It wasn’t the size of your army, but the talent of your elite warriors that mattered most in ancient history. Sure, size mattered too. But training, equipment, and fighting as a cohesive unit mattered much more in determining who came to power in the ancient world. Here we will go over various types of elite warriors in ancient history, highlighting their strengths and the time their terror reigned.
For the Greeks, their elite warriors were the hoplites. Persia had a force of troops that always remained 10,000 strong, known as the Ten Thousand Immortals. The Romans had centurions, commanders of Roman legionaries. Romans also had the Praetorian Guard assigned to protect the emperor. Similarly, the Byzantine emperors had the Varangian Guard, featuring massive Vikings wielding axes.
Shifting from Europe to Asia, the Japanese samurai was the most revered elite warrior, brandishing both bow and sword. For stealthier attacks, the ninja was deployed to spy, sabotage, and assassinate, using silent, deadly weapons such as throwing stars. Each of the elite warriors in this collection features unique characteristics and strengths, making it difficult to choose one over the other as your personal bodyguard if you were an ancient emperor.
The Greek armies from the seventh to fourth centuries BC were composed mainly of hoplites, heavily armed foot soldiers. Every Greek citizen trained for their eventual role in the armed forces. In Athens, from age 18 to age 20, all citizens were required to serve in the military. And up until age 60, all male citizens could be called for duty.
The other city-states in Greece followed a similar program to Athens. Unlike the Roman armies that would follow them, the Greek hoplites were not professional soldiers and could sometimes lack proper training. While many hoplites were elite warriors, many others were not. But among the city-states, some did employ elite professional hoplite units known as epilektoi.
Sacred Band of Thebes
One of the most famous epilektoi units was called the Sacred Band of Thebes. It was made up of 150 pairs of males, all lovers sworn to protect their partner. The army unit was formed after a proposal from Plato to have an army of entirely gay couples.
The elite unit was created in 378 BC by general Gorgidas, who ordered them to the front lines of a battle between Agesilaus II and Chabrias. Gorgidas personally selected the 300 men based on military experience and athletic ability. The training received by the unit was said to rival the training received by elite Spartans.
The band participated in several battles and helped to form Thebes into an influential city-state. The first battle with a written account involving the Sacred Band of Thebes was by Dinarchus in Against Demosthenes in 324 BC. The battle took place in 371 BC and depicts two generals named Epaminondas and Pelopidas, who defeated the Spartans during the Battle of Leuctra.
The Spartan armies of hoplites were renowned throughout Greece. It was known that one hoplite from Sparta was worth multiple men from another city-state. As a warrior society, fielding an elite army was a priority for Spartans from birth. Spartans would begin their military training by age seven, along with a rigorous education known as the Agoge. Primarily, Spartans were taught the importance of duty, endurance, and discipline.
As feared as Spartans were in battle, their military society did not last long. In 371 BC, the Spartans were defeated by the Thebes in the Battle of Lectura, sending their empire into decline.
Hoplites provided their own armor, so only those who could afford the armor could perform in the military. The armor was customized to each hoplite and was adorned with a large circular shield called an aspis. The shield originally had the family clan emblem emblazoned across the front, but that was later replaced by a symbol of the city-state. It measured 30 to 39 inches in diameter and weighed as much as 18 pounds. The body armor of the heavy infantry hoplites was made entirely from bronze and could weigh as much as 70 pounds.
The primary offensive weapon used by the hoplites was a long spear, measuring between eight and 15 feet in length. Hoplites would typically hold their spears in an underhand position. But as soon as they were close enough to the enemy, they would switch to an overhand position, ready to pounce.
Roman centurions were the elite of the elite. A centurion commanded a century of legionaries, the professional heavy infantry used by the Roman empire to conquer new territories. Legionaries were heralded as the most feared fighting force in the Roman world, and centurions were the greatest soldiers among them.
The Roman army began employing the professional officers in 107 BC following a complete overhaul of their armies by Gaius Marius. Marius was a statesman who could see that the current army used by the Romans was inadequate to defend uprisings throughout the vast empire that had been amassed over centuries of conquests.
