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The Decisive Battles of World History

The Decisive Battles of World History

Professor Gregory S. Aldrete Ph.D.
University of Wisconsin, Green Bay
Course No.  8140
Course No.  8140
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Course Overview

About This Course

36 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

Nothing changes the world as quickly and inexorably as war. In warfare, the future course of entire civilizations, regions, and continents can be determined in as little as a few hours.

Throughout history, specific individual battles have turned the tide of historical events, triggering changes that have given us the world we know:

  • The 7th-century battle of Badr transformed the prophet Mohammad into a major political force, establishing Islam firmly as a legitimate religion that could not be suppressed.
  • The 1066 Battle of Hastings impacted world history by creating a new fusion of peoples and cultures in England and orienting the country permanently toward Europe.
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Nothing changes the world as quickly and inexorably as war. In warfare, the future course of entire civilizations, regions, and continents can be determined in as little as a few hours.

Throughout history, specific individual battles have turned the tide of historical events, triggering changes that have given us the world we know:

  • The 7th-century battle of Badr transformed the prophet Mohammad into a major political force, establishing Islam firmly as a legitimate religion that could not be suppressed.
  • The 1066 Battle of Hastings impacted world history by creating a new fusion of peoples and cultures in England and orienting the country permanently toward Europe.
  • The 1759 Battle of Quebec determined the future of North America, shifting power such that the English language and British culture would predominate.

In addition to causing changes on a global scale, military engagements have often produced monumental effects within individual cultures:

  • The outcome of the 4th-century battle of the Frigidus River established Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire.
  • The 16th-century battles of Panipat established Mughal domination over the Indian subcontinent that would last for centuries.
  • In 1836, a battle that lasted a mere 18 minutes resulted in the U.S. acquisition of nearly one-third of its continental land mass.

In these battles and many others, if it were not for the particular outcome that transpired, history might have turned out very differently. As such, looking closely at military engagements provides a vital key to historical causation—showing us how and why events unfolded and civilizations developed as they have.

A penetrating look at military conflicts also acts as a corrective, allowing for a more accurate view of major events and the forces underlying them. As a case in point, the Battle of Waterloo is commonly thought of as the downfall of Napoleon; yet his losses at the earlier Battle of Leipzig unquestionably doomed his ambitions and were the true marker and determinant of his fall. Similarly, a 1939 battle in Mongolia that is all but forgotten played an extremely significant role in both the outbreak and the outcome of World War II.

For these reasons and more, the study of pivotal battles is a highly revealing analytical tool and a key component for understanding world history. Offering eye-opening insights into humanity’s past, a knowledge of mankind’s most critical military engagements enriches and deepens any view into civilizations and their evolution.

In the dynamic lectures of The Decisive Battles of World History, Professor Gregory S. Aldrete of the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay guides you in a discovery of the military conflicts that have had the greatest impact in shifting the direction of historical events and shaping our world. Covering nearly 4,000 years of history, this course explores more than three dozen history-making military engagements, from the landmark battles of the Western world to their counterparts across Asia, India, and the Middle East. These 36 lectures feature vital historical background, vivid accounts of the campaigns themselves, and a thorough look at their influence on the unfolding of history.

Military Encounters that Changed the World

Through his powerfully evocative words, aided by specially made maps and animations of the engagements, Professor Aldrete brings the battlefield events alive with gripping vividness, taking you blow-by-blow through the unfolding of each conflict. Throughout the lectures, he reveals rich historical background material that highlights the high drama, poignancy, and scope of the human experience of war.

In The Decisive Battles of World History, you’ll trace the critical pivot points where key military engagements determined the course history has taken. This enthralling learning experience provides far-reaching insights into the story of world cultures by revealing the foundational impact of military battles in human affairs.

