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The 7 Most Elite Fighting Forces in History

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Read on to learn about 7 of the most elite fighting forces in history. Depicted above all the legendary samurai on horseback.

Read on to learn about 7 of the most elite fighting forces in history. Depicted above all the legendary samurai on horseback.

The Elite Warrior Orders of History

History is replete with mighty empires, and each in their time achieved supremacy on the battlefield thanks to an elite warrior order that struck fear into their enemy's hearts.

Whether it's the impenetrable spear walls of the Greek phalanx, the swordsmanship of the samurai or the longbowmen who wielded death from a distance, these warrior groups ruled the battlefield and carried their civilisations to glory.

This article focuses on the following 7 most elite fighting forces in history:

  1. Hoplite (Ancient Greece)
  2. Immortals (Persia)
  3. Praetorian Guard (Roman Empire)
  4. Samurai (Feudal Japan)
  5. Knight (Medieval Europe)
  6. Longbowman (Medieval Europe)
  7. Janissary (Ottoman Empire)
The Battle of Thermopylae, featured in the movie "300"

The Battle of Thermopylae, featured in the movie "300"

1. Hoplite (Ancient Greece)

In an age when battles were decided by individual skill, the Greeks recognised that a disciplined formation of soldiers was more effective than a lone warrior could ever be. A hoplite by himself was useless, but together they formed the famous phalanx, a terrifying wall of spears that steamrolled opposition.

The "men of bronze" were the backbone of the Greek armies that supplanted the Persian empire and established Ancient Greece as the new hegemony.

Each hoplite wielded a long ash wood spear (doru) in one hand and a shield in the other and was decked in glittering bronze armour. He was also equipped with a short sword (xiphos).

They formed eight rows of outstretched spears, although the city-state of Thebes was known to field phalanxes fifty ranks deep.

Important Facts

  • Period of dominance: 7th to 4th centuries BC
  • Finest moment: The Battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans stood strong against the might of the Persian empire. Wave upon wave of Persian soldiers crashed against the Spartan phalanxes, which were perfectly positioned in a narrow pass. Only with the help of a Greek traitor were the Persians able to sneak around via a hidden trail and surround their foe.
  • Decline: They were vulnerable to being flanked, and in time their enemies would learn to exploit their lack of mobility. But for much of antiquity, the phalanx reigned supreme.

2. Immortals (Persia)

The Persian Empire was the largest in history in terms of population size, and at the forefront of their many conquests were the Immortals, comprising the very best that the empire had to offer.

They were formed in 539 BC (during the reign of Cyrus the Great), purportedly by a female commander named Pantea Arteshbod, who Cyrus appointed to govern Babylon following his capture of the city (there is evidence that women held high offices in the Persian army).

There were always ten thousand Immortals, no more and no less. If one died or retired, he was immediately replaced. Hence their name, as they never seemed to decline in numbers. Furthermore, they would always remove their dead from the battlefield, giving the impression that no Immortal had fallen.

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The Immortals wielded six-foot-long spears and one-handed battle axes (sagaris). They became especially deadly with the appearance of a new Persian military innovation: the spike-wheeled chariot.

Important Facts

  • Period of dominance: 5th to 3rd centuries BC
  • Finest moment: Most of what we know about the Immortals comes from Ancient Greek historian Herodotus, whose nation was perpetually at war with the Persians. Thus, he was unlikely to provide detailed descriptions of their victories, preferring to emphasise their famous defeats, such as at the Battle of Thermopylae. But if one moment were to be picked out, it would be the Battle of Opis in 539 BC, where Cyrus the Great won a decisive victory against the Babylonian Empire, and the Immortals were born.
  • Decline: Alexander the Great's victory at the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC definitively destroyed what was left of the Immortals' prestige (they had already suffered several defeats before then). Following the Greek conquest of Persia, the Immortals gradually faded away into history, despite numerous attempts to resurrect them.
The Praetorian Guard, the kingmakers of Ancient Rome, hail Claudius as the new emperor.

The Praetorian Guard, the kingmakers of Ancient Rome, hail Claudius as the new emperor.

3. Praetorian Guard (Roman Empire)

Founded in 27 BC when Emperor Augustus Caesar decided to form a personal bodyguard, the Praetorians were made up of the most elite soldiers from the Roman Empire's ever-victorious legions.

