History reveals several ancient elite military units that have been celebrated for their remarkable prowess and achievements; from warriors fighting for ancient Persian kings, to crack members of the Roman military. Societies in the ancient world had an intimate relationship with warfare. Indeed, for many of them, war, with all its opportunities and dangers, was as much a part of life as cultivation, trade, or city building.
“Do you not know that all of human life is a warfare”
Many civilizations of the ancient world had an attitude and acceptance of conflict that might surprise us today, with those such as the Romans holding warfare at the very heart of their psyche and identity.
For some societies, warfare was an essential part of survival, for others an expression of culture, and for still others, a necessary aspect of their imperial economic and political aspirations. Many states engaged in warfare politically, some for purely financial reasons, while others were compelled by cultural drivers.
As the great philosopher Plato noted:
“Only the dead have seen the end of war.”
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Of all the many nations that made war, several ancient elite military units became famous for their performance and value, and we can read tantalizing details about them that have come down to us through ancient sources. Any selection of ancient elite military units must inevitably be highly subjective. How could it not be?
In selecting the units below, I have sought to make a broad selection from across the ancient world. I have also limited myself to elite “units” rather than elite warrior nations, like the Spartans, or elite armies like those of Alexander, Hannibal, or the Romans.
Although a number of historical sources mention the units we will look at, many ancient accounts are incredibly light on detail, and there is so much that we don’t know about how these warriors lived, worked, and fought. What we do see, though, is truly fascinating.
1. Ancient Elite Military Units: The Immortals Of Persia
The first of our ancient elite military units comes from the Achaemenid Empire (c. 550-330 BCE) of mighty Persia. As a civilization, this was a true powerhouse of the ancient world, dominating many nations in what we now call the Middle East and Asia Minor.
The unit that concerns us is the famed elite guard of the Persian kings, the Immortals. A picked body of purely Persian-born troops that served the King of Kings as both an elite bodyguard and as a formidable battlefield reserve.
Also known as the 10,000, this was a hand-picked unit of men that was consistently replenished to replace any losses, never diminishing.
They were in a collective sense “immortal,” and we learn of them mainly through their prominent role in King Xerxes’ invasion of Greece in the 5th Century BCE.
“Hydarnes son of Hydarnes was general of these picked ten thousand Persians, who were called Immortals for this reason: when any one of them was forced to fall out of the number by death or sickness, another was chosen so that they were never more or fewer than ten thousand.”
[Herodotus, Histories, 7,83.1]
Although Xerxes could call upon seemingly endless nations of men to join his vast armies, it is clear that the Immortals formed the prestigious nucleus of his forces:
“Of all these troops the Persians were adorned with the greatest magnificence, and they were likewise the most valiant. Besides their arms, … they glittered all over with gold, vast quantities of which they wore all over their persons. They were followed by litters, wherein rode their concubines, and by a numerous train of attendants handsomely dressed. Camels and sumpter beasts carried their provisions, apart from that of the other soldiers”.
[Herodotus, Histories, 7,83.2]
This body was a true elite, both socially and militarily. Famous within the Persian army for their status, prestige, and fighting qualities, it is also clear that Herodotus himself — the so-called father of history — was fascinated with them.
Of their dress and equipment, we learn:
“… the Persians were equipped in this way: they wore on their heads loose caps called tiaras, and on their bodies embroidered sleeved tunics, with scales of iron like the scales of fish in appearance, and trousers on their legs; for shields, they had wicker bucklers, with quivers hanging beneath them; they carried short spears, longbows, and reed arrows, and daggers that hung from the girdle by the right thigh.”
[Herodotus, Histories, 7.61.1]
In battle, their most iconic engagement came when the Immortals were used as shock-troops in an attempt to force the Pass of Thermopylae from the indomitable Spartans:
“When the Medes had been roughly handled, they retired, and the Persians whom the king called Immortals, led by Hydarnes, attacked in turn. It was thought that they would easily accomplish the task. When they joined battle with the Hellenes, they fared neither better nor worse than the Median army, since they used shorter spears than the Hellenes and could not use their numbers fighting in a narrow space.”
[Herodotus, Histories, 7.211.1-2]
The Immortals did not overcome the far heavier hoplite armor and formidable defense of the Spartans and their allies, but that does not diminish their status as the best troops from a mighty empire and a great army. Long after the Persian Wars, later Greek sources also mention the Immortals. Xenophon mentions them in his Cyropaedia (written c. 370BCE).
