The 8th century would set the world stage for years to come for a number of reasons. It marked the dawn of the Viking Age and pitted the Christians against the advancing Muslim invaders. While in the east, it marked an overhaul of Chinese culture and the peak of the Tang dynasty, followed by a rebellion almost unmatched in human history.
The overthrow of China’s one and only ruling Empress (705)
From 665 the Tang Emperor Gaozong signed over power to his wife Wu Zetian, who reigned as a regent, continuing to hold the de facto power over two of her sons when Gaozong died. But in 690 she snatched the throne from her son, Emperor Zhongzong, and began the Wu Zhou dynasty under her own rule as China’s first and only Empress. Wu was an immensely powerful ruler nonetheless, electing powerful and capable officials, expanding the empire to its greatest extent at that point, and maintaining her power with the use of brutal secret police. But in 704 her health began to fail, and the following year her previously ousted son, Emperor Zhongzong, retook the throne after executing her most powerful officials, reinstating the Tang Dynasty in the process. Wu died naturally at the end of the year, and no woman would ever rule China again.
The Umayyad Caliphate conquers Hispania (711-718)
After a failed attempt to take Constantinople in the second half of the seventh century, the Umayyad Caliphate set its sights west. Around 12,000 troops crossed the Strait of Gibraltar, and within a few years, they had taken two-thirds of the Iberian Peninsula from the Visigoths, who had ruled the region for some 300 years. Over the next few years, the remainder of the Peninsula was taken, even pushing further north into the south of modern-day France. From this point in history, the region known as Hispania on the Iberian Peninsula was renamed Al-Andalus. Even the fall of the Umayyads in 750 did not derail Muslim rule, as different nations went on to dominate the region for hundreds of years.
The Siege of Constantinople (717-718)
Following their successes in Iberia, the Umayyad Caliphate turned back to the Byzantine Empire, hoping to retake Constantinople. Having failed in the previous century, this time in the 8th century the Umayyads were aided by Byzantine instability that saw seven bloody coups in 20 years. Small-scale raids had been successful, and in the summer of 717, they began a siege on the capital, hoping to cut off their supplies. However, the southern sea border of the city was saved when Umayyad ships were roundly beaten by the Byzantine navy, thus keeping supply channels open. Engagements on land, meanwhile, were limited. With their own supplies running low, being harassed by Bulgars at their rear, and being devastated by famine and disease, the Umayyads retreated and ended their year-long siege in the summer of 718.
The Battle of Tours (732)
Undeterred, the Umayyad Caliphate’s impact on the 8th century was not over. Intent on expanding, they headed back west to their freshly conquered Al-Andalus, with hopes to march north and continue through Europe that way. It started well, and in 725 they had taken a large portion of southern (modern-day) France and pushed further inland to the region of Aquitaine. Aware of the impending threat to their own borders, Frankish forces joined with Aquitaine, and at the Battle of Tours in 732 they defeated the Umayyads, killing the Al-Andalus governor in the process, and forcing their withdrawal. Further defeats against Byzantine in the following decade proved the final straw, and the Umayyads were overthrown by the Abbasid Caliphate 750. For Europe, meanwhile, the victory at Tours established the power of the Franks, who would go on to dominate Western Europe for the next century.
The An Lushan Rebellion in China (755-763)
Also known as the An-Shi Rebellion, it began after a military officer called An Lushan became unhappy with the Tang dynasty rule and declared himself Emperor of the new Yan dynasty in 755. The early rounds were telling, with the Tang Emperor Xuanzong, who had ruled for 43 years, fleeing and abdicating to his son the following year, marking the end of the Tang Golden Age. During the conflict, the Yan captured important cities and made advances against the faltering Tang, but in 757 An Lushan was betrayed by his own son and killed. The Shi family took over leadership, but from this point, the Tang dynasty was finally able to turn the tide, with the last of the Yan defeated by 763. Despite the success, the Rebellion had the effect of significantly weakening the Tang, and they lost much of their territory in Central Asia to invaders. Tens of millions of people lost their lives during the conflict, making it one of the most devastating in human history.
Charlemagne continues Frankish expansion (768-799)
After being named King of the Franks in 768, Charlemagne turned the state into a powerhouse of Europe before the 8th century was out. In the south, he pushed to the Mediterranean coast, taking back land conquered by Al-Andalus, while in the north Saxony was conquered and converted to Christianity by the end of the 8th century. In the east, he took Bavaria and Carinthia around 788 to push his borders right up to the Balkans, but perhaps his most important conquest came to the south-east when he took the Lombard Kingdom (modern-day north Italy, including Rome) in 774. Charlemagne was a devout Catholic, and his conversion of Germanic peoples and wars against the Muslims impressed the Pope. In the first year of the following century, Charlemagne would be crowned Western Roman Emperor.
The first Viking raids of England (793)
We cannot be certain when the first Viking raids began in England, but the first to be recorded occurred at Lindisfarne (Holy Island) in 793 and is generally regarded as the beginning of the Viking Age. Although smaller raids had hit England and Europe for a few years, the attack on an important Christian monastery caused outrage, with many monks being killed or enslaved, and religious artifacts and valuables being taken as loot. While these initial raids were small and opportunistic, they established a larger promise of land and wealth, which the Vikings would exploit over the coming century. Many believe these early raids involved a large degree of planning, not only weakening the English but using their loot to pay for larger invasion forces in the following century.