The Persian Immortals were an elite combat unit during the First Persian Empire, also known as the Achaemenid Empire.

They were known for being at ten thousand strong at all times for which they actually seemed to be technically immortal.

From Hdt. 7.83.2

These were the generals of the whole infantry, except the Ten Thousand. Hydarnes son of Hydarnes was general of these picked ten thousand Persians, who were called Immortals for this reason: when any one of them was forced to fall out of the number by death or sickness, another was chosen so that they were never more or fewer than ten thousand.

Translation from Herodotus, with an English translation by A. D. Godley. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1920.

However it seems that modern historians do no think too highly of them during the Persian-Greek Wars of the 5th century B.C.

From Kleist, Joseph. "The Battle of Thermopylae: Principles of War on the Ancient Battlefield." Studia Antiqua 6.1 (2008): 14, p84., and based on Hdt. 7.211:

Whatever tactics the Immortals tried on the Greeks, Leonidas’ forces proved that they were the experts and that they were fighting against amateurs. Perhaps the next day would see a change in fortune for the god king to crush the seemingly weakened and fatigued Greek defenders after the first full day of battle.

And from Foster, Edith. "Thermopylae and Pylos, with Reference to the Homeric Background." Thucydides and Herodotus (2012): 185-215. p198

This quote points to a more general dismissal of the Persian troops.

This economical narrative has so far shown that the Persian forces could not prevail because their training and weapons are inferior; in addition their Spartan adversaries are better organized and protected by the narrow pass. Xerxes, who believes he is the centre of Persian strength, is a liability, and is ultimately reduced to helplessness. Leonidas has been entirely absent from the initial battle description; sentence-length explanations of each successive day have been the building blocks of a vivid story

And a quote pointing more to the Immortals' level of skill.

On the next day the Persian Immortals take over from the Medes; Xerxes is confident that these troops will easily finish off the Spartans (7.211.1). This expectation seems justified: these men are Persians, and trained, and there are 10,000 of them opposing the 4,000 Greeks.28 However, they fare ‘no better . . . but rather [experience] the same things’ as the Medes. Herodotus explains why the Persians can make no headway: the narrow pass protects the Spartans against the Persians, who cannot use their numbers and also have shorter spears (7.211.3). But the Spartans (on whom Herodotus focuses his account) also contrast to the Persians in skill (‘the Spartans showed that they knew how to make war among those who do not [know how to make war]’ 7.211.3).

The question: The Immortals had a reputation in the Persian empire, but were they also feared by the Greeks because of their so-called "immortal" status?

  • 3
    On "... modern historians do no think too highly of them...", do you have any other source? First, I do not know of Joseph Kleist as a historian. Second, I believe Studia Antiqua is a student publication. Nothing wrong with that of course but having just had a quick read on cited article (pdf), the quality does not strike me as particularly strong. So, were there other research/papers/books (that dismissed the Immortals)?
    – J Asia
    Mar 11, 2018 at 11:49
  • 10
    Being able to replace fallen units like that sounds more like decent support structure than combat prowess. Mar 11, 2018 at 19:01
  • 1
    It all depends on what you mean by "instill fear". I don't think any army - even the Iraqi army in the 1st Gulf War - is something you'd laugh at.
    – jamesqf
    Mar 11, 2018 at 20:03

3 Answers 3


On the Immortals specifically, we do not have enough information from ancient sources to get a clear picture of what the Greeks thought of this elite Persian infantry unit.

Further, the available evidence suggests that the Greeks were far more concerned about the size and wealth of the Persian empire than about one particular component of their army, however prestigious. The Persians did nothing to conceal their might: captured Greek spies were given tours of the Persian camp and sent back to their city states, the aim being to scare the Greeks into submission - some fought for Persia (e.g. Thebes), others were neutral (e.g. Argos). In these accounts, there is no evidence that the Immortals played a significant part in this 'fear creating' scheme.

Immortals "Depiction of the "Susian guards" from the Palace of Darius I in Susa. Their garments match the description of the Immortals by ancient authors." Attrib: Pergamon Museum [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

We also know that the Persian King Xerxes I had in his court the deposed Spartan King Demaratos who informed his benefactor he should not expect the Spartans to flee the battlefield. Demaratos would certainly have had a good idea of how his former 'subjects' felt.

