Persian Immortals – History, Weapons, Facts & Accomplishments
Numbering at exactly 10,000 troops at all times, and armed with short spears (for stabbing in close combat), swords, and bows and arrows, the Persian Immortals rank up there as one of the most elite corps of heavy infantry in the ancient world. They were composed of both imperial guard and elite soldiers that were drawn from very influential and aristocratic families across the Persian Empire. And according to descriptions from ancient Greek sources, they formed the heartbeat of the Empire’s expansionary drive since the era of its founder Cyrus the Great.
Much of what we know about the Persian Immortals came from Greek sources, particularly from the writings of Greek historian Herodotus. Considering the fact that the Persians were the Greeks’ biggest rival for long periods of time, we don’t really expect those sources to be completely dispassionate.
Who exactly were the Immortals? And how did they become such a powerful infantry group? Why were they called immortals in the first place?
Below WHE dives straight into the history, major facts and military conquests of this elite group of soldiers of the Achaemenid Empire.
The “companions” or the “non-dying”?
As stated in the introduction, the bulk of what we know about the Persian Immortals comes from the ancient Greek historian Herodotus. The historian was also the one who named them anausa, which means “non-dying” or ‘immortal’.
Today, there are some scholars who state that the actual name of this Persian elite group of soldiers was anasiya, which means “companions”.
Because Herodotus’ account serves as the only known account of the Persian Immortal, a lot of questions have been raised about the origins and formation of this elite Persian unit. This has led to quite a lot of speculation. However, very is little is known for sure.
An elite fighting force of 10,000 men, no more and no less
Again, the chief chronicler of the Persian Immortals, Herodotus, states that Persian army made it a habit of always having exactly 10,000 men in this military unit. Such was their obsession with keeping that exact figure that whenever an infantryman was ill, wounded or killed, his spot was immediately filled by a reservist.
This technique of having “Ten Thousand Immortals” at all times was part of the reason why opposing troops came to believe the rumors of the soldiers being immortals. It inspired a lot of fear in the hearts of opponents, making them lose psychologically even before the start of battles.
Weapons used by the Immortals
Clad in a kind of fish scale armor with robes over it, the Persian Immortals wielded short stabbing spears, swords, and bows and arrows. They wore headdress that were called tiara. The headdress was sometimes used to protect them from severe dust storms. The Persian immortals also had the habit of wearing gold jewelry and hoop earrings into battle.
It’s also been noted that the Persians may have had a lot of high morale going into battles; however, the weapons that they wielded paled in comparison to the kind that their arch rivals, the Greeks, possessed. The shield that the Immortals used was said to have been made from wooden wicker, which offered very little protection from their opponents’ swords and spears.
Notwithstanding the above, scholars have stated that there was an advantage to the weapons that the Immortals used. The weapons were versatile enough and proved very advantageous for the cavalry unit. On horseback, the light weapons meant that the Persian Immortals could inject greater amount of force, proving very devastating to the enemy.
The Persian Immortals were also famous for using Scythian chariots (more on this below) and camel riders to great effectiveness.
Advantages of the light weapons used by the Immortals
The light nature of the weapons used by the Immortals had their disadvantage; however it offered a number of advantages. The first being it allowed them to carry many different kinds of weapons at once.
A Persian foot soldier carried on him a short sword, a spear, a quiver full of arrows, a bow, and a shield. The horsemen, on the other hand, carried a bronze shield, 120 arrows, an iron mace, and two iron spears.
The Persian Immortals, along with the army, used their numbers to intimidate their opponents
Taking cognizance of the fact that their weapons were not exactly up to par with their opponents, especially the ones used by the Greeks, the Persians came to rely strongly on the massive number of troops they possessed. The Persian army often dwarfed their opponents by a large scale. As a matter of fact they used the sheer size of their army as a form of intimidation technique.
According to Herodotus, Persian king Xerxes the Great had about 3 million soldiers under his command. There have been doubts raised by modern day scholars about the authenticity of that figure. Researchers put the size of the Persian army at around 80-90,000.
How were the Persian Immortals recruited?
According to Herodotus, the Immortals of the Achaemenid Empire were drawn from mainly aristocratic and influential families across the empire, including formerly conquered areas such as Media and Elam. Members of the Immortals that had gold-tipped spears were considered the highest ranking and the best of the best in the infantry. They amounted to about 1,000 officers, and they often served as the emperor’s personal bodyguards. The remaining 9,000 infantry soldiers had silver-tipped spears.
