MHM picks the five most efficient and deadly elite regiments from the distant past.
5. The Batavi
Allegiance: Roman Empire
The Batavi formed the bulk of the Emperor’s personal bodyguard from Augustus to Galba. These warriors were Germanic by descent, and served with the Roman military in the early centuries AD. Tacitus described the Batavi as the bravest of the tribes of the area. Although displaying Roman discipline, they preserved many barbarian tactics. Their favoured mode of attack was to swim across rivers others thought impassable – while wearing armour and carrying weapons – and attack armies while their guard was down. Their horses were trained to do the same, so surprise cavalry charges were also a common Batavian tactic.
4. The Janissaries
Allegiance: Ottoman Empire
The Janissaries were the personal bodyguard to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, a group of élite warriors active for over 500 years. Many of these fearsome soldiers were originally Christians, who had converted to Islam (they were often forced) a er being taken as slaves. They were, however, richly rewarded for their services financially and in terms of social standing. As a result many became fanatically devoted to the Sultan, their captor and master. The Janissaries were deadly archers who became expert gunmen when the first firearms were developed in the 14th century.
Resembling most special forces of today, ninja were every bit as skilled, silent, and deadly as popular culture has made them out to be. It was a ninja’s adaptability, though, that truly made him an amazing warrior. They trained with myriad weapons, were adept at stealth and sabotage, and would kill with savage efficiency. For centuries, when warring shoguns pitted armies of samurai against one another, the ninja too joined the fight, but rarely in pitched battles. Rather they would be used for special missions of espionage and assassination.
2. Shaolin Monks
The Shaolin Monastery dates back nearly 1,500 years, and its tradition of martial arts can be traced to accounts of combat against marauding bandits in the year 610 BC. Trained never to use unnecessary force, the Shaolin Monks nonetheless found themselves battling everyone from roving thieves to corrupt emperors and Japanese pirates. During the short period of the Sui dynasty (AD 581-618), the building blocks of Shaolin Kung Fu took an official form, and Shaolin monks began to create martial-art systems of their own.
1. Sacred Band of Thebes
This troop of crack soldiers consisted of 150 pairs of male lovers. They served from the year 378 BC until the unit was entirely wiped out by a Macedonian army 40 years later. According to Plutarch, the ‘Sacred’ of the unit’s name
comes from an exchange of sacred vows made between lover and beloved at the shrine of Iolaus at Thebes. The Sacred Band’s skill came from constant training in armed combat, wrestling, and horsemanship.
This article appeared in issue 49 of Military History Monthly.