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36 Lectures
  • 1
    What Makes a Battle Decisive?
    Contemplate the ways in which warfare can change the course of historical events. Examine the factors that make a military battle “decisive,” such as its role in transfers of power and its social and political effects, and consider the study of battles as an analytical tool for understanding history. x
  • 2
    1274 B.C. Kadesh— Greatest Chariot Battle
    The battle of Kadesh ushered in an unprecedented era of peace in the ancient Near East. Follow the strategy and tactics of the Egyptian and Hittite armies, featuring each side’s distinctive war chariots. Trace the unusual sequence of battlefield events that led to a remarkable treaty, an important forerunner of peaceful diplomacy. x
  • 3
    479 B.C. Plataea—Greece Wins Freedom
    In the 479 B.C. battle of Plataea, Greek “hoplite” forces fighting in phalanxes met the mighty army of the Persian superpower. Study the unfolding of this dramatic engagement, and learn how it ended the Persian threat to Greece and allowed for the flowering of Greece’s cultural Golden Age. x
  • 4
    331 B.C. Gaugamela—Alexander’s Genius
    The victory of Alexander at Gaugamela resulted in the spread of Greek culture throughout the Macedonian Empire. Trace Alexander’s campaign against the Persians, which led to the battle, and his bloody confrontation with the Persian forces, and grasp the brilliant maneuvers that allowed him to overcome his foe’s significant advantages on the battlefield. x
  • 5
    197 B.C. Cynoscephalae—Legion vs. Phalanx
    In 197 B.C., two rival military systems clashed. Learn about the forces of Philip V of Macedon, with their phalanx system; the legacy of Alexander; and the up-and-coming Romans with their “manipular” army based in flexible subunits of soldiers. Assess the far-reaching effects of the battle and its consequences for world history. x
  • 6
    31 B.C. Actium—Birth of the Roman Empire
    This great naval battle resulted from conflict within republican Rome. Follow the intense rivalry between Mark Antony and Octavian for domination of Rome, leading to the fateful events of the confrontation, and observe how it marked the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire. x
  • 7
    260–110 B.C. China—Struggles for Unification
    The wars of the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C. were crucial in forging the later history of China. Study the military technology of the ancient Chinese and the conflicts through which the first Qin and Han emperors welded together a group of antagonistic kingdoms, creating a united China. x
  • 8
    636 Yarmouk & al-Qadisiyyah—Islam Triumphs
    In these dramatic conflicts, the Islamic Rashidun armies toppled two long-established empires. Learn about their defeat of the Byzantine army at Yarmouk and the Sassanid forces at al-Qadisiyyah, which determined the cultural, linguistic, and religious nature of the Middle East for the next 1,500 years. x
  • 9
    751 Talas & 1192 Tarain—Islam into Asia
    This lecture explores military engagements between widely differing cultures. Learn about the 751 battle between the Chinese Tang forces and the Abbasid Caliphate, which altered the religious orientation of central Asia. Then follow the 1192 clash between the Indian Rajputs and a Turkish Islamic army, and its permanent effects on Indian culture. x
  • 10
    1066 Hastings—William Conquers England
    The Battle of Hastings changed the course of both English and world history. Here, encounter the redoubtable figure of William the Conqueror and his 1066 invasion of England to claim the crown. Witness the terrible engagement at Hastings and its outcome, orienting England away from Scandinavian influence and toward Europe. x
  • 11
    1187 Hattin—Crusader Desert Disaster
    The religious and cultural effects of the Christian Crusades are still felt in today’s world. Study the origins of the Crusades and the events leading to the fateful confrontation at Hattin between Islamic and Christian forces, which critically altered the course of the wars. x
  • 12
    1260 Ain Jalut—Can the Mongols Be Stopped?
    Now, envision a militaristic society that threatened nearly all the civilizations of Asia and Europe. Study the rise of the Mongols, their terrifying conquests, and their astounding military expertise. Witness their clash in 1260 with the Egyptian Mamluks, a rare Mongol defeat that effectively halted their Western expansion. x
  • 13
    1410 Tannenberg—Cataclysm of Knights
    This 15th-century conflict pitted the armies of Poland and Lithuania against the fearsome Germanic order of the Teutonic Knights. Learn about the political background of the bloody confrontation at Tannenberg, the harrowing events on the battlefield, and the deep symbolic significance of the battle that still echoes today. x
  • 14
    Frigidus, Badr, Diu—Obscure Turning Points
    This lecture discusses battles that have had extremely important effects, though information about the specific events involved is scanty. Consider the battles of the Frigidus River and Badr, both vital turning points for world religions, and that of Diu, which marked the moment when Europe began its rise to world domination. x
  • 15
    1521 Tenochtitlán—Aztecs vs. Conquistadors
    The 16th-century Spanish conquest of the Americas resulted in some of the most unusual military encounters of all time. Here, learn about the campaign under Hernán Cortés to conquer Mexico, and how fewer than 1,000 Spaniards defeated the mighty Aztec Empire, which possessed armies comprising tens of thousands of warriors. x
  • 16
    1532 Cajamarca—Inca vs. Conquistadors
    Continue with Spain’s campaign against the vast and highly organized Inca Empire. Follow the daring maneuvers of the forces under Francisco Pizarro, aided by European military technology and including the kidnap and ransom of the Incan emperor, which enabled 190 men to vanquish an army of 40,000. x
  • 17
    1526 & 1556 Panipat—Babur & Akbar in India
    Two highly significant 16th-century battles were fought at the Indian town of Panipat. Learn about the rise of the Mughal emperors and the military clashes that first opened the door to their advance into India and then solidified their control, establishing a dynasty that would last for centuries. x
  • 18
    1571 Lepanto—Last Gasp of the Galleys
    The conquests of the Ottoman Turks led to the largest naval battle of the Renaissance. Trace the formation of the Holy League, an alliance of Christian powers against the raiding Ottomans; follow the events leading to Lepanto; and study the dramatic naval engagement that ended Turkish incursions into the maritime outposts of Christendom. x
