As I was reading about the Battle of Tours in the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Edward Gibbons, I decided to compile a list of the significant battles in human history: the results of which changed the course of history.
Historians call them 'macro historical' events. On an average, there have been one such battle every century; but every three hundred or four hundred years there have been a really major battle that changed history for at least the next half-millenia.
The seven major battles are:
The Battle of Gaugamela, 331 BC. This is the first time a western nation defeated an eastern empire. The history of the 300 hundred years before that had become the story of large eastern empires, under an absolute emperor (shah-en-shah, king-of-kings) menancing smaller western states. This set a pattern of the so called 'clash of civilzations', and a similar theme would repeat in the list. However, the impact of the Greek victory was huge: it brought the Greek wisdom and culture to all of known Asia: brought the Greeks in military and intellectual contact with the Indians. But there is an irony: it needed a Macedonian to unite the Greeks under an Empire. The Greeks, led by Alexander, went on to conquer almost all of the known world, except for India and China.
Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, 9 AD. This is the battle that stopped the expansion of the Roman Empire into northern Europe.
Battle of Badr, 634 and Battle of Qadisiyah, 636. The two battles are taken together, although they are two distinct events. The first was the battle of the survival for Islam, which it did. The second was the battle of survival for Persians (Sassanian, Zoroastrians) which they didn't. These two laid the ground-work for the Islamic domination of the middle east. Historically, the major 'Eastern Empire' always used to be Persian. (Achemenid, Seleucid, Sassanian); but now the (middle) east had got an even greater spiritual power behind it. The center of gravity of the middle east power struggle went slightly west: to the Arabs. The Arabs themselves would not hold that for too long: they would eventually relinquish Asian power to the Turks (who founded Empires that would eventually rule all of Asia: through the Ottomans, Safavids and Mughals) until the Europeans took over.
Battle of Tours, 732. This is the battle that stopped Arab advance into Europe. There is still a lot of debate if this was as important as many historians like Gibbons say. However, one thing is certain: the political map of Europe would look really different today had the Arabs been able to win this battle, conquer France (they already had Spain) and set their sights across the English Channel. This battle also laid the foundation of European social and political structures that would persist in Europe for almost a thousand years. The victorious army was led by Charles "Hammer" Martel, whose grandson, Charlamagne would go on to found the Holy Roman Empire. Charlemagne's vision of a united Europe still inspire a lot of Europeans.
Battle of Tarain, 1191-1192. This is the battle that brought Islamic rule to India and marked the founding of the Delhi Sultanate. There had been earlier Muslim attacks on India, including the one by the Arabs that annexed Sind in 712, and the series of raids by Mehmud of Ghazni from 999 to 1025. Attacks on India from the north-west had never been new. But the previous attacks were either repelled (the Huns, for example); or the conquerors ceased to retain a separate identity for long and merged with the greater Indian body-politic (the Kushans, for example). I attribute that to the strength and vitality of the Indian culture at the time. However, this time, the Indians withdrew into a psychological shell, failed to accept the power and vitality of the new force and had a harder time 'Indianizing' the new force. However, efforts by giants like Amir Khusrau, Akbar, Guru Nanak (just to mention three) helped in creating a composite 'Hindustani' (Indian) culture, politics and religion. But the fault lines are still visible to this day. Other Asian nations have a history of converting their conquerors to their own culture. The Mongols, after conquering China, became the Chinese Yuan. The other branch of Mongols, after conquering Baghdad, adopted Islam. The Safavids (who were originally Central Asian Turks), became Persian.
Defeat of the Spanish Armada, 1588. This marked the end of Spanish domination and the beginning of English (remember, England and Scotland were still two separate kingdoms) domination in the world stage. The English could not have a built the Empire without beating the Spanish. If the English had not won, the U.S and Canada would probably be French or Spanish speaking, for example.
The Battle of Stalingrad: 1942-43. The second world war had a number of turning points: the battle of Britain, the battle for the Atlantic, the battle of El-Alamein, the battle of Midway, the battle at Kohima. But none comes close to the importance of the Battle of Stalingrad. This not only turned the tide of the second world war in the favor of the Allies, it marked the beginning of the Soviet Empire. Between two evils, the world chose the lesser. However, the courage, the valor, the commitment and the sacrifice of the Russian people does not have that many parallels in human history. The world owes a lot to the Russian people for standing up against Nazi barbarism and prevailing over them.
There is a pattern here, not of a 'clash of civilizations' type; but a more subtle fight between different ideologies to govern the human race. Different periods have marked the ascendancy of different governing ideals, these battles mark those turning points.
The other significant battles, in chronological order (includes the six mentioned above, for the sake of continuity)
The Battle of Marathon, 490 BC.
Battle of the Allia, 390 BC
The Battle of Gaugamela, 331 BC. Mentioned earlier.
The Battle of Cannae, 216 BC
The Battle of the Metaurus, 207 BC
Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, 9 AD
Notable mentions: Battle of Carrhae, 53BC
Middle Ages (100AD - 1600AD)
Battle of Adrianople, 378
Battle of Chalons, 451
Battle of Badr, 634 and Battle of Qadisiyah, 636
Battle of Tours, 732 AD, Tours, France
Battle of Talas river, 751 AD
Battle of Bach Dang river, 938
The Battle of Hastings, 1066
The battle/siege of Antioch 1097-1098
Battle of Hattin, 1187
Battle of Tarain, 1191-1192
The Battle of Baghdad in 1258
Mongol attacks on Japan:
First Battle of Panipat, 1526
Defeat of the Spanish Armada, 1588
Siege of Vienna, 1683
Notable mentions: Battle of Lechfeld, 955. Fall of Constantinople, 1453, Battle of Kosovo, 1483, Siege of Rhodes, 1522. Russo-Kazan wars 1552. Battle of Swally, 1612.
Modern World (1700 AD - present)
Battle of Poltava, 1709
The Third Battle of Panipat. Panipat, India, 1761: Marathas defeated by Afghans. It killed any chances of a Maratha resurgence, paved the way for the British domination of India.
Battle of Saratoga, 1777
Battle of Valmy, 1792
Gettysburg, 1863 (and Sherman's capture of Atlanta, 1864)
The Battle of Stalingrad: 1942-43