History is important: every day, we are reminded of the power of the past to shape our lives and the society we live in, be it a family, nation, culture, religion, or some other historically constituted community. The way we understand history shapes our present and how we view the world and affects how we understand reality and our own futures. A proper understanding of how history shapes the present and the future is paramount to engaging and understanding the world around us.
We’ve attempted to create an unbiased list that touches on the most influential and major events in world history, the ones that shaped the world more than any other. Some of the events cover just a few years, while others cover centuries. Some impacted only a single country or continent, while others spread out and touched every continent on earth. Some are violent conflicts like wars or revolutions, while others were scientific revolutions of the mind that brought human beings around to whole new ways of thinking and living. But no matter their differences, each of these events left behind a brave new world in their wake. For the sake of historical and scientific objectivity and accuracy, this list will exclude mythological events such as the Trojan War. This list will also exclude religious matters such as the life of Muhammad or Jesus of Nazareth.
To that end, here is our humble attempt to list the top 15 most important historical events that shaped our modern world.
The 14th century epidemic of the “Black Death,” also called the black plague or bubonic plague, across Europe and Asia, has become one of the most infamous events in history. The plague killed 30-60 percent of the entire population of Europe, claiming a grand total of anywhere between 75 to 200 million lives. Population growth did not resume until a full century later, and the world population did not recover until the 17th century. The profound religious, social, and economic upheavals resulting from the Black Plague were permanent.
The massive death toll caused an extreme labor shortage, which meant higher wages for the peasants and a greater choice of who they wanted to work for. The land was plentiful, and lords were forced to try and make conditions more attractive to the peasants. Serfdom all but disappeared as a result, and this “golden age” of prosperity would not be soon forgotten. Decades later, when the feudal lords tried to roll back these benefits and return to the old ways, the result was widespread peasant revolts. The Black Death also helped break the absolute authority of the Catholic Church.
Translating from Latin as the “Roman Peace,” the Pax Romana was a period of two hundred years of relative peace within the Roman Empire. It was a remarkable change for an empire famous for its many wars and militarism. While the Pax Romana was not entirely peaceful and still contained wars of expansion by the military force of Rome, these were minimal, and need to be seen within historical context: bloodshed was part of daily life in ancient times, and the periods of crisis before and after the Pax Romana were marked by much more frequent warfare.
The period of the Pax Romana was the peak of the Roman Empire’s hegemony; it was the largest it had ever been or ever would be, commerce and industry were greatly developed, infrastructure was thriving, and the different nationalities in the empire found relative peace as Rome functioned as a single massive nation, acting as a precursor to the modern concept of the nation-state. Many innovations were developed that are still used today, such as a postal system, plumbing, improved engineering in roads, a new legal system, and various cultural advances.
At the time, the Pax Romana was considered a miracle, as there had never been peace for such a long continuous time before in any period of history. The concept was highly influential, and historians have coined variant terms such as Pax Americana, Pax Mongolica, or Pax Britannica for other period of hegemonic - or imperial - peace by a superpower.
The fall of Constantinople came after a 53-day siege by the then 21-year-old Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, who fittingly took the title Mehmed the Conqueror. Constantinople was not just any city; it was the preeminent city in the world and had been an imperial capital for sixteen centuries. It had been the capital of the Roman Empire since 330 A.D.
The fall of the city was considered a massive boon to Islam and a blow to Christendom. Previously considered instrumental in the spread of Christianity and even named after the Roman Emperor Constantine, after the Ottoman conquest the city became a stronghold for Islam. The seizure of Constantinople became a precursor to further Ottoman expansion into Europe. Mehmed was even able to claim the title “Caesar,” since whoever possessed the imperial capital controlled the empire. The siege also marked one of the first times that artillery was used in combat, and the recapture of Constantinople remained a Christian pipe dream for many years after, though the Age of Crusading was at an end. The waves of Byzantine scholars and refugees following the sack of Constantinople had an impact on the Renaissance, bringing accumulated knowledge of the Greeks and Romans to Western Europe.
The conquest of Constantinople heralded not just the collapse of the Byzantine Empire and thus the “final” end of the Roman Empire after 1,500 years, and the rise of the Ottoman Empire, but also marked the end of the Middle Ages. Constantinople was renamed Istanbul and became the capital of Turkey until 1923.
Many people think the American Civil War between the Union and the Confederacy merely had implications for the continental United States, but the success of a slaveholding Confederacy stretching across a territory larger than that of any European power would have been a major setback to the world anti-slavery movement, to say nothing of republican democracy. Remember that the world wasn’t exactly safe for Enlightenment ideas in the mid-1800s.
Monarchy had been advancing in Europe and democratic ideals had been on the retreat since the failed revolutions of 1848. Napoleon III reigned as Emperor in France. Slavery still existed in countries like Cuba and Brazil, and the European imperial project started in 1492 was still ongoing in the Western Hemisphere.
