In ancient times, war was commonplace as civilizations and empires sought to expand their territory and conquer their enemies. All of the wars that occurred in antiquity resulted in casualties and political changes, but some wars were so decisive, they changed the course of history. Whether empires met their end, an unprecedented number of lives were lost, or prominent military leaders were killed in these wars, the end result was lasting influence on the world.
The Battle of Kadesh (1274 B.C.E.)
Regarded as one of the oldest documented military conflicts, the Battle of Kadesh occurred between the Egyptian forces, led by Ramesses II, and the Hittite Empire, led by Muwatalli II. This battle was decisive because Ramesses II used specific tactics to surprise and overwhelm the Hittite forces, leading to an Egyptian victory. The Battle of Kadesh highlights the unique military tactics and formations used by Ramesses II as he kidnapped Hittite spies, tortured them, learned where Muwatalli’s army was located, and sent his own army to attack. Muwatalli saw the approaching army and sent his chariot force south to counter the ambush. This battle resulted in several thousand casualties but no victor, and the Battle of Kadesh concluded with the first documented peace treaty between the Egyptian and Hittite forces.
The Battle of Muey (1046 B.C.E.)
In Asia, China was highly sought after by multiple competing dynasties, and the Battle of Muey occurred between the Shang and Zhou dynasties as they fought to determine who would command the nation. The composition of the armies contending for China was vastly different; the Shang dynasty had more than 530,000 soldiers as well as 170,000 armed slaves among their ranks, and the Zhou dynasty’s army consisted of just 50,000 trained combatants. As the battle progressed, a majority of the Shang’s slaves defected to the Zhou forces, and soldiers among the Shang ranks also followed suit. Despite having a greater number of soldiers in their military, the Shang dynasty ultimately suffered defeat at the hands of the Zhou soldiers who were more skilled in combat. As the result of this battle, the Shang dynasty was destroyed, and the Chinese emperor killed himself, allowing the Zhou dynasty to assume control. This victory led to the institution of the Zhou rule, which has been regarded as the longest-reigning dynasty in Chinese history.
The Battle of Plataea (479 B.C.E.)
At the time of this battle, Greece had established a number of city-states across its empire, and the Greek forces that fought in the Battle of Plataea were comprised of soldiers from these regions. Because of the divided nature of the Greek empire, the size of its army (at least 100,000 strong) can be considered impressive, especially against the Persian forces which, according to Herodotus’ accounts, numbered around 300,000. The battle began with a stalemate that lasted approximately 11 days; it is believed that this stalemate occurred for a number of potential reasons including both sides believing themselves to be evenly matched against the other and reservations by the Greek forces regarding the ability of the Persian army to make use of the terrain. The Persian army ultimately made the first move by circling around to flank the Greeks and igniting their supplies, following up this assault by conducting a frontal cavalry attack on the main Greek troops. However, the Greek army was able to retaliate, and the battle resulted in more than 20,000 Persian casualties. This battle allowed the Greeks to adopt a more offensive military strategy in the future that contributed to additional conquests and the changing nature of Greco-Persian wars to come.
The Battle of Zama (202 B.C.E.)
As one of the most influential military figures in history, Hannibal led a number of successful expeditions in the name of Carthage. However, even he was not without defeat. During the Battle of Zama, the Romans fought against Hannibal’s forces with a plan to defeat the elephants he employed for war. With a strategy to alarm and mislead the elephants through the use of loud noises, the Romans were able to set the animals against the Carthaginian troops. The elephants that did not rampage were easily killed, and the Roman forces were able to encircle the Carthaginian infantry and defeat them. Hannibal was able to escape, but Carthage’s military suffered a great loss with 20,000 soldiers captured by Roman forces and another 20,000 killed in battle. Following this momentous defeat, Carthage never challenged Rome again.
Waging war comes with a goal and a price. The battles highlighted above feature moments of significant influence based on political outcomes, the number of casualties, and the effect on history.