“Accordingly, he took from among the ten thousand spearmen, who kept guard about the palace day and night, whenever he was in residence; but whenever he went away anywhere, they went along drawn up in order on either side of him.”
[Xenophon, Cyropedia, VII.5.68]
Xenophon himself fought as a hired mercenary for the Persian prince, and it seems likely that his observations were well-informed.
The Apple Bearers
Also of great note in later references are the Melophori, or “Apple Bearers,” an elite unit, either distinct from, or possibly evolved from, within the Immortals. They formed a personal guard to the Persian Kings. The best of the best.
Athenaeus tells us:
“The Melophori are one of his troops of guards, all Persians by birth, having golden apples on the points of their spears, a thousand in number, all picked men out of the main body of ten thousand Persians who are called the Immortals.”
[Athenaues, The Deipnosophists, Book XII]
The “Apple Bearers” were believed to be Persian officers who had a gold counterbalance at the bottom of their spears. The round counterbalance looked something like an apple. The Immortals carried this same weaponry, though regular soldiers carried a silver rather than gold counterweight. The immortals were also attested during the time of Alexander the Great’s invasion of Persia, attending Darius III at the fateful battle of Issus in 333 BCE.
“Next in line whom the Persians call the Immortals, some 10,000 in number. No other group were as splendidly bedecked in barbarian opulence: golden necklaces, clothes interwoven with gold, long sleeve tunics actually studded with jewels.”
[Quintus Curtius Rufus, History of Alexander, 3.3.13]
Sources note that Alexander the Great went on to incorporate the Immortals, including the Apple-Bearers into his retinue as part of his deliberate ‘Persianizing’ policy that became so controversial amongst his native Macedonians.
After Alexander’s death in 323 BCE, the Immortals seem to have lapsed, although resurrected versions of this illustrious corps were copied by several of the successor states which followed. It’s worth noting that some historians doubt Herodotus and think he may have misunderstood the traditional Persian term for “follower” (anusiya) for the word anausa (“immortal”). He may have confused them with what were merely soldiers or other elements of Xerxes’ retinue.
It’s far from certain, although Herodotus is known to exaggerate certain events. However, there are enough corroborating details about the Immortals in other sources to reassure us. In my view, there can be no question that an elite Persian bodyguard existed over a substantial period of time and that they were one of the greatest ancient elite military units in history.
2. The Sacred Band Of Thebes
The next of our ancient elite military units is truly unique in the ancient world. From ancient Greece, the Sacred Band of Thebes was one of the most distinctive ancient elite military units, based upon a unique warrior ethos. The Sacred Band of Thebes were elite hoplites, unique in both ancient and world history.
The band was recruited from 150 pairs of male lovers, warrior couples selected by the city-state of Thebes for their devotion to one another; an older man paired with a younger male. The concept followed a Greek cultural ideal, with older men guiding and teaching younger males, who both learned and sought to live up to their devoted lovers.
Focusing on an idealized concept of love, the ancient Greeks believed that the devotion of these couples would foster an esprit de crops that would never falter on the battlefield. The idea was that neither the older nor the younger partner could bear the shame of retreating or surrendering in the eyes of their lover. This was not a novel idea in wider Greek culture, and it is given voice in Plato’s, Symposium, written in the 360’s BCE:
“… if there were only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their loves, they would be the very best governors of their own city, abstaining from all dishonor, and emulating one another in honor; and when fighting at each other’s side, although a mere handful, they would overcome the world. For what lover would not choose rather to be seen by all mankind than by his beloved, either when abandoning his post or throwing away his arms? He would be ready to die a thousand deaths rather than endure this. Or who would desert his beloved or fail him in the hour of danger? The greatest coward would become an inspired hero, equal to the bravest, at such a time; Love would inspire him. That courage which, as Homer says, the god breathes into the souls of some heroes, Love of his own nature infuses into the lover”.
This was a powerful idea, and the ‘sacred’ element of the unit was a reference to the religious oaths that each warrior took in fidelity to his lover. These strengthened bonds even further and lent a religious aspect to the warrior’s commitment. The effect of such powerful forces was clearly strong and highly prized by the Thebans:
“a band that is held together by the friendship between lovers is indissoluble and not to be broken, since the lovers are ashamed to play the coward before their beloved, and the beloved before their lovers, and both stand firm in danger to protect each other. Nor is this a wonder, since men have more regard for their lovers even when absent than for others who are present, as was true of him who, when his enemy was about to slay him where he lay, earnestly besought him to run his sword through his breast, “in order,” as he said, “that my beloved may not have to blush at sight of my body with a wound in the back.”
