One of the 5 world defining historical battles, The Battle of Hastings depicted in a painting.

We take certain things in history for granted: Western civilization’s ancient Greek origins, Rome’s stunning domination of the world for hundreds of years or the democracies which have sprung up all over the world etc.

But the things that seem natural now in retrospect (ancient Greek city-states’ progressive concepts, Rome’s pragmatism and efficiency which also translated to the military plane, democracy’s widespread adoption), might not have happened at all!

Because the fate of millions and humanity as a whole can be altered irrevocably by the actions of a small group of individuals or even just one individual. For example, there is a very strong possibility that Nazi Germany would have won the war if it had not chosen to invade Russia, a decision made by Hitler and a handful of his closest that resulted in crippling economic and political consequences for his regime, along with one of the most disastrous military campaign in history.

So, keeping in mind the many alternate histories that could have easily replaced the one we currently have and cling to, a look at 5 world defining historical battles should prove interesting, as regards what would have happened if they had gone the other way.

1. The Battle of Thermopylae, 480 BC

One of 5 world defining historical battles, The Battle of Thermopylae painting

The Persian Empire under Xerses the Great (Xerses the I) was the superpower of its time and is the largest empire of the ancient world.

The Greek city states were supposed to stand no chance in front of the sheer numbers the Persian army could produce.

So when Athens managed to defeat the first Persian invasion at Marathon in 490 BC, Xerxes decided to invade the whole of Greece as revenge and to end all future conflict. 10 years later, he came prepared with a massive army whose numbers are disputed to this day, with estimates by modern scholars ranging from 70 000 – 300 000 (with a probable 100 – 150 000 being the most accurate), although Herodotus wrote that the Persians numbered 2, 500 000 troops.

In any case, the 7 000 or so Greek army gathered from the combined efforts of all the states was hopelessly outnumbered.  So they hoped to contest the Persian advance at the pass of Thermopylae while the Greek navy would attack the Persian one at Artemisium.

They managed to do that for 2 days of battle, were betrayed by a local and Leonidas of the Spartans held the pass with a rearguard of approximately 1500 men while the main Greek army retreated to fight another day.

Leonidas and everyone else in the rearguard was killed, but the Greek navy who had also retreated to Salamis, rallied (thanks in part also to the time Leonidas bought) and attacked the Persian navy, winning a decisive victory.

This prompted Xerses to fear a possible isolation on European soil so he fled back to Asia with most of the army in what remained of his navy, leaving behind a commander to try and conquer Greece with the rest of the forces. The Greek army that Leonidas had saved with his sacrifice defeated him and ended the second invasion definitively.

The battle at Thermopylae became a major influence on military culture because it proved beyond doubt that better equipment, discipline and tactics are far more effective than numbers, on a battlefield. It also bolstered Greek nationalism and set the stage for the flourishing of Greek culture that came afterwards, which is in effect the basis of the whole of Western Civilization and thought.

If Xerses had managed to invade Greece, history would have been completely different. And it’s hard even to attempt a prediction at which culture would have taken center stage if the Greek one did not. Take into account also that Rome would not have been Rome without the massive Greek influence it received and welcomed.

2. The Battle of Pharsalus, 48 BC

The list of 5 world defining historical battles includes the Battle of Pharsalus, depicted here.

When they hear Rome, most people tend to instinctively add Empire in their minds. Apart from historians, students of military strategy and a few other types of people which might have a passion for history, most people don’t know that much about the period before Rome was an empire (namely its years as a kingdom and then a republic), if they know about these periods at all.

Because Rome as an empire was spectacular due to its engineering, law system, pragmatism and overall virile energetic civilization which arguably had a few ideas that where way before their time and technological achievements that are impressive even today, especially considering the resources and knowledge available back then.

But Rome would not have turned into an empire without the political drama revolving around its first emperor, the general Julius Caesar.

And the Battle of Pharsalus is the one that could have turned history on its head. Caesar won there (by reacting quickly and being a very good strategist) against Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus. And the battle itself was the climax of the two ideologies opposing each other: Caesar who stood for the rule of aristocrats and Empire and Pompey who stood for the Republic and was backed by its senators.

