One characteristic of some newer books on military history is that they tend to just present a narrative of what happened without a reflective analysis which shows the significance of what happened. This was a complaint I had with an otherwise excellent book that I purchased, The Encyclopedia of Warfare (Metro Books, 2013). More than 5,000 battles from the history of world civilizations are listed chronologically and described, but the reader struggles to develop a sense of which battles were the most significant ones for the course of world history. So let me try here to identify history’s most significant battles (not wars). From my biblical Christian worldview, the most significant battles will be ones that had the greatest effect on the place of true religion in the world.
There are many battles recorded in the Old Testament, and each was significant in its own way. Probably the most significant ones were Joshua’s conquest of Jericho in 1405 B.C. (Josh 2–6), followed by his defeat of a coalition of southern Canaanite kings (Josh 10) and his defeat of a coalition of northern Canaanite kings (Josh 11). It was Joshua’s providential victories in these battles that gave the Israelites possession of the land of Canaan, to which the nation of Israel has been tied ever since.
Many historians consider Marathon (490 B.C.) and Salamis (480 B.C.) to be the two most important battles in world history. In these battles, the Persian king Darius Hystaspes (in 490) and his son Xerxes (in 480) were soundly defeated by the Greeks. The presence of an unconquerable and vengeful foe on the western border of the Persian Empire made eventual conquest of Persia by the Greeks inevitable, which in turn resulted in the spread of Greek language and culture throughout the center of world civilization. It was largely the two battles of Marathon and Salamis that determined the future of Western civilization, and that indeed created the concept of a common civilization. These battles therefore largely shaped the biblical world of the New Testament and the early church—though, in truth, Marathon and Salamis were only the outworking of the predetermined plan of God, and were not determinative in themselves (see Dan 8:3-8, 20-22; 11:2-4).
There is another battle which had nearly as great an impact on the course of world history as Marathon and Salamis, but which is much less famous because the victors did not celebrate the battle in literature, theater, or art. As Caesar Augustus expanded and consolidated the Roman Empire, he recognized the threat posed to Rome by the Germanic tribes, and he sought to conquer and annex Germania (Germany) for this reason. His invasion failed disastrously: three Roman legions, along with their auxiliary forces, were annihilated by a makeshift army of Germanic tribal warriors at the Battle of Teutoberg Forest in A.D. 9. Stung by this rout, the Romans contented themselves with establishing a strong defensive perimeter along the Rhine and Danube rivers. However Augustus’ failure to subdue Germania, like the failure of Darius and Xerxes to subdue Greece, portended a further disaster for some future day. It was the invasions of such Germanic tribes as the Visigoths, the Angles, the Jutes, the Saxons, the Franks, the Vandals, and the Ostrogoths which gradually weakened the Roman Empire and directly caused its fall. Germanic culture melded with Roman culture to form the culture of medieval Europe, and the influences of “barbarian” Germanic culture are still strongly felt in the Western world today.
Also deserving of mention is Constantine’s victory over Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge in A.D. 312, fought under the sign of the cross. This battle, which gave Constantine control over the western Roman Empire, had a profound effect on the history of Western civilization as a whole, and on the history of the Christian church in particular. Constantine’s Edict of Milan (313) freed the church from official persecution, and the later adoption of Christianity as the state religion led to the development of a distinctly Christian civilization. Constantine is also significant for moving the center of the Roman Empire from Rome to Constantinople, and for convening the Council of Nicaea in 325.
The rapid conquest of the Middle East by Islamic armies created a grave crisis for the church in the early Middle Ages. In what has often been called one of the most significant battles in all of history, Charles Martel (“the Hammer”) and his Frankish army decisively defeated an invading Muslim army at Tours (Poitiers) in 732, driving the Islamic forces back from the heartland of Europe. Although the Muslims retreated south of the Pyrenees Mountains, they were not finally driven out of the Iberian Peninsula until 1492, the year Columbus discovered America. Martel’s force was the last Christian line of defense in Europe against Muslim expansion, and there can be no doubt that the hand of God was with him to preserve Europe as a bastion of Christendom in the Middle Ages.
The American Revolutionary War was one of the most important wars in the history of the world, for it created what has become the most powerful and prosperous country that the world has ever seen. More than any other entity, the United States has essentially shaped the world of the end times. The battle that led Great Britain to concede defeat was the Battle of Yorktown, where Lord Cornwallis surrendered a British force of 8,000 to General Washington on October 19, 1781. However, Yorktown would not have been possible without earlier American victories—especially at Saratoga, where the surrender of 5,000 British soldiers on October 17, 1777 convinced France to enter the war on the side of the fledgling United States.
Surely World War I and its sequel, World War II, were two of the most significant wars in the history of the world. They vastly reshaped world civilization, altered the balance of power in the world, reshaped world economic structures, gave rise to totally new types of weapons, and led to the establishment of the modern state of Israel. The key battle of World War I was the First Battle of the Marne, fought on September 5-10, 1914. This battle turned back the German advance on Paris and created a stalemate on the Western Front that was to last until 1918. The most significant battle of World War II was the Battle of Britain, which was fought in the skies above England in August–September 1940. The Royal Air Force won this battle by the narrowest of margins, thereby frustrating Adolf Hitler’s ambitions to invade the British Isles and forcing him to turn his attention to targets reachable by land.
The greatest and most decisive battle in world history is still to be fought—the so-called Battle of Armageddon. This battle will occur at the end of the seven-year tribulation period, i.e., seven years after Christian believers are removed from the earth at the rapture and a treaty between Israel and the antichrist takes effect (these two events evidently occur simultaneously). The first 3½ years of the tribulation period will witness some incredibly devastating wars and battles, the likes of which will make the carnage of World War II pale by comparison. But at the midpoint of the seven years the antichrist seizes economic and religious power over the world, and he conquers much of the world to control it politically, which results in relative political stability for a few years. However, at the end of the tribulation period, the Bible describes how armies from the north and from the east will march on Israel, which is where the antichrist has moved the center of his operations (Dan 11:44-45; Rev 16:12-16). These armies evidently come to Israel with the intention of fighting the antichrist for political power; however, as the signs of Jesus’ second coming begin to appear, they decide to instead turn their firepower against the armies of heaven (Ps 2:2-3; Rev 16:14). But when Jesus actually appears they realize that they are infinitely overpowered (Rev 6:12-17), and they are killed simply by Jesus speaking the word: “Drop dead!” (Zech 12–14; Rev 14:17-20; 19:11-20). The angels proceed to gather all remaining unbelievers out of the world to be judged (Matt 13:41-42), and Jesus establishes direct political control over a new earth, which only believers may enter (Isa 65:17-25). Armageddon is the most decisive battle in the history of the world, since it will result in the complete and permanent changeover of power in the world from human government to direct divine rule (Dan 2:44-45). There will be one final battle 1,000 years later (Rev 20:7-10), but this is essentially a failed rebellion, with all the casualties on the side of the losers.
The Bible also describes a war being waged in the heavenly realms which has a much more profound effect on world events than most people realize (see Dan 10; Eph 6:10-20). This war, and the most significant battles in this war, will be the subject of a future post on this blog.