Since the dawn of mankind, the ambit of conflict has always been a constant feature in the intricate tapestry of history. And in such a vast scope of destruction and death, there have been a few civilizations, tribes and factions that have rather ‘thrived’ on warlike conditions. So, without further ado, let us check out the fifteen of the most disciplined, ferocious yet tactically evolved warrior cultures who had nigh perfected the ‘art of war’ or rather the art of dealing with war.
*Note – The list not only reflects their successes in battles or wars, but it also pertains to how they perceived the scope of war or conflict.
1) Assyrian –
During their zenith period from 10th century BC to 7th century BC, the Assyrians controlled a vast territory that extended from the borders of Egypt to the eastern highlands of Iran. Many historians perceive Assyria to be among the first ‘superpowers’ of the Ancient World. And quite paradoxically, the rise of Assyrian militarism and imperialism mirrored their land’s initial vulnerability, as it laid inside the rough triangle between the cities of Nineveh, Ashur and Ardabil (all in northern Mesopotamia).
In essence, the Assyrian rulers had to maintain an effective military out of necessity that could launch offensive campaigns against enemies surrounding their precariously positioned kingdom. The grand result was a standing army with ruthless discipline, order, uniformity and a penchant for using advanced siege weaponry like gargantuan mobile towers and boisterous siege engines.
2) Scythian –
One of the Iranian equestrian tribes that dominated the Eurasian steppes from 7th century BC till 3rd century BC (but continued well into the 4th century AD), the Scythians epitomized the rise of the semi-nomadic people that excelled both in unorthodox warfare and horsemanship. In fact, many authors believe that the Scythians had a lasting influence on the their neighbors so much so that even after 1,000 years of their passing, the land in which they dwelt and dominated (present-day northern areas of Black Sea) was known as Greater Scythia.
As for their renowned warlike nature, the Scythian horde (in its nascent stage) boldly managed to invade Assyria and even reached the borders of Egypt during 650 BC. After exacting tributes from the Pharaoh, they returned to plunder Assyrian and might have even toppled the Median (upper Iran) aristocracy. A biblical prophet sums up the baleful effect of the ferocious ‘horse lords’ –
They are always courageous, and their quivers are like open grave. They will eat your harvest and bread, they will eat your sons and daughters, they will eat your sheep and oxen, they will eat your grapes and figs.
3) Spartan –
Just to make it clear, there are certainly skewed views of both Spartans and Persians (who were arguably more advanced in culture) in popular media, no thanks to biased Hollywood representations (read this post). But from the perspective of pure history (and not fantasy), Spartans or Lakedaimonians maintained the only full-time army in all of Greece. To that end, the institutions of the state and even Sparta’s education systems were organized to create soldiers first, statesmen later.
In fact, a Spartan boy started his military training at the age of six, when he was taken from his home to live in barracks. By the age of twelve, the boy was already treated as a youth who was expected to show martial skills and survive with bare minimum diet (he was also expected to steal to keep his hunger pangs away – and on being caught, he was severely punished for getting caught, not stealing!). On turning eighteen, he was finally considered as an adult and a soldier of the Spartan society, but was still prohibited from entering a marketplace to talk with his fellow adults till the age of 30. In consideration of all these strict rules, Plutarch once observed that the only rest a Spartan got from training for war was during the actual war.
4) Roman –
To write about the Romans in a single paragraph is indeed a fool’s errand. But if there was any empire that had tailored its military strength to nigh perfection – it was the Romans. We use the term ‘tailored’ because a Roman legion was not about individual capacity, courage or ferocity (like their nemesis, the Gauls); rather it was more about disciplined teamwork, formations, and their remarkable executions on the battlefield that resulted in a combined strength of arms. The evolving political structure of the Republic (and then Empire) also helped the Roman army in its long list of conquests stretching from Spain to Syria, and from North Africa to Britain.
However, the greatest strength of Rome was arguably not in its arms, but rather its unflinching capacity to bounce back from disastrous circumstances. A good example would be the Battle of Cannae, when Rome lost 48,200 soldiers in a single day (according to Livy, it was 80 percent of the army). The burgeoning republic still managed to survive, to ultimately defeat Hannibal at the very gates of Carthage.
