5. The Battle of Cannae – 216 BC
At the Battle of Cannae, a Carthaginian army commanded by Hannibal Barca defeated a much larger Roman army led by Lucius Aemilius Paullus and Gaius Terentius Varro. Historians regard Cannae as one of the greatest tactical feats in military history because of the size disadvantage that the winning side had to overcome. It was also one of the first times that a general (Hannibal in this case) successfully pulled off the double-envelope. In other words, he was able to completely surround the Romans. Hannibal did this by arranging his troops in an outward facing arc, and allowing the Romans to advance until his lines were pushed back. When they were, the arc reversed direction and his flanks were able to envelope the Romans from the sides. The number of Romans killed in this battle was so large that it crippled the Roman army, enabling Carthage to further capture a number of settlements.
4. The Battle of Zama – 202 BC
One of the Romans who survived the Battle of Cannae was a young man named Publius Cornelius Scipio. Scipio’s would-be father in law, Lucius Aemilius Paullus, was killed at Cannae. Scipio vowed that he would one day defeat Carthage, and he later became a general. While Hannibal’s forces continued sacking cities in the Italian peninsula, Rome decided to attack Carthage directly, forcing Hannibal to return home to defend his capitol city. Rome put Scipio in command of the invasion army.
To counter Hannibal’s war elephants, Scipio arranged his lines to have lanes in them. The lanes were hidden by light infantry and skirmishers who could quickly move to open them up. When the elephants charged, they were funneled into the lanes and killed. Meanwhile, Scipio’s cavalry routed Hannibal’s and returned to finish off the heavy infantry from behind. The battle ended the Second Punic War and decimated Carthage as an empire. Scipio was given the epithet “Africanus”. He is one of the only generals in history to never have lost a battle, and until Zama, Hannibal had never lost either.
3. The Battle of Thermopylae – 480 BC
This famous battle was depicted in the movie 300. King Leonidas of Sparta and a Greek force of fewer than 10,000 men (300 of which were Spartans) defended a mountain pass against a hundred thousand or more Persians led by Xerxes I. In the end, the Greeks lost, but they managed to inflict a large number of casualties on the Persian army. They did this by stretching their phalanxes, the backbone of the Greek army, across a narrow mountain pass. This helped to nullify the numerical advantage that the Persians had. The Greek phalanx consisted of hoplite spearmen. These soldiers had large round, bowl-shaped shields and 8 foot long spears, as well as a short sword side-arm. The phalanx worked by having each man put his shield into the back of the man in front of him and push. This made the formation a kind of bronze wall that simply pushed the opposing troops back. In every battle where this unit was deployed, more opponents died from the phalanx push than by Greek swords. The Persians stumbled while they were pushed back, and the hoplites skewered them while they were on the ground.
The Persian light infantry was destroyed by the hoplites, because they had simple wicker shields and no bronze armor. When Xerxes saw how ineffective his forces were, he sent in his immortals. The immortals marched into battle silently, and they earned their moniker because there were so many of them that every time one was killed, there was another that could immediately replace him. Although the immortals held up better against the phalanxes, what tipped the balance in the Persians favor was a traitor who told them about a mountain road that went behind the Greek lines.
When they realized that they were being outflanked on the eve of the third day, Leonidas sent home the bulk of the Greek army, leaving a small band of Spartans behind. The Spartan army was the best disciplined in the world and close-knit. If you were a Spartan, you could be fighting beside your father, brother, or cousin. So when these men knew they would face their end, they must have fought savagely. Xerxes did not want to risk any more warriors, so he finished the Spartans off with a barrage of arrows. Leonidas was one of the first to die. When the Persians rushed to claim his head, the remaining Spartans fought brutally to keep it from them. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote that they fought until their swords dulled, then they used rocks, and when they could find no more rocks, they fought until they were physically exhausted, and even after that, the Spartans fought with their teeth.
Thermopylae immortalized the Spartan legacy. Most great civilizations have left behind crumbled ruins and artifacts. The Spartans however, left nothing like that; they have left only the story of their sacrifice.
