Immortals (Persian Empire)

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Immortals at the 2,500th anniversary of Persia in ceremonial dress.

The "Immortals" (from the Greek Ἀθάνατοι, sometimes "Ten Thousand Immortals" or "Persian Immortals") was the name given by Herodotus to an elite force of soldiers who fought for the Achaemenid Empire. This force performed the dual roles of both Imperial Guard and standing army during the Persian Empire's expansion period and during the Greco-Persian Wars. Its Persian name may have been Anûšiya ('companions' perhaps confused with Anauša 'immortals' from an- 'non' + auša 'death').[1] The force consisted mainly of Persians but also included Medes and Elamites.[2]

Herodotus[edit]

Herodotus describes the 'Immortals' as being heavy infantry, led by Hydarnes, that were kept constantly at a strength of exactly 10,000 men. He claimed that the unit's name stemmed from the custom that every killed, seriously wounded, or sick member was immediately replaced with a new one, maintaining the numbers and cohesion of the unit.[3]

This elite corps is only called the 'Immortals' in sources based on Herodotus. There is evidence of the existence of a permanent corps from Persian sources, which provided a backbone for the tribal levies who made up the bulk of the Achaemenid armies. These do not however record the name of "Immortals".[1] "Probably, Herodotus' informant has confused the name Anûšiya ('companions') with Anauša ('Immortals')."[1]

History[edit]

The Immortals played an important role in Cyrus the Great's conquest of Babylon in 539 BC, Cambyses II's conquest of Egypt in 525 BC and Darius I's invasion of India's smaller western frontier kingdoms (western Punjab and Sindh, now in Pakistan) and Scythia in 520 BC and 513 BC. Immortals participated in the Battle of Thermopylae 480 BC[4] and were amongst the Persian occupation troops in Greece in 479 BC under Mardonius.

Equipment[edit]

Immortals at war against Alexanders' troops. Color reconstruction of the original reliefs on the Alexander Sarcophagus, in Istanbul

Herodotus describes their armament as follows: wicker shields, short spears, swords or large daggers, bow and arrow. Underneath their robes they wore scale armour coats. The spear counterbalances of the common soldiery were of silver; to differentiate commanding ranks, the officers' spear buttspikes were golden.[5] 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.[6]

The headdress worn by the Immortals is believed to have been the Persian tiara. Its actual form is uncertain, but some sources describe it as a cloth or felt cap which could be pulled over the face to keep out wind and dust in the arid Persian plains.[5] Surviving Achaemenid coloured glazed bricks and carved reliefs represent the Immortals as wearing elaborate robes, hoop earrings and gold jewelry, though these garments and accessories were most likely worn only for ceremonial occasions.[7]

Legacy[edit]

Sassanid Empire[edit]

Main article: Zhayedan
Median (left) and Persian (right) soldiers, carvings at Persepolis.

The title of "Immortals" was first revived under the Sassanid army. The most famous of the Savaran units were the Zhayedan (Immortals) and numbered 10,000 men, like the Achaemenid predecessors, with the difference that they were cavalry. Their task was mainly to secure any breakthroughs and to enter battles at crucial stages.

Byzantine Empire[edit]

The designation "Immortal" to describe a military unit was used twice during the Eastern Roman Empire, first as an elite heavy cavalry unit under John I Tzimiskes (r. 969–976) and then later by Nikephoritzes, the chief minister of Emperor Michael VII (r. 1071–1081), as the core of a new central field army, following the disastrous defeat of Manzikert by the Seljuk Turks in 1071.

French Empire[edit]

Many centuries later, during the Napoleonic Wars, French soldiers referred to Napoleon's Imperial Guard as "the Immortals."[8]

Imperial State of Iran[edit]

Main article: Imperial Guard (Iran)

The Iranian Army under the last Shahanshah included an all volunteer Javidan Guard, also known as the "Immortals" after the ancient Persian royal guard. The "Immortals" were based in the Lavizan Barracks in Tehran. By 1978 this elite force comprised a brigade of 4,000–5,000 men, including a battalion of Chieftain tanks. Following the Iranian Revolution of 1979 the "Immortals" were disbanded.[9]

In popular culture[edit]

Herodotus' account of two warrior elites - the Spartan hoplites and the Immortals - facing each other in battle has inspired a set of rather colorful depictions of the battle, especially in regard of the Immortals:

  • In the 1962 film The 300 Spartans the Immortals carry a spear and wicker shields like the actual Immortals. However, they are mostly dressed in black and other dark colors, as opposed to historical depictions.[9]
  • The History Channel documentary Last Stand of the 300 also features the Immortals as part of the reconstruction of the Thermopylae battle. In this version, the tiara the Immortals habitually wear is depicted here as a full-face black cloth mask transparent enough to see through.[9]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c Lendering, Jona, Immortals, Greek name for an elite regiment in the ancient Achaemenid empire, Iran Chamber Society
  2. ^ http://global.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/587087/Ten-Thousand-Immortals
  3. ^ Jona Lendering. "The Persian Immortals". Ancient Persia. Retrieved 6 September 2009. 
  4. ^ Jona Lendering. "Thermopylae". Ancient Persia. Retrieved 6 September 2009. .
  5. ^ a b [1]. Retrieved 16 May 2009.
  6. ^ Cook, J.M. The Persian Empire. New York: Schocken Books, 1983. Page 105.
  7. ^ Volume IX, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Fifteenth Edition 1983
  8. ^ Georges Blond, La Grande Armée, trans. Marshall May (New York: Arms and Armor, 1997), 48, 103, 470
  9. ^ a b c d Rastani, Nabil (27 October 2010). "The Guards of the Shahanshah, How to fight, carry weapons, ride horses and learn archery". 

External links[edit]