Known as the Marian reforms, the Romans transformed their army from a temporary militia into a professional and dynamic force. Before the reforms, the Roman army operated as a temporary force. When soldiers were needed, they would be recruited from the eligible citizens in the Republic. When the war was over, the citizens would return to their homes. The new Roman army viewed their military service as a fulltime job.
The century commanded by the centurions could be made up of as little as 200 men to as many as 1,000 legionaries. The centuries were smaller groups that formed cohorts, a new system of battalions that came from the Marian reforms. Generals would manipulate the number of soldiers in each cohort as was deemed necessary. For example, Julius Caesar designed the first cohort to be composed for five centuries at double strength.
As a centurion rose through the ranks, they would begin to command centuries held in higher regard. Eventually, the elite centurions would rise to the role of commanding the elite century in the cohort, and by extension, the entire cohort.
The smallest arms a centurion would carry was a pugio, a large leaf-shaped dagger held by their side. The blade measured anywhere from seven to 12 inches long and two inches wide.
The sword carried by centurions was known as the gladius. It was typically a shorter sword, measuring 24 inches long. The gladius was worn on the right hip of the centurions.
The spatha was the final weapon carried by all centurion warriors. This was a long sword that could be as long as 48 inches.
Japanese samurai warriors not only had access to the sharpest and finest steel the world had ever seen, but they were also experts with a bow and arrow. Of all the warriors in this collection, the dual expertise of the samurai warrior stands out the most. While many other warriors were more than likely very good at multiple facets of a battle, the samurai was more than just good. They were elite from both long-distance and in close-quarters combat.
The samurai came into prominence in the 10th century and served in the military through the 17th century. Just before the 10th century, private armies started to form in Japan to protect the land of nobles who spent most of their time at the imperial court. The samurai would be hired by a feudal lord to defend and protect their lands.
Taking advantage of a weak imperial court during the 12th century, samurai, which had now formed into groups led by powerful warlords, were able to force their way into power. During the Kamakura period from 1185 to 1333 CE, Japan formed a new government that was founded and dominated by samurai warriors. It was led by a military dictator known as a shogun and remained in place until the 19th century.
By the 17th century, the samurai had formed a ranking system consisting of three primary ranks:
- Gokenin (Housemen) – vassals to a feudal lord
- Goshi (Rustic Warrior) – allowed to farm land but could not carry the two swords of a full samurai
- Hatamoto (Bannermen) – the highest rank of samurai and the only warriors expected to fight to the death for their lord
Throughout this time, samurai made up just around five percent of the total population. Those five percent started to receive training by the age of ten at the very latest. To perfectly complement their excellence with both a sword and a bow, samurais mastered the art of using these weapons on horseback.
The bow was the primary weapon of a samurai, but they were well prepared for close-quarters combat as well. Samurai carried two swords, one long and curved sabre and another shorter sword. In the 16th century, it was decreed that only full samurai could carry two swords, and the look became a status symbol.
The Teutonic knights were born out of a failed attempt by Pope Gregory VIII to retake the city of Jerusalem from Saladin, the Sultan of Syria and Egypt in 1187 CE. The Third Crusade was ordered, but immediately it was plagued by problems. Frederick I Barbarossa (Holy Roman Emperor and King of Germany) had an accidental drowning on the way to Jerusalem.
Most of his men turned around, but a group of German knights marched on. During a siege on the city of Acre, the knights set up a field hospital, just as their brethren had done in Jerusalem 100 years earlier, in honor of Saint Mary. The knights remained there for eight years until Pope Innocent III granted them the status of independent military order. The Teutonic order was born, and its members were known as Teutonic knights.
The real reason for creating the order was to defend Crusader-controlled parts of the region. But the knights did more than just defend, taking large stretches of land from their headquarters in Prussia. The knights ventured from the middle east to Lithuania to Sicily, establishing multiple castles along the way.