5) Boii –
Thought to be a Gallic tribe from the later Iron Age, the Boii were mainly centered around Bohemia (present-day Czech Republic), Pannonia (present-day Hungary) and Cisalpine Gaul (present-day Northern Italy). The warlike people were famous historically because of the momentous Gallic invasion of Italy in 390 BC, when they took over the Etruscan city of Felsina, and turned it into their new capital Bononia (now known as Bologna).
And, even beyond historical instances, it is the name ‘Boii‘ that holds special significance in relation to their warrior culture. To that end, some linguists (like Julius Pokorny) have attested that Boii itself pertains to ‘warrior’, derived from Indo-European *bhei(ə)- “hit”. In any case, the Boii showed their renowned martial capacity when they aided the great Hannibal himself in defeating the Romans in 216 BC.
6) Lusitanian –
We included the Lusitanians in this list mainly because of their special tactics used during battles, which entailed the very concept of ancient guerrilla warfare. Roughly occupying most of modern Portugal (south of Douro river) along with the central provinces of Spain, the Lusitani were a part of the Celt-Iberian group. And quite oddly, unlike their Gallic neighbors or even kingdoms from across the Mediterranean Sea, the Lusitanian tribes were never warlike in the proper sense of the word. However, they did show their military acumen and even might, when provoked – as was the case during the Hispanic Wars and the campaigns of Lusitanian hero Viriatus against Rome. It is estimated that the Romans and their Italic allies lost around an astronomical 200,000 soldiers during the 20-year period of war between 153-133 BC!
And even beyond figures, it was the unique essence of unconventional warfare that really made the ancient Spaniards stand out from their contemporaries. As Polybius had noted – the Hispanic Wars were different because of their unpredictability, with Lusitanians and other Celt-Iberians adopting the tactic of ‘consursare‘ (which is sometimes described as ‘lack of tactics’) that involved sudden advancements and confusing retreats in the heat of the battle. Moreover, the Lusitanian young men were known to be the ‘desperados’ of the ancient times because of their penchant for gathering riches through robberies. Their warrior society also followed a cult of trim physique, with body slimness being rather accentuated by wearing of wide yet tight belts around the waist!
7) Huns –
Circa 636 AD, Bishop Isidore of Seville called the Huns – the “scourges of God’s fury”. The dramatic overtone of the sentence does symbolically underline the terror and ruthless destruction brought on by this Asiatic nomadic horde upon the very heartland of Europe. However, the oft used image of the ‘barbarous’ Huns rampaging through civilized nations is actually a misleading notion – since the Huns themselves were a sort of a ‘super-entity’ of variant tribes who had been neighbors to sophisticated agrarian societies for centuries. As a result, the Hunnic people adopted many of the foreign customs, including even that of a Roman bathhouse, which was supposedly used inside Attila’s large village-camp.
Many historians have pointed out that the idea of limitless ‘hordes’ of Huns might also be fallacious, since the Huns themselves comprised of only a few ten-thousand horsemen. This actually alludes to the military effectiveness and the ruthlessness of the nomadic force – as they were able to instill the foreboding sense of fear in their enemies, in spite of their relatively small numbers. The brilliantly rapid tactics involving swift horses and swifter arrows also helped Attila and his ‘hordes’ in overcoming their cumbersome European foes.
8) Frank –
The Franks are thought to be a confederation of Germanic tribes who came into historical significance in 3rd century AD, during the period of the First Migration Period (or Völkerwanderung in German). In reference to pre-migration Germanic tribes, this is what Roman historian Tacitus had to say in the 1st century AD –
A German is not so easily prevailed on how to plow the land and wait patiently for harvest as to challenge a foe and earn wounds for his reward. He thinks it spiritless to accumulate slowly by the sweat of his brow which can be got quickly by a loss of a little blood.
