You Gotta Know These Battles of the Ancient World
One of the earliest battles in recorded history, the Battle of Kadesh (1274 BC) was fought near the Orontes River in modern-day Syria between Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II and the Hittite king Muwatalli II. Although Ramses proclaimed a great victory for himself, he was lucky to achieve a stalemate after being ambushed by Hittite chariots. Kadesh was probably the largest chariot battle in history, with over 5,000 chariots engaged. The Egyptian chariots were smaller and faster than those used by the Hittites, which gave the Egyptians an advantage.
Persian King Darius I’s invasion of mainland Greece ended with a decisive victory for Miltiades and the Athenians at Marathon (490 BC). The defeated Persian commanders were Datis and Artaphernes. Among the few Athenian dead of the battle were archon Callimachus and the general Stesilaos. Legend has it that the Greek messenger Pheidippides ran to Athens with news of the victory, but collapsed upon arrival. This is the inspiration for the modern race known as the “marathon.”
Thermopylae (480 BC) was the first battle of the second Persian invasion of Greece. Although the Persians under Xerxes I and his general Mardonius defeated the Spartans, King Leonidas and his Spartan troops put up a heroic defense of the pass at Thermopylae (the “hot gates”). The Greeks were betrayed by Ephialtes, who told the Persians about a path that led behind the Spartans. The battle was part of Themistocles’ plan to halt the advance of the Persians. The other part of his plan was to block the Persian navy at Artemisium, and a battle occurred there simultaneously.
The naval battle at Salamis (480 BC) was a major turning point in the Greco-Persian Wars, as it signaled the beginning of the end of Persian attempts to conquer Greece. The battle is named after an island in the Saronic Gulf near Athens. Xerxes was so confident in victory that he watched the battle from a throne on the slopes of Mount Aegaleus. The Athenian general Themistocles devised a plan to lure the large, slow Persian ships into the narrow straits where the Greek ships were able to outmaneuver and destroy much of the Persian fleet. The Persian admiral Ariabignes was killed in hand-to-hand combat, and the Queen of Halicarnassus, Artemisia, had to sink some of her allies’ ships to escape.
The Battle of Aegospotami (405 BC) on the Hellespont (Dardanelles) ended the Peloponnesian War and the Athenian Empire. After a setback at the Battle of Arginusae in 406 BC, the Spartans reinstated Lysander as the commander of their fleet. The result was a complete victory for Sparta; only a fraction of the Athenian fleet survived, including the general Conon, and the ship Paralus, which brought the news of defeat to Athens. Following the battle, the Spartans besieged Athens and forced its surrender.
After the Battle of Granicus, Issus (333 BC) was the second major battle between Alexander the Great and the Persian Empire, and the first to feature Darius III. The battle was fought along the Pinarus River near present day Iskenderun in Turkey’s Hatay province. Before the battle, Darius was able to surprise Alexander and cut him off from the main force of Macedonians. However, the battle ended with Darius fleeing the field and the capture of his tent and family. The battle was the subject of a 1528 painting by Albrecht Altdorfer, the leader of the Danube School.
The largest battle of the Second Punic War, Cannae (216 BC) represented one of the worst defeats in Roman history. The Carthaginians were led by Hannibal, while the Romans were led by the consuls Lucius Aemilius Paullus and Gaius Terentius Varro. Hannibal employed a double-envelopment tactic, surrounded the Roman army, and destroyed it. Although a total disaster for the Romans, it resulted in their adopting of the Fabian strategy, in which battles are avoided in favor of a war of attrition. This eventually wore down Hannibal’s army, and the Carthaginians had to leave Italy.
The final battle of the Second Punic War, Zama (202 BC) was fought near Carthage in modern-day Tunisia. Scipio Africanus’s victory at the Battle of the Great Plains in 203 BC forced Hannibal to leave Italy and return to North Africa for the final showdown. Prior to the battle, the Numidian king Masinissa switched sides, and brought his considerable cavalry force to join the Romans. This, coupled with Scipio’s strategy of opening up his lines to allow Carthaginian elephants through without harming his troops, led to a complete Roman victory.
At Alesia (52 BC), Julius Caesar defeated the Celtic peoples of Gaul, establishing Roman rule of the lands beyond the Alps. The battle began when Caesar besieged Vercingetorix in the town of Alesia, shortly after the Roman defeat at Gergovia. The Romans built a wall to surround the city (a “circumvallation”) and a second wall around that (a “contravallation”) to protect themselves from the Gaulish relief army under Commius. When Commius launched a massive attack on the Romans, Caesar was able to defeat him and force the surrender of Vercingetorix. Although the Romans were outnumbered by as much as four to one, they proved victorious in what was the turning point of the Gallic Wars.
At Actium (31 BC), the fleet of Octavian defeated the combined forces of Cleopatra and Mark Antony at this battle near modern-day Preveza in the Ambracian Gulf of Greece. Marcus Agrippa commanded Octavian’s fleet, which consisted of small, nimble Liburnian ships. Antony’s fleet consisted of massive Quinqueremes, which were less mobile. Following his victory in the battle, Octavian titled himself Princeps, and later Augustus. To some, Actium signals the end of the Roman Republic.
The Battle of the Milvian Bridge (AD 312) was part of the civil war that ensued when Maxentius usurped the throne of the western half of the Roman Empire from Constantine. Prior to the battle, Constantine supposedly had a vision of God promising victory to his forces if he painted his shields with the Chi-Rho, a Christian symbol. Constantine was indeed victorious, and Maxentius drowned in the Tiber River during the battle. Eventually, Constantine was able to abolish the Tetrarchy, become the sole ruler of the Roman Empire, and end persecution of the Christians.
Taking place near modern Edirne, Turkey, the Battle of Adrianople (AD 378) signalled the beginning of the spread of Germanic peoples into the Western Roman Empire. The Romans were led by the eastern emperor Valens, while the Goths were led by Fritigern. Eager for glory, Valens decided not to wait on reinforcements from the western emperor Gratian, and instead attacked the Goths. In the battle, over two-thirds of the Roman army was killed, including Valens. The battle was chronicled by Ammianus Marcellinus, who thought it so important that he ended his history of the Roman Empire with the battle.
The Battle of Chalons (or Catalaunian Fields) (AD 451) was an epic battle between the Romans and the Huns fought in what is now France. The Roman army was commanded by Flavius Aetius and included Visigoths under Theodoric I, who was killed by an Ostrogoth during the battle. The Hunnic army was led by Attila, who was rampaging through Gaul. The battle ended with a victory for the Roman-Visigothic alliance, which stopped the Huns’ advance into Gaul. The next year, Attila invaded Italy; however, in 453, Attila died and his empire broke up shortly after.
Other notable ancient battles included Plataea (479 BC), Leuctra (371 BC), Chaeronea (338 BC), Gaugamela (331 BC), Asculum (279 BC), Carrhae (53 BC), Pharsalus (48 BC), Philippi (42 BC), and the Teutoburg Forest (AD 9).
This article was contributed by NAQT writer George Stevens.