The first Persian Empire (550 BC – 330 BC), called the Achaemenid Empire, is known for having an elite force of soldiers. Named the “Immortals” by Herodotus, this army consisted of a heavy infantry of 10,000 men, that never reduced in number or strength. The Immortals played an important role in Persian history, acting as both the Imperial Guard and the standing army during the expansion of the Persian Empire and the Greco-Persian Wars. They are one of the most famous fighting forces in the ancient world.
The Immortals were called such because of the way in which the army was formed. When a member of the 10,000-strong force was killed or wounded, he was immediately replaced by someone else. This allowed for the infantry to remain cohesive and consistent in numbers, no matter what happened. Thus, from an outsider’s perspective, it would appear that each member of the infantry was ‘immortal’, and their replacement may have represented a resurrection of sorts.
Origin of The Immortals
The Immortals were formed under the rule of Cyrus the Great, founder of the Achaemenid Empire, who launched a series of campaigns to expand his territory. The army served as his personal guard and as shock troops.
Greek military leader and historian, Xenophon, recorded that the palace guard was formed from the best warriors of the army and then an elite unite was made up of the most skilled of the soldiers.
“Accordingly, he took from among them 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.” (Cyropaedia, VII.5.68)
The training of Persian soldiers began in childhood around the age of five, when they were taught to use a bow and arrow, throw javelin and ride a horse. Boys were trained how to hunt and were put through tests of endurance, including being able to withstand cold, heat and rain. Official military service began at the age of 20.
Uniform and Weapons
They were sophisticated, well-equipped and their armor glittering with gold. As described by Herodotus, their armament included wicker shields, short spears, swords or large daggers, a bow and arrows.
They wore a special headdress, believed to have been a Persian tiara. It is often described as a cloth or felt hat that could be pulled over the face to protect from dirt and dust. It is said that compared to the Greeks, the Immortals were “hardly armored”. Yet what they lacked in armor, they made up through psychological impact, as the sight of the well-formed and highly trained army was enough to strike fear into their enemies.
As they traveled, they were accompanied by carriages carrying their women and servants, as well as food and supplies. Being a part of this unit was very exclusive. Men had to apply to be a part of it, and being chosen was a great honor.
Achaemenid soldiers reliefs on concrete wall, Tehran, Iran. Source: Baharlou / Adobe Stock
Conquests of The Immortals
The Immortals played an important role in several conquests. First, they were elemental when Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon in 539 BC. They played a role in Cambyses II’s conquest of Egypt in 525 BC, and Darius I’s invasion of western Punjab, Sindh, and Scythia in 520 BC and 513 BC.
The Immortals also participated in the Battle of Thermopylae 480 BC. During the Battle of Thermopylae, the Greeks had prevented a Persian invasion by blocking a narrow road. The Immortals took a different route and attacked the Greeks from the rear. They were very strong, and feared by many, for their strength, replenishing numbers, strategy, and technique.
Unfortunately, historical knowledge of the Immortals is somewhat limited, beyond the writings of Herodotus, and it is difficult to confirm the details. Historians of Alexander the Great write of an elite group known as the Apple Bearers. They were called such due to apple-shaped counterweights on their spears – gold for the officers and silver for the regular troops. Some scholars believe they are the same as the Immortals.
A ball can be seen hear on the end of a spear carried by an Achaemenid soldier, suggesting the ‘Apple Bearers’ may be the same as ‘The Immortals’ ( livius.org)
While there is little verification of the details of the Immortals, they remain a symbol of military strength from ancient times. They are often depicted in popular culture, including the 1963 film “The 300 Spartans,” the 1998 comic book 300 and the film adapted from it, and a History Channel Documentation called “Last Stand of the 300.” While these depictions are inaccurate, through these and other references, the legacy of the Immortals is likely to live on for many years.
Top image: Four warriors of ‘The Immortals’, from the famous glazed brick friezes found in the Apadana (Darius the Great’s palace) in Susa ( Wikimedia)