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Great battles

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Great battles

490 BC – Battle of Marathon,
Battle at the start of the Persian Wars Sept 490 BC in which the Athenians and their allies from Plateae defeated the Persian king Darius’ invasion force, on the Plain of Marathon about 40 km/25 mi northeast of Athens.

The Greeks, a combined force of about 10,000 Athenians under Miltiades supplemented by allied Plataeans, were encamped overlooking the plain, about a mile away from the Persian force which was some five to six times their strength. Taking advantage of the fact that the Persians had their backs to the sea, the Greek strengthened their wings and attacked. The Persians held off the Greek attack on their centre, but Miltiades then wheeled round the Greek wings, crushing the Persian flanks and putting pressure on their centre. The Persians were driven back into the sea and although most managed to re-embark into their ships, about 6,000 lay dead on the field, while Greek losses were under 200.

The victory at Marathon was an enormous boost to Greek morale which was to be of great value when the Persians mounted a much more threatening invasion 10 years later.

The battle has been immortalised by the race named after it in memory of the runner, Pheidippides, who reputedly ran to Sparta from Athens to appeal for aid before the battle. He covered the distance of 200 km/125 mi in a day but the Spartans failed to provide any assistance. A more recent legend, that he ran from Athens to Marathon (a distance of about 40 km/25 mi) to fight in the battle, then ran back with the news of the victory before dropping dead, actually gives rise to the name of the modern race but is considered spurious by scholars.

431-404 BC – Peloponnesian War
… conflict between Athens and Sparta, backed by their respective allies, 431-404 BC, originating in suspicions about the ambitions of the Athenian leader Pericles. It was ended by the Spartan general Lysander’s capture of the Athenian fleet in 405, and his starving the Athenians into surrender in 404. Sparta’s victory meant the destruction of the political power of Athens.

479 BC – Battle of Plataea
… in which the Greeks defeated the Persians during the Persian Wars.

48 BC – Battle of Pharsalus
Julius Caesar’s final victory over Pompey’s forces near Pharsalus (now Farsala) in Thessaly 9 Aug 48 BC. After their comprehensive defeat at Pharsalus, the remainder of Pompey’s force surrendered, ending all organized resistance to Caesar’s rule.

The battle began well for Pompey, who outnumbered Caesar’s 22,000 troops two-to-one; his cavalry charged Caesar’s cavalry and forced them back. However, this exposed their flank to attack by Caesar’s foot soldiers who took full advantage of this weakness, causing the Pompeian cavalry to fall into total disorder and finally ride clear of the battle entirely. The Pompeian foot soldiers heard of their cavalry’s panic-stricken flight and themselves turned and ran, pursued by Caesar’s troops. The Pompeians were totally routed, losing 8,000 troops compared to only 200 of Caesar’s.

480 BC – Battle of Salamis
… in the Persian Wars, Greek naval victory over the Persians 480 BC in the Strait of Salamis southwest of Athens. Despite being heavily outnumbered, the Greeks inflicted a crushing defeat on the invading Persians which effectively destroyed their fleet.

After the sack of Athens by the Persians, the commanders of some 370 Greek war galleys then lying off the island of Salamis debated what action they could take; their debate was ended by the appearance of the Persian fleet in the Bay of Phalerum. Themistocles, the Athenian commander of the Greek fleet, sent a fake message, ostensibly from a spy, to the Persians warning that the Greek fleet was about to withdraw and that the Persians should blockade the entrance to the Bay of Eleusis. The Persians fell for the ruse and spread their 1,000 ships thinly across the bay.

The Persians were so confident they could deal with a mere 370 vessels that they had a throne prepared for their king, Xerxes, on nearby Mount Aegaleus so that he would have a grandstand view from which to watch the anticipated crushing of the Greek fleet. However, the Greeks came out into the bay at full speed, broke the Persian line, and then created mayhem in all directions, sinking over 500 Persian ships for the loss of only about 40 of their own. Xerxes, disgusted at this humiliation, returned to Asia, leaving a subordinate, Mardonius, to continue the land campaign.

637 AD – Battle of Qadisiya
Battle fought in S Iraq 637. A Muslim Arab force defeated a larger Zoroastrian Persian army and ended the Sassanian Empire. The defeat is still resented in Iran, where Muslim Arab nationalism threatens to break up the Iranian state.

207 BC – Battle of Metaurus, 
In the Second Punic War, Roman victory over the Carthaginians 207 BC on the Metaurus river (now Metauro) in Italy, about 65 km/40 mi west of Ancona. This proved to be the decisive battle of the war, since it wrecked Hannibal’s chances of overthrowing Rome and assured Roman military supremacy over Carthage. A 40,000-strong Carthaginian army under Hasdrubal was marching inland to reinforce Hannibal. The relief force was attempting to find a ford to cross the river at dawn when they were surprised by a Roman army of about 50,000 troops. The Romans attacked immediately; Hasdrubal’s force began to press the Roman right wing back. The Roman commander on the right wing, Nero, was unable to come to grips with the enemy due to the ground in front of his position. He abandoned the right wing, marched his force round the rear of the Roman line, and reinforced the left wing which then totally destroyed the Carthaginian force; Hasdrubal was among the Carthaginians slain.

