10 of the Greatest Warrior Cultures of History
10 of the Greatest Warrior Cultures of History

10 of the Greatest Warrior Cultures of History

Peter Baxter - April 15, 2018

Bearing in mind the vast scope of human warfare, choosing just ten of the greatest warrior cultures out of all of those that have punctuated history is certainly no easy task. The rise of a military culture depends on many things. Mostly it is a congruence of national mood, opportunity and leadership. The French would probably not rank among the greatest warrior nations in the world, certainly not in a modern context, but a combination of the French Revolution, a resurgence of national pride and the emergence of a great leader in the form of Napoleon Bonaparte set in motion one of the great military adventures of the age.

Another example, of course, is Alexander the Great, who combined great leadership with an extraordinary genius in military maneuver and tactics. Nothing like it has been recorded among the Macedonians before or since, so, in his case, as with Napoleon, the alchemy of great military achievement was momentary. A great military ‘society’, on the other hand, independent of individual ambition or leadership, is a different concept, and is much more difficult to explain. A combination of long-held tradition with a sense of national superiority, and an aggressive, inbuilt character must all in some way contribute.

The ten warrior cultures that we have chosen for this list fall into the category of societies rather than national responses to a situation, or the inspiration of an individual leader, although in each case, great leaders have all played a part.

10 of the Greatest Warrior Cultures of History
The Mamluk, a caste of warrior slaves of the Ottoman Empire. Bahath

The Mamluks, a Slave Warrior Elite

The Mamluks as a warrior elite came to the attention of the western world when Napoleon encountered them during his ill-fated campaign to Egypt in 1798. They Egyptian Mamluk caste owed its origins to an Ottoman need for a professional, non-aligned military formation to hold firm Egyptian loyalty once it had been absorbed into the Ottoman Empire.

The word Mamluk simply derives from the Arabic word for ‘property’ or ‘ownership’, taken from the root term ‘Malaka’, meaning ‘to possess’. All of this implies quite simply that Mamluk warriors were slave soldiers, owned by a master. They were captured mainly from the Turkic or Caucasian regions, and removed from their own ethnic backgrounds in order that they could serve in an environment uncomplicated by clan or family loyalties, and thus remain wholly obedient to their masters.

However, drawn from such diverse backgrounds, and thrown together as an armed force, it was somewhat inevitable that Mamluk would begin to develop a kinship and loyalty towards one another, and the group. In time, this internal cohesion developed into an elite mentality, sowing aspirations that rose beyond the status of mere slaves. The Mamluk enter the historical record on or about 977 CE, and the final Mamluk dynasty was that in Iraq which disappeared as late as 1831. The most famous dynasty, however, was probably the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt, which was founded in 1250, and was overturned by Ottoman intervention in 1517.

So much for the Mamluk, but what exactly qualifies them as a great military society? Historians generally explain this as a sense of common, martial identity forged from the isolation of their captive background. In other words, having been once founded as a subjugated military caste, it would be inevitable that a military identity would predominate as the caste began to acquire independent military power, and thereafter political ambition.

Again, the story of the Egyptian Mukluk Sultanate is perhaps the most quintessential. Mamluk soldiers were introduced to Egypt as a force loyal to the Ottoman Empire, but under their own authority they imposed an independent sultanate within Egypt. They were not Egyptian, and they identified only as a ruling aristocracy, at which point their slave origins transmogrified from a badge of dishonor to one of exclusivity and distinction.

When Napoleon arrived in Egypt in the spring of 1798, Egypt was still informally governed by Mamluk Beys, and while the French were awestruck by lavish displays of military prowess, by the late 18th century, Mamluk military tactics were in fact long outdated, and the defenders of Egypt were therefore fairly easily defeated. Their traditional strength lay in light cavalry, and the sort of horsemanship common to the Caucasian races, but in the face of modern infantry tactics, they proved ultimately to be powerless. By the end, Mamluk military proficiency had become one of form over substance.

10 of the Greatest Warrior Cultures of History
The Mongols, warriors of the Eurasian Steppe, were among the greatest proponents of light cavalry. University of South Florida

The Mongols, Masters of the Blitzkrieg

What Alexander was to the Macedonians, Genghis Khan was to the Mongols. The dynamics of the Mongol rise to the largest contiguous land empire in history was almost a textbook example of the evolution of a great military society.

