From ancient wars that determined who would lead the world forward (even if only briefly) to inventions that turned our world upside down, these 30 moments are truly epic.
Yes, there are plenty more moments we could have included, but these 30 are turning points when nothing afterward would ever be the same.
1. The Greco-Persian War, 490 BC – 479 BC
While the first Greek city-states emerged back in the 800s BC, the war began when the Persians attacked at the Battle of Marathon in 490BC and it ended in a Greek victory at the Battle of Salamis in 479 BC, despite the Greeks being woefully outnumbered.
This victory would change the course of Western history as the Persians lost power in Europe and Asia and the Greeks would go on to colonize cities and spread their ideas throughout three continents.
While there’s argument among historians about where “Western culture” (whatever you take that to mean) started, the rise of the Greeks and the flourishing of Greek culture – music, theater, architecture, philosophy, the sciences, etc. – certainly played a large role in molding the way our world looks today.
2. The Unification of China, 221 BE – 206 BC
While some have claimed that the Qin emperor burned books and executed scholars during his reign, that seems to be an embellishment. He was, however, obsessed with standardizing thought throughout his empire, and he undertook massive infrastructural projects to connect his people (and to protect them – maybe you’ve heard of The Great Wall of China?).
He’s also known for using massive amounts of wealth and slave labor to build his famous mausoleum, full of the famous terracotta soldiers.
His reign from 221 BE – 206 BC unified a large swath of China and allowed later rulers to consolidate power and turn the country into the massive political entity it is today.
3. The assassination of Julius Ceasar – 44BC
While some will argue that the founding of the Republic or the Pax Romana are the seminal moments, we’re going with the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC by his fellow senators on the Ides of March.
What’s so important about it? Well, it’s incredibly complicated, but a lot of it comes down to the other Roman rulers not wanting one man to consolidate power (mostly because they wanted to keep their own, not out of any sense of democracy). Caesar was a literal “dictator,” after all.
Unfortunately for them, the wars that broke out after Caesar’s death did bring about Rome’s first emperor, who gained not just ultimate political, but near-godlike, status.
It would be almost 500 years until the Roman Empire would be well and fully dismantled.
4. The crucifixion of Jesus, 30AD
While he was never politically or even religiously powerful in his lifetime, his teachings would survive to give rise to modern Christianity. His execution by the Roman governor of his town in 30AD (although some date it to 33AD) would leave a lasting impression on a relatively small group of people who spread his words throughout the world and in 325AD, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.
One thing you may not know? Jesus is also considered an important prophet in Muslim tradition.
5. Muhammed claims to be visited by the angel Gabriel, 610AD
Just like Jesus, there was no doubt a historical figure named Mohammed too. One day, he claimed that he was visited by the angel Gabriel and given the words that would make up the Qu’ran.
Mohammad’s life and his new religion would forever leave a mark on the world. Unlike Jesus, Mohammed was very influential during his lifetime and Islam spread quickly throughout the Middle East and all the way to Spain in its early days.
6. First use of gunpowder in weaponry, 904AD
It was discovered in China when alchemists were trying to create an elixir of life, but instead created one of the deadliest substances on earth.
The first reference to its use in war (as “fire arrows”) to massacre and terrorize the enemy occurred in 904AD when the Chinese were fighting the Mongols. After that, it would become the basis for rifles, cannons, and grenades around the world.
From then on, weapons would only get more fierce and would cease to require close proximity to subdue one’s enemies.
7. Mongolian leader Temujin becomes Genghis Khan, 1206
A ruler who imposed no religious obligations on his subjects and let free trade thrive, Ghengis Khan reigned over the entirety of the Silk Road which people used to transport not just goods like spices and animals but also ideas (and even diseases, like the Black Death).
Of course, in order to do this, he had to lead an army that would massacre millions and he was fond of destroying some of the world’s great repositories of ancient knowledge. Still, he is responsible for connecting the world in a way that no one else had yet accomplished.
8. The outbreak of The Black Death in Europe, 1347
The plague is important not just for the effect it had on the population, but because of the religious, social, and economic upheavals it brought with it. It was seen as a punishment from God, but monks and priests fled infested areas instead of staying to deliver last rites. Sometimes it was blamed on specific groups of people, leading to genocidal rampages in cities with immigrant populations.
While historians still argue over the details, it’s clear that the plague had an effect on religion, art, commerce, and people’s views of “others.”
