The role of a historian is to study the events of the past so he or she can advise on 1) how we can avoid making the same mistakes, and 2) how we can improve things in the future. The following historians shared their favorite moments in history involving huge, in-your-face victories by prominent individuals or groups. If you like drama, make sure to keep reading:
#1 The Battle Of Alesia
Julius Caesar attacked some Gauls in modern-day France, and they went to hide in a castle on top of a hill. Caesar's army wasn't big enough to take them all at once, and the Gauls had reinforcements coming, so a siege was impossible. Caesar, in response, just built a bigger castle around the one he was attacking. He literally built two walls back-to-back in a ring around the castle. The first Gaul army was already too small to defeat Caesar, and his fortifications only gave him a greater advantage. The reinforcements were also unable to defeat Caesar's army now that he was behind several layers of spike pits and both earthen and wooden walls. Plus, the Gauls inside had no way to communicate with the reinforcements outside, so they couldn't coordinate attacks. Both Gallic armies were defeated as they attacked Caesar's newly built fortifications, and Caesar emerged victoriously. It's probably my favorite battle of all time.
#2 About The Romans
The Roman legionary system was incredible. In an era when only the big boy empires had professional armies, instead of conscripts, they stood out even more because each soldier had been training for years if not decades. They were engineers, building roads and bridges as well. Vercingetorix and the Gauls fought amazingly but you just can’t counter that.
#3 The Warwolf
The construction and use of the warwolf, supposedly the largest trebuchet ever built. When it was disassembled, it would fill up 30 wagons. King Edward built this to siege a Scottish castle. But before it was even built, the Scottish people tried to surrender... to which Edward responded with a prompt no (in actuality, he responded with: “You do not deserve any grace, but must surrender to my will). He proceeded to use the trebuchet anyways.
#4 A Manure-Filled Aftermath
The second defenestration of Prague. The Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia sent representatives to the Protestant city of Prague, telling them to convert to Catholicism. The representatives got thrown out a window and allegedly landed in a pile of manure. This was the first instance of a bounced Czech, no?
#5 Well, Welcome Back
When France exiled Napoleon Bonaparte (the first time), they didn’t think to change out military personnel. So he basically rolled up to the first French outpost he got to, said “‘What's up,” and began reassembling an army. By the time he got to Paris, he had enough forces that France was like, “Well. Welcome back.” He supposedly said to the first soldiers he encountered: "Any of you who dare oppose the emperor, fire." The soldiers cheered and joined him.
#6 That Backfired
The execution of Michael Ney went like this: "Soldiers when I give the command to fire, fire straight at my heart. Wait for the order. It will be my last to you. I protest against my condemnation. I have fought a hundred battles for France, and not one against her... Soldiers, fire!" The soldiers fired and killed him.
#7 The Birth Of A Rivalry
Ferruccio Lamborghini was a rich man owning his company that built tractors. He talked to Ferrari about the imperfections of his car and how to improve them and they basically laughed at a young tractor mechanic trying to tell them about sports cars. So he decided to start making luxury sports cars to compete with Ferrari and thus, the rivalry was born. So I'd say the middle finger of this guy to Ferrari was pretty noticeable.
#8 Ford v. Ferrari
When Ford was about to buy Ferrari, they noticed something in the paperwork that said Ford would not own the Ferrari race team. They were upset about this and Enzo basically said Ford was too low to own such a great team. Later on, Ford recruited Shelby Carrol and beat Ferrari at Le Mans and has every single time since they've entered a car.
#9 Olga Of Kiev
Olga of Kiev. When her husband died, the country that killed him assumed they’d just take over and force her into marriage. She straight up killed the dignitaries that were sent to tell her she had to marry - multiple times, in the most intense way possible. She then traveled to where her husband had been killed and basically burnt the place to the ground—again, in the most hardcore, amazing way. They made her a freaking saint.
#10 The Chilean Wolverine
Galvarino: a Chilean warrior who had both his hands cut off by the conquistadors for raising arms against the Spanish. Instead of letting himself serve as a message of helplessness in the face of the invaders, the crazy dude strapped swords to his stumps and went on the warpath. Essentially, this guy was ancient Chilean wolverine.
#11 Not Today, Britain
Jean Laffitte was propositioned by the British. It was basically like, “Hey, show us how to navigate the swamps around New Orleans so we can launch a sneak attack. The king will pardon you and make you a privateer.” He was like, “Give me a fortnight to consider it.” So he snuck over to the governor's mansion, scaled the outside wall, and was waiting for him in his office. He told the governor and Andrew Jackson the British plan and offer and how he wouldn’t betray New Orleans because he loved her. So all he asked was for a pardon and he’d give them everything they needed to win the war. And he did.
