (around 11 million) to Turkey (around 75 million). Anatolia was the base of Byzantine power in asserting control over the Balkans and parts of Italy and the Middle East. The Caliphs of Baghdad had ceased to hold effective power by 900 and a number of independent Islamic states arose on the Byzantine frontier, while the Caliphs themselves became puppets of temporal rulers.

In an attempt to correct this, the Caliphs invited Turkic warriors to restore them, but this did not work and led instead to the creation of a new power, the Great Seljuk Turk Empire, which stretched from Central Asia to Turkey. The Seljuks under Sultan Alp Arslan began entering Byzantine territory, which lead to a response under the Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes. The two armies met in eastern Anatolia in 1071. Half the Byzantine army didn’t even fight due to internal Byzantine politics leading to treachery. The Byzantine Emperor was captured and though released, the Empire fell into civil war.

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Within a decade, the empire lost most of its heartland and had to call for help from the Pope, which lead to the Crusades. In the meantime, the Seljuks also captured Jerusalem from the Shia Fatimid Egyptian dynasty in 1073, making conditions worse for everyone there.

Second Battle of Tarain (1192)

The relatively obscure Second Battle of Tarain was ultimately the most important battle in the Indian subcontinent’s history because it made it what it is today. In geopolitical terms, the battle led to South Asia becoming politically a part of the greater Islamic world to its west.

Until the 12th century, most of India, one of the world’s wealthiest regions, was ruled by native Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms, though Islamic states had made some inroads into northwest India (parts of today’s Pakistan). However, in the late 12th century, one Muhammad of Ghor, a local ruler in today’s Afghanistan decided to do more than just raid India for loot—he wanted to establish a permanent Islamic empire in the subcontinent.

After conquering much of what is today Pakistan, he came face to face with a large Rajput (a Hindu warrior caste) coalition led by commander Prithviraj Chauhan at Tarain (near Delhi) in 1191, where he was defeated. The next year, he returned with 120,000 men against the Rajputs’ 300,000 (likely exaggerations). At the Second Battle of Tarain, he used his swift cavalry to break the Hindu forces by charging their center and scaring their elephants, winning decisively and killing their Chauhan.