5 Crucial Events in World History Prior to 1500 that Shaped the Modern World
by Andrew Alexander
The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and may not be construed as in any way representative of the views or policies of Oxford Royale Summer Schools.
This piece acts as a successor to part one and part two of the short series on the key events in British history that are poorly known when one considers their enduring influence on our society.
As such, the following events are those that are unheralded and yet have had a crucial impact in producing the modern world. They are all taken from the era before 1500 as this tends to be the period that is most neglected in our common knowledge of the great events of the past.
The limitations of such a broad-brush exercise should be clear to anyone, and hopefully this will be a platform to begin a personal exploration of our forgotten history for anyone interested. Nevertheless, it is probably worth reiterating a point I made at the outset of the British series – this list is skewered towards the martial. Ideas are wonderful things and the human story is full of them; they only matter, though, when put to the test. For most of history this has meant battles and the intellectual domination of peoples coming about as a consequence of their physical domination. This list reflects that fact.
Another limitation is that the list below in large part seems to concern itself not only with military events but religious outcomes. Again, I think this is justifiable – religion (or the lack of it) determines to a large extent how we organise our thought at times of peace, and with the striking exception of Christianity in Europe, a change in a religion has been something carried to a region on the tip of a sword, so the two are natural bedfellows, so to speak.
Only one other caveat – other than that this list is not in any way shape or form exhaustive – I have included well known and widely understood events where I would argue that one of their principle impacts has been largely forgotten or under-appreciated in popular history. As always with lists like this half of the joy is in discussing them – please do let me know in the comments below what you would include that I have missed.
One of history’s great naval battles, this was a confrontation between the fleets of the Roman Emperor Octavian (later Augustus) and the combined forces of Anthony and Cleopatra. Defeat at sea, where he was outnumbered, saw Anthony’s land forces desert him and after fleeing back to Egypt he and Cleopatra both committed suicide.
The battle marked the end of the Roman Republic and the start of the Roman Empire with Octavian as first citizen. It also marked the end of imperial Egypt and ensured that the civilisation that came to shape the West would have a Hellenistic character as opposed to one drawn from the South and East. In excluding Egypt from cooperative alliance with Rome, the battle set the path for regional development to this day – an area contested constantly and fought over, but not a locus of power in its own right. The battle set also the dynamics of Western Europe, concentrating power and intellectual leadership in Rome emphasising the exclusivity of Europe from Africa.
2. 451 – The Battle of Châlons
Western civilisation is Christian civilisation. For close on two thousand years to be a civilised man or woman has meant to have Christian ethics. I think most Westerners will think this trite, so I will illustrate it with a story told be a colleague who visited Nepal for work – what stuck out in his mind was the number of people who spat at beggars. In the Christian system, we feel we have a special duty of care for these people – the last shall be first, give money to everybody who asks for it etc. In a system operating on an assumption of reincarnation, beggars are low people who have done something deeply immoral in a prior life. One might add to one’s spiritual treasury by giving a beggar money, but equally one might spit and be justified in doing so. In other words we think like Christians even if we don’t profess the faith and unless you spend some time somewhere outside the Christian world it is hard to understand how deep it cuts.
The West is Christian because Europe is Christian and Europe is Christian because of the Battle of Châlons. It is something that when the British were looking for a name to capture the barbarism they saw in their German adversaries in the First World War that they reached for the word Hun. The Huns were barbarians in the true sense (by one 4th century account they did not master fire), the enemies of civilisation and led by a man who was dubbed by contemporaries ‘the Scourge of God’. Their mode of war was a horseback blitzkrieg – sweeping over enemies in a wave of destruction, offering no quarter and leaving no trace.
When the Huns met what remained of the armies of the Western Roman Empire in 451, they had swept central Europe from the Black Sea to the Flanders Coast. What remained were the remnants of the Roman Empire in France and Rome itself. A measure of the panic which the Huns had brought about could be found in the composition of the coalition which faced them – not just Romans but Franks, Visigoths and the Germanic tribes. The battle was fierce raging into the night and racking up casualties so high that had the armies re-engaged the next day they would have needed to wage through the bodies. The Huns fled the battlefield a broken force with a large part of their number dead and their military reputation for invincibility tarnished.
When the weakened army of the Huns did arrive at Rome, it lacked the strength to force a capitulation. Seeing away the invaders added vastly to the Pope’s prestige, more so when Attila died soon afterwards on one of his many wedding nights. Christianity was not only physically secure, but the Papacy was now spiritually secure as its guiding light in Europe. The character of the modern world was assured.
