War has existed for as long as humanity itself. We’ve been fighting each other over resources, territory or just bragging rights ever since we figured out that we could.
Because of war being such an intrinsic part of human society for so long, some of our most-celebrated heroes have been warriors. While there’s no doubt that victories are won by full-fledged armies working as a team, some fighters manage to shine through due to their prowess in combat and strategy.
Now we’re not saying that better warriors than the ones on this list have never existed, as historical record is often an incomplete recollection of facts and biased towards certain figures. Though from all the reliable information we have on them, these 10 warriors from history stand out from the rest.
10. Tomoe Gozen
Tomoe Gozen was a samurai fighter in the late 12th century. While she was a capable fighter in her own right, she’s almost always spoken of in the context of her relationship with her husband or lover – depending on the source — Minamoto Yoshinaka. Regardless of their marital status, historians agree that she was one of the best samurais at the time, and often fought side-by-side with Yoshinaka, a renowned samurai himself.
They fought together in the Gempei War, the conflict that led to the establishment of the first ever shogunate in Japan. She was exceptionally good at archery and sword-fighting, and was known to have single-handedly defeated entire groups of soldiers in close quarters combat like it was nothing. While Yoshinaka died in one of the battles — before inappropriately asking her to leave the battlefield, as he didn’t want to be seen dying fighting alongside a woman – she was overpowered and taken as a concubine by an enemy soldier.
9. Marcus Claudius Marcellus
Marcus Claudius Marcellus was many things, including consul, military general, and politician, though his most remembered role was that of a fighter. He was the third, and final, general to be awarded with the spolia opima award — the highest honor a military commander in ancient Rome could earn, by personally defeating the leader of an enemy army in hand-to-hand combat. That leader happened to be Viridomarus, one of many Gallic generals to march against the might of ancient Rome and lose.
That was, however, far from his only achievement as a warrior. Apart from his many successful campaigns against the Gauls, he was also instrumental in Rome’s victory over Hannibal’s forces in the Second Punic War. He was unofficially known as the Sword of Rome for his victories against the Carthaginians, and even if some of his exploits may have been exaggerated at the time, historians agree that he largely deserved that nickname.
His most famous battle was perhaps the Siege of Syracuse, wherein his forces stormed the city held by Carthaginians and killed the famous mathematician Archimedes (despite his orders to the contrary).
The origins of the ancient-Roman gladiator are unclear, though the sport played an important role in the Roman republic. Apart from being a leisurely activity to keep the crowds entertained, it also served as a creative method of punishment for criminals and prisoners of war.
One of the greatest gladiators ever was Flamma — which was, of course, not his real name. There are no records of his early life, though we do know that he wasn’t originally from Rome. Many suspect that he was a prisoner of war from Syria; a region at war with Rome at the time. That’s not important, though, as there are plenty of records from his time as a gladiator.
Flamma was an expert at hand-to-hand combat, and could fight with an array of weapons like javelins, spears, swords, daggers, casting nets (it was a fighting style back then), and tridents. His favorite weapon, however, was the bow and arrow.
As for his fighting stats, in his 34 fights, he had 21 wins, 9 draws and four losses. He was so good that he refused freedom from the emperor four times, as gladiators were essentially slaves of the empire until explicitly freed. The crowds loved him, too, as he had a different fighting style and armor than other gladiators.
7. Lu Bu
Lu Bu was a celebrated warrior and general during the late Eastern Han Dynasty of China, and was generally considered to be one of the best fighters in Chinese history. Unlike other figures from that era – who we only know of from the heavily-dramatized Romance of the Three Kingdoms – Lu Bu is mentioned in numerous other sources from across China.
The true extent of Lu Bu’s prowess with various weapons is unclear, though we know for a fact that he was particularly-gifted at archery and horse-riding. He was also an adept hand-to-hand fighter and general, which is evident from his victories over numerically superior enemies on more occasions than one.
While he was no doubt one of the greatest warriors in ancient China, he was also known to be temperamental and disloyal. He had betrayed multiple warlords who gave him positions of power in their armies, which made it a bit hard for anyone to trust him.
6. Honda Tadakatsu
The Sengoku period in Japan was characterized by a rapidly-shifting political landscape and consistent conflict among its numerous daimyos, as there was no central authority to exert control over the entire country. It’s heavily represented in fiction, as it also saw the rise of some of the most fearsome samurai warriors in Japanese history.
Honda Tadakatsu was a general in the service of Tokugawa Ieyasu, who – along with a few other daimyos and leaders – forged the Tokugawa Shogunate. While we don’t know much about Honda’s childhood, we know that he started working as a page for Tokugawa quite early in his life. Owing to his exemplary fighting skills and loyalty, he would go on to become one of Tokugawa’s most trusted and capable generals.
