The “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 and during the Greco-Persian Wars. Its Persian name may have been Anûšiya (‘companions’).
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 cohesion of the unit.
This elite corps is only called the ‘Immortals’ in sources based on Herodotus. Whilst there is evidence for them from Persia, this does not mention this name for them. “Probably, Herodotus’ informant has confused the name Anûšiya (‘companions’) with Anauša (‘Immortals’).”
The ‘Immortals’ played an important role in Cyrus the Great’s conquest of the Neo-Babylonian Empire in 547 BC, Cambyses’ campaign against Egypt in 525 BC and Darius the Great’s invasion of India’s smaller western frontier kingdoms (western Punjabh and Sindh) and Scythia in 520 BC and 513 BC. Immortals participated in the Battle of Thermopylae 480 BC and were amongst the Persian occupation troops in Greece in 479 BC under Mardonius.
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. 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.
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. Surviving Achaemenid coloured glazed bricks and carved reliefs represent the Immortals as wearing elaborate robes and gold jewelry, though these garments and accessories were most likely worn only for ceremonial occasions.
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.
The title of “Immortals” was again revived under the Byzantine Empire, under the Emperor Michael VII (1071–1081). His general Nikephoros reorganised the central field army (“Tagmata”) of the Eastern Empire following the disastrous defeat of Manzikert by the Turks in 1071. The remnants of the provincial troops of the Eastern Themes (military provinces) were brought together in a new Imperial Guard regiment named after the Persian Immortals and reportedly also numbering about 10,000 men.
Many centuries later during the Napoleonic Wars/Wars of the Coalitions, French soldiers referred to Napoleon’s Imperial Guard as “the Immortals.”
The modern Iranian Army under the last Shah 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 overthrow of the Imperial regime in 1979 the “Immortals” were disbanded.
In popular culture
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.
Frank Miller’s comic book 300, turned into a motion picture in 2006, presents a heavily fictionalized version of the Immortals at the Battle of Thermopylae. These Immortals wear menpō-style metal masks, and carry a pair of swords closely resembling Japanese wakizashis. The earlier 1962 film The 300 Spartans includes a far less fanciful depiction of the Immortals, who 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.
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. The television program Deadliest Warrior featured the Immortals in a comparative (though fictional) struggle against the Celts. They were also featured during the “Spartan” segments in Season 1 and the “Alexander the Great” segments in Season 2.
The Immortals also feature in several strategy computer games, including Civilization III, where the Immortals are an infantry unit uniquely available to the Persians, Civilization IV, where they are depicted as a mounted unit, and finally in the last installment of the series, Civilization V, in which they return as heavy infantry, carrying shields and short spears.
The Immortals also appear in “Rome: Total War” as Clibarnii Immortals under the Parthians and Sassanids, and as Immortal Spearmen under the Achaemenid dynasty.
The Persian Immortals appear as a unique shock weapon unit for the Persian Civilisation and as enemies in the last two missions in the Greek Campaign of Empire Earth.