Unit Information Game Strategies History

Overview Edit


Relief from Persepolis depicting warriors in Persian (Ceremonial robe and fluted hats) and Mede (Median dress and rounded hat) costumes, thought to represent the Immortals.

The Achaemenid Persian army has gained historical notoriety mostly from the wars against the Greeks, and with it, a reputiation of being as undisciplined and unexperienced as it was vast. In times of crisis, such as the invasions of Greece, the Achaemenid army was levied from peoples in all of its satrapies, and as such the equipment, experience and specialty of the troops in such diverse army varied greatly. From the viewpoint of the professional Greek soldiery, the "Persian" army could easily be seen as a disorderly horde of rabble, a notion that has managed to persist to this day. But not only is such notion incorrect, as the Achaemenid army was exceptionally well organized considering the cultural, geographical, and language barriers; in the strictest of terms the Greeks were thinking of the levy and mercenary army that the Persians raised for the occasion, and not the Persian kāra (army) per se, the professional backbone of any serious military operation, where Persians themselves, both noble and commoner, served their military duties, and besides Persians, only Medes, and possibly Elamites, could enlist. The elite heavy infantry force of this standing army was called by the Greeks "Athánatoi", meaning "Immortals".

The Immortals were the imperial bodyguard as well as the main infantry force of the standing army in the Achaemenid Empire. Herodotus stated that this name derived from the fact that “When any one of them left the number incomplete, whether by force of death or of sickness, a substitute was appointed, so that they never were more or less than 10,000 men.” Always kept at full strength, the Immortals were armed with bow, spear and shield, and an akinakes, kopis or sagaris as a side-arm; trained in all of these weapons to serve as shielded spearmen and/or archers. They were also armoured in scale breastplates or linothorax, and wore ornate clothing and gold ornaments in battle, denoting their exalted rank. There were 10 divisions of a thousand men each, nine of them had silver pomegranates on the butt of their spears, while the most elite division comprised only of "the best of Persians", had golden pomegranates. It is likely that the 9 "silver" divisions acted primarily as archers, while the "gold" division stood at the front served as the shielded spearmen that protected the other divisions from incoming projectiles or a frontal charge, forming together a "shielded archery" contingent, which was the main infantry formation in Iranian and Near Eastern warfare, both long before and long after Achaemenid rule. Unlike most of the regular army, however, all of the Immortals were equiped to fulfill both roles if the need arose; this gave them great tactical flexibility, and being the first and last line of defense of the empire; the outstanding discipline and coordination required to make use of it.

NAMABG-Colored Alexander Sarcophagus 1 retouched

Colored reconstruction of a scene on one of the short sides of the Alexander Sarcophagus, representing a battle between Persians (clothed), believed to represent the Immortals, and Greeks/Macedonians (unclothed).

Less known and studied is that there was also an similar elite force of cavalry, likewise capable of melee and ranged roles, a thousand of them chosen among "the best of Persians", wearing golden apples on the butt of their spears. These elite thousand were probably accompanied by another nine divisions as well, in a similar fashion to infantry Immortals, but this is far less certain. At any rate, it is likely that this cavalry contingent is where the gentry served; for Persian nobles, true to their nomadic roots, considered shameful to be seen dismounted, both in daily life and the battlefield; from the times of Cyrus the Great at the very least, according to Greek accounts.

Name Edit

Though by Greek sources it is stated that the "Immortals" was the name that the Persians themselves gave to the unit, such name hasn't been found in Persian sources, and only imagery thought to represent them can be found. It has been suggested that the term "Immortals" was a misinterpretation of Herodotus, who could have mistaken the Old Persian "Anušiya" (followers) with "Anauša" (Immortal). However, this is far from proven, and it stands as a curiosity that the use of "Athánatos", the word for Immortal, for anything other than the gods, is completely foreign to Greek thought. The native term for the name has also been reconstructed as "Amrtaka" (Apple-bearers), but just as above, it is mere conjecture based on a mistake the Greeks could have just as well not even made.

Even after the fall of the Achaemenid empire, the fame and renown of the institution of the Immortals was such as to live on through successor traditions, and its name to trascend throughout the ages. Under the Sasanian Empire, whose cultural and political ambitions drove heavily from its Achaemenid predecessors, an elite bodyguard unit of versatile heavy cavalry arises, apparently under the same name or nickname.

Also, several centuries after the fall of Persia in the wake of Islam, the name persisted. One of the traditional rivals of the former Sasanians, the Byzantines, who learned much of the military art from Persia, would create the Athánatoi, an elite heavy cavalry bodyguard unit inspired on the Classical past, rivals to the famous Varangian Guard for Imperial favour. In the Enlightenment age, the Imperial Guard of Napoleon Bonaparte gained the nickname "The Immortals" by the French soldiery. Later still, under the last ruler of Imperial Iran, arose an all-volunteer imperial bodyguard called the Gârd e Jâvidân, or "Immortal Guard", responsible for the internal and external security of the royal palaces.

Further Reading Edit

Enciclopaedia Iranica - Immortals

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