The Persian ‘Immortals’

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The Persian ‘Immortals’

Upon hearing about the great centerpiece of the ancient Persian army, The Immortals, many today would probably think of the slightly creepy Darth Vader/ ninja crosses shown in the movie 300, facing off against the Spartans. While certainly effective in creating dramatic cinema, this is not at all reflective of the real Immortals who served under the great Persian kings.
The Immortals were an elite force of 10,000 soldiers who fought for the Achaemenid Empire. According to Greek historian Herodotus, their name refers to the fact that their number never went below 10,000: a wounded or dead solider was immediately replaced in the ranks, ensuring that the force was always at its full strength. Originally this force was restricted to Persians, but latter Elamites and Medes were able to join.
Their name ‘The Immortals’ is given to us by Herodotus, however, the lack of references by non-Greek sources to these famous infantry guardsmen by this name raises some questions. Although they will probably always be known to the world as The Immortals, it is thought that Herodotus’ informant confused the Old Persian word anushiya (’attendants’) for the Old Persian anausha (immortals). This would certainly make more sense given the context: Neo-Babylondians and Assyrians also referred to their royal guards as ‘attendants’.
Despite this apparent slip-up, Herodotus, writing during the 5th century BC, does offer some valuable information about how these warriors were dressed in battle:
“They wore on their heads loose caps called tiaras, and on their bodies embroidered sleeved tunics, with scales of iron like the scales of fish in appearance, and trousers on their legs; for shields they had wicker bucklers, with quivers hanging beneath them; they carried short spears, long bows, and reed arrows, and daggers that hung from the girdle by the right thigh.”
Heavy, protective armor, such as metal helmets or breastplates, was rarely used by the Persians in general, enabling them to be quick and mobile on the battlefield. See also this Greek vase depicting a Persian warrior fighting a heavily armed Greek hoplite.
According to Herodotus, The Immortals were also richly adorned, and offered special privileges: “Their equipment was such as I have said; beyond this they stood out by the abundance of gold that they had. They also brought carriages bearing concubines and many well-equipped servants; camels and beasts of burden carried food for them, apart from the rest of the army.”

Photo: solder depicted at the 6th-5th century BC Persian site of Persepolis, which might represent one of the ‘Immortals’

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