27/03/2020: The immortals

The Persian army was a formidable fighting force created by absorbing foreign armies (starting with the Medians) and their respective tactics, as the Roman did centuries later. At the time of Xerxes however, their tactics no longer worked when facing the Greek phalanx, and also one century later with Darius against the Macedonian Phalanx. This inferiority proved its downfall.

Nevertheless, the Persian Army as decribed by Herodotus was a huge and colorful ones, and not only for the clothing. Many nations contributed, ranging from the deserts of Africa to the frozen steppes of Scythia and the rugged mountains of the Hindu-Kush. The very core of the army however was the infantry resting on three units: The sparabara (spearmen) at the first rank, which were given large wicker shields in order to create a "wall" and absorb enemy arrows, the archers behind, and the Takabara in reserve. The latter were axemen, mountaineers recruited for their fierceness, and unleashed to create breakthrough when the enemy was sufficiently softened, compounded with chariots of scores of various cavalry units, ranging from mounted javelineers and archers to heavy cataphracts.

But one particular units rose to fame: The immortals.

Making the very elite of the Achaemenid Empire armies, they were relatively well described by Greek authors, called "Athánatoi". Boh Imperial guard and standaing professional army, they were heavily-armed corp of 10,000 soldiers. What was remarkable about it was the system which gave them their very name. It was basically a simple tactical reserve system. Depending of the emergency, the Persian King could commit half of this force or lower, in order to "refill" all losses during the fight with the reserves. Nothing is sai however if these were "rotating" like later the Romans. If true, this would have been ndoubtly copied by other armies. However only the Roman Army implemented the "rotary" system, where the first line of each cohort was only fighting for a short period and then withdrew to the last rank and was replaced. This force was made of ethnic Persians but also Medes and Elamites. As described by Herodotus, replacement occurred not only if an immortal was dead or wounded, but also if he was sick.

The Immortals: Persia's professional elite

How these immortals looked like ?

Immortals - Berlin museum
Immortals on a fresco at the Berlin Museum - Palace guards that matches the description.

Ancient authors described them as archers and spearmen, also skilled with a sword. It is likely they carried a medium spear, possibly with an "apple" counterweight, a small crescent or argive wicker shield, a composite bow and its gorytos, an Akinakes (straight sword, dagger-like but longer). They wore a richly embroided tunic over a leather and bronze scale armor, and it seemed there was little uniformity in styles and colors, no proper "uniform" as each soldier provided its own clothing. However the are also decribed having, either a thick felt cap for combat, or just having a silver or gold headband, probably in palace duties. The name anûšiya ("companion") has been often associated with anauša ("immortal") for their persian name, but this is contested.

Immortals tactics

Being professional soldiers, the Immortals were not only picked-up in the regular levies, probably remarked by an officer, but they were also well-trained, and fell-fed, full-time professionals which rotated their guarding duties with exercizes. The other clue was their armament. Mastering all three of the main weapons of the time for infantry, the spear, sword and above all, the bow, was not for levies. Average sparabara were just trained to walk in close order and stop, grounding their shield at a command. Their spear training was rudimentary and consisted mainly of thrusting a closing opponent. Archers were already skilled in civilian life, when hunting for example, and bring their own weapon with them. Takabara were basically only skilled with an axe or another weapon (as "Taka" described the crescent shield, not their armament), only learning to charge and basic melee combat.

So as masters of the three weapons (the sword was costly and only common with officers, bows were provided by the state), they could act in all three ways: Joining the archers in the first phase of the battle, reinforced the sparabara as a mobile spear reserve against enemy cavalry, protecting the King and the battle wings, or fight in melee after a breakthrough with their sword.

Xenophon also described a mounted elite withing the Immortal corp, wearing bronze breastplates and helmets and well-protected horses with bronze chamfrons and peitrels plus shoulder pieces. The felt cap was well describe by Herodotus as a complicated, layered "textile helmet" which offered great resistance to all sorts of blows and resisted to arrows as well. They are also often descrbe having a miter made of bronze or

The Immortals in action

Battles and campaigns

Immortals were reported by Greek authors in action with Cambyses II's conquest of Egypt in 525 BC, Darius I's invasion of India, the invasion of Scythia in 520 BC and in 513 BC. They also famously participated in the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, the only unit to really wear down the 300 Spartans, and were part of the Achemenid occupation troops in Greece by 479 BC under General Mardonius. Before the arrival of Alexander the Great, their upper officer called hazarapatish became Kings' superme councellors, chief minister. Therefore the units was closer to a praetorian guard, or ready to assume an increasing political role (as "kings's makers"), as would be Janissaries a millenium later in the Ottoman Empire.


The immortals left such a mark in the eastern warring culture, that the concept was reused again as the title by following empires, such as the Parthians (doutbful), the Sassanians, as a heavy cavalry or cataphract unit of 10,000, as described by primary and Roman sources, but also by the Byzantines under Jan I Tzimiskes (r. 969–976) and Nikephoritzes, as a professional core of the army. In modern Iran, there was a corp of "immortals" in the Shah's personal guard called the Javidan Guard created in 1942 and disbanded with the revolution of 1979. It was based at the Lavizan Barracks in Tehran, a brigade 4,000–5,000 men, strong with a battalion of Chieftain tanks.

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