“Armies for thousands of years have maintained battalions of highly trained elite troops to perform only the most dangerous and specialized missions.”
THE WIDENING ROLE OF SPECIAL FORCES in the war against Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq may very well be one of the worst kept secrets in recent memory. According to the latest news reports out of the U.K. and Canada, crack troops from a number of western militaries are on the ground in the region and even engaging the enemy in combat. But while covert operations have become a hallmark of warfare in the 21st century, special forces are certainly nothing new. Armies for thousands of years have maintained battalions of highly trained elite troops to perform only the most dangerous and specialized missions. Consider these:
The Pharaohs’ Finest
The Army Rangers of Ancient Egypt were known as the Medjay. Originally a clan of nomadic desert warriors and scouts from Nubia, by the 16th Century BCE the group was formally incorporated into the Pharaohs’ legions. Membership was even extended to the best soldiers in the whole of the Egyptian military. Not only did the Medjay patrol the distant and barren fringes of the realm, they served as a special paramilitary force that guarded the royal family as well as its many tombs and palaces.
Of Love and War
One of classical Greece’s best-known elite units may very well be the Sacred Band of Thebes. Formed in 378 BCE by the Theban general Gorgidas, the legendary army was made up exclusively of 150 same-sex couples. Only the finest warriors from the city-state were invited to join. According to regimental tradition, junior inductees were romantically paired with more seasoned fighters. It was reasoned that once bonded, the loving partners would fight much harder in battle to protect one another whereas individual heterosexual spearmen were unlikely to forsake their squadmates if things became desperate. “Who would desert his beloved or fail him in the hour of danger?” wrote Plato about the famed Theban hoplites in his treatise Symposium. In addition to fighting as a unit, members of the Sacred Band were often deployed in the front ranks of regular phalanxes to shore up the morale of ordinary soldiers. It seemed to work — Thebes crushed the armies of Sparta in a number of engagements during the mid-4th Century BCE. The band was eventually wiped out by the Macedonians in 338 BCE at the Battle of Chaeronea.
Who Wants to Live Forever?
The 6th Century BCE Persian emperor Cyrus the Great’s most dependable warriors were known throughout the ancient world as the Immortals. Unlike the bulk of the Achaemenid army, which was largely made up of conscripts called upon to serve during wartime, the Immortals were a permanent standing force comprised of exactly 10,000 heavy infantrymen. Each soldier in was decked out in long robes overtop of scale armour and was equipped with a bow, a short sword and a spear with a silver butt-spike. While Immortals were expected to lay down their lives for the emperor without hesitation, membership in the storied outfit certainly had its perks. Soldiers were issued only the finest rations, and what’s more, the men were lavished with gold jewelry and were even catered to while on campaign by a rolling caravan of comfort women. Despite their fearsome reputation, the Immortals got more than they bargained for at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BCE. Although the unit eventually prevailed, it sustained horrific casualties over the three-day battle with the Greeks.
Alexander the Great is remembered for forging one of the ancient world’s most impressive empires. But he probably couldn’t have done it without the Companion Cavalry or Hetairoi. Comprised almost entirely of Macedonian nobility, the Companions galloped into battle in virtually unstoppable wedge formations. Their legendary shock-and-awe style assaults seemed to come out of nowhere and typically targeted the undefended rear echelons of enemy phalanxes. A surprise attack by the Hetairoi was often enough to scatter entire Persian armies. In return for their services, a grateful Alexander provided the 2,600-man Companion Cavalry with the best weaponry, armour and horses.