3. 732 – The Battle of Tours
Of enduring historical fascination is the speed at which both Christianity and Islam spread, as well as the circumstances. While Christianity rose through Europe as an underground religion persecuted by the Roman state, by the end of the Apostolic age these dozen fishermen and their followers had founded a network of churches running from the Atlantic tips of Africa and Europe, circling the whole of the Mediterranean and Black Sea and covering modern France and Belgium in the North. If no other Christian miracle is conceded, there is a fair argument that its spread in such a short period and under such adverse circumstances qualifies. The spread of Islam was also wide and rapid – between 632 and the early 8th century it had fanned out from the Arabian peninsula to cover modern Iran in the east, the Mediterranean coast of Africa, much of modern Turkey and the caucuses and Iberia. It was spread not only by word but by fanatical conquest and it over-ran Christian areas with such ease that it looked to pose an existential threat to the religion.
The Battle of Tours marked the furthest extent of Islam in Western Europe. A coalition of Franks led by Charles Martel succeeded in decisively defeating the army of the Umayyad Caliphate in North-West France. It was this battle which determined that Europe would be a Christian continent and not a Muslim one. Given that Western Europe was the last remaining reservoir of Christianity at the time and that aside from the Franks it is hard to conceive where else an army of resistance could have been drawn from, it is not fanciful to suggest that were it not for Tours, Islam would today be the religion of the Western world.
4. 1242 – The Battle of the Ice
The Crusades were not, despite popular legend, limited to the Holy Land. Under the Teutonic Knights, a German Catholic military order which subdued most of what became East Germany and the Baltic states, the crusades were directed also against northern pagans and the Orthodox Church. The Battle of the Ice, on frozen Lake Peipus, saw a coalition of Russian states come together to halt the crusader advance and put an end to their expansion Eastwards.
Defeat halted the advance of the Teutonic Order and established the settled frontiers of Roman Catholicism and the Orthodox Church. This had a major political consequence – Russia continued to develop as a nation physically present in Europe but with a separate intellectual life and soul. Russian exceptionalism has been responsible for some of the greatest crimes in humanity under the Communist purges, but also probably the greatest service rendered to mankind by a sovereign nation – the heroic resistance of the might of Nazi Germany, resistance that was only possible because of the political and religious absolutism drilled into the Russian people by centuries as the outsider nation in the Western and Eastern worlds. Thus on the ice was determined not only the shape of the Cold War, but the Second World War also.
5. 1492 – Ferdinand and Isabella Look West
There is a strong argument for the idea that Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the New World under commission from the Spanish crown is one of the greatest events in world history. Arguably no nation has dominated the world in terms of cultural and economic capital quite as the United States has, and it is fitting that this pre-eminent nation is, as a point of fact, a nation built from all the others. The impact of the discovery of the New World is rightly famous as one of the pivotal moments in man’s history, but not only in the manner which is familiar to us.
The unification of Spain came with the joining of Castile and Aragon by marriage, a union that led to the two monarchs invading and destroying the Kingdom of Granada, the last Muslim enclave in the peninsula. It is fashionable to look at monarchs grabbing land in the name of the Church in a very cynical way, but Spain’s royal couple Ferdinand and Isabella were true believers – immediately after the fall of Granada they expelled all the Jews in Spain and with them the main source of royal finance– and sought to pursue the Reconquista beyond Spanish shores.
It was at this stage the Christopher Columbus’ ideas began to appeal. Contrary to myth, few educated people had thought the world to be flat since Ancient Greek times, and schemes abounded in the 15th century for circumnavigation. Having been sent away by the Portuguese court, Columbus had for several years been pleading his case in Spain when Granada fell. Pivotal to Queen Isabella’s decision to back the scheme was not only that a trade route might be found to China that cut out Muslim lands, but also that it might be possible to find a back passage to the Holy Land making it possible to continue the fight there. What Columbus eventually found and the consequences are well documented, but there is one interesting counter-factual – if it had not have been for the discovery of the New World, the Reconquista would almost certainly have pushed south. An well organised and wealthy European army launching itself into the decentralised and chronically weak world of Arab North Africa would have had any number of consequences – perhaps it would have forced a unification on Islam to repel the threat ending the infighting which still characterises its internal dynamics; perhaps it would have drawn North Africa into the European world; perhaps it would have led to the fall of Spain; perhaps the whole of the Americas would have been anglicised when John Cabot arrived in Newfoundland shortly after Columbus. In any case, the world would look substantially different today had Columbus not managed finally to get royal consent and embark across the Atlantic with three small ships on a voyage of discovery.