This pretty much summarizes the ‘urge’ of fighting which was prevalent in most episodes of German inter-tribal conflicts. The Franks however brought out the socio-political side of this potent Germanic military force, and ultimately carved out the Merovingian empire by 5th century AD (which consisted of both modern-day France and Germany). In fact, the name ‘France’ is itself derived from this super-tribe, while the term ‘Frank’ might have been derived from the Germanic word for the weapon of ‘javelin’.
9) Viking –
The multitude of impressions that the Vikings had on their opponents and victims can be comprehended to some degree by the various names that these sea-faring invaders from Scandinavia were given. The Irish called them Gaill or ‘strangers’, the Byzantine sources mention them as Varangoi(derived from var – a group of men sworn to each other), and the Muslim sources describe them as al-Madjus or ‘heathen wizards’! But one thing was for certain – the Vikings epitomized the very term ‘warrior culture’.
Using their acumen for building ships, the Vikings were able to raid swiftly along the booty-laden coasts ranging from North Atlantic islands, Russia to Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) and Middle Eastern territories (Viking presence was even found in Baghdad) – an effective stratagem that was nigh alien to then-contemporary factions. However, such expeditious gambits were antithetical to the actual land battles in which these Northerners participated. A good example would be the use of the ‘solid’ shield-wall where massive blocks of men adopted a stationary, defensive stance which was nigh polar opposite in tactical terms to the swift raids by the seas. Such ploys along with the usual bouts of viciousness (like going ‘berserk’) alludes to the versatility of a Viking as an energetic warrior.
10) Norman –
Simply put – the Normans continued where the Vikings left. Their name being derived from LatinNortmanni, the Normans themselves gave their name to the northern province of Normandy in France. And historically, they were actually the descendants of the Vikings who had settled along this strategic coastal area, and had intermixed with the native Merovingian stock. The result was a resourceful people who believed in their indigenous culture of Gens Normannorum – which to some degree fueled their ‘destiny’ to explore and conquer lands across various parts of Europe and even Asia.
This self-identifying sense of ingenuity and adaptability allowed the Normans to basically succeed where the Vikings failed. To that end, the Normans were known for their equal measures of ferocity and cunning, while their thriving culture inculcated military prowess and leadership at the same time. So, it really doesn’t come as a surprise that the Normans (like William the Conqueror) are still counted as the last continental force that successfully invaded Britain. Additionally, they established long-lasting kingdoms in Southern Italy, Sicily and even Antioch (present-day southern Turkey). And, at last but not the least, they were among the early proponents of shock cavalry with couched lances – a factor that gave rise to the knightly class; warriors who were to dominate European battlefields for centuries to come.
11) Rajput –
The term Rajput comes from Raj-putra, which in Sanskrit translates to ‘son of king’. Rising in prominence during the later part of 9th century, the Rajputs organized themselves as one of the dominant Hindu warrior classes (or Kshatriyas) around the northern regions of India (especially in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi). Interestingly, historians have not been able to strictly identify their origins, which is an irony – since most Rajput clans gave importance to their so-called noble lineages. In any case, the defining nature of the Rajputs related to their martial prowess, not their confusing or hyperbolic origins; as historian Pradeep Barua had put it forth –
What makes the Rajputs stand out from the rest of Indian society was not their (probable) foreign origins but their fanatical attempts to assert their Kshatriya status. Over time, other Indian groups followed their example and claimed descent from the (mythological) solar and lunar races, establishing themselves as Rajputs in various parts of western and central India.
Such ‘attempts’ actually reflect the Rajput warrior ethos, courageousness against overwhelming odds and their free-spirited aspirations. In that regard, we also know of the Rajput’s love for his weapon – which was seen as a physical extension of his martial resolve and ardor. This tendency was specially signified by the ritual of Karga Shapna that amounted to ‘love for the sword’, after which the warrior was given free reign to pursue his passion for honor, revenge and even plunder.
12) Mongol –
Once the rulers of the largest contiguous land empire ever witness in the history of the world, the ruthlessness of the Mongol warrior needs no introduction. But unfortunately in an objective manner, it is this very veneer of ruthlessness that has overshadowed the true Mongol achievement in military history – their veritable mastery of the very art of war. This dramatic statement is backed up by purely statistical terms. The Mongols have won the most number of battles (than any other global faction), they had controlled the largest expanse of land territories ever known to mankind, and is still counted among the very few invasion forces that had successfully conquered Russia during the winter season – a gambit that was taken as an advantage for their own improved mobility along frozen lakes and rivers.