#12 Big Moves
In the 1970s, the small town of Vulcan, West Virginia asked for state funding to replace a bridge into town. The state legislature refused to grant Vulcan the funding they needed. Instead, the town appealed to the Soviet Union for aid. After hearing about the request, the state legislature immediately granted over $1 million for the town to build a new bridge. If a small town in WV asking for Soviet funding in the middle of the Cold War isn’t a big middle finger to the state government, then I don’t know what is.
#13 One-Word Replies
This requires some background. The Spartans were famously blunt. They were trained to "get to the point" when speaking (instead of using artsy and beautiful language that would have been common at the time) by being bitten on the thumb if they became long-winded. Now to the meat. Phillip the second of Macedon (Alexander the Great's father) sent the Spartans a letter saying, "Would you like me to enter your land as friend or foe?" The Spartans responded with one word. "Neither". Phillip was irate. He then sent another long-winded message. "If once I enter into your territories, I will destroy ye all, never to rise again." The Spartans then sent back one word. "If." It was like putting your head in a lion's mouth and I love it.
#14 Operation Paul Bunyan
It is 1976. Some Americans at the Korean DMZ are cutting down a tree that obscures their vision to the North Korean side. A couple of North Koreans come out and end a few Americans with their own axes. The Americans and South Koreans come back with such a massive show of force it’s not even funny. Bombers, jet planes, 27 helicopters, a full aircraft carrier moved off the coast, thousands of troops, troop carriers, commandos; all just to send in a squad of army engineers with chainsaws to cut down that freaking tree.
#15 Pure Vengeance
Genghis Khan to Shah Ala ad-Din. After the Kwarezmids plundered one of Genghis Khan's caravans, killed his people, and took his stuff, he thought to take the diplomatic approach and send two envoys and an interpreter. Shah Ala ad-Din decided to be a jerk about it. He shaved the heads of the envoys to shame them and sent them back with the head of the interpreter. Mr. Khan was upset, so he marched 200,000 of his boys and annihilated their town with only a quarter of that number even being able to fight back.
He was so upset at the Shah that he had the rivers keeping the surrounding villages alive fully diverted so that he would literally wipe Ala ad-Dins birthplace off the map and make it so that it was like he never existed. No one would settle there or live there ever again. No one would be there to remember his enemy who had disrespected him. "Not even the dogs or cats" would be spared, said Genghis Khan.
#16 Into His Own Hands
Genghis Khan's wife was kidnapped. She was taken by a rival tribe and was going to be sold as a slave to spite Genghis Khan, and he was so furious he took his men and personally rode to get her while fighting a war. Many generals would stay behind and send their trusted men, but Khan went to go get her, obliterated the tribe, and destroyed any record of their culture so they were essentially deleted from history. I believe their Wikipedia page ends with Genghis Khan’s arrival at their camp because there was really nothing else after that.
#17 Hard To Impress
After an enemy warrior shot the Khan's horse out from under him, he made him a general in his own army. the dude went on to be one of the finest commanders of all time. Genghis Khan wasn't just immensely talented himself, he recruited and fought with people who could easily be put on a top 20 list of best military leaders themselves.
#18 All Traitors
On the crowning of King Henry VII, he backdated his own reign before the date of the Battle of Bosworth, meaning anyone who was loyal to him now but had shown any sign of opposition at Bosworth was now a traitor and an enemy to the realm. Justice served. I know, it sounds like the premise behind The Black Adder!
#19 Deepening The Humiliation
On the French surrender in WW2: "The German dictator declares that the French capitulation will take place at Compiegne, a forest north of Paris. This is the same spot where twenty-two years earlier, the Germans had signed the armistice ending World War I. The German dictator intends to disgrace the French and avenge the German defeat. To further deepen the humiliation, he orders that the signing ceremony take place in the same railroad car that hosted the earlier surrender. The armistice was signed on June 22. Under its terms, two-thirds of France was to be occupied by the Germans. The French army was to be disbanded. In addition, France must bear the cost of the German invasion."