All that changed when the Union won, the republic was restored, and slavery was made illegal, delivering a crushing blow to the global slave trade and absolute monarchies. To this day, it remains the deadliest war the U.S. ever fought. It’s difficult to comprehend how different the last 150 years would have been had the Union not won.
Chances are you’ve heard the Protestant Reformation portrayed as something as simple as Martin Luther nailing his “95 Theses” to the door of a church, instead of the major European sociopolitical movement that it was. Not to mention the deep-going ideological, political and religious ramifications for future societies. The Reformation started as a religious struggle to question the absolute authority and practices of the Roman Catholic Church but quickly spread throughout Western and Central Europe as an anti-feudal movement.
The Reformation led to the split between Protestants and Catholics, the Catholic Church losing its monopoly on religion and the implementation of Protestant reforms. In a larger historical sense, the Reformation was important to the struggle against feudalism. Intellect and culture were freed from Catholic domination, and the subordination of the church to the state led to the age of science and secularism. Reformers moving to the New World would have enormous influence on the founding of the United States, and would culminate in the 30 Years War. Neither the Age of Enlightenment nor the Industrial Revolution would have been possible without the Protestant Reformation.
Imagine a world without doctors or modern medicine - go ahead, we’ll wait. Yeah, pretty scary, wasn’t it? It’s hard to believe that as recently as a few centuries ago, even with our improved understanding of human anatomy, diseases were thought to be caused by evil spirits or as divine punishment for sinners.
The work of Louis Pasteur led to a wide acceptance of the germ theory of disease, which allowed for cures for many infectious diseases to be developed in the 19th century. The invention of vaccines eliminated horrific diseases like smallpox from the face of the earth and immunized children against polio and rabies. Public health measures were passed as the growing populations of cities made systematic sanitation necessary. Alexander Fleming invented Penicillin as the first real antibiotic in 1928, which proved to be effective against many deadly bacterial infections. These developments, along with advances in technology, chemistry, and biology, led to the age of modern medicine.
We’ve all heard the name before at some point: it conjures up imagery of large-scale machine industry, an explosion of new inventions, and the beginnings of the modern age. In 1760, the Industrial Revolution first started in Great Britain as an aftermath and natural progression from the Renaissance but soon spread to all other parts of Europe after the French Revolution. As a result, the last remaining traces of feudalism were swept away, bringing in the beginnings of modern capitalism.
New machines for production led to the factory system, particularly in the cotton industry, where the demand for cotton was increasing rapidly. The mule spindle and the cotton gin were game-changers for productivity, and soon all cotton thread was produced in factories. Increased labor productivity in one industry necessitated it in other industries, and machine technology sprang up everywhere, from the steam engine to the hydraulic press. Agriculture and industry became separate, and cities grew rapidly.
The Industrial Revolution wasn’t just smog-producing smokestacks or new ways of production; it meant abrupt and profound changes in all social relations. New ideas based on science, logic and reason began to spread. Fragmented labor became a single cooperative labor process, leading to the modern workplace and unprecedented social mobility. Every modern convenience we enjoy today, from healthcare, transportation, and technology was due to the Industrial Revolution. However, it would also lead to an increase in slavery in the American South, exploitation, child labor, pollution, and many other injustices. Despite this, the modern world would simply could not have existed without the Industrial Revolution.
Some may think the American Revolution only affected the United States, but the shockwaves from the war are still being felt to this day. The revolutionaries fighting for the independence of the thirteen colonies fought for Enlightenment ideas against the British monarchy and became a symbol for revolt against authority, eventually forging a nation that in our modern times is the sole superpower and influences much of the globe.
Not only did the war birth the United States, it propagated the idea that everyone was born equal and should be treated fairly. Even if the American Revolution’s lofty democratic rhetoric fell short as far as many were concerned, particularly given the property restrictions for holding office and voting, the inability of women to hold office or vote, the perpetuation of slavery, etc., the American Revolution shaped the next two centuries. It paved the way for the French Revolution, and revolutionary movements worldwide. Jeffersonian ideas of democracy and republicanism continue to be read and studied. The lasting influence of the American Revolution gives credence to the idea of it being one of the most influential events in our history.
The printing press is perhaps the most important invention of the last 2,000 years. German printer Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press introduced movable type printing to Europe, revolutionizing literacy and acting as a catalyst for the spread of knowledge throughout the world. His invention was one of the major driving forces behind the Renaissance. Before the Gutenberg press, books were copied by hand and were very expensive. Monks, scribes, and the educated labored for many hours by oil lamp to make copies of literature, religious texts, official documents, etc. In some cases, the process could take years.
After Gutenberg made his printing press, books could be printed in a tiny fraction of the time. It is hard to overestimate the implications of this: suddenly, people could have their own copies of books and read them for themselves. Education was no longer limited to a select few. Books were not just for the rich and affluent; as their price dropped, they could be sold to the lower classes as well. Political pamphlets could be printed up by the thousands and influence social movements like never before. Gutenberg’s printing press changed the world and the everyday life of human beings.