Honda was renowned around the country for his valor in battle, and was famous for fighting on the front lines along with his soldiers, unlike many other generals of the era.
5. Ng Mui
The Shaolin temple has been a part of movies and TV shows ever since the rest of us got to know about its existence. Apart from being one of the primary centers of martial arts in China, it’s also a monastery for the Shaolin school of Buddhism. The temple has seen its share of raids and invasions due to the shifting political landscape in China through the years, the one in 1768 by the Qing forces being the most devastating of them.
The only people to survive that invasion were five monks, and Ng Mui was one of them, who hit the road and went into hiding. Apart from being a capable anti-Qing rebel and overall badass, she was instrumental in spreading various fighting styles across China, including Dragon Style and White Crane.
That’s not all, though, as she’s also credited with developing a whole new kung fu style of her own called Wing Chun. It’s based on quick movements as attack as well as defense, and a calmer stance than the usual Shaolin style. It’s also one of the more popular styles, as it was practiced by popular figures like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan.
Even if we lack sources on the entirety of her life, we know that Khutulun was a skilled warrior princess from Mongolia. She was the daughter of Kaidu, a cousin of Kublai Khan and ruler of a huge swath of territory that once used to be a part of Genghis’s empire. She trained with some of the best fighters and generals in history, and was known to be especially good at archery and sword-fighting.
A few descriptions of her could be found in Marco Polo’s tales, where he describes her as a fearsome warrior. She was also good at horse-riding, and had developed a charging technique of her own to break the enemy lines. She regularly accompanied her father into war, and was renowned for her skill.
She was also one of the most eligible bachelorettes in the country, though she was never interested in marriage. She demanded that any man who wanted to marry her should beat her in wrestling, or give her a set number of horses. We’re not sure how credible sources are on this one, but at one point, she is said to have won 10,000 horses because of how good she was at fighting.
Some sources suggest that she did get married at some point, though we have no idea to whom. We do know that she remained unbeaten at wrestling, which is honestly all we need.
Samurais have always been a strictly-Japanese affair. While foreign mercenaries and fighters from other countries could be seen in medieval Japanese armies, the samurai class was almost always ethnically Japanese. That was until Oda Nobunga – one of the most well-known daimyos in Japanese history – saw a man from Africa and decided that he should be a samurai.
Not much is known about where Yasuke came from, though we know that he was with a Jesuit missionary. Some sources say that he was a slave in Portugal, and others place him as a citizen of Congo. Regardless, Nobunaga was impressed by his build and fighting style, and chose to employ him in his service.
A big part of his legend may be due to his different skin color, by which the Japanese were fascinated. He went on to become one of Nobunaga’s most trusted fighters and commanders, and played a huge role in the war of unification against local leaders resisting Nobunaga’s rule in the 16th and 17th century.
We’re not clear on what happened to Yasuke at the end of his life, though we do know that after Nobunaga’s seppuku and defeat, he was exiled to a distant Jesuit church. You’ll be able to find out more about Yasuke soon enough: Black Panther himself, Chadwick Boseman, is set to star as the legendary samurai in an upcoming movie.
2. Rani Laxmibai
The British Empire has seen its fair share of rebellions, especially at the end of its existence. While many of them were easily quelled, some weren’t, and a handful of them even ended up succeeding. While India’s 1857 revolt didn’t succeed, it completely changed Britain’s policy on its colonies.
One of the key figures of that revolt was Rani Laxmibai, who is still celebrated as a formidable fighter and commander in India’s history. She was responsible for many of the initial victories against Britain-held Indian territory in the 1857 revolt, and was always at the front lines of the battle along with her soldiers. We know that she was good with the sword, though not much is known about her proficiency with other weapons. She was also well-versed in various local Indian martial arts.
The rebellion was eventually crushed due to British superiority on the battlefield, and despite her early victories, Laxmibai died fighting British troops in 1858.
1. Hattori Hanzo
Another samurai from the late Sengoku period, Hattori Hanzo is one of the more well-known fighters from Japan. Also known as the ‘Demon Ninja’, he also headed a unit of ninjas that were largely regarded to be among the best across Japan. He may have attained a larger-than-life reputation by now – especially in ninja fan club circles – though that doesn’t mean his feats were exaggerated.
In all his time working with a young warlord called Tokugawa Ieyasu, he carried out secret missions for the warlord, many of which would have been impossible to execute with a traditional army. He was skilled at hand-to-hand combat, as well as a capable commander for his unit. It was more like modern special forces than the ninjas you’re imagining, though we’re guessing there was a lot of ninja stuff going on there, too.
Even if he died some time before Tokugawa assumed power as the Shogun, he was a huge part of the warlord’s success.