It has been been romanticised in many media platforms such as films, games, anime and even novels and books, that is the frightful image of the Persian elite forces “the Immortals” but who exactly were the immortals and what exactly made them so frightening an enemy?
The immortals, unlike contrary belief were not in fact, immortal, surprise, the immortals were the Persian elite infantry and were a heavy infantry unit, first recorded in the Archaemenid Empire, the first Persian Empire (550-330 B.C.). The term “immortals” was Herodotus’ name for this powerful Persian unit. The immortals were given their name due to their seemingly never ending, never weakening battalion of 10,000 men. The immortals never dropped below this number, since, as soon as one was injured or killed another would come and take the place of the fallen. This highly trained procedure would give the image of immortality and have major psychological impact on their enemies. This skill to perceive immortality was not only effective, but also contributed to many large scale battles such as Cambyses II Conquest of Egypt and Darius I’s invasion of India. In each of these battles the ratio between the Persians and their enemies in these battles were immense.
Though the immortals were classed as a heavy infantry unit, they were fairly lightly equipped compared to their Roman and Greek counterparts, who were heavily clad in armour with heavy shields. The immortals were a very versatile unit, the armour they wore was clad in glittering gold and their armaments varied depending on the battlefield. The immortals were proficient in short spears, short swords, large daggers and bow and arrows. The armour they wore was scale armour, this armour was hidden beneath a robe, this is arguably another way to strike fear in their enemies heart and a tiara that was of special design made of felt or cloth, that allowed the immortals to cover their faces and protect it from dust and sand. These armaments not only made the immortals a versatile unit but the encumbrance of the heavy equipment was near non-existent and allowed them to be more flexible, manoeuvrable and fast compared to the enemies, who wore restrictive leather laden, brass armours. The fact that the shield of the immortals was made of wicker also promoted speed in comparison to the enemies heavy metal shields.
Being one of the immortals granted men extra privileges and were highly regarded by their lords. The immortals were often gifted a lot of gold and tended to lace their clothes with the very exquisite material. The immortals were also allowed to bring their wives and servants with them when they were out on march. These non-combatants travelled in wagons, the servants and wives of the immortals were usually dressed in very elaborate garbs and cloths. Being a part of the immortal army was a great honour and privilege for the soldiers, they were arguably the most trusted unit of the Kings army and lived a comfortable life, they even received special foods that were not provided to the regular army. To be a part of the Immortals soldiers had to apply externally and even then they had to be of Persian decent, from either Elamite or Median ethnicity. These privileges show just how important the immortals were to their Kings ambitions and how central they were to the military strength of the Empire.
It is unfortunate that much of what we know of the Immortals is gathered from a single source, Herodotus and the verification of such source is limited, but the information on this elite unit was either kept extremely secret, destroyed, yet to be discovered; or needs further verification. The immortals, as fascinating and interesting as they are, the sources on these warriors still remain extremely elusive, what is known, is that even today the Immortals are seen as a symbol of strength and honour and this will likely be portrayed in media for some time to come. Some sources believe that Alexander the Great’s apple bearers, known by the information that their spears counter-weights were shaped like an apple, which were also an elite unit and usually acted as Alexander’s Guard.