#20 The Better Version
Khosreau Anushirawan was a shah of Iran in the 500's ACE. He took over a town (Antioch) that used to belong to the Byzantine Empire (ran by emperor Justinian), but before he burned it to the ground, he had architects and a bunch of other people go through and record EXACTLY what the city and its buildings looked like. He then built a new town that looked EXACTLY the same and named it Weh Antioch Khosreau, which translates roughly to "Kohsreau's Better Version of Antioch." And that's not even all of the ways Khosreau trolled Justinian. I recommend watching Extra Credit's series on this dude, it's nuts.
#21 A True Group Project
Julius Caesar's death. At least he died surrounded by friends. I love it because there are several levels: There were about 40 conspirators. Caesar received 23 wounds. So right off the bat, and not even accounting for people managing to get him multiple times, about half the folks involved did nothing. But then later his body was examined, and the doctor concluded that only one of those was properly fatal on its own. Even of the people that actually did any work at all, just one got it right. That's a group project.
#22 Kissing The Foot
I would say the moment that Rollo swore allegiance to the French king: The bishops present suggested that Rollo kiss the king’s foot, as a sign of submission. It was probably an idea intended to humiliate Rollo and was not taken very well. After some discussion, it was agreed that one of Rollo’s men would do it. However, the person chosen lifted the king’s foot, and, without bending down, brought it up to his mouth. Not surprisingly the king fell over, amid general laughter in the court. Following this amusing scene, the king and his men swore to honor the concession to Rollo.
#23 Leaving In Embarrassment
Not the biggest, but definitely one to note. In 1966, Charles DeGaulle ordered all U.S. Troops out of France, as he said the country was leaving NATO, LBJ's first words were to his Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, "Ask him about the cemeteries, Dean!" When Dean Rusk mentioned whether or not the 60,000+ US soldiers buried in France were to be removed, DeGaulle simply stood up and left the room, embarrassed.
#24 About The Welsh
When the Germanic tribes invaded Britain after the Romans left, they named the native Celts Welisc, meaning "foreigner" (even though they themselves were the foreigners). That later became the word Welsh, which the English promptly adopted for phrases like welch on a bet. All of history has been one giant etymological middle finger to the Welsh.
#25 The Iron Chancellor
When Otto von Bismarck was about 50, he was walking down a street when a man ran up to him and shot him five times. Otto then turned around and began to beat the absolute heck out of him until some armed guards come to help him. When they inspected Otto for wounds, they found that all five had hit, but they all either just grazed him or bounced off his ribs. Literally the Iron Chancellor.
#26 When Looks Matter
When Alcibiades had intimate relations with the Spartan King's wife, he later fled to Persia, became a high command, and made it back to Athens where he once started as a politician and became one again. He said "screw you" to Athens, Sparta, and Persia, and got away with it because he looked so dang good.
#27 Abe The Lawyer
Abraham Lincoln, while still a largely unknown frontier lawyer, was asked to assist in a law case by some big wigs out in the east because the trial was going to be held in Springfield and they wanted a local lawyer on the team. Well, the location of the trial got moved but the big wig lawyers never told Lincoln they didn’t need him anymore. He worked really hard on some arguments and showed up to the trial which was now in Ohio or something.
The big wig lawyers were pretty rude to him when he showed up and didn’t use any of his arguments and didn’t allow him to participate. They did eventually send him a check for payment but Abe sent it back. They did send it back writing enough to get Abe to deposit the check. When Abe became president he eventually asked the head lawyer of the big wigs in this case (Edwin Stanton) to be his secretary of War.
Edwin Stanton grew to truly love Abraham Lincoln and was a very effective Secretary of War. Abe could have remembered the snub from earlier in his career and refused to have anything to do with Stanton but Abe was never truly offended and saw Stanton as a good person to have in his cabinet.
#28 Not A Single Blow
My favorite is when Deng Xiao Ping ordered the Chi-com army to invade Vietnam in order to teach them a lesson about the South China Sea dispute. The Chinese rolled across the border and were like, “Hey, where is everyone? Looks like they didn’t even field an army.” That's when they started getting hit with guerilla-types of attacks. The Chinese Commies were supposed to mop the floor—they ended up incurring way more casualties than they anticipated and basically retreated back to China after one month and declared “victory.” Couldn’t get a solid body blow on the Vietnamese army.
#29 The Panama Deal
In 1941, the US requested Panama grant a 999-year long lease to build over 100 military bases within their country, the Panama government asked for compensation in return which the US felt was too high. The US responded by overthrowing their government by orchestrating a coup. They then signed an agreement with the new one.