Nonetheless, at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, King Leonidas respected the Immortals enough to put his best troops in the front line when Xerxes sent his elite force into battle on the second day.

The answer to the larger question of to what extent the Greeks feared the Persians (rather than just the immortals) depends largely on whether you are referring to the Greeks before 490 BC (Battle of Marathon), or before the Persian invasion of 480 BC, or after the Persian invasion of mainland Greece had finally been defeated at the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC.

The Spartan King Kleomenes (c.519 to c.490 BC) was one Greek leader who recognized the threat which Persia posed, not because of one part of the Persian army but because of the vastness of her empire and the seemingly inexhaustible resources of manpower and wealth at her disposal. When the Ionian revolt (499 - 493 BC) broke out, only Athens and Eretria lent support to the rebels; everyone else stayed out of it, not wishing to draw Persian attention to mainland Greece.

Richard A. Billows, Professor of History at Columbia University, argues in his book Marathon: How One Battle Changed Western Civilization (2010) that the Athenian-led victory at Marathon was an important turning point, for the Greeks realized that, even if outnumbered, they could still defeat the Persians. However, the Persian invasion of 480 BC was an altogether bigger affair: the Greeks were heavily outnumbered both on land and at sea so, again, the Greeks were more worried about the huge Persian resources than anything else.

After the defeat of the Persians at Plataea, Greek attitudes changed:

As noted British historian Norman Davies stated, “Aeschylus creates a lasting stereotype whereby the civilized Persians were reduced to cringing, ostentatious, arrogant, cruel, effeminate and lawless aliens.”

c.480 greek vs. persian Kylix from c.480 BC showing a Persian soldier in trousers: Greeks considered trousers to be effiminate. Attrib:By Ελληνικά: Άγνωστος Français : Coupe attribuée au Peintre de Triptolème. (National Museums Scotland) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon and others followed suit in disparaging the Persians. In the words of noted classicist Mary Beard,

The Greeks painted a contemptuous picture of the Persians as trousered, decadent softies who wore far too much perfume.

Thus, there was a significant difference as to how the Greeks viewed the Persians before and after Plataea, although it is also true that the Spartans (typically) had little time for Persian luxury and perceived softness even before Marathon.

The view of most modern historians is not that the Persians were poor soldiers but that the Persian infantry was at a huge disadvantage when facing up to the heavily armoured Greeks under certain conditions (and the lack of Persian armour described here would hardly have caused their Greek opponents to be fearful):

protective armor was rarely used by the Persians; metal helmets, breastplates, grieves, and shields were almost unknown. This lack of armor usually did not hinder Persian success, since most of the peoples they fought were outfitted in similar fashion.

Source: S. G. Chrissanthos, 'Warfare in the Ancient World' (2008)

Tom Holland, in Persian Fire: The First World Empire and Battle for the West (2011), also makes it clear that the Persians had formidable soldiers, as does Billows in Marathon: how else could they have gained such a large empire? Also, other elements of the Persian army (cavalry, archers) have been recognized by modern historians as being of high quality, though it is also true that there were many troops which were of lesser quality. The Greeks, though, made the most of their strengths and minimized their weaknesses on the battlefield. Under other circumstances, such as uneven ground and open terrain, the immobility of the Greek heavy infantry would have made them vulnerable to the Persia's cavalry and more mobile light infantry, and this has been widely recognized by modern historians.

Other Sources:

Victor Davis Hanson, 'Hoplites: The Classical Greek Battle Experience' (2002)

Paul Cartledge, 'Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed the World' (2007)


We have no way to be sure, but probably not.

The way I'm reading the question is, did the illusion of immortality cause any fear in the Greeks? Well, no source attests to the existence of the Immortals except for Herodotus. Opinions are split on his reliability, but it is believed that Herodotus did not personally speak Persian.

In Paligaro's view, Herodotus or his informant confused here the word anusya ("follower", "adherent") with the word "anausa ("immortal").

Dandamaev, Muhammad A., and Vladimir G. Lukonin. The Culture and Social Institutions of Ancient Iran. CambrSidge University Press, 2004.