[Plutarch Life of Polipades, 18]
The Sacred Band was organized by the Theban commander Gorgidas in 378 BCE. Hand-picked for their prowess, physiques, and fighting qualities, recruits embarked upon a physical training regime of wrestling, horsemanship, and even dancing that was designed to foster an elite and highly bonded unit.
Although couples were originally dispersed throughout the ranks of the army, it was later decided to create a singular body of lovers that fought as a single battlefield unit.
“Pelopidas, after their valor had shone out at Tegyra, where they fought by themselves and about his own person, never afterwards divided or scattered them, but treating them as a unit, put them into the forefront of the greatest conflicts. For just as horses run faster when yoked to a chariot than when men ride them singly, not because they cleave the air with more impetus owing to their united weight, but because their mutual rivalry and ambition inflame their spirits; so, he thought that brave men were most ardent and serviceable in a common cause when they inspired one another with a zeal for high achievement.”
[Plutarch, Life of Polipades, 19]
The Sacred Band came about at a time in Greek history when Thebes successfully challenged the established hegemony of mighty Sparta. They played a role in several important conflicts; 378 BCE saw them in action in the Boeotian War against invading Spartan forces.
In 375 BCE, at the Battle of Tegyra, the Band were part of an army that defeated a larger Spartan force and put them to flight. An achievement that hadn’t been seen for many generations. The Sacred Band also fought in the decisive Battle of Leuctra in 371 BCE, led by its commander Pelopidas, and under the generalship of the famous Theban commander Epaminondas.
However, in historical terms, the dominance of Thebes and its Sacred Band was not long-lived, and by 338 BCE Theban forces were defeated at the pivotal battle of Chaeronea. Phillip II of Macedon (Alexander the Great’s father), ushered in a new era of Macedonian dominance. The Sacred Band, who were faithful to their sworn bonds, were entirely wiped out:
“… when, after the battle, Philip was surveying the dead, and stopped at the place where the three hundred were lying, all where they had faced the long spears of his phalanx, with their armor, and mingled one with another, he was amazed, and on learning that this was the band of lovers and beloved, burst into tears and said: “Perish miserably they who think that these men did or suffered anything disgraceful.”
[Plutarch, Life of Polipades, 18]
This was high praise indeed. The Band had earned the respect of one of history’s fiercest warriors. For this alone, they deserve to be considered as one of the great ancient elite military units.
3. Alexander’s Companion Cavalry
Looking to the next of our ancient elite military units, we must now shift our attention to a Macedonian unit that we know fought the Thebans at Chaeronea, part of a legendary army that went on to change the entire ancient world.
Of all Alexander the Great’s highly effective Macedonian troops, few units commanded a position of greater esteem or impact than the Companion Cavalry (the Hetairoi). This was a body of elite horsemen — Hetairoi meaning literally ‘those closest to the king’ — who fulfilled the role of both a royal household guard and elite mounted shock-troops of the Macedonian army.
The true spear-point of the Macedonian combined forces, the Companion Cavalry, were the elite of all the cavalry units within the army and were led by Alexander in person. They were traditionally deployed on the right of the battle line and frequently at the point of maximum offensive impact.
While the massed phalanxes of Macedonian pikemen (wielding their deadly 18-foot long sarrisa’s) were crucial in closing with and pinning the bulk of the enemy, it was the highly mobile Companions who traditionally dealt the killer blow; charging (often in wedge or diamond formation) at weak points in the enemy line or outflanking and cutting off their rear. These were no spear-wielding ‘grunts’ but rather the true fighter pilots of their day.
Reaching the height of their prowess by the time of Phillip II — the true architect of the Macedonian army — the Companions in the time of Alexander were organized into eight squadrons or ilia. Each ile numbered between 200 to 300 troops and was made up of highly skilled and capable horsemen. The royal ile, led by the King himself, formed an elite unit within the horse guard, an elite within an elite.
For rulers like Philip and Alexander, who were nothing short of warrior-kings, the Companions also constituted something of a mobile court, and many of the ruler’s closest friends, nobles, and allies made up its ranks.
In this sense the Companions were not merely a military unit, they were also a central feature of Macedonian society and the court. Distinctive in their iconic Boeotian-style helmets, they were protected by a breastplate or cuirass, armed with a spear (xyston) and short sword — either a kopis (a curved slashing sword) or a xiphos (a cut and thrust sword).
The Macedonian cavalry represented a true departure from traditional Greek warfare, which had commonly relied on the hoplite phalanx, Greek states (barring Thessaly) being generally weak in the cavalry arm. The Companions were initially captained by General Philotas, under Alexander, but following his fall from favor, Alexander made a decision to split the command between, Cleitus the Black and his intimate friend and lover, Hephaestion.
According to the historian Arrian, this was because Alexander feared the power that a single commander of the guard might possess in the event of a coup; an indication of just how important this unit was to his rule. The men who formed the Companions were Macedonians of course, but they also encompassed allies from, Greece (Thessaly), Illyria, and beyond.
Companion Cavalry fought in every major battle that Alexander waged, and we hear about them forging a bloody trail as they first brought Greece into line, then conquered mighty Persia, the greatest empire the world had ever known at that point. A true David vs Goliath story. It was this amazing achievement that was to make their name almost legendary.
At Chaeronea (where the Sacred Band fell), at the Granicus (334 BCE), at Issus (333 BCE) and at Gaugamela (331 BCE), the Companions played a prominent role in destroying all who opposed Alexander.
Although the Companions achieved many distinguished moments, few were greater than their performance at the battle of Gaugamela. This, the third and last major battle against Darius III of Persia, saw Alexander use his elite Companions to drive a wedge right into the heart of the Persian lines:
“For a time, Alexander continued to advance in column: presently however, the movement of the Persian cavalry, sent to the aid of their comrades who were attempting to outflank the Macedonian right, left a gap in the Persian front – and this was Alexanders opportunity. He promptly made for the gap, and with his Companions and all the heavy infantry in that sector of the line, drove in his wedge and raising his battle cry pressed forward at the double straight for the point where Darius stood”
[Arrian, Campaigns of Alexander, 2.15]
Brilliantly impetuous, Alexander personally drove the Companions into the Persian line and headed straight for Darius, at the center of his army. Vastly outnumbered by the Persians, it was a move of such audacity that it shattered Persian confidence and led to the abandonment of the field by the shocked Darius.
“The bravest and most highly born, however, stood fast and were slaughtered in front of their king: they fell upon one another in heaps and in their dying struggles they clung to the legs of horses and riders, entwining themselves around them so to impede the pursuit. As for Darius, all the horrors of the battle were now before his eyes. The forces that had been stationed in the center for his protection were now forced back.”
[Plutarch, Life of Darius, 33]
Plutarch makes clear that the Persian royal guard (including the Immortals) performed well, but the fight was lost when Darius himself fled the field, and confidence drained from those remaining.
Alexander and his Companions had put to flight a vast Persian army many times their size. The Companions helped seize an empire and secured for themselves a place amongst history’s best ancient elite military units.
4. Roman Ancient Elite Military Units: Julius Caesar’s 10th Legion
Of all our ancient elite military units, the 10th legion that served under Julius Caesar may not be the most romantic, but they cannot be denied consideration as one of the most effective fighting units both in the Roman military, and the ancient world.
This elite veteran legion was the favored battlefield unit of Rome’s most accomplished military general, at the height of Republican military prowess. They stood at the apex of Roman military achievement, often fighting in the wilds of Gaul, Germany, and Britain, far from home and against feared Celtic and Germanic warriors that frequently outnumbered them.
Mentioned many times in dispatches throughout his Gallic and Civil wars, Julius Caesar’s war commentaries make it clear that the 10th legion was no ordinary unit. Under Caesar they were elevated to the position of an elite battlefield guard and very much identified with their commander, becoming the nucleus of his Roman military forces.
The 10th legion, known as ‘Equistres’ (mounted), is thought to have been raised by Caesar personally in around 61 BCE when he was governor of the Spanish province, Hispania Ulterior. However, even this is uncertain, with some historians arguing that the legion may have been of Italian origin.
Having shown good service in Spain, the 10th was one of the six legions that Caesar took with him when he countered a mass Helvetic migration into Italy and subsequently joined his invasion of greater Gaul in 58 BCE. The 10th was clearly his most trusted soldiers.
