Ancient Special Forces: The Old Tip of the Spear


    The state of warfare is always changing, and in a modern setting, we face a world focused less and less on conventional armies and more on specialized and agile forces. We often look back to ancient warfare as a type of warfare very far from the one we are familiar with today, yet these differences may not be so drastic. We of course no longer use great battle formations nor do we clash with swords and shields. However, within ancient warfare, there are a number of groups who could be considered special forces, beyond even the rank of the elite. 

    These forces are naturally not completely like our modern special forces, they aren’t performing VBSS on ships or HALO jumping into combat zones. Yet many ancient militaries had special branches that existed as elite soldiers and as independent forces that could fulfill a range of specialized roles. These forces demonstrate that doctrine surrounding specialized and elite forces is by no means new. Indeed one can see many reflections of these ancient task forces and the ones that operate in our world today. 

    Many of the great ancient empires had these specialized forces, including the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, Thebes, the Aztec Empire and Sparta. Though many other nations and empires had elite forces of their own, the unique nature of these nation’s elite special forces makes them particularly noteworthy.

    Loyalty to Rome: The Praetorian Guard

    One of the greatest empires of ancient history, the Roman Empire, was known above all for its military prowess. Its Legions marched against any enemy of the empire, conquering those they were sent against. Amongst the legions and great armies led by Centurions, there was an elite force in charge of a number of specialized tasks, the Praetorian Guard.

    Ancient Special Forces
    Painting of the Praetorian Guard in battle. Painted by Peter Dennis. Retrieved: (Source)

    Originally formed by Emperor Augustus, Praetorians made up nine initial cohorts of elite troops. (Source) Each Praetorian was paid three times the average Centurion was, and were given a lavish barracks right outside Rome. (Source) They served a number of roles outside of their battlefield assignments, and were often seen guarding the Emperor and members of the royal family. The Praetorian Guard also served as a police force on behalf of the Emperor, though this action was often done in relative secrecy. (Source

    The Praetorian Guard also brings power from their economic and political strength, making them powerful fighters and members of the Roman elite. Though elite in a number of ways, it was the Praetorian Guards participation in the Speculatores that gave them true exposure as ancient special forces.

    The Speculatores

    The Speculatores were some of the earliest examples of both force reconnaissance and a field intelligence corps. Some of their groups would be integrated components of larger armies, providing reconnaissance on surrounding areas and exploring enemy camps. (Source) They also served as bodyguards for the Emperor, with the capability of moving through crowds when the Emperor traveled through cities. They at times wore civilian clothes to blend in with crowds and scope out potential threats. (Source)

    Though estimates find the Speculatores were little more than 300 at their highest numbers, their importance to the greater Roman military and state is undeniable. On the field they allowed for Legions to have eyes and ears beyond their primary fighting force. At the side of the Emperor they provided additional field intelligence and blended in to spot threats, fulfilling roles seen in many modern special forces.

    Not far off in Greece, another group of elite and specialized forces was clashing with another, both demonstrating the importance of special forces even in ancient warfare.

    The Sacred Band of Thebes

    The nation of Thebes, who waged war against Sparta during the Persian invasion of Greece, had a substantial military on its own. It very often outnumbered its skilled Spartan opponents, yet it also had a force within its ranks that were elite even by Spartan standards.

    The Sacred Band of Thebes was a highly specialized group of warriors, estimated to number at only 300 at their height. (Source) It was composed entirely of same-sex male couples, under the auspices that one fights harder next to brothers, friends and lovers. There were a number of both Roman and Grecian generals who would speak on the group’s immense bravery and combat skill, as well as their camaraderie. (Source)

    The Sacred Band would demonstrate its skill in two fields, as guards to the most important parts of Thebes, and as skilled warriors in front line combat. They were likely guards of the Cadmeia, an ancient and significant Theban citadel that very well may have given them their “Sacred” title. (Source) When the Sacred Band of Thebes was sent to the front lines, it demonstrated its elite skills and impressiveness in both bravery and combat. 

    Among the most notable of their combat feats, the engagement with Spartans in 378 BCE and the Battle of Leuctra are some of the most important. When the Sacred Band was engaged by a large Spartan force in 378 BCE, they were given orders to remain at ease as the Spartans advanced. The Spartan force was supposedly so intimidated by their lack of fear that they withdrew. (Source)

    Ancient Special Forces
    Image depicting the Thebans defeating their Spartan opponent at the Battle of Leuctra. Retrieved via Twitter. (Source)

    During the Battle of Leuctra, the Sacred Band was placed along the right flank of the larger Theban army. This section of their battle line was set to engage the strongest components of the Spartan opposition. (Source) The Sacred Band was so decisive in its efforts that the battle was a victory that sent ripples throughout Greece, and demonstrated that Sparta could be beaten militarily.

    Though not as adaptive as the Speculatores in their role, their lean design and highly trained nature makes the Sacred Band of Thebes an excellent example of early special forces. This group could be deployed to areas requiring decisive victory and bring forth their skill, not numbers, to win the battle.

    The Spartan enemy of Thebes however, had its own form of ancient special forces that it had brought to the field.


    Spartans themselves, experiencing some of the most rigorous and extensive training of any armed forces in history, can easily be mistaken as special forces in of themselves. This misconception brings attention to the difference between elite and special forces, though these two terms can often be conflated with each other. 

    The Spartans were, as a whole, an elite force. At a maximum, they were 5000 strong, larger than most modern special forces but still quite small in comparison to larger ancient armies. (Source) This army, though extremely elite and nearly without peer militarily, was still the primary military of Sparta. It is therefore better to acknowledge the Spartan army on its own as an elite force, but within there lay a group that is very reminiscent of modern day special forces.