9. The ascent of Mont Ventoux, April 26, 1336
While this might not sound like a big deal, it touched off a massive landslide of literature and art in which humans would value their own views on history, the world, religion, and nature as well as a rediscovery of and appreciation for ancient texts (many of which has been destroyed during wars but saved by Muslims who stored them away for centuries).
Whereas the medieval period is seen as one of devout reverence, Petrarch’s letter would inaugurate an era of humanistic thinking and Renaissance spirit that would drive art, culture, and science in entirely new directions and give us some of our most famous Western artists and thinkers, from Leonardo da Vinci to Galileo.
10. Columbus lands in the West Indies, 1492
While the first voyages were undertaken by the Portuguese who discovered islands off their own coast, many use 1492 as the initial date of this era, since it’s when Columbus landed in the Bahamas (then called the West Indies).
Of course, the relationship between explorers and the natives of the new regions they “discovered” were devastating for the latter. “Explorers” forced their religion on the new people they encountered, engaged in genocide in order to claim their lands, and stole then sold human beings along these routes as well.
The Age of Exploration touched off the colonization of North and South America and sub-Saharan Africa, leading to the infamous slave trade.
11. The invention of Gutenberg’s printing press, 1440
While moveable type had been invented in China in 1040 and in Korea in 1377, the press itself allowed for books to be created quickly and uniformly.
The first mass-produced book? The Gutenberg Bible in 1455. Now Christians could read scripture themselves instead of depending on a priest to interpret it. Think about the effect that would have on people’s view of the world!
12. The fall of Constantinople, 1453
On May 29, 1453, the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire defeated the final blow to the remaining Eastern Roman Empire (also referred to as the Byzantine Empire). Of course, any empire that falls marks a turning point in world affairs, but this gave new life and power to a large swath of the world covering southeastern Europe, southwest Asia, the Middle East, and northern Africa.
When the Turks defeated this Empire is was a major defeat of Christianity and a triumph for Islam.
13. Martin Luther releases his 95 Theses, 1517
Martin Luther’s challenge to the papacy caused others to do the same and his translation of the Bible from Latin (which only the educated could read) into common language (German, in this case) allowed people to take religion into their own hands.
The resulting schism would result in various sects of Christianity separating themselves from the Catholic Church for the first time.
14. The founding of Jamestown, 1607
The Virginia Company of England was the first to set sail to the land eventually named Virginia in honor of Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen and the settlers eventually grew enough tobacco in Jamestown to make it a successful colony for England.
There is so much to unpack about the importance of this episode, which marked the real start of the colonization of what is now America, but not before genocide, slavery, starvation, and violence preceded it.
15. Galileo Galilei publishes The Starry Messenger, 1609-1610
In 1610 he published The Starry Messenger which put him on a path to clash with the Catholic Church over whether or not the Earth was at the center of the universe.
While there were people before him who spoke out about the universe’s order, he knew enough important people to make it a scandal and his influence made him a central figure of the scientific revolution of the 17th century.
16. The dawn of the Industrial Revolution, 1760
The date 1760 is typically given as the start date for the use of mechanized labor, though the revolution wasn’t in full swing until a few decades into the 1800s.
The mass production of British iron and the harnessing of steam power were the main thrusts behind the revolution and the economic impact of machinery was staggering.
For the first time, the population began to increase consistently as factories opened, jobs became available, and people could afford to sustain a family. Of course, this also brought long hours, hard labor, and overwork – hallmarks of our daily life in a capitalist society.
17. The Boston Tea Party, December 16, 1773
Fed up with high British taxes on tea brought to America, the colonists dumped entire shiploads of the stuff into the Boston harbor to show the British king that the colonies would not stand for taxation without appropriate representation in the British government.
While it would be another 2 years before the revolution would start with the battles of Lexington and Concord and 3 years before the Declaration of Independence, this event is often seen as a tipping point towards American independence.
18. The storming of the Bastille, July 14, 1789
The Bastille was a fortress used by French kings to imprison political prisoners and the common people saw it as a symbol of an oppressive monarchy.
Eventually, the revolution led to the overthrow of King Louis XVI and his monarchy as well as stripping power from France’s other noble families.
After this, other countries in Europe followed suit and monarchy was on the decline in Europe.
19. The signing of the Declaration of Sentiments, 1848
Despite support, it would be a long time before women would gain the right to vote. In fact, in 1872 Susan B. Anthony would be arrested while trying to vote in a presidential election.
New Zealand was the first country to grant suffrage (the right to vote) to its women in 1893 and the U.S. state of Colorado followed the same year.