Genghis Khan was born in 1162 in modern-day Mongolia, and displaying rare gifts of leadership and command, he rose through the ranks of minor chieftaincy to a position where he could begin uniting the various tribes and clans of the central Asian steppes. This was initially achieved through a combination of war and diplomacy, but as time progressed, it was found that war was quicker and more cost-effective.

As a military leader, Genghis Khan had excellent material to work with. Mongol tribesmen are perhaps the original people of the horse, and horsemanship was in those days not only a lifestyle, but a competitive sport. The use of horse-borne weaponry formed part of the evening, and a wild and fiercely individual attitude to campaigning prevailed. One particular Mongol weapon that often tipped the balance was the unique recurve bow that, when combined with a fast pony as a firing platform, could be utterly devastating.

Another shrewd reform that Genghis added to motivate his army was to open the seizure of loot to all and any. War therefore became both a sport and an industry, and was soon so intertwined with the Mongol self-image that military matters merged with affairs of state, and began to define the self-image of the empire.

In the field, a Mongol army was a formidable prospect. With a reliance on light cavalry, Mongol mobility was legendary. Each cavalryman moved with three or four horses, and could rotate his mount at will. Despite a tendency to individuality, Mongol fighting divisions were highly disciplined and well trained, thanks once again to the fact that so much of what they needed to know in war they learned as children. What they also learned on the steppes was survival under difficult conditions, and the ability to travel light and live off the land. Horses were typically milked and slaughtered for meat, which was a masterful tactic of mobility and survival.

Add to this surprisingly well-organized communications and supply, and the Mongol army proved unstoppable in almost a century of unbroken territorial advance.

What stopped the Mongol expansion, and in the end brought the whole edifice down was a disputed succession. As one great American president remarked, ‘a house divided cannot stand’, and as Genghis Khan’s descendants bickered over his legacy, that legacy simply fell apart.

10 of the Greatest Warrior Cultures of History
Samurai, one of the most enduring warrior castes in history. History.com

Samurai, the Great Warrior Caste

The transcendence of a military culture to a military ‘caste’ is a very subtle transition, but if one needs a definition of a military caste to work with, then look no further than the Samurai. When observance of the rituals of military culture become interchangeable with the rituals of religion, and when military regalia and weaponry became an artistic statement in themselves, then that is a military caste – and that remains very much the methodology of the Samurai.

Samurai, as just about everyone knows, originated in Japan, and today forms the bedrock of the nation’s political and business elite. The origins of Samurai can be traced to the Japanese ‘Heian Period’, between 794 and 1185 CE, during which time the term simply described the private armies of wealthy landowners. The word ‘Samurai’ translates roughly to ‘Those Who Serve’, and early Samurai were no more than a group of armed retainers with simple and violent tendencies.

As was the case with the Mamluk, however, it was not long before a kind of group cohesion began to develop, gradually elevating the Samurai towards something a bit more than the sum of its parts. By the 12th century, the power balance in Japan began to shift away from the imperial court towards the heads of dispersed families and clans, and this inevitably led to war. Between 1180 and 1185, what was known as the ‘Gempei War’ was fought. All that we need to know about this is that it projected a particularly gifted Samurai warlord, Minamoto Yoshitsune, to political power.

Japan then effectively became an hereditary military dictatorship, under a system of government known as a ‘Shogun’. Under numerous Shogun dynasties, the institution of Samurai became a virtual knighthood of privileged elites, practising a stylized and heavily ritualized system of military and combat discipline. Into the equation, at about the same time, came Zen Buddhism, the essential ideological elements of which blended very well with Samurai. Austerity and simple ritual, along with a belief that salvation comes from within, quickly became the center of Samurai expression.

As its essential symbol, the Samurai sword gained great symbolic relevance, far beyond its utility as an implement of war. The honor of a Samurai resides in his sword, and the artistic accomplishment in the production of an individual sword is of no less importance.

