What an entertaining topic this one is!!.
Bearing in mind that the proposed issue: the 15 most decisive battles in world history, is an extremely oversimplified summary of the fates of arms that have shaped the world during the past 3000 years, it is difficult that we will ever reach consensus. Nevertheless, the arguments raised herein to rate a particular battle as decisive are most enlightening from the social-historic point of view. I do bear into consideration that most contributors to this forum just do it for fun and do not pretend an scholar attitude in their opinions. Herein I will make an attempt to provide a systematic approach to the issue in question.
In my opinion, a few “decisive battle” ratings in this thread can just be regarded as utterly astounding: honestly, assigning global consequences to an struggle between two native tribes down in South Africa, the Mhlatuze river battle, is simply unrealistic. Of course, you can always appeal to some "butterfly effect" but I do not believe that this is the point intended in this forum.
Some posts could be grouped together in a category that I would define, with all due respect, as "Patriotic" or as "Nationalistic". In such opinions there is a marked correlation between the location of the participant and the relevance of some battle, rated as decisive, in the history of this person's country rather than in world history. I believe that most of these "decisive battle" ratings, though perfectly acceptable in this context, stem out of passion rather than out of a critical analysis of world history.
Most post are indeed argumentative and provide sound, historical arguments to rate or not a particular battle as decisive. However most of these fall into an insuperable pitfall: they evaluate the decisiveness of a battle in retrospective from today's point of view, taking into consideration long-term events, extremely long in most cases, which cannot be solely traced to the outcome of one particular battle. In most of these cases, the main argument for assigning the "decisive" status to a battle is its importance in the genesis of some nation that, in the long run, has played a major role in world history. These are some examples: The battles of Hastings, Yorktown and Sekigahara have been proposed herein as decisive battles based on their pivotal consequences in the building-up of England, USA and Japan respectively. Following an identical argumentative line, as it has been previously expressed in this forum, those battles that have turned out to be central in the formation of France, Russia, Spain, Germany, Italy, China ..........(in here your favourite nation) should, rightfully so, be also rated as decisive. But I don’t really think that this is the analysis that R.M. Schultz pretended in his initial proposal. On the other hand, and sticking to the same examples, no arguments have been provided to illustrate how Hasting, Yorktown or Sekigahara decisively altered the events and the circumstances that were shaping the world AT THOSE PARTICULAR MOMENTS OF HISTORY and I believe that this is the point that we are trying to get at.
I believe that in order to identify in a systematic way those battles that have been decisive in world history, first of all we should make an effort to: 1) identify the geographycal area/s where the main action was taking place. Where was the world being essentially moulded at a particular time in history and 2) Identify the main forces, trends, cultures, philosophies, in most cases antagonistic, that were shaping the world at a particular period in history.
Following these guidelines, I will now make an attempt myself
These are my suggestion.
1 — Salamis/Platea 480/479 BC
2 — Issos, 333 BC
3 — Zama, 202 BC
4 — Adrianopolis, 378
5— Covadonga, 718
6 — Manzikert, 1071
7 — Lepanto, 1571
8 — Spanish Armada, 1588
9 — Rocroi, 1643
10 — Vienna, 1683
11 — Valmy 1792
12 — Russia, 1812
13 — Tsushima, 1905
14 — Stalingrad 1942
15 — Midway 1942
The first battles rated as decisive in this list refer to ancient Greece. Hardly anyone would doubt that the helenistic culture has been a milestone in the genesis of the world as we know it. During this period (680-300 BC), I am confident that most of us will agree on that world history was unfolding mainly in the shores of the Mediterranean sea. I am also confident that most of us will agree on that, at this time and in this scenario, the main, antagonistic forces were the Greece versus the Persian empire. As such, I would rate as decisive the battles of SALAMIS and PLATEA (480 and 479 BC) since they decisively curtailed Persia's invasion of Greece, thus allowing the survival of Greek culture. Following this rationale, I would also rate as decisive the battle of ISSOS (333 BC) that almost immediately led to the fragmentation and disappearance of the Persian empire.
