Think of European history, and many people think of colonialism. For hundreds of years European countries invaded and conquered other nations all over the world. However, less talked about are the times when Europe itself was invaded and taken over. Here we look at seven times throughout history when outside powers tried to seize parts of Europe or attempted to take over the continent entirely.
1. First Persian Invasion of Greece (492 – 490 BC)
One of the earliest times in history that Europe was invaded was the first Persian invasion of Greece in 492 BC.
The Persian Empire was started in what is modern day Iran. By 492 BC it covered most of present-day Iran, Turkey, and the Levant. The Empire’s invasion of south eastern Europe was launched in order to destroy the Greek city states of Athena and Eretria. These states had supported an uprising against the Persian ruler Darius the Great.
The invasion of European territory by the Persians in 492 BC was launch and at first conquered Macedon, which is located around modern-day northern Greece and North Macedonia. Following the conquering significant amounts of European land, the Persian ruler Darius sent ambassadors to many Greek city states demanding their capitulation. All agreed except for Athena and Sparta.
In 490 BC, following the failure of Athena and Sparta to agree to Persian demands, the Persian campaign in Europe as part of their invasion of modern-day Greece renewed. This saw Persian forces land near to Athena and besiege and conquer the city of Eretria. The Athenians were able to win a stunning victory over the Persians at the battle of Marathon, ending the first Persian invasion of Europe.
2. Second Persian Invasion of Greece (480 – 479 BC)
The second Persian invasion of Europe took place 10 years after the first and again saw Persian forces land in south eastern Europe in an attempt to conquer what is modern day Greece.
The Persian invasion of south eastern Europe in 480 BC was launched by King Xerxes – the son of Darius The Great. The invasion was a delayed response to the defeat of the Persians at the Battle of Marathon. Its overall objectives remained the same – to conquer and subjugate the Greek city states.
The Greek resistance to the Persian invasion was again led by Athena and Sparta, with around a tenth of the Greek city states joining an Allied resistance to the Persians. The remaining city states remained neutral or complied with the Persians.
The invasion initially saw major military victories for the Persians in northern Greece – both on land and at sea. However, the Greeks were eventually able to repel in Persians and won decisive victories at Battles of Plataea and Mycale. These ended the Persian attempts to conquer south-eastern Europe and significantly reduced the Persian Empires power in the region.
3. Umayyad Caliphate Invasion of Iberia (711 – 718)
In the 8th Century, the Muslim Caliphate Umayyad invaded Europe. It conquered most of modern-day Spain and Portugal and its territory in Europe included parts of Southern France by the year 717. The Umayyad Caliphate its Muslim decedents held parts of Europe until as late as the 1400s, when they were expelled by Christian forces from further north in Europe.
Before the invasion of south western Europe by the Umayyad Caliphate, what is today most of Spain and Portugal was controlled by the Visigothic Kingdom. They had ruled the area since the 5th Century.
By the early decades of the 700s, the Caliphate of Umayyad controlled territory from modern day Iran and Turkey to Morocco. In the year 711, forces from the Umayyad Caliphate invaded Europe by landing forces near what is today Gibraltar. These forces defeated King Roderic of the Visigothic Kingdom, winning a decisive victory at the Battle of Guadalete. The Umayyad Caliphate and subsequent Muslim rulers occupied European territory for the next seven hundred years.
The invasion of Europe by the Umayyad Caliphate was one of the most successful attempts to conquer Europe by an outside power. A significant Muslim population resided in the Iberian Peninsula until it’s recapture by Christian forces beginning in 1492.
4. Mongol Invasion (1220 – 1240)
The Mongol invasion of Europe is perhaps one of the more well-known times in history European territory was conquered by an outside power.
Genghis Khan united a number of Mongol tribes around the year 1206 and began conquering territory. By the 1230’s, the Mongol Empire stretched from Sea of Japan to the border of Europe. In 1220, the Mongols, led by Batu Khan and Kadan, both grandsons of Genghis Khan, invaded eastern Europe. This saw Mongol forces attack into present day Russia and Ukraine.
The Mongol invasion of Europe saw success in conquering large parts of the continents east. Present day Poland, Hungary, Croatia, and Bulgaria were conquered by the Mongols and incorporated into the empire.
By 1241, the Mongols began to retreat from Europe. This year saw the furthest extent of their territory on the continent. The Mongols withdrew from Europe over the following years. Historians dispute the reason for the Mongol withdrawal, some believing that the death of the empires ruler Ögedei Khan forced the Mongols to return towards Mongolia as a result of the change in leadership. However, Mongol raids into Europe continued until as late at the 13th Century.
The Mongol Empire and its conquests in Europe were also one of the most successful attempts in history to invade Europe.
5. Ottoman Empire (1400s to 1821)
The Ottoman Empire was one of the largest in human history. It successfully invaded and conquered parts of south eastern Europe from the year 1354. It occupied most of this area until the early 19th Century.
Founded in the late 13th Century by Turkman leader Osman I, the Ottoman Empire grew out of modern-day Turkey. At its height it controlled land from the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt, and from modern day Kuwait to present day Algeria.
The Ottoman invasion of Europe began in the mid-14th Century. They captured modern day Greece in 1453. At the height of the Ottoman conquest of Europe, the empire controlled present day Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, and the Balkans.
European armies fought extensively against the Ottoman invasion. In 1683, the Battle of Vienna marked the largest expansion of the Ottoman conquest of Europe. By the 19th Century, the Ottomans were driven back from most of central and eastern Europe. Wars of independence in across south eastern Europe saw Ottoman rule in on the continent end by the beginning of the 20th Century.
The Ottoman invasion and conquest of Europe is the most sustained in history. For 400 years the Ottoman Empire controlled parts of the European continent.
6. Italian Campaign – World War Two (1943 – 1945)
The first invasion of Europe in the 20th Century was the American-led landing in southern Italy as part of World War Two.
Fascist Italy was allied with Nazi German from the outbreak of the Second World War, forming what is known as the Axis. By May 1943, Allied countries, including America, Britain and Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, had gained control of North Africa and defeated Axis forces there. In order to defeat Fascist Italy and directly attack Germany, Allied forces invaded southern Europe later in 1943.
The American-led invasion of southern Europe began with an amphibious landing on the Italian island of Sicily in July 1943. After conquering the island, British and American forces invaded mainland Italy, landing at Salerno on 9th September. The Allied invasion of Sicily and mainland Italy were the first major invasions of Europe for nearly four hundred years.
As with later Allied invasions of European countries, the landings in southern Europe were not aimed at conquering the continent, but at defeating the Axis powers the liberating the European countries they had conquered.
7. D-Day Normandy Landings (1944)
Probably the most famous invasion of Europe is the D-Day landings undertaken during World War Two. This saw forces from America, Canada, and the UK land in France with the aim of defeating Nazi Germany.
World War Two in Europe began in September 1939 with the German invasion of Poland. By June 1940, Nazi Germany, and its fellow Axis powers, had conquered most of the continent, including France. America entered the war on the Allied side against Germany in December 1941 following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour.
The Allied landings in France in June 1944 was the second invasion of Europe undertaken in the World War Two with the aim of defeating the Axis countries. The year before saw Allied troops land in southern Italy.
The American-led invasion of Western Europe during 1944 was the largest sea-born landings ever undertaken at the time.
Importantly, the D-Day invasion of Europe also differs from many other invasions of the continent throughout history. This is because America, the UK, and Canada did not aim to conquer the continent, but to liberate countries from Nazi occupation.