From this higher form of martial expression came the code of ‘Bushido’. Bushido is the defining moral code of Samurai, and of the Shinto region. Shinto is a wholly Japanese religion emphasizing the veneration of nature, of ancestors and great historic heroes, and the divinity of the Emperor.

Samurai, therefore, morphed over centuries from a band of hired enforcers to a finely tuned military culture that still holds dear its treasured rituals and artefacts, and adheres religiously to tradition.

10 of the Greatest Warrior Cultures of History
The Mighty Zulu, the original manifestation of the African Warrior. Great Military Battles

Zulu, the Template of an African Warrior

The Zulu belong on this list as an example of how a military society is forged in the fire of great personality and leadership. At the turn of the 19th century, society in southern Africa was infinitely subdivided, and individual loyalty typically went no further than local clan or tribal leaders. The Zulu clan was one such minor clan of many situated on the Indian Ocean coast of what is today South Africa. In 1787, however, an exiled princess gave birth to the illegitimate son of a young Zulu prince, and child that was named Shaka.

Now the name ‘Shaka’ resonates extremely powerfully throughout southern Africa, and the myth of his rise to power is almost a national narrative. He was fixated on his mother, and was reputed to be extremely poorly endowed, but also of such powerful stature and violent disposition that it was a brave man indeed who made fun of him. He entered the military of a powerful chief, and excelled himself. It was not, however, until he seized the chieftaincy of the Zulu that his extraordinary power of leadership and his creativity found complete expression.

Shaka made several revolutionary innovations. The first was to replace the traditional javelin-type spear with a short hilted, long-bladed stabbing spear known as the ‘Iklwa’, an onomatopoeic term imitating the sucking sound as the spear is withdrawn from a human body. Battles were now no longer fought at a distance, but up close and personal. The traditional elliptical shield was modified to serve an offensive purpose, to hook aside the enemy’s shield, exposing his flank to the deadly Iklwa.

Next Shaka developed the ‘Bull and Horns’ tactic, which was simply a double envelopment. The enemy was first engaged by the bull’s ‘head’, after which the two ‘horns’ moved rapidly out in a flanking maneuver.

Then Shaka put into a effect a more rigid and organized system of regiments and battalions, to which he applied harsh and uncompromising discipline, all of which created a professional army.

The first offensive force that Shaka put into the field was small – no more than 600-men – and he chose his campaigns carefully, but so revolutionary was his approach to warfare that he quickly proved himself unstoppable.

The catalyst to it all, however, was Shaka’s own capacity for leadership, and his ability to inspire absolutely fanatical loyalty from his army. He was also, however, just a little unbalanced, and was eventually assassinated by his brother. The Zulu were never quite the same after Shaka, but they remained a formidable fighting force until defeated by the British in 1779. That victory, however, did not come without the signature battle of Isandlwana, during which the Zulu overran and massacred 1500 British troops. Today the Zulu continue to exist as a defined and cohesive group, and they still display great reverence for their martial heritage.

10 of the Greatest Warrior Cultures of History
The Cossacks, an East European military culture with a long history of warfare. Russia Beyond

The Cossack, Eastern European Soldiers of Fortune

The dictionary definition of a ‘Cossack’ is ‘a member of a people of southern Russia and Ukraine, noted for their horsemanship and military skill.’

The Cossacks are most definitely a military society, but beyond that essential understanding, they are quite difficult to define. They do not exist as a nationality or a religion, and they serve no particular power. In fact, historians today are still undecided in regards to what a Cossack actually is. The best hint is probably the Turkic origin of the name, which is Qasaq, meaning free man and adventurer.

Popular myth tends to portray the original Cossacks as somewhat like Robin Hood’s Merry Men, outlawed for one reason or another, and living as free agents outside of feudal law and society. Initially they were hunted down, but when eventually they achieved the sort of numbers to form protective communities, they were brought back into the fold. It was not long after that powerful local lords and chieftains began to make military use of them.

The warrior cult within the Cossack tradition derived from the early days of the group’s existence, when fighting was a way of life. Adventurers from any society and any background were welcome, with Christianity the only criterion. Once accepted, an individual became a Cossack, obedient to no other loyalty but to their fellow Cossacks.