Say names like Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael, and you’ll get an idea how much the Renaissance contributed to the world. One of the most culturally and architecturally rich periods of world history, it marked the final transition from the Middle Ages to the modern period. The Renaissance triggered the rebirth of civilization after the Black Death, pushing ignorance aside and giving birth to the development of mathematics and astronomy. Books were printed for the first time, giving the common man the ability to read at will (previously the domain of priests and monks). Science, art, and literature advanced to new heights. World maps were drawn up and new civilizations discovered, as we finally rejected the idea that the earth was the center of the universe.
The Renaissance was a time of great minds questioning tradition and standing beliefs. The most distinctive features of Renaissance culture were its anti-feudal, secular, humanistic character and worldview. It was an awakening to the world and the beginning of the modern era.
The historical effects of the colonial period stretch across centuries, and across all the continents of the world. From the 16th century onward, several European powers set up colonies in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. The Spanish and Portuguese were first global empires, followed closely by the British, French, Dutch, and Russian empires, and eventually by Belgium, Germany, and Italy. The age of colonialism resulted in the division of the world between them and the exploitation of countries in the third world.
On many continents, colonialism caused changes in culture, language, society, and economics; it also caused the deaths of millions as European nations brutalized the natives, mostly through private enterprises with the blessings of their monarchs for their “civilizing” missions. Anti-colonialist movements picked up steam after the two world wars, and many of these countries would gain their independence. But the colonial period didn’t officially end until Portugal transferred Macau to China in 1999.
The worldwide conflict where the Allies defeated the Axis powers involved almost every nation on earth and became the deadliest war in human history, with an estimated 50 to 80 million deaths. There were fronts in Europe, Africa, and Asia, and it ripped apart every race, religion, culture, and nation. Men, women, and children were killed or exterminated by the millions, including in the Holocaust, in which 11 million people were murdered.
There’s some debate about when the Second World War began, starting from the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, the Spanish Civil War in 1936, the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, or when Britain and France declared war on Germany following the invasion of Poland in 1939. But whichever stage is considered the beginning, World War II changed the face of the earth forever, led to the end of the era of European empires, the creation of the United Nations, and the beginning of the Cold War.
The first successful socialist revolution began when the revolutionary movement in the Russian Empire overthrew the autocracy under the Tsar, and then Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks led a second revolution overthrowing the Provisional Government. The overthrow immediately resulted in the establishment of the world’s first self-proclaimed socialist state, the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic, followed by the beginning of the Russian Civil War. After the socialist Red Army beat the monarchist and capitalist White Army, they established the government of what would become the U.S.S.R., or Soviet Union, in 1922.
The October Revolution changed the course of World War I, set the stage for World War II, the rise and decline of Fascism, the spread and eventual fall of Communism, the Cold War, and decolonization, and became the inspiration for many more uprisings for years to come, such as the communist revolutions in Germany, Hungary, Mongolia. Cuba, Vietnam, China, and many other countries.
Historians now say that all roads in the twentieth century lead to World War I (1914-1918), which was caused by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, by Yugoslav nationalist Gavrilo Princip in June, 1914. By August of that year, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, Germany declared war on France and Russia, and Britain declared war on Germany, starting a chain reaction of events that eventually involved all the great powers of the time.
The Great War was the first time modern lethal weapons were used in conventional warfare, including chemical weapons and tanks. Over 9 million people were killed and whole empires, like that of Russia, Germany, the Ottomans, and Austria, were dismantled. World War II’s origins can be traced back to the tenuous peace forged after WWI, known at the time as the Great War. No one could imagine anything worse until the world had to face WWII a few decades later.
It is not possible to overstate the importance of the French Revolution to world history. Not only did it shape the entire modern world as we know it and pave the way for capitalism to conquer feudalism, it set the stage for revolutionary uprisings and changes in all parts of the globe. The period of radical social and political upheaval during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars that followed had a lasting impact not just on France or Europe, but the entire planet. It will always be remembered as the event that ended feudalism and whose shockwaves led to a total transformation of social structures in every country.
After the French treasury was drained (exacerbated by bankrolling and supplying the American Revolution), it created much misery and hunger, which led to anger against the monarchy. Images of the revolution, such as the Storming of the Bastille, the guillotine, and the gigantic personality of Robespierre, are now iconic. The French Revolution introduced the concept of the republic to the world, and Revolutionary France soon had to fight for its life in wars against all of Europe. It laid the basis for Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup and the wars that followed, which spanned every continent and introduced the modern concept of the corps system for the military (replacing hired armies), and the Napoleonic Code, not to mention the idea of total war.
By its mere existence and the worldwide historical and social transformations it caused, the French Revolution can easily be considered the most monumental historical event of the modern era, and more than any other, the defining historical event that changed the world forever.