5 The Janissaries
The Janissaries were the elite warriors of the Ottoman Empire for over five centuries. They served the Sultan directly, acting both as his personal bodyguards and his fiercest warriors. A typical Janissary soldier got his start in a most unlikely place, however: most were Christians who converted to Islam (sometimes under coercion) after being taken as slaves. They were impressed into service, but subsequently well-paid and rewarded with a respected rank in society, thus most became committed, even fanatical devotees of the Sultan. Early Janissaries were skilled archers, but their ready adoption of firearms in the 1400s cemented their status as the elite warriors of the day.
4 The Batavi
A comparison between Batavi warriors and modern Navy SEALs is not that far from accurate. Batavian warriors, Germanic by descent, served with the Roman military in the early centuries of the common era (when not rebelling against Rome, of course), but they preserved many of their “barbarian” tactics even when in the service of the Empire. The favored attack of the Batavi was to swim across rivers others thought impassable—while wearing armor and carrying weapons, by the way—and to attack armies while their guard was down. Oh, and they trained their horses to do the same, so a Batavi surprise cavalry attack was common.
3 The Sacred Band of Thebes
How badass were the warriors of the Sacred Band of Thebes? Badass enough to beat the hell out of the Spartans, usually considered the ultimate warriors of the Ancient Greek world. This crack unit was made up of only around 300 men, and served from the year 378 BC until it was entirely wiped out by a massive Macedonian army forty years later. During its four decades of service, though, the Sacred Band were arguably the finest, fiercest warriors on earth. Their skill came from constant training in armed combat, wrestling and horsemanship. Their devotion came from the fact that the group consisted of 150 pairs of devoted lovers, so each fought both for Thebes and for his beloved.
2 The Shaolin
One normally doesn’t associate monks and monasteries with warriors and the planet’s ultimate hand-to-hand combat training… unless, of course, one is talking about Shaolin monks. Then prayer and combat go together like peas and carrots! The Shaolin Monastery dates back nearly 1,500 years now, and its tradition of martial arts can be traced to accounts of combat against marauding bandits in the year 610. While trained never to use force when not needed, the Shaolin Monks certainly found themselves kicking a lot of ass over the centuries. They battled everyone from roving thieves to corrupt emperors to Japanese pirates, always using their distinctive combat style: Shaolin Kung Fu.
1 The Ninjas
Does the ninja seem like an obvious choice for our #1 spot? Well, you’re right, it is. And it’s the right choice, too. The real, historical ninjas were every bit as skilled, silent and deadly as popular culture has made them out to be. It was a ninja’s adaptability, though, that truly made him an amazing warrior. They trained with myriad weapons, were adept at stealth and sabotage, and would kill with savage efficiency. For centuries, when warring shoguns pitted armies of samurai against one another, the ninjas too joined the fight, but rarely in pitched battles. Rather they would be used for special missions of espionage, kidnapping or assassination… just like the elite Special Forces of today.