Almost from birth, Cossack boys were, and still are inducted into the military tradition. Like the Mongols, horsemanship was a way of life, and adding to that proficiency with a rifle, a sword and a lance was a short step. A powerful sense of community and belonging cemented the essentials of military proficiency. A regimental structure was soon added to the mix, and by the beginning of the 18th century, Cossacks were more or less a branch of the Russian Army. However, the mercenary nature of Cossacks tended to preclude unswerving loyalty to the Crown, and on occasions the Cossacks could be found supporting a peasant rebellion or in some other way expressing their displeasure with the Tsar.

Under the Tsars, however, the Cossacks enjoyed the status and privileges of a military elite, and by the advent of the Romanov Dynasty, they were identified almost exclusively with the defence of the Crown.

In the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution, the Cossacks, thanks to their traditional loyalty to the royalists, were heavily persecuted, and during WWII, they split, some fighting for the Nazis and some for the Russians.

Cossack rehabilitation began with the collapse of the Soviet Union, after which the group was recognized as a distinct ethnocultural identity, and a military elite without specific alliance. Today they exist as a dispersed society is pockets throughout the northwestern Caucasus, Kuban, Krasnodar and Stavropol regions of Eastern Europe.

10 of the Greatest Warrior Cultures of History
The Gallowglass, a Scottish Branch of the Gaelic war machine. Pininterest

The Celts, a Thorn in the Side of Rome

It is probably questionable whether the Celts were an armed and belligerent society, or simply driven to militancy on account of the Roman invasion. Nonetheless, history tends to paint them as a society defined by war, and in fact, during some phases of their history, Celts were known to contract out their fighting prowess as far afield as Ptolemaic Egypt. It could not be said of the Celts, however, that they represented a coherent society, but rather a loosely configured language group spread over wide tracts of Europe.

Their reputation was one of fearlessness and ferocity, compounded by a Berserker-type lunacy that seemed immune to the pain of injury or fear of death. The Greek historian Polybius wrote these laudatory and respectful words regarding the Roman attitude to the Celts:

‘The Romans were terrified by the fine order of the Celtic host, and the dreadful din, for there were innumerable horn -blowers and trumpeters, and…the whole army were shouting their war-cries…Very terrifying too were the appearance and the gestures of the naked warriors in front, all in the prime of life and finely built men, and all in the leading companies richly adorned with gold torcs and armlets.

All of this is easy to imagine, and a great many battles were fought between Romans and Celts during the long period of Roman activity in Europe. Perhaps the most iconic of these was the short campaign fought by the British Celtic Iceni Queen Boudica, who led a major uprising in the East Anglian portion of England, and initially had the Roman’s on the run.

Descriptions of the main battle, which took place in 60 or 61 AD, reveal a scene of desperate mayhem as Iceni warriors, led by a chariot borne queen, died blue by the woad of England were broken by the iron discipline of the Roman legions. The battle was a defeat for the Iceni, and Boudica and daughters committed suicide rather than fall into Roman hands, but in the long run, the Celts prevailed. At no point were Romans in England safe from native rebellions, which were an ongoing feature of the Roman occupation. The Romans eventually withdrew from England, handing it back, at least temporarily, the Gaelic speaking people.

10 of the Greatest Warrior Cultures of History
The Longboat, key to the projection of Viking military power. Twitter

The Vikings, the Ultimate Military Adventurers

‘The Norseman cometh!’ is a cry that echoed across vast regions of coastal Europe and mainland Britain between about 800 and 1050 CE, announcing the imminent arrival of a Viking raiding party. The word ‘Viking’ in fact, is drawn from the Scandinavian term ‘Vikingr’, meaning literally ‘pirate’. In more idiomatic terms, however, it was used as a verb by northern Europeans to describe a period away from home on the business of trade, colonization or plunder.

Most modern histories tend to try and remind readers that the Vikings, universally associated with savagery and violence, were in fact also prolific maritime traders and colonizers, founding settlements on all of the British Isles, and as far afield as Newfoundland. In fact the continent of North America was visited by the Vikings long before Columbus landed in the Caribbean.