  • 19
    1592 Sacheon—Yi’s Mighty Turtle Ships
    These great naval conflicts left deep imprints on two nations. Chart the 1592 Japanese conquest of Korea, the remarkable naval technologies involved, and the stunning victories of Korean admiral Yi Sun-shin, whose strategic actions defeated two invasions and established him as one of the greatest admirals of all time. x
  • 20
    1600 Sekigahara—Samurai Showdown
    In this monumental episode of the samurai era, learn about the underlying politics and the major figures in the conflict, including one whose wavering loyalty took an astonishing turn on the battlefield. Track the events that unified Japan under a dynasty of shoguns who would rule for 250 years. x
  • 21
    1683 Vienna—The Great Ottoman Siege
    The Ottoman campaign to capture Vienna was one of the largest and most significant in Ottoman history. Study the background of the siege and the military technology and strategy on both sides. Follow the unfolding engagement and the pivotal role of the Polish-Lithuanian armies, and grasp how Vienna marked a turning point for the Ottoman Empire. x
  • 22
    1709 Poltava—Sweden’s Fall, Russia’s Rise
    In the 17th century, Sweden emerged as the most powerful state in northern Europe. Learn about Swedish king Charles XII, his ambition to conquer Russia, and his opponent, the resourceful and determined Tsar Peter I. Witness the Swedish invasion and the battlefield events that constituted a reversal of fortunes for the two countries. x
  • 23
    1759 Quebec—Battle for North America
    This key incident in the Seven Years War between England and France critically shaped the future of North America. Discover the conflict through the eyes of the opposing commanders as the British assault Quebec City. Observe the remarkable serendipity favoring the British in the engagement, leading to an outcome with historic political effects. x
  • 24
    1776 Trenton—The Revolution’s Darkest Hour
    In late 1776, the rebellion of the American colonists appeared to be heading for dismal failure. Here, uncover the dramatic events that were the pivot point of the war. Learn how George Washington, in two critical battles, undertook bold actions to surprise and outwit the British, saving and revitalizing the revolutionary movement. x
  • 25
    1805 Trafalgar—Nelson Thwarts Napoleon
    In 1805, after subduing much of Europe, Napoleon Bonaparte turned his sights on England. Study the events leading to the largest naval battle of the age, as Napoleon’s combined French and Spanish fleet met the British navy under Admiral Horatio Nelson. Witness the monumental engagement, marking the beginning of Napoleon’s decline. x
  • 26
    1813 Leipzig—The Grand Coalition
    In this massive clash, a coalition of seven European powers united to oppose Napoleon. Trace the preliminary military actions culminating at Leipzig, where four armies finally converged on Napoleon’s forces. Follow the complex unfolding of the battle and the incident that transformed it into an outright disaster for the French. x
  • 27
    1824 Ayacucho—South American Independence
    The early 19th century saw the rise of numerous independence movements in Central and South America. Learn about three key leaders who were prominent in these struggles; their bold plan to liberate Peru; and the showdown on the plain of Ayacucho that ended Spanish rule in Latin America. x
  • 28
    1836 San Jacinto—Mexico’s Big Loss
    First, encounter the larger-than-life commanders of this extraordinary action, Sam Houston and Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Track the tensions between the Mexican government and the province of Texas, resulting in the 18-minute battle that gained Texas independence and led to the United States acquiring nearly one-third of its continental territory. x
  • 29
    1862 Antietam—The Civil War’s Bloodiest Day
    At the time of this landmark battle in the American Civil War, the Confederacy seemed poised to achieve its goal of independence. Envision the protracted, bloody struggle between North and South, and consider the ways in which a marginal Union victory nevertheless altered the course of the war. x
  • 30
    1866 Königgrätz—Bismarck Molds Germany
    The historic engagement at Königgrätz brought a united Germany into being. Assess the opposing Prussian and Austrian forces, and track the Prussian initiative to capture the German-speaking states allied with Austria. Follow the unfolding battle blow by blow, and grasp how easily Prussia’s crushing victory could have ended as a disastrous defeat. x
  • 31
    1905 Tsushima—Japan Humiliates Russia
    A modern Japanese naval force stunned the world in this history-making battle. Learn about Japan’s 19th-century industrialization and militarization, its conflict with an expansionist Russia, and the maritime confrontation that radically altered the Western perception of Japan, signaling its entrance onto the global stage as a major power. x
  • 32
    1914 Marne—Paris Is Saved
    This providential clash critically shaped World War I. Study the German and French preparations for warfare and vital errors in planning by each side. Follow the offensive that began the war, the German commander’s fateful change of plans, and the ensuing battle that left both sides enmeshed in a horrifying, four-year stalemate. x
  • 33
    1939 Khalkin Gol—Sowing the Seeds of WWII
    Here, an obscure battle in Mongolia produced global effects. Track the tensions between Russia and Japan that led to a bloody border conflict that neither side had sought. Grasp how this one event directly contributed to both the outbreak of war in the Pacific and Europe and the outcome of the war itself. x
  • 34
    1942 Midway—Four Minutes Change Everything
    The advent of aircraft carriers brought a significant new era in naval warfare. Witness the most dramatic and pivotal of the “carrier versus carrier” battles, where the events of a short span of minutes permanently tilted the balance of power in the Pacific to the United States. x
  • 35
    1942 Stalingrad—Hitler’s Ambitions Crushed
    Chart the German invasion of Russia at the height of the war in Europe, which massed the full force of Hitler’s war machine. Follow the clash of the seemingly invincible German panzer units with the Red Army and the Russian winter, which ended the ascendancy of Nazi Germany. x
  • 36
    Recent & Not-So-Decisive Decisive Battles
    In concluding the course, take a keen look at what may be some of the historically decisive battles of the six decades following World War II. Finally, consider two famous conflicts often thought to be among the most decisive of all time, and see how careful analysis casts doubt on that conclusion. x

