What was history’s most dramatic year?

As the year that brought us the Brexit vote, Donald Trump's election as US president and an escalating war in Syria approaches its conclusion, we asked six historians to offer their opinions on the past's most tumultuous moments...

Martin Luther King (centre) rides the Montgomery bus with Rev Glenn Smiley of Texas. (Getty Images)

This article was first published in the Christmas 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

30 BC

Joann Fletcher

The most dramatic year was surely 30 BC, when the death of Cleopatra VII not only ended three millennia of dynastic history in Egypt but shaped the future of the western world.

This article was first published in the Christmas 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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30 BC

Joann Fletcher

The most dramatic year was surely 30 BC, when the death of Cleopatra VII not only ended three millennia of dynastic history in Egypt but shaped the future of the western world.

Having clashed the previous year with their rival Octavian at the somewhat inconclusive sea battle of Actium off the Greek coast, Cleopatra and her husband Mark Antony were only defeated when their land forces defected and their Red Sea fleet was destroyed by Arab pirates. And Octavian was unable to capitalise on the advantage he had gained at Actium, since his troops had mutinied, demanding pay he did not have. Meanwhile Cleopatra still commanded an immense treasury.

By 30 BC, having stockpiled half of this wealth within her vault-like tomb in Alexandria, Cleopatra gave the rest to her son, Caesarion. As Octavian’s forces closed in, she sent Caesarion away to safety, but he and her key supporters were tracked down and executed, and the defection of their remaining troops left the couple little choice but to commit suicide.

Egypt was officially annexed by Rome on 31 August 30 BC, and the death of Octavian’s greatest rivals left him as sole master of the Roman world; taking the title Augustus, he became its first emperor. Funded by the fabled wealth of Egypt, he was finally free to fashion a future that would shape the western world for centuries – from Rome’s subsequent invasion of Britain to its eventual acceptance of Christianity, all made possible by the dramatic events of 30 BC.

Joann Fletcher’s latest book is The Story of Egypt (Hodder & Stoughton, 2015).

1918

Jeremy Black

Years that mark the close of major wars generally reflect significant changes, but 1918 was particularly traumatic and the changes that occurred have had consequences right up to the present day. The fall of the Austrian, German and Turkish empires, and the outbreak of civil war in Russia, created long-term instability in the Balkans and the Middle East. The Cold War really began in 1918 – but as a hot war. It was a brutal revolution that set the pattern for many others.

Meanwhile, the First World War was punctuated by a series of dramatic climaxes as individual powers were knocked out of the conflict. Russia was unexpectedly removed from the fray with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which enabled Germany to transfer forces to the west, while American reinforcements bolstered Britain and France on the western front. This was not like the ends of other major wars – the events of 1814–15 or 1944–45, for example. The tide really did rush one way and then back again over just a few months.

In early 1918, the Germans hit hard with the Spring Offensives and the Allies reeled, losing territory that had earlier cost many men to capture. Governments watched nervously. In the end, the Allies stalled and then outfought the Germans. A war machine that had brought repeated victories in successive wars in 1864–71 and 1914–18 was comprehensively defeated, and German imperial power collapsed alongside that of its allies. The modern age was dramatically ushered in.

Jeremy Black is author of Air Power: A Global History (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).

1492

Felipe Fernández-Armesto

It depends what one means by ‘dramatic’: world-threatening confrontations only really began in 1945. If one means ‘most important’, the year of the creation of the cosmos takes precedence. But for a year when, more than in any other, events changed the way history seemed to be going, I still opt for the choice I made in my book, 1492.

Previously, divergent cultures and ecosystems divided the world. Divergence began about 150 million years ago, with the fracture of Pangaea – the planet’s single landmass that poked above the surface of the oceans. Evolution then followed a distinctive course on every drifting, mutually separating landmass. Life forms grew apart, even more spectacularly than the cultures that diverged among sundered communities, who, when they re-established contact, differed so much that they had difficulty in recognising each other as belonging to the same species.

With extraordinary suddenness, in 1492, the pattern of divergence ended. The world stumbled over the brink of an ecological revolution and, ever since, ecological exchanges have wiped out the most marked differences of the previous 150 million years.

The Old and New Worlds resumed contact, conflict, contagion and cultural exchange. A real ‘world system’ – in which events everywhere resonate together – became possible, with thoughts and transactions crossing oceans. European imperialism began to re-carve the world, appropriating the Americas, multiplying western resources, making possible the eclipse of long-hegemonic empires and economies in Asia. No other year produced changes so intense and so transformative.