They gradually grew from being an imperial entourage to an elite fighting force and the emperor's right hand. They also functioned as secret police, rooting out dissidents and crushing rebellions.

A lesser-known role they fulfilled was that of firefighting service. Sending the Praetorian Guard to put out fires helped strengthen the emperor's image as a public servant and protector of the people.

The Praetorian Guard became increasingly powerful, to the point where they would participate in political intrigue. They effectively became kingmakers, their support being critical to the emperor's survival.

A member of the Praetorian Guard assassinated Caligula, and it was the Praetorian Guard that helped Nero rise to power, only to later abandon him. At one point, they even placed the Roman throne up for auction.

Important Facts

  • Period of dominance: 1st century BC to 4th century AD
  • Finest moment: The Praetorian Guard established itself as a devastating military force when Augustus' successor, Emperor Tiberius, used them to put down mutinies in Germania (modern-day Germany) and Pannonia (modern-day Austria and Hungary). From this point on, they were no longer just an imperial bodyguard; they were the chief enforcers of imperial will.
  • Decline: Their political meddling would eventually be their undoing. In the 4th century AD, Constantine inflicted a crushing defeat on the Praetorian Guard under the command of a political rival. He used this as an opportunity to disband the organisation and demolish its barracks.

4. Samurai (Feudal Japan)

One of the greatest contributions to popular culture made by any nation, Japan's samurai were renowned for their swordsmanship, artistry and commitment to Bushido, the warrior code of honour and loyalty.

They truly came into their own during the Sengoku (warring states) period (1467-1615), when the shogunate was weak, and the daimyo (Japanese lords) made war on each other. They utilised the samurai as the backbone of their armies, paying them in koku (the amount of rice it took to feed one man for a year).

The katana is the weapon most strongly associated with the samurai, a sword forged by master craftsmen who heated and folded the steel many times to create a durable and sharp blade. A samurai saw his katana as an extension of his spirit.

However, other weapons were also important to the samurai, such as the yumi (Japanese longbow) and the naginata (long-bladed pole). The latter was the weapon of choice for the Onna-Musha, female warriors who formed part of the samurai class.

Important Facts

  • Period of dominance: From 1185 (the year samurai became local governors) to 1868 (The Meiji Restoration).
  • Finest moment In 1274, Mongol armies under the command of Kublai Khan turned their attention to Japan, having already conquered China and much of Asia. They landed their ships on the island nation's shores, confident in victory as no army had yet prevailed against them. But the samurai, now united against a common foe, awaited them. The Mongols, accustomed to fighting on horseback, were stunned by the supreme swordsmanship of the samurai, who managed to beat them back and delay them long enough for a raging typhoon to arrive and miraculously destroy the Mongol fleet. The Japanese named this storm kamikaze (holy wind).
  • Decline: The Sengoku period ended with the Tokugawa clan seizing control of the shogunate and instituting a period of stability during which the military importance of the samurai waned, although they still served in bureaucratic positions and took part in court intrigue. The Meiji Restoration of 1868 officially ended the era of the samurai by abolishing feudalism and placing absolute power in the hands of the emperor rather than the shogun.

5. Knight (Medieval Europe)

Famed for his horsemanship and skill with sword and lance, the knight was the medieval equivalent of a tank. They were clad in heavy armour, and their cavalry charges would devastate enemy formations and sow chaos amongst their ranks.

Of course, knights displayed supremacy not only on the battlefield but also in high society, where their courtly manners and sense of fashion established them as members of the upper crust.

A knight pledged his loyalty to a lord, who granted land in exchange for military service. In the early middle ages, commoners were sometimes knighted as a reward for valour on the battlefield. But as time went on, the aristocracy sought to protect their privileges, and it became rare for a knight not to be a member of the nobility. Only a noble could afford the armour and horse anyway.

A knight began training from the age of five, starting as a page, graduating to squire and eventually being knighted in a sacred ceremony that included an overnight vigil in a church.

Early knights wore chainmail, but from the 14th-century, plate armour became more prominent, a technological revolution that rendered them near-invulnerable.

Important Facts

  • Period of dominance: 11th to 14th centuries
  • Finest moment: The Battle of Hastings in 1066, where Norman invaders led by William the Conqueror defeated Saxon forces who fought on foot and could do little against the mighty armoured horsemen. Knights, who had not yet been seen in England up to this point, announced their arrival in dramatic fashion.
  • Decline: The advent of gunpowder, the decline of feudalism and the rise of professional armies all contributed to the erosion of knightly prestige. Of course, the code of chivalry remained influential throughout the centuries.
The longbow was the weapon of choice for famous folk hero Robin Hood.