Well, that may well be true, but before the Vikings began to indulge in trade and colonization, they launched years of raiding expeditions that certainly did display astronomical levels of violence. In fact, in examination of Viking tactics, and why they were so successful, the phycological effect of such orchestrated violence meant that more often than not a battle was won simply by the Vikings showing up.

Like every deeply ingrained military culture, these attitudes to violence and military prowess were born out of tradition and circumstance. Norse culture and religion promotes violence and warfare, reinforced significantly by the various sagas and legends of Nordic history. The simple belief that the moment of death is preordained imbues a culture with a sense of reckless daring. Death cannot be pre-empted or avoided, leaving only dying with fearlessness and glory as a worthwhile objective.

The catalyst for projecting this worldview overseas was, of course, the Viking warships, and the seafaring culture into which most Vikings were born. The technology of warships, and the traditions of seafaring gave the Vikings enormous scope for movement along the coast Europe, but also to the British Isles and the coastal regions of Iceland and Greenland, all of which were eventually settled by the Vikings.

Initially, attacks were hit-and-run expeditions of plunder, and a popular target for this was the monasteries of England and Ireland that tended to yield up much treasure. One tactic of Viking phycological warfare which had been frequently commented on was the use of ‘Berserkers’, or professional warriors displaying trance-like engagement with the battle, and often naked, and feigning lunacy. The sight of even a small phalanx of berserkers leading an attacking force often had the enemy simply dropping their weapons and running.

The Vikings most certainly were a warrior society, with the ethos of violence and war written into their cultural DNA. The Viking Age is generally agreed to have ended in 1066, with the successful occupation of England by the Norman invaders. By then Europe was modernizing, and Viking culture was in decline.

10 of the Greatest Warrior Cultures of History
The Assyrians, one of the first great military empires. Realm of History

The Assyrians, the first Superpower

Assyria, known also as the Assyrian Empire, was a significant ancient imperial entity of the Levant and the Near East. It comprised a Semitic speaking people and existed in various phases from as early as 2,500 BCE. In the modern context, however, the name Assyrian typically refers to what in now called the ‘Neo-Assyrian Empire’, or the ‘Late Empire’, which existed between roughly 900 and 612 BCE, and covered a geographic extent larger than any empire to date. Modern historians have tended to refer to the imperial Assyrian phase as the first ‘superpower’ of the ancient world.

The heartland of the Assyrian Empire covered the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates, in the region known as Mesopotamia, which was both the breadbasket of the ancient world and the original birthplace of modern civilization. It was simply to protect this important region of agriculture and urbanization that the Assyrians devised their unique military culture. Once developed however, this military mindset allowed the empire to advance far beyond its origins. The first substantive outward march of the Assyrians began at about 1500 BC, and over time, an extraordinarily powerful military state developed, where the military affairs were tied directly to both the affairs of state and the well being of population.

There numerous reasons why the early Assyrians were so successful on the battlefield. One was their technological superiority, which was based, for the first time in history, on iron age technology. Iron allowed for the development of superior weapons that could easily be mass produced, facilitating the equipping of very large armies.

However, notwithstanding the spectacular advance of the Assyrian Empire, much of the military strategy was based on the principle that attack is the best form of defence, and as an attack formation, the Assyrians were unassailable for centuries. Pre-empting the Romans, the Assyrians adopted a strategy of absorbing defeated armies, taking from them tactics they regarded as useful, and discarding those they did not.

Technically, the development of early systems like the use of chariots, specialist trained units like archers and the tactics of siege-breaking all owe their early roots to Assyrian creativity.

By the 8th century, BCE, the Assyrians had triumphed over all the most powerful Mesopotamian kingdoms, slipping into decline eventually because was of defence and acquisition became eventually civil wars, and no great empire can long survive internal contradictions. By 600 BCE, the Assyrian Empire had effectively ceased to exist.

10 of the Greatest Warrior Cultures of History
The Roman Army, one of the first truly professional armies of the ancient world. Quora

The Romans, the Largest of the Ancient World, but Not Quite the Greatest

Everybody knows who the Romans were, and what they did. From the nurturing of Romulus and Remus by a she-wolf, to the final sack of Rome, one the greatest military adventures in the history of mankind played out. When an empire can claim ownership of generals as historically brilliant as Julius Caesar, then it certainly is owed a place in the higher pantheon of military cultures.