We have no reason to disbelieve that the Persian king was guarded by a unit of companions. Macedon had the Companion Cavalry, for instance. It also stands to reason that they were an elite force. However, maintaining a unit at constant strength is hardly a frightening feat in and of itself. Persian propaganda could have hyped it up as "immortality"; but if that were the case, we'd expect it to be reflected in the unit's name, or nicknames.

That the only source to call the unit Immortals may well have been an error, suggests they didn't. By extension, therefore, the Greeks wouldn't have known to fear its "technically immortal" status.

More generally speaking, the account given by Herodotus hardly suggests fear for the Immortals in Greece, whether for their combat ability or the "immortality". There is certainly no trace of it in the paragraph cited in the question. In fact, Herodotus seemed much more concerned with the Immortals' appearances than either their reputation or fighting prowess.

From The Histories, 7.83.3,

The Persians showed the richest adornment of all, and they were the best men in the army. Their equipment was such as I have said; beyond this they stood out by the abundance of gold that they had. They also brought carriages bearing concubines and many well-equipped servants; camels and beasts of burden carried food for them, apart from the rest of the army.

The idea that they were the best of the Persian army was mentioned only in passing, and the greater part of the paragraph was spent describing their splendour and status.

Moreover, Herodotus goes on to list the Persian cavalry and nomadic units in the Persian army. The overall impression is that he was describing an order of battle, not putting the Immortals on a pedestal as a unit to be feared.

Since The Histories is our only source, all the evidence we have suggests the Greeks did not particularly fear the Immortals at all.

  • 4
    You confirm what I was suspecting. Herodotus would probably mention their martial powers more if they were truly exceptional. Good answer. I'll give others some time to come with an answer, but it will be hard to top it. Mar 11, 2018 at 13:23

The question: The Immortals had a reputation in the Persian empire, but were they also feared by the Greeks because of their so-called "immortal" status?

Short Answer:
Given initially the Persians were seeking symbolic acceptance of Persian Rule and the Greeks would not even give them this token; suggest the Greeks really didn't fear the Persians. Even an act of submission to Persian rule would have excused the Greeks from the slaughter the Greek's endured in their early encounters with the Persian Army; but even this act of submission when facing certain death was refused. Also given the moral and restrained reputation of the Achaemenid rulers when dealing with other cultures, the Greeks proffered battle.

On multiple occasions cities threw open their gates to Persian rule rather than support their own ruler when given the Achemenid alternative. Given the Achaemenid rulers are featured in the bible with Cyrus the Great being the only gentile ( non jew ) being refereed to as Messiah. Represented as speaking with God, for God, and doing God's work on earth.

So the Greeks had every belief that if they had given in to the Persians they could expect mercy and just rule; yet still they opted for War. Doesn't really suggest the Greeks feared the Persians.

Detailed Answer:
There is some conflicting depictions of the Persian (Achaemenid) Empire. History does not really record them as being blood thirsty savages as some modern Hollywood offerings do. They were militarily accomplished, they had a huge empire, and they invaded Greece which tend to support the depiction of savage, ruthless nemesis of the birth place of democracy. But they also ended the first diaspora (exile and slavery of the Jews) releasing Jews taken by the Asyrians from slavery to return home to the lands of Judea. The Achaemenid's paid for the great temple in Jerusalem to be rebuilt (destroyed when Judea fell to the Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar ). Achaemenid rulers appointed prophets who taught at the Temple on the Mount and wrote books which are still included in the old Testament. One of the Achaemenid Rulers (Cyrus) was such a great spirit he is the only gentile(non jew) to be referred too as Messiah in the Old Testament. He is represented in those pages as both speaking with and for God in the old testament, doing God's work on earth. Cyrus the Great also had multiple experiences where he took over rival kindoms in bloodless conflicts, (Babylon and Ecbatana) where so great was Cyrus's reputation in treatment of his captives and enemies, that when he showed up, the people opened their gates to him and welcomed his rule.