479 BC – Battle of Plataea
… in which the Greeks defeated the Persians during the Persian Wars.

371 BC – Battle of Leuctra
Theban defeat of the Spartans July 371 BC, southwest of Thebes (now Thivai, Greece). The defeat finally ended the 30-year period of Spartan dominance over Greece and the Thebans assumed the hegemony over the Greek states. This was the first time that Epaminondas, the Theban commander, used his innovative tactics which foreshadowed the famous phalanx, later developed so successfully by Philip of Macedon and then Alexander the Great. Until this time, hoplite battles had always been fought by the two sides confronting each other in two long lines; Epaminondas concentrated hoplites 50 deep at one point in the line in a wedge formation and used this local superiority to drive a hole through the Spartan line. As the other Spartans left their formation to come to the aid of their overwhelmed companions, the rest of the Thebans fell upon their disorganized ranks, killing over 1,000 of them.

333 BC – Battle of Issus
Battle in which Alexander the Great defeated the Persian king Darius III at the ancient port of Issus in Cilicia, about 80 km/50 mi west of present-day Adana, Turkey. Darius’ family were captured during the battle which secured Alexander’s supply route in preparation for his invasion of the Persian Empire. Alexander met Darius’ army, aided by 30,000 Greek mercenaries, drawn up in a defensive line on the river Pinarus.

Alexander, with an army of 35,000 Macedonians, launched his cavalry against the Persian cavalry and routed them. The Macedonian foot soldiers then crossed the river and assaulted the Persian centre, while Alexander personally led his own cavalry against Darius’ bodyguard, who fled from the field. The Persian troops followed and the Greek mercenaries were left to fight what remained of the battle.

405 BC – Battle of Aegospotami
Spartan naval victory over the Athenians at the end of the Peloponnesian War 405 BC off Aegospotami (now Gelibolu on the northern shore of the Dardanelles). Lysander’s decisive victory over the Athenian fleet broke the hitherto unchallenged Athenian naval superiority and effectively ended the war. An Athenian fleet of some 180 triremes lay at Aegospotami and 170 Peloponnesian ships, under Lysander, lay at Lampsacus (now Lapseki) on the southern shore. On four successive days the Athenian fleet rowed across the strait, hoping to draw Lysander’s force out to give battle, but without success. On the fifth day Lysander waited until the Athenians made their usual sortie and returned to their base; once they had anchored, Lysander’s fleet made a sudden dash across the water, pounced on the anchored Athenians, captured 160 ships, and killed the crews.

31 BC – Battle of  Actium
Naval battle in which Octavian defeated the combined fleets of Mark Antony and Cleopatra 2 Sept 31 BC to become the undisputed ruler of the Roman world (as the emperor Augustus). The site of the battle is at Akri, a promontory in W Greece. Antony had encamped in Greece with a powerful force of infantry and cavalry, and was waiting for Octavian’s smaller force to attack. However, engagements on land proved indecisive and in the meantime Octavian’s naval commander Marcus Agrippa had managed to cut off Antony’s supply route by sea, despite commanding a fleet of only 400 ships against Antony’s 500. Antony and Cleopatra could have escaped overland to continue the fight but Cleopatra demanded to return to Egypt by sea and they were defeated in the ensuing sea battle. Having unsuccessfully requested peace terms, they fled to Egypt but Octavian pursued them there the following year. Alexandria surrendered without a fight and they committed suicide.

378 AD – Battle of Adrianople
Gothic victory over the Roman Empire in the East 9 Aug 378 which marked the beginning of the empire’s downfall. A Gothic settlement was founded within the frontier of the Roman Empire and Valens, the Eastern Emperor, was lost in the battle.

216 BC – Battle of Cannae
In August 2, 216 B.C.. Hannibal – general of Carthago in Numidia – defeats Terentius Varro – Consul of Rome – at the Aufidus river near the city of Cannae in southern Italy.

Hannibal with his 50.000 men fought with their backs against the river which at that point flows in a shallow “U” form. As he had his left flank touching the Aufidus river, he didn�t have to worry about being outflanked by the 80.000 Roman troops, in fact his whole tactic was based on this secure flank. His center consisted only of a thin line of infantry. Hannibals main force was concentrated on the flanks. The left and right wings each contained deep phalanxes of heavy infantry and eight thousand cavalry next to the river on the left. His open right flank was guarded by two thousand cavalry. In the rear his camp was protected by eight thousand men.

Varro, feeling confident of victrory with his more than 80,000 Roman soldiers, accepted battle, but as he saw that Hannibals flanks were well protected, Varro decided to crush the Carthagians by throwing allmost all his men through Hannibals center. With 65,000 men in his center, 2,400 cavalry on his right and 4,800 cavalry on his left he sent the remaining 11,000 men to attack Hannibals camp.

After some preliminary skirmishes, Hannibal let his light center advance into a salient against the Romans. When the Romans reacted by attacking the center of Carthago, which slowly started an orderly but fighting retreat under the sheer might of Varros forces, Hannibal let his heavy cavalry on the left crush the opposing Roman cavalry. Hannibals cavalry rode after that around the Roman armys rear and attacked the Roman cavalry on Varros left flank from behind while Hannibals right flank attacked the same cavalry from the front. The Roman cavalry panicked and fled the field, pursued all the way by Hannibals right flank cavalry.

The heavy cavalry of Carthago turned back to assault the rear of the Roman infantry who had pressed back Hannibal’s thin center line. While this happened Hannibal let his left and right infantry wings turn against the flanks of the Roman center which had advanced deep due to the weak center of Carthago. Now the weak center stopped their retreat and dug their heels in as the encircelment was complete. Varro, boxed in, unable to maneuver lost approximatively 60.000 men as his army was thoroughly destroyed.

A footnote: During WW1 the same tactics was copied and used as the Schlieffen Plan in the Ardennes – learn from history.

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