11 Of History's Longest And Most Intense Rivalries

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Vote up the bitterest rivals

The course of history has often been shaped by rivalries between states and countries. Some were limited contests for trade, while others were epic battles to death between the world's greatest powers. Some of the fiercest rivals of yesteryear are staunch allies today; it just took a few hundred years and a whole lot of battles to work things out.

This collection looks at some of history's most notable rivalries, from the great struggles of the ancient world to the First World War. 


  • England (Britain After 1707) And France Were At War On and Off For 700 years
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
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    191 VOTES

    England (Britain After 1707) And France Were At War On and Off For 700 years

    Major conflicts: Multiple Anglo-French Wars (1109-1337), Hundred Years' War (1337-1453), various English interventions in the Italian Wars (1494-1559), Seven Years' War  (1756-63), American Revolutionary War (1776-83), Napoleonic Wars (1802-15) 

     

    Anglo-French wars began in the 12th century and didn’t really let up until the fall of Napoleon. The first conflicts were over the English possession of Normandy in northern France and escalated from there. France was a long-term ally of Scotland and helped maintain the kingdom’s independence from England, which in turn prevented England from concentrating its full force against either foe. 

    At the height of the Hundred Years' War (which actually lasted 116 years), the English held significant portions of modern-day France. Although England enjoyed a spectacular victory at Agincourt, the French ultimately emerged on top. Only Calais remained in English hands by 1453. It would be a full century before the French took the last English stronghold on the continent.

    In the many Italian wars of the 16th century, England typically got involved on whatever side opposed France, helping to thwart the long-term ambitions of the French crown. In return, the French lent a hand to the Dutch in the Second Anglo-Dutch War. In the 18th century, the two nations exchanged victories - the British kicked the French out of Canada, and 20 years later, the French helped the American colonies break away from Britain.

    During the Napoleonic Wars, the British were one of the few mainstays in the ever-shifting coalitions formed against France. After the final French defeat at Waterloo, Britain and France became allies rather than enemies. They fought together in the Opium Wars, the Crimean War, and both World Wars. Although just for old times' sake, the British destroyed a French fleet docked in Algeria in 1940 to prevent it from falling into Axis hands.

    191 votes
  • Rome And Carthage Waged Three Epic Wars For Dominance Of The Mediterranean
    Photo: Henri-Paul Motte / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
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    119 VOTES

    Rome And Carthage Waged Three Epic Wars For Dominance Of The Mediterranean

    Major Conflicts: The Punic Wars (264-241 BCE, 218-201 BCE, 149-146 BCE)

     

    The Romans used to refer to the Mediterranean as Mare Nostrum (“our sea”), but it only became theirs after a trilogy of conflicts with the near-equal might of Carthage. The first of the three wars was a grinding 23-year conflict mostly fought in Sicily and at sea. At first, the Romans were fairly clueless when it came to naval combat and the expert sailors of Carthage made short work of the Roman fleets sent against them. A key innovation - the corvus - allowed the Romans to simply board and overwhelm Carthaginian ships. 

    The Second Punic War saw Rome suffer a series of catastrophic losses at the hands of the Carthaginian general Hannibal. Through sheer force of will, the Romans eventually managed to overcome Carthage and the emergence of their own genius, Scipio Africanus, who allowed Rome to finally prevail.

    Although neutered by a harsh peace deal, the prospect of a recovery deeply worried the Roman statesman Cato the Elder. He took to ending every public speech with "Cathrago delenda est" (“Carthage must be destroyed”). The third and final war was a far briefer affair than the first two almighty struggles. Rome provoked the final showdown through a series of increasingly outrageous demands. Even though Carthage was no match for Rome at this point, the city rallied for a brave but futile defense. 

    In 146 BCE the city fell and Carthage was burned to the ground. Although it would be rebuilt a century or so later, the city would never again challenge Rome for control of the Mediterranean.

    119 votes
  • Russia And Poland Have Been At Odds For A Thousand Years
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    83 VOTES

    Russia And Poland Have Been At Odds For A Thousand Years

    Major conflicts: Polish-Kievan Rus’ conflicts (980-1069), Livonian War (1577-82), Polish-Muscovite War (1605-18), Russo-Polish War (1654-67), Partitions of Poland (1772-94), Polish-Soviet War (1919-20), Soviet Invasion of Poland (1939), Anti-Communist resistance (1945-53)

     

    Depending on how you elect to define Russia, the first conflicts between Russia and Poland go all the way back to the 10 and 11th centuries and the struggles between the Duchy of Poland and Kievan Rus’. Hostilities picked back up towards the end of the 16th century when the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth participated in the Livonian War. 

    As Russia endured an especially difficult time appropriately named the Time of Troubles at the turn of the 17th century, the Commonwealth backed a series of pretenders to the Russian throne who all claimed to be a slain prince named Dmitry. After the formation of the Romanov Dynasty and the end of the troubles, the tables turned and the Russians went on the offensive. 

    Alongside Austria and Prussia, the burgeoning Russian Empire swallowed up the entirety of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth over the course of three partitions from 1772-1795. For well over a century, Poland ceased to exist. The Treaty of Versailles would ultimately reverse the annexations after World War One. In 1919 the Second Polish Republic found itself surrounded by hostile neighbors and had to fight for its existence. Yet another Russian incursion took place in 1920 but the overextended Red Army was beaten back by Marshall Pilsudski's (pictured) forces. Poland’s existence and borders were secured in 1921 but precariously.