To analyze the next period we don’t need a change of geographical scenario: the Mediterranean and Europe. The decline of Greece led to the thriving of new mediterranean powers eager to fill the vacant niche. Among these, the republic of Rome and Carthage. These two titans fought for over 50 years (264-202 BC) for the dominance of the Mediterranean. Thus, I would rate the battle of ZAMA (202 BC) as decisive since it brought about Rome’s hegemony on the region and the end of Carthage as a significant adversary (to be ultimately and bloodily destroyed in 146 BC).
Rome is synonymous to “the world” for the next 500-odd years. I would not regard Teutoburger Wald as a decisive battle. At the time, it was only a temporary setback that just fixed the empire’s northern frontiers, that had already been defined by Rome’s self limitations more than anything else, as stated before in this forum. Though the decadence of Rome is not primarily a consequence of military setbacks, I would rate also as decisive the battle of ADRIANOPOLIS (378) that led to the final disintegration of the (western) Roman Empire.
The fall of the Roman Empire leads us to the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages. The origins of Europe’s modern nations. Countless battles that shuffle dynasties and change nations boundaries once and again. Though most of these dynastic and territorial disputes are indeed fundamental in Europe’s history (therefore “world history” at this particular time). I think that there are yet other forces, far more important in the shaping of the world at this time, whose consequences have been much more influential and far-reaching in world history and are indeed latent even today. I am referring to the religious struggle between Christianity and Islam.
Under these premises, I would consider as decisive the battle of COVADONGA (718), the defeat of the moors by the Visigothic king Pelayo established the northern limits to islamic expansion in western Europe and prevented Islam from settling further north. From then on, only minor raids, as the one defeated at the battle of Tours, took place.
The battle of MANZIKERT (1071) that brought about the collapse of the Christian Byzantine empire and established the islamic Turkish empire as a force to be reckoned with in the Mediterranean should also bear the status of decisive in the clash between Islam and Christianity.
This religious struggle continued in ernest well into the Renaissance and up to the 17th century (has it stopped??). At this point, the battle of LEPANTO (1571) should be rated as decisive. The alliance of the Mediterranean Christian powers gave Turkish naval power a blow from which it never recovered, thus preventing the expansion of Islam by sea. Likewise, the Battle of VIENNA (1683) set the limits of Turkish expansion in Eastern Europe and constituted the turning point after which Turkish-islamic influence over Eastern Europe did nothing but decline.
The 16th century introduces yet another religious turmoil that is pivotal in the making of modern civilization: the antagonism between Catholicism and Protestantism will throw European nations against each other for many years to come. In this context, The defeat of the SPANISH ARMADA (1588) is certainly decisive as it allowed the prevalence of Britain as the standard-bearer of Protestantism. Though not directly a religious clash, I would classify the battle of ROCROI (1643) as decisive as it marked the decline of Spanish (Catholic) influence in northern Europe.
And we get into the 18th century, marked by the struggles against absolutist monarchies. No. I shall not rate as decisive Saratoga or Yorktown. From the 18th century perspective, the American Revolution was just another British colonial struggle and far from having immediate global consequences. In 1782 it was far from evident that the 13 colonies would eventually become a world megapower.
The French Revolution. Though an uninteresting battle from the military point of view, I would definitively rate VALMY (1792) as decisive. Valmy saved the Revolution and all that it stood for. A French defeat at Valmy and the Revolution’s child, Bonaparte, would have been no more than an artillery colonel.
And Bonaparte’s quest to master Europe (thus the world) met its fate in the Russian steppes. The RETREAT FROM RUSSIA (1812) caused the annihilation of the Grand Armee, the disaffection of many French generals to the Napoleonic cause, the defection of former allies Austria and Prussia and prompted the assembly of the coalition that was ultimately to defeat Napoleon. Leipzig and Waterloo, though fateful as they were, were just unavoidable consequences of the tide that originated in the Berezina.
And into the 20th century. The battle of TSUSHIMA (1905) the dawn of Japan as a world power and, more importantly, the demonstration that nations outside Europe had something to say about world affairs.
Finally, the world threatened by absolutism in its most sinister manifestation: Nazism and its allies. The turning point in the European theatre was undoubtedly STALINGRAD (1942) and Japan’s expansion was definitively thwarted in midway (1942).
I am certain, and I hope, that many of you will not agree with me. The point that I would like to get through is that these issues should be tackled in an unpassionate, scientific fashion.
Even though the ultimate goal is just to have fun!!!!!