All of these momentous feats pertain to the grand strategies of their leaders followed to the letter by tactical blitzes and military acumen. In essence, the Mongol horde was not just a nomadic ‘horde’ of barbarous horsemen rampaging across lands of sedentary civilizations – rather, it was an imposing war machine in itself, with far-advanced organizational capacity than its opponents, which was equally matched by tenacious ferocity and mobility of the individual Mongol.
13) Samurai –
Japan’s feudal answer to European knights, Indian Rajputs and Arabian Faris; the Samurai served as the military nobility of the far-east nation for over 700 years. But oddly enough, the Samurais didn’t actually start out as higher ranking members of the Japanese society – they rather served the roles of private bodyguards of rich landowning clans before 12th century AD. As a matter of fact, they were instrumental in turning the tides of war for Minamoto Yoritomo in 1192 AD, who toppled the central government to start Japan’s first Shogunate – which in practice was a state ruled by a military commander.
However, the Samurais truly reached the highest echelons within feudal Japan’s rigid social structure during the warring Edo Period from 1603 AD to 1867 AD. Mirroring their newly found social ranking, they were only the men allowed to own and carry swords, while their permanent residences were fixed by their daimyos or feudal lords within castle-towns. Other than swords, the Samurais were also known for their mastery of other weapons like bows and arrows, spears and even guns. But arguably more renowned was their fanatical adherence to the warrior code of Bushido, which evolved after the 16th century with concepts of loyalty, honor, warrior ethics, along with ideas of neo-Confucianism, Shinto and Zen Buddhism.
14) Mamluk –
The military culture of the Mamluks is perhaps the most unique among all the entries here, as the very term ‘mamluk‘ denotes a slave. In essence, the Mamluks were recruited from various ‘fringe’ factions including that of Turks, Kipchaks and Circassians – which was a pretty common Muslim military practice from the time of the Abbasid Caliphate, when the slave soldiers were known as ‘ghulams‘. The last great Ayyubid sultan (Saladin’s dynasty) al Salih expanded the scope of this slave recruitment in a bid to unify his realm through strength, which resulted in an elite corp of Mamluks making their base in Cairo. These slave warriors finally toppled al Salih’s own son, to start the Mamluk Sultanate that successfully drove away the remnant Crusaders, defeated the Mongols and even rivaled the future Ottomans.
Now, the term ‘slave’ can be misleading from our modern perspective. But historically, recruited slaves in most Islamic kingdoms, had a far more honorable status and even higher standard of living than that of ordinary folk. The Mamluks carried this incredible tradition forward with evolved emphasis on rigorous military training, religious piety and even literary education. The result was a highly motivated and heavily armored group of men – who for all-intents-and-purposes belonged to thecrème de la crème of the medieval Egyptian society, in spite of them being foreigners in almost all cases.
15) Ottoman –
During its zenith period, the Ottoman Empire stretched from Iraq to Hungary, while also covering most of the coastal areas of North Africa. In fact, the burgeoning Islamic realm almost brought the then-Christian world to its knees, by the sheer effectiveness of its military machine. And, perhaps that shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, given the Ottoman pedigree pertaining to an eminent legacy of earlier Seljuk Turk, Eastern Roman, Mongol and even Mamluk traditions.
In essence, many historians believe the Ottoman Empire lived for war. Their territorial infrastructure, roads, engineering projects and mountain passes were all aligned and designed for the ultimate purpose of conquest. And conquer they did, by subjugating the Balkans by 14th century, and finally capturing Constantinople, which was probably the biggest city of the world in 15th century, in 1453 AD. Furthermore, they were among the first factions that fully utilized the tactical advantage of gunpowder in battlefields and sieges – as is evident from the advanced firearms of the Janissary corps and the massive cannons of Turkish make.