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Old January 25th, 2012, 10:38 AM   #1
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Ancient "Special Forces"


Hi, first post, I'm studying Ancient History at 'A' Level here in the UK and despite never having previously had any major interest in the Ancient World, I've recently become completely enthralled by warrior societies such as (the obvious) Sparta.

One particular interest, probably because of my own future aspirations, is the ancient world's 'Special Forces'. Despite it being commonly accepted that the first SF units in history were probably the SAS and/or British Commandos of WWII, such units as the Theban Sacred Band, Sparta's Hippeis, and Persia's Immortals seem to be the trend-setters in terms of small-scale 'asymmetrical' warfare.

We have not covered these units in any great detail - usually they are mentioned more as part of a story than studied in depth - so I'm intrigued by how they worked, their organisation, and what sorts of operations they would undertake.

Also, were there any other similar units across the ancient world? For example, obviously the first Cohort of any Roman legion was usually its best soldiers but did the Romans have any specialist 'commando' units as such?
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Old January 25th, 2012, 03:40 PM   #2

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there of course being some difference between those who engage in special operations and those that are special forces. Given the slant of modern warfare the term special forces might not be entirely appropriate for earlier historical settings. After all where does one draw the line between what might be termed an elite and a special force? And are all those that engage in 'special operations' special forces?
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Old January 25th, 2012, 03:42 PM   #3

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The Romans used Batavians as Marines, they were highly prized as excellent swimmers and were often used as shock troops during river crossings.
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Old January 25th, 2012, 04:17 PM   #4

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Many come to mind for the Romans:

The Speculatores.

The frumentarii, renamed agens in rebus in the 4th Century CE.

The Praetorian Guard.

The Batavian and Tungrian Cohorts.

The Imperial German Guard.

The Equites Singulares Augusti.

The Legio II Parthica, based in Albanum from the end of the 2nd Century CE.

Palatina ('Palace') units in the 4th Century.

Antesignani in the Republican legion, known as lanciarii in the Empire.

Veterani, who as you stated usually formed the first (double-strength) cohort of a legion.

All of the above could, albeit to varying degrees, be considered ancient Roman 'special forces'.
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Old January 25th, 2012, 04:19 PM   #5
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I really, really, hope no one mentions the "n" word. Although in fairness, the thread is about the ancient world, so they shouldn't come into it.
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Old January 25th, 2012, 04:21 PM   #6

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Oh, and don't forget ninjas!!
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Old January 25th, 2012, 05:19 PM   #7

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The Spartan, hippeis, were the creme of the crop from the Spartiate class, and were the elite bodyguards that assembled around the king, and always had the most respected positions in the line of battle. Another group that was used by the Spartans were the skiritai. A people of Arcadian origin, these men were kitted out as light infantry with peltast ability, and held the line on the far left of the battle line, reinforcing its weakest side. A full-fledged mora, they were the only part of the army that was allowed to advance before the king, where they would act as a harrasing force and advanced scouts.
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Old January 25th, 2012, 07:13 PM   #8

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The ones that spring to mind are the Theban Sacred Band and the Praetorians.
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Old January 25th, 2012, 07:48 PM   #9

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Alexander's special forces, the Agrianoi.

Agrianes Agrianes
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Old January 25th, 2012, 09:02 PM   #10

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The actions of Demosthenes' light troops during the Battle of Spakteria would qualify.
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