Who were the Persian Immortals?
The Persian Immortals were an elite military unit in operation for approximately two centuries, nearly the entire lifespan of the Achaemenid Empire, which ran from 550 BC to 330 BC. Ten thousand strong, the Immortals represented the absolute cream of the Empire’s troops and operated as both the Emperor’s guard and part of the standing army.
Founded by Cyrus the Great, the Achaemenid Empire covered a vast territory across Western Asia. From his base in the southwestern corner of the Iranian plateau, Cyrus conquered several regions – including the Median and Babylonian Empires, and the Kingdom of Lydia. In doing so, he created what would – during the later reign of Xerxes I, who himself conquered much of northern and central Greece – become the largest empire in history in terms of population, stretching from the Indus Valley in the east to the Balkans in the west.
When were they first created?
The Immortals are believed to have originally been assembled after the capture of Babylon in 539 BC. It is believed that the commander Pantea Arteshbod, who would have been appointed to rule Babylon during the reign of Cyrus, was the architect of the Immortals, establishing them as an elite guard. A counter-claim comes from Xenophon, who – in Cyropaedia, his partly fictionalized biography of Cyrus – states that it was Cyrus himself who built a palace guard from the most formidable soldiers of his standing army, the spada.
Ancient history expert Professor Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones answers listener questions and popular internet search queries about the Persian Empire in this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast
How were the Immortals chosen?
The Immortals were largely made up of Persians, though a good handful of Medes and Elamites were assimilated into their ranks, their mere presence showing that Cyrus was not afraid to give his former enemies high positions. responsibility. With the spada necessary to provide their own military equipment, they – and therefore the Immortals too – represented the wealthiest part of Achaemenid society.
Young boys were trained from the age of five to become members of the spada, learning to ride horses, shoot arrows, hunt, and live off the land. They became soldiers at the age of 20 and, after a life which was almost certainly marked by many conflicts, were allowed to retire at the age of 50, after which they were granted a pension and land rights. The best soldiers in terms of fighting ability and character – supposed to be around the top tenth of the spada – were anointed as Immortals.
Where does the name “Immortals” come from?
According to the historian Herodotus, the Immortals numbered precisely 10,000, and it was the maintenance of this number that led to their name. Whenever an Immortal was killed, badly injured, sick, or retired, they were immediately replaced, making them unstoppable. They also immediately removed their dead from the battlefield. With no corpses exposed to their enemies, the practice offered the illusion that these vaunted soldiers were not mere mortals.
What weapons did the Immortals carry?
The primary weapon used by the Immortals was a spear – six feet long and featuring a very sharp spearhead. At the other end of the spear was a counterpoise which, when used as a blunt weapon to strike an enemy soldier, could be just as deadly.
The counterweights took the form of fruits; the most prestigious was apple-shaped, as this indicated that its owner was one of the 1,000 most elite members of the Immortals. These emperor’s bodyguards were known as “apple bearers” and their spears were also longer. Immortals also carried a number of small arms, including a sagaris – a battle ax light enough to be used with one hand.
What were they wearing?
As far as we know, Immortals didn’t pay too much attention to headgear. They wore “tiaras”, which took different shapes depending on the accounts. Sometimes these tiaras are described as felt bonnets, which covered the face and kept wind and dirt away; at other times the headgear is said to have been merely a cloth headdress. Their body armor consisted of overlapping bronze and iron plates, a protection that resembled the scales of a fish. They also carried heavy wicker and wooden shields covered in leather.
The Immortal infantry marched in support of the archers taking the front in battle, with the cavalry to the side. With the dark sky and thousands of arrows flying, they would have looked scary. With the breastplates of the Immortals glinting in the sun, many towns simply surrendered when they first saw them approach.
How elitist was this elite group?
Evidence of the high esteem in which Immortals were held comes from another observation by Herodotus. His writings record that not only were these 10,000 men “distinguished by the enormous amount of gold they carried on their person”, but that they also indulged in their way of life.
Herodotus explains that, whenever the Immortals traveled, “they also brought covered wagons for their concubines, sizable and well-equipped retinues of slaves, and their own personal provisions, separate from those of other soldiers, carried by camels and yoke animals.”
How successful have the Immortals been as a fighting unit?
After Cyrus’ death in 530 BC, the Immortals were retained by his successors throughout the life of the Achaemenid Empire, including his son Cambyses II (who conquered Egypt) and Darius the Great. It is widely believed that Darius deployed his elite brigade when he invaded Greece, but the presence of the Immortals could not stop his defeat at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC.
The battle with which the Immortals have been most identified took place 10 years after Marathon, following the full-scale invasion of Greece by Xerxes I in retaliation for the defeat of his predecessor.
At the Pass of Thermopylae, Xerxes’ regular troops—mainly composed of Medes and Cissians—met heavy resistance from the outnumbered Spartans. The Spartan general Leonidas I had galvanized his modest Spartan elite force of 300 men to the point that they were not just repelling Xerxes’ men, but repelling them. Xerxes’ plan B was to send his Immortals against the pugnacious Spartans.
As Herodotus recounts, “they were expected to finish the job easily, but when they came to engage the Greeks, they were no more successful than the Medes”.
Their inferior armament was most likely the reason they hadn’t broken through the relatively light Spartan ranks. As Cyrus made territorial gains to expand his empire, those he faced used the same weapons and wore the same armor as his own troops, meaning the Persians’ superior combat skills were the deciding factor. By the time of Xerxes’ reign, however, the Spartans had more advanced weaponry and protection, as the emperor would again find at other focal points of his invasion of Greece, especially during the battle of Plataea in 479 BC.
How long did the Immortals last as a unit?
Despite their notable defeats, the Immortals would remain in operation as an elite unit throughout the rest of the Achaemenid Empire – until the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC, when they clashed with Alexander’s Macedonian forces. great. The defeat of the Achaemenids by Alexander marked the end of this particular empire – but it was not necessarily the end of the Immortals.
Alexander was a deep admirer of Cyrus and chose to keep an elite force of Persian soldiers as part of the protective shield surrounding his audience hall. The author Polyaenus would later write of “10,000 Persians, the finest and greatest of them, adorned with Persian decorations and all carrying short swords”. After Alexander’s death in 323 BC. BC, his empire was divided into four.
The part of his empire that covered Central Asia and Mesopotamia was given to Seleucus I who established the Seleucid Empire, but it is unclear if he continued the tradition of having this elite band of fighters offering an imperial guard.
But the influence of the Immortals did not end when they disbanded. When the Sasanian Empire – the last Persian imperial dynasty before Muslim control of the region in the 7th century – was established in 224 AD, it also instituted a system of elite soldiers, also known as Immortals .
This content first appeared in the December 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed