I’m sure you’ve heard the quote, “Diamonds are formed under pressure, but never forget, they are not formed overnight.” The same concept applies to the soldiers who had to undergo the toughest of military training to become the elite fighters that they were. Their endurance, dedication, strength, and willpower were tested, and they were taught how to be effective in all sorts of combats. Think your military training was tough? Then check out these training exercises in history that you would not, for sure, want to go through.

Spartans, Raised to be Warriors from Birth

We could never leave behind the Spartans whenever it comes to intense military training. Their widely feared reputation and martial prowess were a result of long and extensive training. To them, the key to producing the toughest of warriors was to start them young, and so according to the Roman historian Plutarch, the selection would begin as soon as the Spartans were born. If the infant looked unhealthy or was deformed, they were killed. By the time the healthy ones turned seven, the children would be taken away from their parents and grouped into packs. Before anything, their heads would be shaved, they would be given little clothing, little food to eat, and they would walk barefoot. All these stern and seemingly extreme rules were so that “they may take into their own hands the fight against hunger, and so be forced into boldness and cunning.”

Young Spartans Exercising. (Edgar Degas, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

These children would sleep, eat, and train together until the age of 12, when they were given the Spartan cloaks, and they mastered the act of obeying commands, enduring hardships, and conquering in battles. They do so by engaging in a series of mock combats that would solidify their camaraderie and turn them into the elite and fearsome fighters we know.

Prussians, Running the Gauntlet

It was once said, “Most countries have an army, in Prussia the army has a country.” Prussia is a small nation located in Eastern Europe. Their location with very few natural boundaries and resources meant they had to spend most of their time fighting off different enemies from different directions, sometimes all at the same time. As a result, the Prussians developed an army of incredible military discipline, even by the standards of their time. Their army had a reputation for marching and shooting faster than any army in Europe. In battle, they adopted a fighting style that proved terrifying and demoralizing to their enemies. While soldiers in other armies were happy to blast away at each other with muskets from a distance, Prussian infantry would fire a few volleys and then charge you with fixed bayonets.


1525 engraving “running the gauntlet” (Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons/Wikipedia)

To ensure that their army would perform as efficiently as possible, the Prussians had Draconian punishment for those who would attempt to disobey the orders. For instance, those soldiers who deserted were hanged, while those with minor offenses like breaking military rules were ordered to run between a double row of comrades called the gauntlet. These lines of soldiers would beat the offender as he ran between them. Officers lose their commission for misbehaving. Things only changed after Napoleon defeated Prussia in 1806 when “a new system of officer selection and promotions was introduced. The Military Schools of Artillery and Engineers were founded. Traditional punishments such as flogging and running the gauntlet were abolished.”

This practice was adopted from one used by the Roman armies.  The influence of the Prussian army system had a wide influence on Germany into modern times.  In WWII, a sizable number of officers in the Wehrmacht could trace their lineage back to Prussia.  The Goose-step march of the Nazis was invented by the Prussians and is still used by various ceremonial military formations around the world. Finally, the coveted Iron Cross was first introduced in 1813 by Prussian King, Frederick William III.

Aztecs Had Human Sacrifices

What would be the best way to sustain the aura of leadership that surrounded the emperor and his elite soldiers? For Aztecs, aside from starting the training of the elite soldiers at the early age of 10, it was also by inducing terror in the hearts of each of their soldiers. Elite soldiers would begin their training at 10, while the rest would start at age 15. By the time they reached 20, the warriors would join military campaigns and fight against Aztec regional enemies. They gained ranks by capturing and sacrificing the enemy warriors.

Ritual execution portrayed in Codex Magliabechiano. (famsi.org)

By sacrifice, they meant having their hearts removed on the altar of the great pyramid with the help of a priest who would stab the captive into the chest and slit the arteries of the heart before lifting it up and pronouncing the severed heart the “precious eagle cactus fruit.” The soldiers could also fight to their deaths during mock combat. Soldiers who were skillful during battles were honored and celebrated in their culture.

The result was the Aztec Empire being the most dominant and powerful civilization in the central Mexico region before the European explorers arrived during the Age of Exploration.