Lecture Titles

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Gregory S. Aldrete
Ph.D. Gregory S. Aldrete
University of Wisconsin, Green Bay

Dr. Gregory S. Aldrete is Professor of Humanistic Studies and History at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, where he has taught since 1995. He earned his B.A. from Princeton University and his master's degree and Ph.D. in Ancient History from the University of Michigan. Honored many times over for his research and his teaching, Professor Aldrete was named by his university as the winner of its highest awards in each category, receiving both its Founders Association Award for Excellence in Scholarship and its Founders Association Award for Excellence in Teaching. That recognition of his teaching skills was echoed on a national level in 2009, when he received the American Philological Association Award for Excellence in the Teaching of Classics at the College Level-the national teaching award given annually by the professional association of classics professors. The recipient of many prestigious research fellowships including five from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Professor Aldrete has published several important books in his field, including Gestures and Acclamations in Ancient Rome; Floods of the Tiber in Ancient Rome; Daily Life in the Roman City: Rome, Pompeii, and Ostia; The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Daily Life I: The Ancient World (as editor); Unraveling the Linothorax Mystery: Reconstructing and Testing Ancient Linen Body Armor (with S. Bartell and A. Aldrete) and The Long Shadow of Antiquity: What Have the Greeks and Romans Done for Us (with A. Aldrete).