Unusually earning the legion name ‘Equistres’ early in his campaign, Caesar tells us that he used elements of the 10th as a mounted personal bodyguard while parlaying with the barbarian Germanic chieftain, Ariovistus, a warrior whose people had encroached into Gaul.
Leveraging his elevation of the 10th legion to both shame and motivate his other troops, Caesar showed that he was a master of troop manipulation:
“If no one else would follow him, he would go all the same, accompanied only by the 10th legion; of its loyalty he had no doubt, and it should serve him as a bodyguard. (Caesar had placed the highest confidence in this legion for its bravery and had shown it particular favor)”
[Caesar, Gallic Wars, 1.40]
This was highly unusual, and in no other Roman history do we hear of legionaries being used in this ad hoc mounted guard role; the soldiers themselves even joked about their elevated social status to that of knights.
Caesar certainly had access to allied and auxiliary cavalry, but it is evident that he wanted only the men of the 10th around him. Undertaking the role of strategic shock-troops and acting as a praetorian guard to their commander, the 10th legion occupied something akin to the special ‘guards’ status. Their position was not dissimilar to the position conferred by later generals like Napoleon Bonaparte, who designated elite ‘guard’ status and privileges to many proven units of his Grande Armie.
Like the Old Guard of Napoleon, the 10th legion was far more than just a bodyguard, and they maintained an essential battlefield role for Caesar in all his major campaigns during the Gallic wars (58-52BCE) earning a reputation for professionalism and unwavering bravery.
An attack by the Gallic tribe, the Nervi, in 57 BCE threw up one such example of the 10th’s performance when all of Caesar’s legions suffered a surprise attack before they could make good their defensive camp:
“After giving the minimum of essential orders, Caesar hastened down to the battlefield to address the troops and happened to come first upon the 10th legion, to which he made only a short speech, urging them to live up to their tradition of bravery, to keep their nerve, and to meet the enemies attack boldly. … The Soldiers were so pushed for time by the enemy’s eagerness that they could not take the covers from their shields or put on helmets – not to speak of fixing on crests or decorations. Each man, on coming down from his work at the camp, went into action under the first standard he happened to see, so as not to waste time searching for his own unit.”
[Caesar Gallic, 1.21]
This extract demonstrates the professionalism of the Roman army at this time and the 10th played a crucial part in this battle and in many of Caesar’s victories. Their contribution included both his unprecedented bridging of the Rhine in 55 BCE and his expeditions to Britain in 55 and 54 BCE. From a Roman perspective, these were campaigns to the very fringes of the known world, and they greatly elevated the reputations of both Caesar and his legions.
Republican Roman Legionaries, from the Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus, Via Louvre
Indeed, the 10th was one of only two chosen legions that Caesar took with him to Britain in 55 BCE. In what might be considered the earliest attempt to get Britain to join a European Union, it was a standard-bearer of the 10th that inspired the wavering Romans to force their landing in the face of fierce resistance from the Britons, on unfamiliar shores:
“And while our men were hesitating [whether they should advance to the shore], chiefly on account of the depth of the sea, he who carried the eagle of the tenth legion, after supplicating the gods that the matter might turn out favorably to the legion, exclaimed, “Leap, fellow soldiers, unless you wish to betray your eagle to the enemy. I, for my part, will perform my duty to the commonwealth and my general.” When he had said this with a loud voice, he leaped from the ship and proceeded to bear the eagle toward the enemy. Then our men, exhorting one another that so great a disgrace should not be incurred, all leaped from the ship. When those in the nearest vessels saw them, they speedily followed and approached the enemy.”
[Caesar, Gallic Wars, 4.25.]
The standard bearer of the 10th legion became the first Roman soldier to invade Britain, a feat for which history has remembered him ever since. The 10th went on to conclude the Gallic wars, fighting at the close-run siege of Alesia (52 BCE), where the might of the Gallic tribes under their fated leader Vercingetorix, was finally broken. In the Civil Wars the 10th legion also played an important role, fighting at the major battles of Dyrrachium and Pharsalus in 48 BCE. This was bitter fighting with Roman pitched against Roman.
In 46 BCE they contributed to Caesar’s African campaign, and in 45 BCE they fought with Caesar at the battle of Munda in Spain. By 45 BCE the legion was time-served and exhausted, and after becoming uncharacteristically mutinous over pay on at least one occasion, the 10th was disbanded in 45 BCE, with the veterans being granted lands in Narbonne in southern Gaul.