If Pompey would have won, it’s fairly certain that the Empire would not have happened, Rome would probably not have had he expansionist foreign policy that it had under Caesar and Octavian afterwards, with all the major consequences for world history that this entails.

3. The Battle of Tours/Battle of Poitiers, 732 AD

5 world defining historical battles - The Battle of Tours drawn here by an artist.

Talk about wildly different alternative histories. Can you imagine an Islamic Europe? And as early as the beginning of the Medieval Age up to modern times?

Well, if the Battle of Tours (also called the Battle of Poitiers because it took place close to this city established in ancient times) had not been won by Charles Martel and his warriors, this would have been a very plausible scenario.

Because Charles Martel, the Mayor of the Palace of the northeast Austriasian part of the Merovingian kigdom, leading Franks and Burgundians, fought the forces of the Umayyad Caliphate, the second caliphate after Muhammad’s death and at the time, a very powerful alliance of Islamic nations that even had present-day Spain under it’s control (which they called al-Andalus), along with great swathes of Africa and the Near East.

If ‘Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi, Charles Martel’s adversary in the battle and also the governor of al-Andalus would have won, it is possible that the whole of Europe would have followed, or great parts of it at least.

4. The Battle of Hastings, 1066 AD

One of the 5 world defining historical battles, The Battle of Hastings depicted in a painting.

The world’s currently only superpower, the USA, would not exist without England and France. And England would not have been the England that gave the world the biggest Empire it has ever seen so far (33.7 million square miles at the height of its colonial power) without its tormented and complicated history… tied as well to the French.

The Battle of Hastings, when Duke William of Normandy won was a pivotal turn in English history, with the introduction of the Norman-French dynasty to the English throne. This in turn would cause all the future complications both within Britain and externally against mainland France.

It can be argued that Britain’s conservative, defensive and insular approach to foreign politics in the Middle Ages was set on a path to expansionism and military pursuits in great part due to it’s constant cat and mouse game with France. Which, as mentioned, was greatly augmented and complicated by the Normans taking the English throne.

If King Harold Godwinson had won instead and solved the succession problems caused by the death of Edward the Confessor who had left no children, who knows if England would not have stabilized into a kingdom bent on defense and taking care of business on its own large and bountiful island?

The battle is also influential of world history with regard to changing military technique, because it was the example of cavalry usage on the battlefield, in coordinated efforts with infantry and archers, which would turn into a “formula” used extremely frequently in medieval Europe. This in turn, of course, influenced the development of weapons and armor.

5. The Siege of Vienna, 1529

The list of 5 world defining historical battles includes the Siege of Vienna, depicted here.

The second time when Europe, Western Civilization and Christianity could have fallen to Islam, the Siege of Vienna was the culmination of a century of unstoppable conquest by the Ottoman Empire in south eastern Europe, following the line of the Danube.

Incidentally, at this time, the Ottoman Empire was at its apex, with a powerful economy and a big army renowned for its prowess. On the other side, the Europeans were lacking in men and embroiled in internal struggling which constantly characterized the Old Continent in the Middle Ages.

So, the stage seemed set for an Ottoman victory that would have allowed them to flood central Europe and start conquest in earnest.

But this particular clash of forces is one of those remarkable cases where the underdog wins. And in this case, the underdog is represented by Austrian villagers and city dwellers who dutifully prepared for the siege, strengthening and building the towns defenses, several mercenary bands and a 70 year old mercenary named Nicolas of Salm who was placed in charge of defending the city.

The militia organised by Salm from the aforementioned citizens plus the mercenary forces numbered around 20,000 people, while the sultan’s army somewhere between 120,000 – 300,000. A clear mismatch if there ever was one.

If they had met in open battle, the Viennese defenders would not have stood a chance. But as it was, manning the walls and performing raids when necessary, they managed to beat back the attackers several times, the last one on the 12th of October which ended the siege and started the sultan’s (Suleiman the Magnificent) long and arduous retreat.

A huge factor in the whole campaign was the weather, as sometimes happens in momentous battles of history. Namely first the European rain and then the snow caused major losses for Suleiman’s supply train, caused desertions and majorly influenced the health of his troops even before arriving for the siege.

If it had not been for all these factors, Europe would have once again possibly been converted to Islam, with all the alternate historical threads that spawn from this…

Image source: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.