The Persian Immortals is the name historians gave to the core troops in the Achaemenian army. They were named ten thousand immortals because many believed their number was 10,000. The Persians immediately reestablished that number after every loss, giving an illusion of an immortal army.
The Immortals formed the king’s personal bodyguard, consisting primarily of Persians, but also Medes and Elamites. They had special privileges, for example, the allowance to take concubines and servants along on the march.
Their name was a part of the mind trick the Achaemenid army played on their enemies. For example, they wore matching uniforms and hastily recovered their dead or wounded. This gave the image of being unable to kill. It further fueled the illusion that none of them fell in battle.
Thanks to their Immortals standing army, the Persians conquered 44% of all humanity at the height of their power in 480 B.C.
Origin and Training of the Immortals
Cyrus II (also called the Great) formed the Immortals under his reign from 550 to 530 BCE. He was the founder of the Achaemenid Empire. Cyrus, the Persian King defeated the Medes, the population controlling the region. He then embarked on a series of campaigns to expand his Persian empire and territory. In the process, he conquered Lydia, Elam, and Babylon.
In the process, he also included Median and Elamite warriors in his army, even giving them command positions.
According to historical writings and Iranian historical tradition, the commander Pantea Arteshbod with her husband General ARyasb first organized the Immortals. That came after their participation in the Battle of Opis in 539 BCE.
Pantea governed Babylon after its fall to Cyrus and instituted the mighty Immortals as her elite guard. She was their first commander, a rare feat in an era when women didn’t have high-ranking positions.
Other historians like Xenophon claims that Cyrus formed his palace imperial guard from the best warriors in the army. He then created the elite corps unit and took ten thousand spearmen with him day and night. They remained in the palace when he was in residence, and moved with him when he went on a march, serving as an imperial guard.
For his part, Cyrus created a standing army called the spade, but also kept the old levy system known as the kara.
Only those with enough wealth to make their own military equipment were liable for service. Therefore, the levy or the kara represented the wealthier elements of Persian empire society. They remained an integral part of the Persian army.
These nobles were chosen to train from the age of five. They were trained to use the bow, throw the javelin, and ride horses. The elite corps also went through extreme training to endure cold, rain, and march under any type of difficult weather. The training of a Persian immortal included the ability to live off the land if necessary, living with only spare food.
The nobles hunted on a regular basis and competed in athletic contests like running and endurance tests.
Besides their athletic ability, they also learned the Persian religion. They had to respect their god, Ahura Mazda, and learn the history of the people.
Fun fact: they were separated from their fathers from birth until the age of five. Following the rigorous training, the Persian warrior could enter the military at the age of 15 and then retire at the age of 50. Of course, if they survived that long.
The Immortals always had 10,000 men in the unit, no more and no less. If someone died, got sick, or something else went wrong, they immediately replaced him.
Masters of Psychological Warfare
For Persians, war is just as much a psychological battle as it is physical. They wanted to convince their enemy that they had no chance of surviving before even the initial attack. Their philosophy was that if they can convince the enemy they have no chance of surviving, they have already won. Their unit Anausa, or the Immortals, embodied this concept.
For example, they knew their arrows were inferior to Spartan steel. So, instead of making them strong, they made more of them. This way, every archer could unleash arrows in one rapid moment, blacking out the sky with arrows.
Another example came when they defeated the Egyptians at the Battle of Pelusium. Persians knew that Egypt worships the Goddess of Cats, Bastet. They considered harm done to cats a great sacrilege. So, Persians used that against them.
They drew cats on their shields and let loose a bunch of cats onto the battlefield. Many Egyptians surrendered immediately.
When they didn’t have enough time to prepare psychologically for an enemy, they would go to their shock-and-awe cavalry. Armed with long axes, the lightweight ax made it easy for Immortals to twirl them over their heads. They could swing them fast enough to the enemy’s blood to splash far enough. Blood alone would intimidate many of their enemies.
Alexander the Great was one of the rare commanders that could defy the Persians. But he studied their tactics and instructed his men on how to counter them. Alexander took away the Persian’s edge in battle, earning the moniker The Great.
Weapons and Uniform
There are many historians that try to describe the Persian forces. The Greek historian Herodotus provides the best description.
Herodotus says they wore tiaras on their head, which were loose and felt caps. They clothed their bodies in colorful tunics with sleeves (as well as breastplates) of iron plates. In a way, they looked like fish scales.
The Achaemenid army covered their legs in trousers. Instead of normal shields, the Persian army wore pieces of wickerwork. They carried quivers hanging under their shields.
As for weapons, they had short spears, large bows, arrows made of cane, and daggers hanging from their belts.
Under the Sassanian Empire, the Immortals were Persian cavalry units. So, they had a bit different weapons and armor. They were clad in iron, with some of their body covered with thick plates. They had helmets looking human faces fitted to their heads.
For weapons, they used swords, battle-ax, mace, javelin, and lance. But they also carried two composite bows and a quiver with 30 arrows. Sometimes, they even carried a sling with stones or pellets.
Wrong Portrayal of Immortals in Pop Culture
Many people know the Immortals through their depiction in Frank Miller’s 1998 CE Graphic Novel 300. And then the 2006 movie of the same name.
Yes, that movie and novel wanted to show the Spartans as ferocious warriors. But they did so wrong to the Immortals. The movie and novel are based on the story of the Battle of Thermopylae during the Greco-Persian War and the heroic stand of spartan leader Leonidas with his 300 Spartans.
But in these works, we see the Persian Immortals reimagined as malformed beats same as Xerxes I. Sadly, these works denigrate the image of some of the greatest warriors in ancient history.
Historians say that Immortals were far from subhuman, snarling animals like we see them in 300. Instead, the elite troops were some of the most refined, cultured, and courageous warriors in the ancient world.