But Australia, Finland, and part of the Russian Empire would all grant suffrage to women before the 19th Amendment was finally added to the U.S. Constitution in 1920.
20. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, June 28, 1914
Nationalism played an important role in World War I and his assassin was a member of a Serbian nationalist group fighting against Austria-Hungary’s rule over Bosnia.
After a series of events in which political leaders miscalculated others’ desire to go to war to protect or reestablish boundaries, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, triggering the involvement of other European states and ultimately leading to the first World War.
21. Alexander Fleming invents penicillin, 1928
As usual, there’s more to the story, but in addition to changing medicine, it also changed the course of warfare. Up until that point, more soldiers tended to die from infections than from battle wounds. WWII was the first war that allowed those infections to be treated successfully, thanks to penicillin.
Sadly, our abuse of antibiotics has led to even worse infections that are resistant to modern interventions.
22. Germany invades Poland, September 1, 1939
Hitler’s power also allowed him to commit mass genocide of what he thought of as inferior races – the Jews in particular – leading to the deaths of 6 million people. The Jewish population has never recovered from the Holocaust.
23. Mao Zedong proclaims the People’s Republic of China, 1949
In 1949, Mao named himself head of state and proclaimed the existence of the People’s Republic of China after years of fighting with the American-backed regime of Chiang Kai-Shek. The Cultural Revolution had begun and would change China and the U.S.’s relationship with it forever.
Even after Mao’s death and the re-opening of China’s economy, Mao’s reputation would have permanent effects on how China’s leaders would handle state affairs.
24. The dropping of the first atomic bomb, August 6, 1945
Just three days later a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.
These were unprecedented acts of war the likes of which we have luckily never seen again. While Hitler was already dead and the Germans had surrendered, the Americans chose to secure Japanese surrender with the most brutal weapon ever employed.
This act has led to decades of debate about whether it was a necessary measure and it also encouraged other countries to become nuclear powers.
25. Sputnik, 1957
By launching the first object into space, the Soviets put America on the defensive when it came to technological advancement. The anxiety this satellite caused all over the world would lead to trillions of dollars of investment in science and technology that would determine who governed space (a conversation we’re still having today).
The Soviets also sent the first man to space in 1961 and all of this led to the U.S. investment in putting a man on the moon in 1969.
26. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, August 28, 1963
In this seminal civil rights speech, King preached that all people are created equal and should enjoy the same rights and privileges as well as expressing hope that children would be judged by “the content of their character, not the color of their skin.”
His powerful words delivered to the largest audience ever on the mall up until that point put pressure on President Lyndon B. Johnson to push civil rights laws through Congress.
27. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster, April 26, 1986
Half a million workers were needed to contain the contamination and the long term effects on their health are still being determined.
But the reason this incident changed the world is that it changed people’s perception of nuclear power, turning it from a hopeful source of energy into something to be feared. Today, we’re still debating whether this energy source is worth the potential devastation.
28. The fall of the Berlin Wall, November 9, 1989
The wall summed up the Cold War in one structure, so tearing it down was a monumental occasion.
While the wall was not formally demolished until 1992, Gorbachev relaxed his policies towards people at the wall’s checkpoints by 1989, and finally, a critical mass appeared there one day and began climbing it and chipping away.
Because no one wanted to be responsible for putting down the protest, guards allowed it to go on. The next year, Germany was reunified and the Soviet Union effectively collapsed in 1991, events that largely ended the Cold War.
29. The 9/11 terrorist attacks
The ways in which America and the world have changed since that day are immeasurable, but it set off a seemingly neverending war on the nebulous concept of “terror” as well as a very real war against the Taliban in Afghanistan and beyond. It also changed the way that Muslims were treated throughout the country and has had long-lasting effects on the way we travel, vote, and interact with the rest of the world.
It was a horrible attack designed to make us live in fear and change the way we live and enjoy our world – and to some extent, that’s precisely what it did.
30. Facebook founded, 2004
It all began in a Harvard dorm room on February 4, 2004 when Mark Zuckerberg, Eduardo Saverin, Andrew McCollum, Dustin Moskovitz, and Chris Hughes launched the site for Harvard students. Later, they expanded to other colleges in the Boston area, then to the Ivy League, other universities, high schools – and then to everyone and their grandmother.
Now, there are over two billion Facebook users in the world. It’s impossible to imagine what things would be like without the social network (even if you don’t use it, it still affects the world around you), for better or worse.
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