Since the dawn of civilization, there have been warriors who have sought to conquer neighboring territories under a single king or have dedicated their lives to defending their peoples against ruthless invaders. Though the motivations of these warriors have evolved through time - as well as their vicious efficiency, training, and arsenals - warfare has been a common occurrence throughout history. Those civilizations who have become known for their military dominance, however, did so with their own elite soldiers.
Whether it be the terrifying madness and savage reputation of the Viking berserkers and the Maori warriors, the life-long dedication and training of the Spartan Hoplites and the Aztec Jaguar warriors, or the advanced tactical brilliance and fearsome weaponry of the Mongol horde and the Samurai, history's elite super soldiers had their own set of weapons, tactics, and training that earned them their frightening reputations. But which of them was the toughest?
Where and When: Sparta, Greece, 6th century to 4th century BC
How Much They Conquered: Sparta was the largest city-state in Greece.
- Doru - a wooden spear
- Xiphos - a Spartan short sword used when their primary weapon was broken or their phalanx formation was pressed too closely against an enemy formation for longer weapons to be useful
- Kopis - a curved short sword used for hacking and slashing
- Shield - Spartans used their shields to bludgeon enemies, and the thin edge of the shield allowed it to be used as a slashing tool.
Their Training: When a male Spartan was born, he was inspected by a council of elders and left at the base of Mount Taygetos to die if deemed unfit to fend for himself in life. At age 7, Spartan boys entered an agoge, where they began rigorous military and warfare training, learning combat techniques and battlefield tactics.
On The Battlefield: The Spartan army was created to serve as a living wall, and they fought in a tight, interlocking formation with their shields serving as a defensive barrier and their long thrusting spears doing the bulk of the damage when facing off against opposing armies. Since they were essentially bred from birth to be fighters, their might was nearly incomparable.
Where and When: Scandinavia, late 8th century to 11th century AD
How Much They Conquered: The Viking clans, aided on the battlefield by berserkers, expanded for centuries, establishing colonies throughout Scandinavia before sailing the Atlantic and creating settlements in Western Europe, North Africa and parts of Eastern Europe.
- Ulfberht sword - a long sword made of extremely durable steel
- Battle ax
- Spears - used for both thrusting and throwing
Their Training: While much of the berserker training and preparation is steeped in legend and myth, it's believed that they would put themselves into a semi-hypnotic state before battle. In this condition, they would have little reaction to pain and even less self-control when it came to the violence they inflicted on others.
On The Battlefield: Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson wrote in his Ynglinga saga around 1225, "[They] rushed forwards without armour, were as mad as dogs or wolves, bit their shields, and were strong as bears or wild oxen, and killed people at a blow, but neither fire nor iron told upon them."
Berserkers were walking towers of madness clad in wolf skins or nothing at all in battle. They were so bloodthirsty that they could often present a danger to the Viking soldiers that fought alongside and behind them. Believed to have almost superhuman pain endurance and strength, they were some of the most formidable yet least strategic warriors in history.
Where and When: Japan, 10th century through the mid-19th century AD
How Much They Conquered: The feudal daimyo held different territories within Japan, as they served under shoguns and defended the country against attempted Mongol invasions.
- Katana - a traditional long sword, their primary weapon on foot
- Wakizashi - a traditional short sword
- Naginata - a curved, bladed weapon affixed to a wooden pole
- Kusarigama - a sickle-like bladed weapon attached to a chain for swinging
Their Training: Training started in childhood and took place at a designated school that emphasized physical fitness and agility, as well as Chinese studies and spiritual pursuits. In adulthood, samurais trained daily, even though they were only used in battle when called upon, and were expected to live their lives by the strict code of ethics known as "Bushido."
On The Battlefield: Samurai entered combat accompanied by armies of foot soldiers and archers, and they faced off against opposing forces in head-to-head combat, sometimes on horseback and often on foot. The feared samurai vanguard would be the first to charge into combat, typically with spear in hand, while katanas were drawn when the battle presented one-on-one combat situations. One of the greatest honors for a samurai was to earn the "first spear," which means being the first warrior to actually engage the enemy in physical combat.
Where and When: Southwestern United States, 1600s - 1920s AD (Although the Apache people still exist)
How Much They Conquered: The Apache were a nomadic people that lived in different parts of a region known as Apacheria, which spanned from Western Arizona to Eastern Texas and from Northern Colorado down to Mexico. The modern idea of an Apache warrior comes mostly from the era of the Apache Wars, when the indigenous tribes aggressively resisted white settlers and the US Army's incursions into their lands.
- Bow and arrow
- Tomahawk - a battle hatchet with a blade made from metal, bone, or sharpened stone. It could be used for combat in close quarters or thrown for use as a ranged weapon.
- War club - a bludgeoning tool carved out of hardwood. War clubs often included a round stone affixed to one end in order to inflict maximum damage.
- Jawbone club - used almost exclusively by the Apache tribe, the jawbone club was a handheld weapon made from the jawbone of a buffalo, ox, or horse. The teeth were left attached as a decorative embellishment, while the other side of the bone was sharpened, allowing the club to also serve as a slashing weapon.
Their Training: Apaches were renowned for their athletic endurance, and it was believed by many at the time that young Apache men could run nearly 100 miles a day and climb both trees and entire mountains with ease. From childhood, Apache boys were taught how to fight, hunt silently, and use their surroundings to their advantage while defending their tribes.
On The Battlefield: Apache warriors were considered to be some of the greatest guerrilla fighters in history. They would lay traps and ambush their enemies. While fighting invading white settlers and the US Army, the Apache's distinct advantage came from their life-long training and their superior knowledge of the terrain. They fought with such ferocity that the very word Apache took on a mythical, near-superhuman quality.