Although a newly designated 10th legion was raised after Caesar’s assassination in 44 BCE, they were not the Roman military body that Caesar had known, and historians are doubtful whether the new legion has any direct association with the veteran legion of Gaul.
The true hey-day of the 10th legion had been in Gaul when they had evolved into something more than just a legion of the line. In this respect and for their achievements at the fringes of the known world, the 10th legion stands at the forefront of Roman military achievement and must be considered amongst our other ancient elite military units.
5. The Varangian Guard Of Byzantium
The last of our ancient elite military units is special because of where they sat in history, what they represented culturally, and their enigmatic mystique. Formed at the very end of the ancient world, in the early medieval period, the Varangian Guard was made up of elite warrior Norsemen recruited to form an imperial guard for the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire.
Serving the Eastern Roman Emperors with notable distinction, Varangian warriors were a highly prized fighting elite that served from the 10th to the 14th centuries CE. Under pressure from aggressive Eastern rivals, it was Basil II of Byzantium who appealed under treaty to the Rus Viking, Vladimir I of Kiev to send him 6,000 Norse warriors to defeat his enemies. Vladimir had recently converted to Christianity and the deal was sealed with his marriage to Basil’s sister.
The first Norsemen sent played a decisive role in a series of victories that helped to stabilize Basil’s rule, and they set an important precedent for the establishment of Viking warrior units that fought for Eastern Roman rulers. It was a precedent that would see successive centuries of Byzantine emperors calling upon Norsemen both as battlefield mercenaries and as an elite imperial bodyguard.
In recruiting his foreign fighters, Basil II — whether he knew it or not — was following a long tradition of rulers recruiting alien (often barbarous) guardsmen for their physical and martial attributes. Following Norse tradition, the Varangians were not just individuals, but often warrior bands, tied in service to powerful individual war leaders, and sworn through oath and kinship to fight and die for their leaders. These were phenomenally powerful characteristics for any ruler seeking a bodyguard.
In addition, an emperor that could surround himself with such fearsome warriors from the very edges of civilization, was also advertising their own status and reach in a very public and symbolic way; demonstrating their imperial power and prestige by commanding such a savage retinue. Foreign guards were prized for their loyalty, as they were separate from the societies in which they operated. Indigenous troops had baggage, political and social, while foreign fighters were seen as singularly loyal, being tied solely to their paymasters.
The early Julio-Claudian Emperors of Rome, had well appreciated this reality when they employed a Germanic bodyguard, the Germani Corporis Custodes in the 1st century CE and in this context, the Varangian Guard were in no way a novel phenomenon. Yet so little is known about Varangians, that they remain an enigma, not helped by vague contemporary sources that are often incomplete, prejudiced, and non-analytical in how they viewed those labeled as ‘barbarian’ foreign fighters.
A Norseman was a Norseman to many of the Eastern sources and it’s difficult to tease out the many nuanced political, military, and social roles that these men undoubtedly played in the Eastern Roman system. But play many roles they did, and they come up often in the Byzantine sources, in retinues, in battle, and as mercenaries, even undertaking independent missions like anti-piratical operations in the Mediterranean.
For sure, some of these Norsemen were jobbing mercenaries, the progenitors of the ultimate ‘lads’ holiday, working, fighting, and drinking their way around the Mediterranean. However, other Varangian elements were evidently more than just hired muscle and they were high-status prestige troops, with direct access to the inner imperial court and retinue.
These powerful Norse warriors also show up regularly through inscriptions, art, and even graffiti of the period, and there is no doubt that Eastern Emperors came to rely upon them heavily as a pillar of their own personal prestige and power. Varangians became conspicuously associated with the Emperor and were a mainstay of the court at Constantinople, acting as personal bodyguards to rulers, as well as palace and city guards, imperial attendants, jailors, and elite battlefield shock-troops. Such men really were worth their weight in gold.
Of course, gold is just what the Varangians got for their services and we can also trace the shadows of their lives from the Scandinavian side of history. Here, evidence of Varangian guardsmen turns up in historical sagas, folklore, and carved inscriptions as far away as Iceland, where Byzantine crosses can be found carved into rocks, presumably by returning warriors.