2. The Battle of Marathon – 490 BC
Xerxes’ father, Darius I, ordered a Persian army to conquer Athens, in revenge for the city’s support of uprisings in Ionia. Athens sent an army led by Miltiades to fend off the Persians when they landed near Marathon. Miltiades was a former Persian slave who learned Persian military tactics while fighting for them. He eventually escaped and returned to Greece.
Miltiades countered the much larger Persian army by using the same tactics that Leonidas used at Thermopylae (but remember, this battle happened before Thermopylae). He positioned his phalanxes in a narrow mountain pass. Instead of fortifying the center with the more experienced troops, he fortified the flanks. When the Persians attacked, the Greek center was pushed back, allowing the flanks to encircle the Persians. Marathon was the first recorded use of this maneuver, known as double-envelopment. It is very difficult for an army to pull off and it has been studied for centuries, as well as being written about in The Art of War.
After the initial waves had been fought off, Miltiades ordered his men forward to chase the fleeing Persians back to the ships. This allowed his troops to cut down the soldiers at the backs of the lines. The Persians sailed off, but instead of returning to Anatolia, they set course for Athens for a naval assault on the city. When he became aware of this, Miltiades sent a messenger to Athens. The messenger ran 26 miles from Marathon to Athens, whereupon arriving, he shouted, “Nike!” or “Victory!” before collapsing dead from exhaustion. This moment in history inspired the first modern marathon race in 1896.
Miltiades ordered a forced march of his troops through the night back to Athens, in an attempt to beat the Persians to the city. On the next morning, when the Persian fleet spotted Miltiades’ army positioned along the city’s walls, the Persian commander ordered the fleet to turn around and go home. He realized how hard it would have been to take Athens and his men did not have the resolve.
The Marathon is important because it saved Athens from destruction. If Miltiades had not won, Greek democracy would have been squashed, and the world would be a very different place today.
1. The Battle of Gaugamela – 331 BC
The Battle of Gaugamela was fought between the Persian Empire led by Darius III and the Macedonians led by Alexander the Great. The Macedonian army was 40,000 men strong, while the Persians had a quarter of a million men. Alexander overcame this size disadvantage with a brilliant battle strategy. His victory ensured both the destruction of the Persian Empire and the immortality of his name. In my opinion, this is the most important battle ever fought. Its outcome has shaped relations between the Eastern and Western worlds ever since. If Alexander had not won, Persia could have invaded Europe, and history would be completely different.
The battle was fought on flat desert, which gave a distinct advantage to the Persians, who had prepared scythed chariots to counter Alexander’s phalanxes. Like all Greek armies, the Macedonian phalanxes were a wall of bronze and spears. The key difference was that Macedonian phalanxes had 16 foot long pikes instead of the 8 foot spears of a traditional phalanx. These gave them a farther reach and made cavalry charges suicidal. Darius’s plan to defeat the improved phalanx was to slice apart the lines using the scythed chariots, and then sending in the cavalry to finish the job. Unfortunately, Alexander prepared for this by training his men to form box slots when the chariots charged. Since the horses would not run into the pikes, the slots forced them in between men on each side of the phalanx. Once the chariots were trapped in the slots, they were annihilated.
To further confuse Darius, Alexander marched his elite cavalry parallel to the Persian lines. To the Persians, this was counter-intuitive and a possible attempt to outflank them, so Darius ordered a unit of his cavalry to follow Alexander. What Darius didn’t realize was that Alexander was hiding skirmishers behind his cavalry. When he led the Persian cavalry far enough, a gap opened up in the Persian lines. While Alexander led a cavalry charge into the gap, his hidden skirmishers attacked the cavalry unit that had been tracking them. This prevented the Persian cavalry from following, and Alexander’s charge cut through the Persian infantry and went straight towards Darius. Darius fled the battlefield like a coward. His troops soon followed, except for a cavalry unit that was slaughtering Alexander’s flank. Alexander had to choose between saving his army and running down and killing Darius. He chose to save his men. In his life Alexander never lost a battle. Many historians regard him as the greatest general in history.
Start at 1 hour, 31 min, 16 seconds.