The Immortals: An elite army of the Persian Empire that never grew weak
"The Persian Immortals were the special forces of the ancient world. They were trained from the age of five to do nothing but kill and destroy other soldiers."
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.
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.
They were sophisticated, well-equipped, their armor glittering with gold. As described by Herodotus, their armament included wicker shields, short spears, swords or large daggers, bow and arrow. 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 the regiment was followed by a caravan of covered carriages, camels, and mules that transported their supplies, along with concubines and attendants to serve them; this supply train carried special food that was reserved only for their consumption. 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.
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 in 480 BC. where 300 Spartans lead by King Leonidas were the elite warriors of the Greek garrison which defended Thermopylae. The Immortals, as the name implied, had an aura of invincibility surrounding this unit, were their heralded counterparts in the Persian army. These Immortals wore GOLD MASKS, appearing to be inhuman or disfigured, and carry a pair of swords closely resembling Japanese wakizashis. This crack fighting division which was comprised of Medes, Elamites or Persian warriors also served as the royal bodyguard of Xerxes I and who were commanded during the Battle of Thermopylae by Hydarnes II, son of Hydarnes I.
According to Herodotus, during the first day of the Battle of Thermopylae, Hydarnes' division was ordered to engage the Spartans after the Medes and the contingents of Cissians and Sacae tribesmen were repelled.
Brave they were and disciplined they were, but they found, as had the Medes and others before them, that in the confines of the narrow pass their numbers were a hindrance rather than a help. Once again their shorter spears could not penetrate that formidable bristling line of the Greeks, nor their arrows pierce the great bronze shields. As countless wars have shown, courage is not enough. Against superior weaponry even the bravest must fail, and when those better weapons were wielded by men whose whole life had been nothing but a preparation for war the outcome was inevitable.
After this initial engagement, the Immortals were not mentioned by Herodotus in the second day's fighting. Therefore, it is possible that on this day, others were recruited from within the Persian army to replace the dead and wounded so as to bring the division up to its full strength of 10,000. However, there is always the possibility that on the third day, the Immortals whose numbers were reduced by the aforementioned losses, were reinforced by others who had not as yet been inducted. As can be seen from the monuments and accounts which have survived several millennia, the Immortals' uniforms were resplendent with riches, therefore, more likely than not, a ceremony would have been conducted to honor those for inclusion into this division. The question which remains unanswered is would they have inducted these warriors immediately after a battle?
In conclusion, and in all probability, the group of Immortals that attacked the Greeks from the rear, surrounded the remaining Greek warriors on the third and final day of the battle may not have been at their customary full strength of 10,000 and may have been complemented by Persians from other regiments.
*The signature shield of the Achaemenid Immortals has been adopted in the insignia of the 65th Airborne Special Forces Brigade and 55th Airborne Brigade of the modern Iranian Army.
*The Achaemenid Empire was one of the great periods for the Persians and was commonly known as the First Persian Empire. The empire was based on the king at the time, King Achaemenes and the period The Sassanid Empire was another great period for the Persians, and ran from 224 CE to 651 CE and is well considered as one of the main powers of central and western Asia for many many centuries. The Empire itself was founded by Ardashir I and once again called upon the skill of the elite Persian warriors known as the Immortal ranged from 705 BC to around 675 BC.
*Cyrus the Great, who founded the Achaemenid Empire, seems to have originated the idea of having an elite corps of imperial guards. He used them as heavy infantry in his campaigns to conquer the Medes, the Lydians, and even the Babylonians. With his last victory over the new Babylonian Empire, at the Battle of Opis in 539 BCE, Cyrus was able to name himself "king of the four corners of the world" - thanks in part to the efforts of his Immortals.
In 525 BCE, Cyrus's son Cambyses II defeated the Egyptian Pharaoh Psamtik III's army at the Battle of Pelusium, extending Persian control across Egypt. Again, the Immortals likely served as the shock troops; they were so feared after their campaign against Babylon that the Phoenicians, the Cypriots, and the Arabs of Judea and the Sinai Peninsula all decided to ally themselves with Persians rather than fighting them. This left the door to Egypt wide open, in a manner of speaking, and Cambyses took full advantage of it.
The third Achaemenid emperor, Darius the Great, likewise deployed the Immortals in his conquests of Sindh and parts of the Punjab (now in Pakistan). This expansion gave the Persians access to the rich trading routes through India, as well as the gold and other wealth of that land.
At that time, the Iranian and Indian languages were probably still similar enough to be mutually intelligible, and the Persians took advantage of this to employ Indian troops in their fights against the Greeks. Darius also fought the fierce, nomadic Scythian people, whom he defeated in 513 BCE. He would likely have kept a guard of Immortals for his own protection, but cavalry would have been much more effective than heavy infantry against a highly mobile foe like the Scythians.
It is most difficult to evaluate our Greek sources when they recount battles between the Immortals and Greek armies. The ancient historians make no attempt to be unbiased in their descriptions In any case, the story of the Persian Immortals may have been distorted over time, but it is obvious even at this distance in time and space that they were a fighting force to be reckoned with.