Elite combat forces were a feature of ancient civilisations – just as they are today. These were highly trained individuals who could perform specialised tasks such as assassination, spying or high level combat – at a much higher level than the other military forces of the day.
An early example came from Alexander the Great in 327 BC, when he used specially selected rock climbers to launch a night attack against an enemy defending a fortress located on a cliff top called Sogdian Rock, located in modern day Uzbekistan. The attack was successful, with the defenders surrendering despite heavily outnumbering the attacking force.
The Janissaries were an elite infantry force of the Ottoman Empire that consisted of conscripted Christian slaves who were highly trained from an early age in an environment of strict discipline.
They were formed as part of the Sultans household troops in 1383 and unlike other slaves they were paid a regular salary. They evolved characteristics of a modern army in that they wore uniforms, carried up to date weapons, including firearms, and marched to distinctive military music. They distinguished themselves in many battles, including the siege of Constantinople in 1453.
The great Aztec Empire that ruled across today’s central Mexico for over two hundred years from the 14th to 16th centuries placed great importance on elite military training for a selected few – and their Eagle Warriors were the most feared of these. Only the bravest and most skilled young men were qualified to join this cohort, and were required to capture twenty or more enemy to qualify. The Aztecs preferred capture to killing as those captured were usually sacrificed to the Gods.
The Eagle Warriors were armed with a distinctive wooden sword, inlaid with razor sharp obsidian, called a macuahuitl, to take into battle.
The Varangian Guard was a force of fearsome fighters assembled and trained by the Byzantine Army from the 10th to 14th centuries, composed mostly of Germanic people and Norsemen. Their primary role was to provide personal protection for the emperor, but they were also used as shock troops in battle. Heavily armoured they specialised in the use of a heavy battleaxe called a pelekys that created havoc amongst enemy forces.
The Spartans, famous for their warrior code from around 450 to 350 BC also fielded an elite force, roughly equivalent to a secret police unit of modern times. This was called the Krypteia and their main function was to terrorise the Helot population over whom the Spartans ruled at the time. Members of the Krypteia were expected to randomly kill Helot members, often stealthily at night, resulting in almost total suppression of the Helot population.
During the period from the 15th to 17th centuries feudal lords in Japan often hired the services of highly trained “stealth soldiers” and mercenaries called “ninja” to spy on and eliminate their enemies. The ninjas were masters of disguise and unarmed combat and engaged in a variety of covert operations including espionage, sabotage, assassination and guerrilla warfare.
All these examples of elite combat and covert operatives have modern counterparts with examples being national Secret Service organisations, military commando units and espionage operatives.
Image: Janissary archers – by an early 16th Century artist, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.