“Cyrus was a born ruler of men. He inaugurated a new policy in the treatment of conquered peoples. Instead of tyrannizing over them and holding them in subjection by brute force, he treated his subjects with consideration and won them as his friends. He was particularly considerate of the religions of conquered peoples. The effect of this policy was to weld his subjects to him in a loyalty which made his reign an era of peace.” (Elmer W. K. Mould, Essentials of Bible History, pp. 348–49.)

Biblical Book which reference Persian(Achaemenid) Kings Favorable include:

  • Deutero-Isaiah
  • Haggai
  • Zechariah (1–8)
  • I and II Chronicles
  • Ezra
  • Nehemiah
  • Esther
  • Daniel

Yes the Achaeminid's ( Persian Empire ) were accomplished warriors but Persia itself had a rich culture which extended far beyond warfare. The Achaeminids were Zoroastrians which was the first monotheistic religion, influential on Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Other than in the Greek War they are depicted as one of the most civilized and respected empires in conflicts they entered into.

Did the Greeks fear the Immortals. One can say without a doubt that the Greeks feared and respected the Persians (Achaemenids). One would have to be insane or feel a total disregard for death to feel otherwise given the size and accomplishments of the Persian Army. Which brings us to the Spartans. The Spartans did not fear anyone. Their entire culture was based upon excellence in the arts of war and the repression of such temporal feelings. By the time of the Battle of Thermopylae, the Spartans had gone hundreds of years without any full Spartan Army knowing defeat in battle. They lived in a brutal duel dictatorship (oligarchy) where almost all tasks geared towards sustenance were relegated to slaves. Slaves cooked their meals, farmed their crops, mended their uniforms, even raised their children. Spartan men had two jobs. Train for war and make more Spartan warriors. The lowest slaves(helots) outnumbered Spartans in Sparta. Maybe the only thing Spartans feared was an internal slave revolt.

Spartan children were ritualistically denied food and beaten during an education called the agoge. They were encouraged to steal to survive. If caught steeling they were beaten even worse. The Spartans wanted strong fearless soldiers who were self reliant, and the upbringing of their children was designed to bring that out or kill them before they grew into adulthood. The Spartans were famous for their use of the phalanx one of the most enduring and successful military formations of classical antiquity.

The Greek name for Sparta was Laconia and their is an expression called a laconic phrase for a concise or terse statement, being especially blunt. Some of these expressions come down to us from history from Spartans as responses to threats. They kind of demonstrate a Spartan characteristic that even in the face of imminent death, Spartans didn't really give much respect to their antagonists, nor thought to their own mortality.

War History Online

On the eve of battling the 300, Dieneces, a Spartan learned from an informer that the Persian arrows were so numerous they would hide the sun.

Dieneces listened to the foreboding news and replied to his informer “You bring us good news! For now, we can fight in the shade.” There are various translations of this but it is a great example of the Spartans staring death in the face and laughing. >

At the famous battle of Thermopylae, the scene was dramatically set. Xerxes had about 100,000 men at his disposal compared to 7,000 Greeks led by 300 Spartans. Xerxes attempted to be rational and requested the Greeks to lay down their arms, and he would spare them all. Leonidas replied, “Come and get them.”

As Philip II of Macedon was conquering Greek city-states left and right, Sparta was left alone. Philip had achieved a crushing victory, and Sparta was relatively weak and without walls. Philip sent a message to the Spartans saying “If I invade Laconia you will be destroyed, never to rise again.” The Spartans replied with one word, “If.”

After the “If”, Philip bided his time and sent a diplomat to ask the Spartans if Philip should come to their city as a friend or a foe, essentially giving the ultimatum of friendly submission or conquest. The Spartans reply was a bit longer this time; simply “Neither”.

.... Neither Philip nor Alexander (The Great) attacked the Spartans while they ruled.

Did the Greeks fear the Persian Immortals. It's probable unlikely most greeks even knew about the Persian elite royal guard. Regardless I think most of the Greeks would have been fearful of the Persian Military in General. It was an exceedingly large army, and had accomplished much in the Middle East and on Persia's other boarders and the Greeks as traders would have been aware of those military sucesses. Did the Spartans? 300 Spartans (along with other Greeks) faced off against one of the largest armies ever assembled up to that point and refused all entreaties to negotiate even a symbolic acceptance of Persian rule. That is not the act of a people who fear. That is an action of near contempt.

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