The Emperor’s Elite
Before the Praetorian Guard and the Scholae Palatinae, early Rome’s elite warriors were known as the Extraordinarii. Formed during the Latin War of the 4th Century BCE, the prestigious unit was drawn from the creme of Italy’s Socii tribes. Typically numbering 1,600 spearmen and 600 cavalry, the Extraordinarii were tasked with screening the legions’ flanks while the army was on the march. By the 1st Century CE, it was the Lanciarii who served as the Roman army’s foremost light infantry. They fought as skirmishers and are also believed to have been charged with safeguarding commanders on the battlefield. Other top Roman units included the Imperial German Bodyguard, a 500-man force of mercenaries that watched over emperors between and 30 BCE and 68 CE. Despite the fact that the men of the guard were recruited from hostile barbarian regions along the Rhine, it was presumed that the warriors (when handsomely paid) would have little interest in partaking in the political intrigue that characterized life in the Eternal City.
To most inhabitants of early Medieval Europe, all Vikings were considered formidable opponents in battle. But the most fearsome of Norsemen were the Berzerkers, an uber-fanatical sect of Dane warriors noted for their drug-induced frenzies. When whipped into their notorious frenzies, Berzerkers charged into battle without armour. Those that weren’t struck down by enemy arrows often ripped their opponents to pieces in their fits of bloodlust. “[They] rushed forward as mad as dogs or wolves. They bit their shields and were strong as bears or wild oxen,” said one contemporary chronicler. Some would even don tunics made of animal skins while in their rages, believing that the shirts or serkrs helped them channel the spirit of their god Odin.
Soldiers of Fortune
Some of the best Nordic warriors found employment as mercenaries far from the shores of Scandinavia. As early as the 10th Century, the Byzantine ruler Basil II brought together a band of Norsemen to serve as his personal guard – the Varangians. But the elite axemen did more than just secure the royal palace – emperors were known to send them on campaign where they would be held in reserve, only to be unleashed at the turning point of a battle (and often with devastating results for the enemies of Constantinople). The Varangians were well paid for their loyalty. And as an added bonus, upon the death of the king, each soldier in the guard was allowed to carry away as much gold as he could from the royal treasury before being discharged. So many Vikings clamoured to join this elite army, Swedish rulers decreed that those who left home to join foreign armies would be legally prohibited from collecting their own families’ inheritances.
Of course, not all of the bravest and best in the Byzantine army were from distant lands. As early as the 4th Century CE, the emperor Constantine V established an entire corps of elite local units known collectively as the Tagma. The professional backbone of the Byzantine army, this 20,000-man legion was comprised of cavalry bodyguards like the Scholai and the Exkoubitoi as well as infantrymen like the Noumeroi.
The Mongol emperor’s chosen men were known as the Kheshig, which literally means “favourite” or “blessed”. The elite band of swordsmen had one job only: to safeguard Genghis Kahn. The group consisted of a daytime team, the Torguud, and a night watch, Khevtuul. While initially restricted to ethnic Mongols, after Khan’s death membership in the 1,000-man detail was opened to the most trusted and reliable nobles from Eastern Europe and Asia. It served a succession of Mongol emperors.
Outstanding soldiers of the 15th Century Aztec Empire of Mesoamerica, specifically those who returned from battle with the most captives to be sacrificed to the gods, were honored with membership in the top class of warriors known as the Jaguars. Adorned with animal skins and armed with obsidian swords, bows and small daggers, Jaguars not only served the empire in battle, but also acted as a national police force and even performed administrative functions. Adoption into the unit meant immediate promotion to the ranks of the nobility and came with all of the attendant perks: a full-time salary, an exclusive temple in which to pray, hot and cold running concubines and an all-access pass to palace banquets.
Enter the Ninja
Perhaps the best pre-modern equivalent of present-day special forces would be the Ninjas of feudal Japan. The legendary fighters were masters of covert operations and specialized in infiltration, sabotage, camouflage and assassination. Also known as shinobi, the elusive killers made their most noted contributions during Japan’s warring states era of the 15th Century where they rented themselves out to the various factions as spies and hit-and-run-style raiders. Unlike the Samurai class that emphasized a more chivalrous and honourable style of combat, Ninjas literally fought from the shadows having been trained to disguise themselves as monks or merchants or blend in with the terrain if necessary. Their weapons included swords, spikes, blowguns, poison and even explosives.
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