#30 The Mephisto Tank
I’m not a historian, but I know this WWI fact: In 1918, during the battle of Villers-Bretonneux, major James Robertson made a plan to steal a German tank stuck in no man’s land. There was no point in getting it because it was dangerous going out there and the tank wasn’t a threat to anyone. Not giving a heck about that, he grouped with 12 other men to retrieve that tank, under machine-gun fire and inside mustard gas, just to say to the German army “Screw you, look what we got here.” Thanks to him and the other men, today that tank is the only original WWI tank we have and it’s called “Mephisto.”
#31 A Huge Taunt
At that point, Sparta was just a backwater that wasn't worth the trouble of attacking. Their golden age had long since faded and now they were surrounded by fortified cities inhabited by their former slaves, freed after their loss against Thebes in the battle of Leuctra. And they ended up missing all the glory and loot that Alexander and his mates got. After winning a big battle, Alexander even sent armor and plunder back to Greece with the message: "Alexander and all the Greeks, except for the Spartans, share the spoils of our victory."
#32 One Man, Many Effects
Archduke Ferdinand narrowly escaped assassination and, a few hours later, he took the wrong turn and had his car break down directly in front of the assassin's lair. He was killed by triggering WWI. Millions died. The global order was shattered. And, just as peace was finally declared, one of the worst epidemics in human history broke out and travels the world with the returning troops killing untold millions more.
#33 The Crazy Strategy
One of my favorites was when the British tried to attack China via the sea. The Chinese knew that the British navy was going to mess them up, and they couldn't respond fast enough, so they decided that being absolutely crazy would work best. They got their catapults ready, and when the British were close enough, the Chinese took monkeys, lit them on fire, and freaking launched them at the British ships. The British were horrified when flaming monkey corpses landed on their boat and were like, screw the loot, they were out.
#34 The Battle Of Pelusium
The Achaemenid Empire had trouble conquering Egypt in the early part of their war, so they decided to use the very embodiment of their holy figure against them. They literally had soldiers carry cats with them and painted cat heads on their shields so the Egyptians couldn't fight back due to their beliefs and surrendered. They literally pulled a "your god is our frontline." This is known as the Battle of Pelusium.
#35 Prussia v. Paris
Prussia forces besieged Paris for several months, inhabiting a series of forts and outposts around the city. The people assumed that they were outside the range of the Prussian artillery. After a few months of just starving the city out, the Prussian guns opened up. But they would only fire at night (all night), and would only target landmarks. So you’ve been hungry, but safe. Then the Prussians break the news that you’re well within range and come daylight this monument or that church is now wiped out. It had a big phycological effect.
#36 In Her Husband's Honor
Mariya Oktyabrskaya. Her husband died fighting in WWII so she sold everything to buy a T-34 and be its driver and mechanic. She'd maneuver her tank into positions that made fighting her unit a living heck for German units and would fix her tank minutes after the German's damaged it, in the middle of the fighting.
#37 Oar v. Sword
Legendary Samurai Musashi Miyamoto. He was undefeated in about 60 duels and fought in three battles. He was challenged to another duel was to take place on an island and he also knew his opponent would be using a longer than average blade (I think it was called an 'Odachi') Being the zesty undefeated self-assured wise guy that he was, he accepted the duel, rowed to the island, and then proceeded to beat his opponent to death with the boat oar he used to row there because he knew it was longer than his opponent's blade by just a few inches.
#38 The Battle Of Stalingrad
The Battle of Stalingrad. The German commander, Friedrich Paulus, wants to surrender to the Soviets. He has no food and is trapped. He calls up the German dictator to ask for permission to surrender and Hitler says no. In fact, Hitler promotes him to Field Marshal. This is a “screw you” because in the history of Prussia and Germany no Field Marshal has ever surrendered. The German dictator only did this to ensure Paulus wouldn’t surrender. He basically told him to either die as a Field Marshal or live as a disgrace to Germany.
#39 Affair Of Sausages
Huldrych Zwingli and his reformers were protesting the church and its ridiculous rules about Lent in 1522 by convening together to eat sausages. Sausages. This was literally the start of the Swiss Reformation. Zwingli (kind of like the Swiss Martin Luther) encouraged the behavior as a giant "screw you" to the Catholic Church at the time. He preached about it everywhere and during that Lenten season, he and his reformers became famous for eating sausages in protest. It's actually a pretty big part of Church history.
#40 Like A Boss
The union forces were set to march through and raze Atlanta. The mayor of Atlanta sent a letter to General Sherman, asking him to go around to avoid any unnecessary destruction. What followed is probably the most insane quote ever. "You might as well appeal against the thunderstorm as against these terrible hardships of war." He then marched through and destroyed Atlanta.