    Sandwiched between two hostile powers, Poland’s geopolitical position in the interwar years was one of history’s worst. When the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was signed, Poland’s fate was sealed. After the Second World War, Poland struggled under the thumb of the Soviet Union for decades, finally breaking away from the Eastern Bloc in 1991

    83 votes
  • Scotland And England Went From Bitter Enemies To Bitter Allies
    Photo: Jean Froissart / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
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    120 VOTES

    Scotland And England Went From Bitter Enemies To Bitter Allies

    Major conflicts: Scottish Wars of Independence (1296-1328 & 1332-57), Anglo-Scottish Wars (various skirmishes between 1372-1542), Rough Wooing (1542-51), Wars of the Three Kingdoms (1639-53)

     

    Scotland and England fought two lengthy and destructive wars of independence in the 13th and 14th centuries. The decisive battle of Bannockburn is shown at the end of the movie Braveheart, but this was a long way from the end of the conflicts. It would be a further 14 years before England finally recognized the independence of Scotland in 1328. 

    This peace lasted a grand total of four years. The second independence war was similarly protracted and once again ended with Scotland holding on to its independence. In general, the English got the better of the pitched battles, but no matter how many invasions were launched, they never could win a truly decisive victory over the Scots. Thanks to French support, Scottish independence was confirmed, for a price, with the Treaty of Berwick.

    The battles between the two enemies continued into the 15th and 16th centuries, generally as border skirmishes and the prize of Berwick, which changed hands more than a dozen times. Scottish kings didn’t fare too well personally in conflicts with England: David II was taken prisoner in the Second War of Independence; James II died during the Siege of Roxburgh; and James IV and much of the nobility perished at the 1515 Battle of Flodden, one of the most disastrous battles Scotland ever fought. 

    Henry VIII decided his son Edward should marry Scotland's Queen Mary and wouldn’t take no for an answer. The Rough Wooing was an unsuccessful campaign waged to force the Scots into a marriage alliance and to break off relations with France. It would ultimately be a Scottish rather than English monarch who would bring the two kingdoms together. In 1603, Elizabeth I passed without an heir, leaving James VI to take the English throne. A century later, the two parliaments unified and created the entity of Great Britain in 1707

    120 votes
  • Denmark And Sweden Fought Many Times, Usually Over Norway, And Usually Without A Decisive Result
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    126 VOTES

    Denmark And Sweden Fought Many Times, Usually Over Norway, And Usually Without A Decisive Result

    Major conflicts: Swedish War of Liberation (1521-23), Northern Seven Years' War (1563-70), Thirty Years' War (1618-48), Second Northern War (1655-60), Great Northern War (1700-21), Napoleonic Wars (1803-15) 

     

    The exact number of conflicts between Denmark and Sweden is quite difficult to pin down pre-1523, as the earlier versions of Denmark and Sweden weren't as clearly defined. By some estimates, 30 conflicts have occured between the two Scandinavian countries, if clashes from the early Middle Ages and before are included. After the Swedish War of Liberation from the Kalmar Union, at least 11 conflicts took place between Denmark and Sweden. 

    The Northern Seven Years' War between Sweden and Denmark accomplished precisely nothing, but the 17th-century sequel set the modern borders of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. The Danes were quick to join forces with any enemy of Sweden, and at that time, there were plenty to choose from. 

    The last conflicts took place during the Napoleonic Wars. Denmark was an ally of France, while the Swedes stood with the British-led coalition. Sweden tried and failed to invade Norway, while Denmark tried and failed to regain lost territory from Sweden. The very last battle between the great rivals took place in the War of the Six Coalition (1813-14) with a rather anticlimactic clash between two small armies; the Swedish cavalry managed to force the Danes into retreat. At the peace treaty, the Swedes got the prize of Norway, so often the cause of animosity between the two states.

    126 votes
  • Russia And The Ottomans Fought A Dozen Wars Over 500 Years
    Photo: Valentin Ramirez / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
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    94 VOTES

    Russia And The Ottomans Fought A Dozen Wars Over 500 Years

    Major conflicts: Ten wars from 1568-1878, Crimean War, World War I

     

    As expansive Eurasian empires, Russia and the Ottomans were always going to have many enemies at the edges of their vast domains. Few were as intense as their own rivalry from the 16th century to World War I. 

    The empires fought 12 wars in all, with Russia the victor in all but two conflicts. The two Ottoman victories came as part of larger entanglements, one of them during the Great Northern War, when the Russians were also at war with half of Europe. The Ottomans negotiated a favorable deal and left the conflict in 1711. The second Ottoman triumph over the Russians was as an ally of Britain and France during the Crimean War. Worried by Russian expansion, the British and French put aside centuries of animosity to aid the ailing Ottomans against the Russians.

    A Russian-led coalition defeated the Ottomans in 1878 in the 10th Russo-Turkish war (also called Turko-Russian) and helped the Balkan states gain independence. The final confrontation between the two powers was as part of WWI. With other more pressing priorities elsewhere, the combat between the old rivals was largely restricted to the Caucasus. Both Russia and the Ottomans managed to finish the war on the losing side. Russia dropped out in March 1918, while the Ottomans gave up on October 31 that same year, just a few weeks shy of WWI's official end.

    94 votes