The longbow was the weapon of choice for famous folk hero Robin Hood.

6. Longbowman (Medieval England)

For centuries, knights reigned supreme on the medieval battlefield but now would come the time of the common soldier.

The longbow could fire an arrow up to 200 yards at a much greater rate than crossbows and with such force that the projectile could penetrate heavy armour. The only downside was that the weapon required training to master—a lot of training, but not much money.

The Welsh were the first to use the longbow effectively, inflicting significant casualties on English invaders under the command of King Edward I. Edward eventually conquered the Celts but was so impressed by their archers that he incorporated them into his army. It's said that he banned the practice of any sport besides archery on Sundays.

The longbow's moment finally came at the Battle of Crécy in 1346, where King Edward III unleashed his archers upon the French knights to devastating effect. The longbowmen continued to play a major role in English victories throughout the Hundred Years' War.

Important Facts

  • Period of dominance: 13th to 15th centuries
  • Finest moment: The Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Under the command of warrior-king Henry V, English forces faced a significantly larger French army in muddy conditions. The French were confident of victory, but as their knights battled through the mud, hail upon hail of arrows fell upon them, utterly obliterating them. The result was over 6,000 French casualties versus a few hundred for the English.
  • Decline: Longbows were gradually phased out by the introduction of gunpowder weaponry but had, in turn, contributed to the decline of knights by puncturing a hole in their aura of invincibility.

7. Janissary (Ottoman Empire)

The elite fighting force of the Ottoman Empire was distinct from the other soldier types mentioned here in that they rose to prominence during a period when gunpowder weaponry was coming to the fore.

Thus their speciality was engaging the enemy at range rather than close quarters, with their weapon of choice being the arquebus.

In this way, they were more reminiscent of 17th-century French musketeers. They also resembled the samurai in their discipline and fanatical devotion. They took it even further by practising celibacy and refraining from marriage.

That said, a man did not become a member of the Janissary voluntarily. In fact, the order was the product of a system known as devşirme ("gathering"), whereby Ottoman officials would visit the villages of conquered Christians and take one young boy from every 40 houses as tribute.

These boys were converted to Islam and employed in the workforce. After a time, they would be assigned to various positions in the military or bureaucracy. The best warriors were recruited into the Janissary.

So the Janissary were effectively slaves, but they could rise to high positions, and members of their order would form the personal bodyguard of the Sultan.

As time went on, they would become a powerful and influential organisation, demanding privileges. Restrictions such as celibacy were relaxed, and membership was made open to the children of Turkish families.

The Janissary had become a privileged class, no longer composed of subjugated peoples. Like the Praetorian Guard, they had the power to make or break rulers.

Important Facts

  • Period of dominance: 15th and 16th centuries
  • Finest moment: The Janissary played a major role in the capture of Constantinople in 1453, but their shining moment was at the Battle of Mohács in 1526, where their expert marksmanship devastated the Hungarian cavalry and secured Ottoman control over the kingdom of Hungary.
  • Decline: As the Janissary's military effectiveness began to wane, so did their privileges. Their failure to suppress Greek uprisings in the 19th century showed how far they had fallen. Word reached them of plans to replace them with a westernised army. In 1826 they rose in revolt but were crushed by Sultan Mahmud II, and their order was disbanded.

References

Spencer Mizen. 2021, September 21. The ancient Greeks at war: hoplites, the phalanx and the greatest battles (BBC History Extra).

Kallie Szczepanski. 2019, April 8. The Persian Immortals (ThoughtCo).

Evan Andrews. 2018, 29 August. 8 Things You May Not Know About the Praetorian Guard (history.com).

2011, January 11. The Longbow: Medieval Weaponry (Military History Matters).

Battle of Agincourt 1415 (Medieval Chronicles)

The Mongol Hordes vs. The Samurai Warriors (The History of Fighting).

Léonie Chao-Fong. 2021, 29 September. 6 Japanese Weapons of the Samurai. HistoryHit.

Mark Cartwright. 2018, 7 November. Medieval Knight (World History Encyclopedia).

Peter Preskar. 2020, April 26. The Janissaries — Elite Soldiers of the Turkish Empire (History of Yesterday).

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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