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: The Roman Empire, 750 BC - 476 AD
How Much They Conquered: Leading the vast and mighty Roman army, Centurions helped create one of the largest empires in the history of the world, with territories throughout Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.
- Gladius - a Roman short sword, about 25 inches long and featuring a handle formed to the warrior's hand
- Pilum - a lightweight Roman javelin
- Pugio - a sizable dagger
Their Training: Joining the Roman army was a 25-year commitment; those hoping to join had to be physically fit, healthy, and strong. To keep the army a well-oiled machine, soldiers would march 20 miles per day in full armor and would have to set up and take down camp each night and morning. Whenever they weren't at war, they trained for battle in combat formations and in one-on-one sparring, and helped build roads, shelter, and aqueducts in the ever-expanding territories.
On The Battlefield: Centurions were the big men in charge, leading 80-man groups known as "centuries" into battle. Their commands were followed to the letter as they led their men into combat, typically in tight defensive formations until nearing enemy frontlines, when they would burst into combat with javelins and swords. Centurions were appointed through merit, meaning they were grizzled veterans who'd earned their command through combat and bloodshed, making them some of the most skilled and effective warriors among the widely feared Roman army.
Where and When: Mongolia, 1206 - 1368 AD
How Much They Conquered: Taking over almost the entire continent of Asia and extending out into Eastern Europe, Siberia, the Sea of Japan, parts of Central Europe, and down into the Indian Subcontinent, the Mongolian Empire remains one of the largest contiguous land empires in the history of the world.
- Composite bows and handcrafted arrows - perfectly crafted bows and arrows gave the Mongol horde a unique advantage, especially as they were trained to use them while riding on horseback.
- Sabre - a one-handed curved sword that was ideal for combat on foot and on horseback
- Lance or spear - typically used for newly recruited soldiers as a lightweight and inexpensive alternative to the sabre
Their Training: Training for Mongol warriors began at an early age. They would enter the formal army in their early adulthood, and the formidable horde would run formation drills and practice diversionary tactics to have a wide variety of defensive and offensive measures that could be implemented against different enemies across various terrains.
On The Battlefield: The two greatest strengths of the Mongol warriors were their endurance and their speed. The Mongol army could cover 100 miles in a day and each soldier took with him four or five mares so that he could rotate between horses as each began to get tired. In fact, it was their equestrian skills - especially their unmatched talent for horseback archery and superb marksmanship - that made each man in the Mongol horde a formidable foe and allowed their empire to expand to unequaled size.