#41 Stalin And Tito
Stalin repeatedly sent assassins to Yugoslavia to kill Tito. Enraged, Tito sent back a letter of complaint: "Stop sending people to kill me! We've already captured five of them, one of them with a bomb and another with a rifle. If you don't stop sending killers, I'll send a very fast working one to Moscow and I certainly won't have to send another."
#42 The Battle Of Agincourt
The Battle of Agincourt, or at least, the aftermath. Henry V wanted to have a show of force and marched his 9,000 troops through France, France wasn't having it, so they raised some 12,000.. when France tried to negotiate, Henry launched an assault sparking the battle itself. Using clever use of terrain and the fearsome use of the English longbow, the French took heavy losses. It was believed, however, that any English archer captured by the French had their fore and middle fingers cut off so they could not operate a longbow. Thus inventing the "two-finger salute" that citizens of the UK are known for, that for us Americans would be the middle finger now.
#43 Greek Contradiction
In Ancient Greece, there was a debate among philosophers about what makes someone human. Plato came up with the definition of “a featherless biped” and was well recognized for this. Diogenes (a very non-formal philosopher to say the least), disagreed with this definition so in protest he plucked a chicken, went into Plato’s academy while he was teaching, and said: “Behold a man.” I like to believe the sources that claim he walked in, said the phrase, and then threw it at him all while Plato was mid-sentence but it was Ancient Greece so we don’t have that kind of accuracy.
#44 Canadian Uprising
On August 24, 1814, after defeating the Americans at the Battle of Bladensburg, a British force led by Major General Robert Ross burned down multiple buildings, including the White House (then called the Presidential Mansion), the Capitol building, as well as other facilities of the U.S. government. The attack was in part a retaliation for the recent American destruction of Port Dover in Upper Canada.
#45 That's... Weird
Not a historian, so don't know much about this, but remember that meme about the hot Lucifer statue this guy built for a church? Well, it was considered too alluring and distracting for the young girls at the church, so they removed it and commissioned the guy's brother to do another one. The next statue is considered to be even hotter. They just kept it.
#46 The Sack Of Mecca
In 930, Unable to gain entry to Mecca initially due to his previous sackings of other cities, Abu Tahir called upon the right of all Muslims to enter the city and gave his oath that he came in peace. Once inside the city walls, the Qarmatian army set about massacring the pilgrims, taunting them with verses of the Quran as they did so. The bodies of the pilgrims were left to rot in the streets or thrown down the Well of Zamzam. The Kaaba was looted, with Abū Tāhir taking personal possession of the Black Stone and taking it away to al-Hasa.
#47 Young Caesar
Caesar in his youth, before he became famous, was captured by pirates off the coast of Italy and held hostage. He promptly befriended the pirates, got tipsy, and shared stories while they waited for the ransom to be paid. Later, after he was released, he went back to find and capture the same pirates and ordered their deaths because they requested an insultingly low ransom for a man of his statue.
#48 The Final Blow
The 4th crusade. On their way to Deus Vult some more in the holy land, the crusader army got sidetracked by sacking a Christian city, trying to restore a deposed Byzantine Emperor, succeeded but then he got deposed again, so they sacked Constantinople which pretty much directly lead to the final deathblow of the Roman state that had existed for 2,000 years.
#49 Don't Mess with Genghis
Long story short, Genghis Khan tried to establish trade with these guys by offering a caravan load of gifts, and they returned with a middle finger and imprisoned or executed the ambassadors. Genghis thought surely this must have been a mistake and sends 10x the wealth to make amends. The Kwarezemids are suspicious and do the same thing. After that, the Mongols fully invade with tens of thousands then hundreds of thousands, destroying entire cities, using the civilians as human shields to siege the next city, piling skulls in the town square, redirecting the river to eliminate the Shah's village from the map, etc., basically flattening the Shah's middle finger with a 10-ton middle finger.
#50 Dracula's Plan
Supposedly, when Vlad Dracula was released from prison, he discovered that his father had been betrayed by his people, and buried alive by Hungarian troops. Vlad knew that many men who served his father were involved in his betrayal, but Vlad wasn’t able to identify who specifically was responsible. He pulled a classic Vlad move and invited all of his father’s servants to a feast. When the feast was finished, legend says Dracula’s soldiers came into the room, barred the door, and impaled every single one of the guests.