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’.