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Reviews

Rated 4.8 out of 5 by 12 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Great! I loved this course, which I think will be very interesting for anyone interested in history, regardless of the depth of their current knowledge. Prof. Aldrete is an excellent lecturer who clearly enjoys the material; he's very easy to listen to. Battles such as Plataea, Gaugamela, Actium, Hastings, Lepanto, Trafalgar, Antietam, Midway, that are well known to many people, come to life as Prof Aldrete delivers new insights. I learned a great deal about decisive battles about which I knew little and several about which I knew nothing (such as Ain Jalut, Tannenberg, Panipat, Sacheon, Poltava, and Leipzig). I loved this course. July 27, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Terrific new addition to the History curriculum I very quickly devoured this excellent addition to the Great Courses ever-growing catalog. Professor Aldrete is a terrific find. The course begins with the obligatory introductory lecture where Professor Aldrete defines what is meant by a "decisive battle" and give a nod to Sir Edward Creasy, the father of the Decisive Battle genre. He then spends the bulk of the course discussing 34 battles, or occasionally campaigns, that meet his criteria. The first half to two-thirds of each lecture are actually spent setting the political, military, economic and sometimes religious stage for each battle and only towards the end is the battle itself discussed in detail. Professor Aldrete is a very engaging lecturer and is clearly in command of his material. The lectures are well-paced and very clear and comprehensive. Any student of military history will enjoy this course. Even those already familiar with these battles will learn something new. A couple of criticisms are in order. One could take issue with the choices of battles. For example, Trenton is the decisive battle of the American Revolution rather than Creasy's choice of Saratoga. Antietam is the choice for the American Civil War rather than the more conventional Gettysburg or (my choice) Vicksburg. Also, there is little discussion of sources. This isn't a problem with Stalingrad or the Marne which are thoroughly documented. But how do we actually know what happened at Kadesh? A discussion of sources and their reliability would have been in order. But these are quibbles. If you enjoy military history, or history in general, you won't be disappointed. This is another example of The Great Courses offering a course that is probably not taught on most college campuses today. A word about format. A course like this is best done in the video format and a fair number of graphics are used to illustrate the battles. However, Professor Aldrete is careful to paint a thorough word picture for those purchasing the audio format and I actually listened to a couple of lectures in my car just to see if this was possible. It is, so if audio is your only alternative go ahead. April 14, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Military Turning Points in History The Great Courses offer several 'Turning Points' courses - Dr. A's course could be subtitled: Military Turning Points in History. While some have disagreed with Professor A's choice of battles, there can be no disagreement that battles have changed the course of history and they aren't finished changing history yet. This course fleshes out the GC's courses on World History, Western Civilization, and American History. I am an exclusive GC 'listener' and I found the professor's delivery to be easy on the ears and mind. If you are an expert on Military History this course will not make you more expert but if you are like me and enjoy learning History - take this course. Dr. A has worked some educational alchemy changing brutal and bloody contests into educational and enjoyable histrorical vignettes. This course will enrich your knowledge the History you do know and and the History you don't. This is decisively a Great Course and I look forward to new courses by Dr. A. August 29, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Outstanding Overview of Historical Battles I continue to be fascinated by The Great Courses. They open doors to intellectual pursuit whereby one may, or may not, venture otherwise. This course was decidedly captivating and interesting. Regardless of where your interest may lie this is a fantastic course. I could spend time and write a lengthly review but, in the short run, I would simply suggest that you buy this course and you will NOT be disappointed. August 21, 2014
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