Through the sources we can discern that service in the imperial court at Constantinople evolved into a high-status occupation, drawing individuals and warrior bands that were keen to make both their reputations and their wealth. Recruited originally from the Rus and Scandinavian Vikings, we know that service evolved over the following centuries to include men from as far away as Iceland, Sweden, Norway and — after 1066 — Anglo-Saxon England, when warriors were displaced by the Norman invasion.
One such famous figure from this period, who served the Byzantine Empire, was Harald Sigurdsson III, known to history as Harald Hardrada, a famous Viking prince who returned from service to become king of Norway, and to launch his ill-fated invasion of England. The royal sagas, the Heimskringla tell us that prior to this Harald had been forced into exile, fighting first as a mercenary for the Kievan Rus, then finding his way into service of the Byzantine rulers. Serving from c.1034 to 1043, it is evident that Harald saw extensive military service, fighting as far abroad as Sicily, the Balkans, and the Holy land.
Harald did not end on good terms with the Byzantines, falling out with the emperor over some dispute, but nevertheless, his reputation was sealed. Although historians know the sagas to be heavily exaggerated in some aspects, it is accepted that Harald gained enough wealth and prestige in his service to return home and launch a successful attempt on the throne of Norway.
Many ordinary men also show up in the sagas with Byzantine legacies. Men like the Icelander Bolli Bollason, a celebrated but ordinary warrior, did service in the Varangians and returned with a small retinue of men after many years. His story is told in the Laxdaela Saga, and leaves us with few doubts as to the rewards of imperial service:
“Bolli rode from the ship with twelve men, and all his followers were dressed in scarlet, and rode on gilt saddles, and all were they a trusty band, though Bolli was peerless among them. He had on the clothes of fur which the Garth-king had given him, he had over all a scarlet cape; and he had Footbiter girt on him, the hilt of which was dight with gold, and the grip woven with gold, he had a gilded helmet on his head, and a red shield on his flank, with a knight painted on it in gold. He had a dagger in his hand, as is the custom in foreign lands; and whenever they took quarters the women paid heed to nothing but gazing at Bolli and his grandeur, and that of his followers.
[ The Laxdaela Saga, 77]
Such stories emphasize the rewards that Varangian service could bestow, especially relative to the local economy of a warrior’s native land. Norsemen are attested in many Byzantine sources and their influence was felt in many significant Byzantine battles.
Although there is little granular detail in our sources, they are widely presumed to have been foot soldiers in the Viking tradition, heavily armed and armored, with a reliance on the Norse long-sword and most especially the axe. The axe was a ubiquitous Viking weapon, and many contemporary descriptions refer to these warriors simply as ‘axe-men’ or ‘axe bearing warriors and foreigners’.
Accompanying emperors personally on the battlefield, the Varangians were often used as an elite body of shock-troops, held in reserve and used at critical and decisive moments. Though mention of the Varangians continues right up until their final reference by the chronicler Adam of Usk in 1404 CE, it would seem Varangian fortunes declined with the fortunes of the Byzantine Empire and the Viking world.
Historians believe that eventually guardsmen ceased to be recruited from abroad, while others assimilated over many generations of service to eventually become residents, indistinct from local forces. The lack of detailed information has maintained the enigma of the Varangian Guard of Constantinople. What cannot be in doubt is that they were one of the past’s most fascinating ancient elite military units.
Conclusion: Ancient Elite Military Units
So, there we have it, from the Persians, to the Byzantine Empire, just shy of two millennia, these are some of history’s most formidable ancient elite military units. All different, all fascinating, and each one special in what they signified, what they represented, and what they achieved. What each example tells us goes well beyond the realms of military history, but actually informs us more deeply about the societies and cultures that bore them.
What would a Varangian war-band have made of a unit of Theban lovers? Perhaps they might have respected their shared commitment to a sacred oath in the face of battle and death. What would a professional Roman legion have made of a ‘barbarian’ Viking war band? The Romans were not known for their sensitivity to ethnicity and race relations.
Would the legendary Immortals be so surprised to see an eastern king of Asia Minor, commanding foreign fighters like the Vikings? It was not so dissimilar to the world they knew many centuries earlier, when Persian Kings commanded an array of tribal peoples from the Northern Steppes of Russia to the deserts of Egypt, from the Mediterranean to the Indus.
I’ve made my choice as to the five greatest ancient elite military units. You may not agree with my choices and that’s okay. Though, if not, what would your top five be, and why?