    Ancient Special Forces
    Painting of the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae. Painting by James Reid. (Source)

    The Sciritae

    The Sciritae were an elite composition of men within the Spartan army that fulfilled specialist roles in addition to their role as a direct combat group. Sciritae would operate in a similar fashion to Rangers or Speculatores, providing reconnaissance and field intelligence services to the larger Spartan force. The Sciritae proved their worth both as warriors and specialists during the legendary Battle of Thermopylae.

    When a Spartan force under the leadership of King Leonidas faced overwhelming amounts of Persians, the Sciritae were right by their side. They fulfilled essential tasks on the outskirts of the battlefield itself, including reconnaissance of surrounding areas for new enemy camps and potential flanking forces. (Source) They also conducted daring assassination raid on the Persian camp, attempting to kill Xerxes in his tent. A small force infiltrated the camp, and though not locating Xerxes, did manage to assassinate two top generals. (Source)

    The Sciriate represented key components of special forces, being able to operate in an adaptive and independent fashion to the rest of the standard military. Their ability to support the main force as well as conduct their own special operations demonstrates the skill and specialty of these ancient forces. 

    The Varangian Guard

    Still within the territories of Greece, another group of highly trained ancient special forces can be found. Following the collapse of the Eastern Roman Empire and the establishment of the Byzantine empire, the Varangian Guard served as the most specialized of all Byzantium’s forces. 

    This group of warriors was very different to many other forces at the time, as they served primarily as bodyguards for the Emperor and the royal family, but none were born of the Byzantine empire itself. The bulk, if not the entirety of the Varangian Guard were recruited foreign fighters. These recruits included mostly Norsemen but eventually a number of Englishmen also joined their ranks. (Source) The logic to hiring an entirely foreign elite military force is that it has no preconceived interests or alliances within the Byzantine empire. They were essentially impartial troops that could be counted on to carry out sensitive and high priority tasks.

    Ancient Special Forces
    Painting of the Varangian Guard in front of the Emperor of the Byzantine Empire. Painting by Mark Beerdom. (Source)

    The Varangian Guard served, like many of their other ancient counterparts, in different capacities depending on need. At times the Varangian Guard was tasked to accompany other more general forces in military campaigns, assisting in the conquest of both Messina and Syracuse directly. (Source

    They also served as guards for the royal palace and the Emperor himself, as well as the Imperial family. The Varangian Guard was so trusted and reliable that they would even accompany the Imperial family when they went visiting the Hagia Sophia. (Source

    The Varangian Guard were a continuation of the tradition of having an elite, special force that could carry out not only decisive battlefield action, but also perform specialized and delicate tasks. They provided an invaluable role to the military and royalty of the Byzantine Empire. 

    Jaguar Warriors

    The final ancient special forces to be examined is one of the two elite forces of the Aztec Empire, the Jaguar Warriors. These warriors are renowned for their combat ability, royal status and religiously aligned purposes. Without the Jaguar warriors supplementing and supporting the general Aztec forces, wars and battles would not likely have been so successful. 

    The Jaguar warrior gains notoriety as an ancient special forces group not because of any massive autonomy from the main force, but because of its pursuit to achieve uniquely Aztec strategic and tactical objectives. This special task was that of live capture of troops on battlefields. (Source

    The Aztec way of war was one motivated by a few different pursuits, primarily territorial and spiritual. Territorial conquest of neighboring groups and tribes allowed the Aztecs to gain access to resources and areas all around central America. At the same time, the purpose of war was also to fulfill the interpreted religious requirements of the Aztec society. Many wars involving the Aztec Empire took the form of “Flower Wars”, wars conducted with the outright purpose of acquiring live captives for usage in ritual human sacrifice. (Source) These human sacrifices were practiced to satisfy the perceived needs of their god Huitzilopochtli, and were done on a regular basis. (Source)

    Image of Mayan man dressed in traditional Jaguar warrior uniform. Image taken by Anthony Pappone (Source)

    Warriors of the Gods

    The Jaguar warriors were specialized and experienced soldiers that were tasked to bring back live captives from combat engagements. The ranks of the Jaguar warriors, as well as their sister group, the Eagle warriors were filled with soldiers that had already fought on numerous Aztec battlefields. A Jaguar warrior was expected to have brought back at least four live captives from war before they could consider being part of the Jaguar warriors. 

    This specialist group even has gear to see its specialized task through, using clubs, small knives and other disabling weapons in the field. They also used the infamous Macuahuitl, a large club-like weapon that featured obsidian blades. (Source) The weapon would leave those hit by it in excruciating pain, with tons of obsidian shards littering their wounds. However they would be immobilized, not killed, so they could be more easily captured.

    The act of capturing human sacrifices during Flower Wars is militarily, spiritually and culturally important to the Aztecs. (Source) By allocating this task to the elite force of the Jaguar warriors, they make the group more like special forces, fulfilling a delicate yet essential tactical purpose. The Jaguar warriors earned their place among the Aztec elite through their actions, and maintained an essential and specialized role in the Aztec military.

    Looking to the Past

    The usage of special forces long before the contemporary world of DEVGRU, the KSSO and Delta Force shows the long-standing importance of the role of special forces in warfare. Each of the groups examined demonstrated a highly specialized role both on and off the battlefield, playing just as key of a role as the main battle forces. Without these lesser-known, but forever important tactical groups, many wars and battles would surely have played out differently.

    Samuel Longstreth
    Samuel Longstreth
    Samuel is a King's College graduate with an MA in War Studies. His areas of focus are extremism in the Western world, military privatization and the impact of climate change on global security.

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