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10 Ancient Battles That Shook Civilizations

From brilliant victories to unpredictable military upsets, these conflicts stunned the ancient world.

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  • Ramses II defeats an enemy in the Battle of Kadesh.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Throughout history, battles have shaped the course of global events. Nowhere is that more true than in the ancient world, where armies struggled against one another for the sake of dominance, power, and survival since time immemorial. These 10 ancient battles not only shook the world of antiquity, but shaped the world that was to come…

The Battle of Kadesh (c. 1274 B.C.E.)

The earliest battle in history about which any details of troop formations or military tactics are known, this clash between the New Kingdom of Egypt (under the rule of Ramses II) and the Hittite Empire took place on the shores of the Orontes River, near the modern-day borders of Syria and Lebanon. It is believed to be the largest chariot battle in recorded history, involving more than 5,000 chariots—of which more than 2,000 were destroyed—and also led to the earliest surviving peace treaty, sometimes known as the Eternal Treaty or the Silver Treaty.

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The Battle of Muye (c. 1046 B.C.E.)

Lasting some 790 years, the Zhou dynasty was the longest-reigning dynasty in Chinese history. But all dynasties, even the mightiest, must begin somewhere. For the Zhou dynasty, that beginning was at the Battle of Muye, in which an army of only around 50,000 Zhou soldiers overtook more than 500,000 enemy soldiers and 170,000 armed slaves to bring an end to the Shang dynasty. While the slaves were armed to defend the capital city of Yin, many of them defected to the Zhou side, which prompted a significant number of Shang soldiers to defect, as well. Others held their spears upside-down, as a sign that they weren’t interested in fighting against the better-trained Zhou.

The Battle of Plataea (479 B.C.E.)

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The Battle of Thermopylae may be one of the most infamous of ancient battles—in no small part due to exaggerated films like 300—but it wasn’t until a battle near the small town of Plataea the following year that Persian forces would ultimately be driven back by the Greeks. After conquering Thermopylae and enjoying victories in the lands beyond, King Xerxes I of the First Persian Empire returned to Asia. He left half of his army behind, which was defeated by a contingent of hoplite soldiers at Plataea, marking the end of the Persian invasion of Greece.

Related: 10 Illuminating Books About Ancient Greece

The Kalinga War (c. 261 B.C.E.)

“No war in the history of India is as important either for its intensity or its results as the Kalinga war of Ashoka,” archaeologist and scholar Ramesh Prasad Mohapatra writes in his Military History of Orissa. “No wars in the annals of human history have changed the heart of the victor from one of wanton cruelty to that of exemplary piety as this one.” 

A bloody conflict between the Maurya Empire, which spanned most of the Indian subcontinent south of the Himalayas, and the coastal state of Kalinga, the Kalinga War may have cost as many as 300,000 lives. Witnessing the bloodshed of the conflict is said to have prompted Mauryan ruler Ashoka to convert to Buddhism, swearing off any future wars of conquest.

The Siege of Syracuse (213-212 B.C.E.)

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The independent Kingdom of Syracuse was a close ally to the Roman Republic, dominating the island of Sicily, which had been wrested from Carthage during the First Punic War. As the Second Punic War raged, pro-Carthage factions within Syracuse led the city to once more feel the sting of Roman siege. 

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This time, however, the city was home to famed polymath Archimedes, who created ingenious devices to help fend off the Roman troops and prolong the siege for months. It was not until a Roman soldier killed Archimedes in his home—despite orders from the Roman commander that the inventor’s life should be spared—that the city finally fell.

The Battle of Gaixia (202 B.C.E.)

China’s Han dynasty began after the 202 B.C.E. victory of Liu Bang at the Battle of Gaixia, in present-day Suzhou. While the Han forces had already won many strategic victories, they controlled a comparatively small portion of China. In a battle replete with double-crosses, captures, and would-be rescues, Han forces were ultimately victorious over their Chu foes, leading to the suicide of Chu leader Xiang Yu and paving the way for Liu Bang to declare himself Emperor of China, beginning the Han dynasty.

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The Third Servile War (73-71 B.C.E.)

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While you may not be familiar with the name of this conflict, the third and most historically significant in a series of slave rebellions in ancient Rome, chances are you know the name of one of its commanders: Spartacus. When he and around 70 other slave gladiators escaped, they were quickly joined by an army of more than 120,000 men, women, and children. They defeated armies superior in numbers and training before finally being utterly crushed by some eight Roman legions led by Marcus Licinius Crassus. In order to make an example out of the rebels and deter any future uprisings, some 6,000 survivors of the battle were crucified along the Appian Way.

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The Battle of Red Cliffs (208 C.E.)

In what has been called the largest naval battle in history, two southern warlords near the end of China’s Han dynasty faced off against a numerically superior foe from the north. In what came to be known as the Battle of Red Cliffs, northern warlord Cao Cao alleged that he sent some 800,000 soldiers to conquer lands south of the Yangtze River, where they were met by a much smaller force (around 50,000) commanded by southern warlords Sun Quan and Liu Bei. 

Cao Cao’s leaders doubted that his reinforcements truly numbered 800,000, but they still estimated he sent more than 200,000 troops. Either way, the southern warlords were vastly outnumbered—yet they were able to hold off their northern neighbor, in part thanks to superior naval training. This helped to solidify the creation of two southern states, leading to the beginning of the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history.

The Conquest of Tikal (378 C.E.)

The centuries between 250 C.E. and 900 C.E. have been widely designated as the “classical period” of the Maya civilization, which covered much of Central America at the time. The region has been compared to Classical Greece; it was composed of numerous city-states, connected by a complex series of alliances and conflicts. 

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In 378 C.E., Siyaj K’ak’ came from the city of Teotihuacan—roughly 25 miles northeast of current-day Mexico City—to depose the rulers of several major cities, starting with Tikal. Then, they would install new leaders backed by Teotihuacan. This established a dominance that would continue nearly until the decline of the Maya civilization.

The Battle of the Catalaunian Fields (451 C.E.)

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One of the last battles of the Western Roman Empire, this conflict between Rome (along with their treaty-bound Germanic allies) and many tens of thousands of Huns under the command of the infamous Attila may not have had a decisive outcome, but the battle nonetheless helped to shape the history of the region and the world. Though Attila’s incursion into Roman-controlled Gaul was stopped, the military capacity of the Romans and their allies was also severely curtailed. Had it not been for the death of Attila just two years later, and the collapse of his empire that followed, a subsequent battle—and the fate of the Roman Empire—might have gone much differently…

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