By the death of Trajan in 117 AD, Rome controlled the largest empire of the ancient world, stretching from the Iberian Peninsula to Syria, and from Hadrian’s Wall to the Pyramids of Egypt. None of this was achieved by an effete military culture. If an armed nation can be judged by the quality of its enemies, then Rome at one time or another fought them all, and won. Quite an achievement for a race that began as a corps of cattle rustlers camping out in the shadow of the Seven Hills.

The catalyst that made it happen was, of course, the ancient, codified and professionalized Roman military system, based on organization, discipline and great logistical depth. Standardized weapons, well-developed tactics, a professional corps and devasting use of engineering all gave the Romans a significant edge, in particular against the tribes of Europe still deploying the impressive, but fundamentally brawling tactics of enraged barbarians.

The greatest Roman attribute, however, was the ability of the army, and Roman society as a whole, to absorb, learn and adapt from regions it conquered. An essential element of Roman imperial conquest was to advance the potential for Roman citizenship to those societies that fell under the Pax Romana, and this extended to the recruitment of conquered armies into Roman service.

To try and articulate the Roman military story in a few paragraphs is, of course, impossible, so we won’t even try, other than to salute a race of soldiers who changed the nature of warfare forever, who introduced modern concepts of military organization, weapons and tactics, and who conquered the known world as a consequence.

10 of the Greatest Warrior Cultures of History
The Spartans, arguably the original military elite. Pininterest

The Spartans, the Original Military Culture

The Romans may well have deployed their military weight to conquer the world, and brought discipline and organization to the battlefield, but no military culture in the history of warfare has brought such mystique to the art of war as the Spartans.

Who were the Spartans? Well, in a nutshell, they were a military culture of ancient Greece, associated with the region of Sparta. The original boundaries of Sparta comprised much of the southeastern Peloponnese, and the culture reached its peak after defeating the city-state of Athens in the Peloponnesian War of 431 to 404 BCE.

What gave the Spartans their military identity was a society built on the expectation of military brilliance. At age seven, Spartan boys were inducted into the ‘Agoge’, which was an academy mandated for all boys, except for the firstborn sons of ruling houses. Here, a rigorous system of training and initiation was implemented, aimed at impressing rigorous discipline and producing soldiers of manifestly superior quality. This emphasis on military prowess and preparedness followed an individual throughout this life, and the phases of life, such as marriage, reproduction and public service, were all marked by the phases of military service.

Spartan mythology has got in the way occasionally of an accurate picture of Spartan military life, but by the standards of modern military training, even at an elite level, Spartan youth were certainly put through their paces. It was said that the only relief a Spartan was ever given from military training was when he was at war. At age twenty, after more than ten years of rigorous training, Spartan males became soldiers, or hoplites, and they remained on active service until the age of sixty.

The principle Spartan tactic was the phalanx, which required highly disciplined and coordinated manoeuvre, and this was really only possible in practical battlefield conditions after lengthy and disciplined training. Soldiers were all regarded as equal, and an esprit de corps was seen as a vital element of a cohesive fighting force. Weapons in general were rudimentary, comprising swords and a long spear, with the addition of a small, circular shield. Armor was also limited, and consisted of a large bronze helmet, breastplate and ankle guards.

After a series of defeats, Sparta began to slip into decline some time around 370BCE. They did not disappear, but continued to exist for a long time as a second-rate power. Nonetheless, it is the Spartan military creed that gives its name to strength, endurance and discipline. Every special forces selection program in every modern army owes its essential doctrine to the Spartans.

 

Where did we get this stuff? Here are our sources:

“10 of the greatest ancient warrior cultures you should know about”. Realm of History, September 2016

“Mamluks”. Medieval Chronicles

“Of Russian Origin: Cossacks”. Russiapedia

“Viking History: Facts & Myths”. Live Science. Ryan Goodrich, April 2016

“Sparta”. History.com, 2009

“Who Are the Assyrians?” Live Science. Owen Jarus, October 2016

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