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto is the author of 1492: The Year Our World Began (Bloomsbury, 2011).

1572

Sarah Gristwood

St Bartholomew’s Day 1572 was one of those days that shook the world. It started as the attempted assassination of the French Protestant leader Admiral Coligny – which was motivated as much by politics as religion. But it escalated into a months-long orgy of religious violence which spread first through Paris, and then across France, until perhaps 30,000 Huguenots were dead. The horrifying stories – pregnant women with their wombs ripped out, basketfuls of babies flung into the Seine – foreshadowed the terror that would once again rip through Paris in 1793.

This was one of those days when an act of aggression quite literally dramatised an ideological or religious conflict, so that a polarity of opinion or belief was set forth for all to see. A modern parallel is not hard to find – when the Twin Towers came down, the horror lay not solely in the number of people who died, but in the assault on a nation’s sense of security.

The effects of 9/11 were felt far beyond America’s borders – but you might say the same about the massacre of St Bartholomew’s Day. It gave impetus to the ‘Spanish Fury’ with which Protestant rebellion was being suppressed in the Netherlands (during a revolt against Spanish rule). In England it produced a climate of anxiety, and calls for the execution of the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots.

More significantly yet, the massacre convinced many on both sides that there could be no compromise in the religious divisions of the 16th century – divisions Europe put aside only very recently.

Sarah Gristwood’s latest book is Game of Queens: The Women Who Made 16th-century Europe (Oneworld, 2016).

1956

George Goodwin

1956 marked a new beginning. It was a time when austerity and cultural deference were being replaced by the triumph of American-style mass consumer culture. America was now top dog, a lesson brutally learned after President Eisenhower forced Britain and France to halt the Suez invasion.

The Suez debacle was a moment of exceptional importance for Britain, spawning periodic changes of national direction, with the latest this year. France, in contrast, was already beginning the  process of European consolidation: the negotiations to create the European Community of 1957’s Treaty of Rome were effectively decided in 1956.

Further to the east, the Soviet grip on its European conquests seriously falteredfor the first time, as it violently suppressed the Hungarian uprising.

In the United States, the supreme court’s ruling against bus segregation was Martin Luther King’s first great civil rights victory. And the re-election of the conservative forever-golfing Eisenhower could not mask the growth of the free-spending, rebellious teenagers with a James Dean poster on the wall, Rock Around the Clock on the big screen and Elvis on the jukebox – a phenomenon echoed in Britain.

The Anglo-American focus on individual expression and liberation, which would dominate the following decades, was highlighted by John Osborne’s ‘Angry Young Man’ and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. 1956 was a watershed year – one when we began to see the postwar world that is now under challenge.

George Goodwin is the author of Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of America’s Founding Father (W&N, 2016).

1260

Nicholas Vincent

The battle of Ain Jalut, fought in the Jezreel Valley north of Jerusalem on 3 September 1260, marked a turning point in world history a great deal more significant than the little local difficulty at Hastings 200 years before.

Since the emergence of Genghis Khan as their ruler after 1206, the Mongols – a nomadic people of the Steppes – had raided east and west, from China as far as Poland. In 1258, they had sacked the great city of Baghdad, bringing an end to the 500-year-old Abbasid Caliphate.

In 1260, they inflicted similar destruction upon the caliphate established by Saladin and his successors at Damascus.

They seemed destined now to conquer the entire Mediterranean world, re-establishing a Eurasian empire unknown since the time of the Greeks and Romans.

Instead, at Ain Jalut, the Mongols were defeated by the rulers of Cairo. Against this resurgent power of Egypt, the few outposts of Christian rule in the Middle East stood little chance of survival. Within 30 years, what remained of the crusader states had been swept away.

From Ain Jalut flowed other consequences. The Mongol empire declined into civil war, and was never again to pose a serious threat to European stability. The regions south and east of the Mediterranean developed as an Arabic-speaking Islamic enclave, in rivalry with the Christian regions to the north and west. Rome’s former empire was permanently cut in two. Christian dreams of conquest now shifted to the Baltic and Atlantic worlds, ultimately carrying Christian crusader rhetoric to the newly discovered lands of Africa and the New World. Not until Lepanto in 1571 was another battle so decisively to alter the fate not just of nations but entire continents.

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Nicholas Vincent is professor of medieval history at the University of East Anglia.