The Immortals were given the best treatment in the Persian army
Being the greatest fighting unit of the Persian Empire, the Immortals received very handsome compensation and proper condition of service from the Persian kings. It’s been noted that the Immortals were treated to very special foods and drinks while on their military campaign. In addition to food and other provisions, the well-maintained supply train of the army often brought in servants and concubines to serve those elite infantry soldiers.
How were the Persian Immortals trained?
According to Greek sources, the Persian Immortals were subjected to very intense and robust training, which often began right from a very early age. Would-be immortals were separated from their fathers until around the age of five when they would be shipped off to camps to begin their military training.
Training of the Persian Immortals involved the development of many skills, including close combat fighting, archery, and horse riding. The young boys were also given lessons on how to survive in the wild or live off the land. Then there were lessons on hand-to-hand combat as well as how to march through long and difficult terrains.
Around their mid-teens, the trainees would graduate and enter into military service. Some scholars have noted that the soldier spent an average of three and half decades of his life in active service. It means they retired around the age of fifty.
Hunting of wild animals was a way the Immortals kept themselves sharp
As if the Immortals weren’t frightening enough the fact that they were known for hunting wild animals in their free time made them the stuff of legend. While waiting for battles, the Immortals would hunt big cats like lions and cheetahs to while away the time and prevent themselves from losing their edge. In other words, this sport helped to keep their fighting skills sharp as ever. The spoils – i.e. the skins of the animals – were used to decorate their military armor and tents.
Who created the Persian Immortals?
According to Herodotus, a known admirer of Cyrus the Great and other powerful Achaemenid emperors, the idea to begin an elite infantry guard and soldiers was the brainchild of Cyrus the Great. This heavy infantry soldiers were used to such devastating precision that it helped Cyrus the Great during his conquests of Lydia, Media and neo-Babylonia. Had it not been for the Immortals, the outcome at the Battle of Opis in 539 BC would have been much different, and perhaps Cyrus would not have gone on to become such a powerful king of the ancient world.
Cyrus the Great, the Persian king who styled himself as the King of the World and King of the Four Corners of the World, is credited with creating a very powerful and organized Persian army that included the Immortals, an elite fighting infantry unit of 10,000 men. It’s been speculated that Immortals originally grew from the elite body guards of Cyrus the Great.
The Scythian Chariots
The Persian army and Immortals benefited to a great extent from their invention of scythed chariots. These chariots were purposely made tall so as to reduce the driver’s exposure to enemy projectiles. The driver then had the ability to cut through the enemy line driving the chariot which had at least two-foot-long iron blades attached to each axle of the wheel. Those sharp blades would cut the legs of the enemies, immobilizing them. The maimed soldiers would then be finished off by the advancing Persian foot soldiers.
Other notable facts about the Persian Immortals and army
- Often times the Persian army traveled with caravans with concubines and servants who were placed in the service of the Immortals. This is probably why the Persian army appeared bigger from the perspective of the Greeks.
- In some cases, the Persians used this to their benefits, inspiring so much fear in their opponents caved into immediate submission upon seeing the advancing Persian army and caravan. However, the logistics of moving those goods and people must have been a herculean task.
- The elite nature of the Immortals as well as their extreme importance in the Persian army would most likely have meant that members of the Immortals were given very good job perks so to speak. The Persian kings most likely invested enormous attention and resources into the Immortals.
- The Scythian chariots, an invention by the Persians, was deployed to great effect by the Persian army up until the year 330 BC, when the empire was overrun by Alexander the Great’s army.
- The Persian spear was said to be around 6 feet long. It’s razor sharp, broad leaf-style edge was either made of bronze or iron. At the other end, a metal counter balance was placed to make the spear deadlier. That additional piece of the spear could be used to bludgeon the opponent.
Significance of the Immortals
The Persian Immortals always had 10,000 men in their unit, no more and no fewer. By so doing the Persians gave their opponents the impression that the Immortals were truly undying beings. This elite fighting unit of the Persian army is credited with playing a very important role in the conquest of much of the known world at the time for the Persian emperors. For example, they famously came against the mighty Spartan warriors at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC. The Persians, under Xerxes the Great, secured a resounding win over the brave Spartans, who were led by King Leonidas.