Battles that Defined the West

In today’s hot political climate, it’s popular to suggest that the West is engaged in a battle of epic proportions, one that will determine the future of Western civilization. This battle could be analyzed in cultural, political, or spiritual terms. As of the time of this writing in 2023, we can be thankful that our political and cultural divides have not yet pushed us to physical confrontation. However throughout the West’s history there have been many points where warfare determined the course of its future. From the last stand of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae to the German Blitzkrieg, conflict has played a defining role in Western history. 

Let’s explore some of the most important battles that have defined the West. 

Salamis and Plataea

Wilhelm von Kaulbach, The Sea Battle at Salamis (1868)

The Battle of Salamis was a sea battle fought between a coalition of Greek city-states led by general Themistocles and the invading Persians led by Xerxes in 480 B.C. Fought in the straits of Salamis off the coast of Athens, the battle was a pivotal point in the Greco-Persian wars. 

After winning at Thermopylae and Artemisium, the Persian army marched on to conquer several regions of Greece including Phocis, Boeotia, and Attica. The Greeks reformed their defenses near Corinth on land and posted their naval fleet at Salamis. Famed Athenian general Themistocles was able to rally the fleet to engage Xerxes’ forces head on. Due to the narrow passages around Salamis, the large Persian fleet had difficulty maneuvering as opposed to the thin Greek forces, who were able to quickly form a line and engage their foe. The Greeks were able to use this advantage to score a relatively easy victory, whereupon the Persian fleet retreated back to Asia leaving their land forces isolated. 

The Persian land forces were under the leadership of Mardonius while the Greeks were led by Pausanius. After retreating to Plataea in the province of Boeotia, Mardonius set up fortified defenses to thwart the rejuvenated Greek army, though, instead of attacking, the Greeks chose to wait, resulting in a stalemate that lasted 11 days. Eventually the Persians sallied out and were easily defeated, while many of their men became entrapped in their fortifications and slaughtered. After Plataea the Greeks took the offensive and began the reconquest of territory they had lost to the Persians. 

The battles of Salamis and Plataea were the turning points in the Greco-Persian wars and signaled the end to Persian aggression. Though lesser known than the famous battle at Thermopylae, these two battles maintained the integrity of Greece’s influence throughout the Mediterranean. Without these victories, it’s possible that Greece’s developments in democratic government, medicine, architecture, and art would never have been passed down to posterity.

Milvian Bridge

Raphael, Constantine’s Vision (1508)

The Battle of Milvian Bridge took place October 312 A.D. between Constantine I and Maxentius, two competing Roman Emperors, over the Milvian bridge which crosses the Tiber River. Constantine was ultimately victorious as Maxentius drowned in the Tiber during the fighting. Though this battle had huge ramifications in the political sphere by ending the Tetrarchy (the dual-emperorship of the Eastern and Western halves of the empire), it ultimately had a larger effect on the religious makeup of the empire. 

According to early Christian historian Eusebius, Constantine and his soldiers experienced a vision shortly before the battle. The vision depicted the two Greek letters Chi and Rho, representing Christ’s name, and directed Constantine’s army to paint these letters on their shields in order to attain victory. After following the vision’s instructions the soldiers were indeed victorious, attributing their victory to God’s intervention. Though Constantine waited until his deathbed to get baptized, tradition holds that this battle initially inspired his inclination toward the Christian religion.  

The Battle of Milvian Bridge led Constantine to embrace Christianity and end its persecution in the Roman Empire. The legalization of Christianity throughout the empire was a monumental shift in policy that led to the flourishing of the religion. The West’s history from that point forward has been undeniably intertwined with Christianity.

Tours

Charles de Steuben, The Battle of Poitiers

Another battle with significant religious ramifications, the Battle of Tours (or the Battle of Poitiers) determined whether Islam or Christianity would dominate Europe. In October of 732 A.D. the battle was fought between the Umayyad Caliphate, led by Abdul Rahman Al-Ghafiqi, and a coalition of Frankish and Aquitanian forces, led by Charles “The Hammer” Martel. The Frankish and Aquitanian army met the Umayyads somewhere between Tours and Poitier in modern France, as Martel’s forces hoped to thwart Islamic expansion into Europe. The Umayyad Caliphate currently held a vast empire with lands stretching from the Iberian Peninsula to the Middle East. 

Though outnumbered and lacking heavy cavalry, the Frankish alliance intercepted the Umayyad forces on their path to Tours. The Franks held a defensive phalanx formation for seven days on top of a wooded hill, forcing Al-Ghafiqi’s cavalry to charge uphill. Charles’s battle-hardened infantry, many of whom had fought with him over a decade and who were some of the few professional soldiers during the period, proved to be a deciding factor. Additionally, Charles’s preparation helped turn the tide of victory, as the Umayyad’s failed to dress for the cold European climate, having only light clothing suitable for North Africa’s mild winters. 

The Battle of Tours set the stage for the Carolingian Dynasty, ultimately producing the famed Charlemagne. It also ensured a Christian Europe. Many have speculated that an Umayyad victory at Tours would have produced a more Islamic continent. Gibbon observes in his work The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire:

“A victorious line of march had been prolonged above a thousand miles from the rock of Gibraltar to the banks of the Loire; the repetition of an equal space would have carried the Saracens to the confines of Poland and the Highlands of Scotland; the Rhine is not more impassable than the Nile or Euphrates, and the Arabian fleet might have sailed without a naval combat into the mouth of the Thames. Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet.”

Edward Gibbon

More succinctly historian Godefroid Kurth wrote that the battle “must ever remain one of the great events in the history of the world, as upon its issue depended whether Christian Civilization should continue or Islam prevail throughout Europe.”

Waterloo

William Sadler II, The Battle of Waterloo (1815)

On June 18, 1815 near the small town of Waterloo in modern Belgium, Napoleon’s army battled a coalition of forces in what would be the French emperor’s final battle. The coalition was made up of two armies: one a British-led army hailing from the U.K., Netherlands, and various German states headed by the Duke of Wellington, the other a Prussian force led by Gebhard von Blücher. After Napoleon’s defeat he abdicated the throne, ending his reign as French emperor. The prevailing coalition’s forces entered Paris several days later. 

The battle cleared the way for Great Britain’s global hegemony because it eliminated France as a serious competitor on the European continent and world stage. The following decades are sometimes referred to as the Pax Britannica, or the “Concert of Europe” because of the relative peace and prosperity that followed Napoleon’s downfall. No major wars were fought until the Crimean War in the 1850’s, and up until World War I Europeans looked back at Waterloo as a decisive turning point that ushered in this era of peace. 

The Battle of Waterloo is also extremely important in the history of western civilization because it inspired the infectious ABBA earworm, “Waterloo,” winner of the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest and one of the catchiest songs of all time 🙂.

The Battle of Britain

Luftwaffe bombers over East London

One of the most significant battles in the modern era was the Battle of Britain in the Second World War. This air battle was fought primarily between the British Royal Air Force (RAF) and the German Luftwaffe over the skies of England during 1940 and 1941. Germany initiated the attack in a bid to compel Great Britain to negotiate a peace settlement. The air raids initially targeted shipping ports, however these soon progressed to airfields and infrastructure; finally cities were bombed in an attempt to terrorize the populace and force surrender. Despite heavy mobilization, the Luftwaffe was unable to establish significant air superiority, ultimately failing in their original mission. Historian Richard Evans writes:

“Irrespective of whether Hitler was really set on this course, he simply lacked the resources to establish the air superiority that was the sine qua non [prerequisite] of a successful crossing of the English Channel. A third of the initial strength of the German air force, the Luftwaffe, had been lost in the western campaign in the spring. The Germans lacked the trained pilots, the effective fighter aircraft, and the heavy bombers that would have been needed.”

Richard Evans

The battle was notable from a technological standpoint because it was the first major military campaign fought solely with air forces, a theater of warfare that would continue to grow more popular as air technology developed. Germany’s defeat in this battle was also the first large-scale military victory by one of the Allied nations, signaling a weakness in Germany’s air capabilities. It would be an understatement to suggest that the world would be radically different given a German victory in World War II. Since the Battle of Britain was the first major German defeat, it earns a spot as one of the most significant battles in Western history. 

Filtering History through a Narrow Lens

This list is, of course, highly subjective and dependent on the lens one wishes to filter their history through. Many more triumphs and defeats could be added, yet we must make the difficult choice to narrow our options to just a few significant battles. I chose these battles primarily on how they would eventually affect the culture and religion of the West today.  If these battles turned out differently, the West may be speaking different languages or practicing different religions. Technological innovations, scientific advancements, and artistic movements would have varied widely with respect to the ones history bestowed upon us. 

As always we cherish additional input, and await any opportunity to further our understanding from our insightful readers. What battles did we leave out?   

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