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300 - Thermopylae and Rise of an Empire - XERXES and the IMMORTALS

XERXES and the IMMORTALS (Illustration) Ancient Places and/or Civilizations Archeological Wonders Famous Historical Events Famous People Film Social Studies Geography World History

Scholars believe this image depicts members of the Immortals, the personal bodyguard of Xerxes. It is from a frieze, originally located at a royal palace in Susa (one of Persia’s four capitals). Today is maintained at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Photo by mshamma, online courtesy Wikimedia Commons. License: CC BY 2.0 

 

Herodotus reports that Xerxes was mulling over how his opponents would react to his overwhelming invasion force. He did not expect to hear the opinion of Demaratus, the exiled-Spartan king:

Brave are all the Greeks who dwell in any Dorian land; but what I am about to say does not concern all, but only the Lacedaemonians [Spartans]. First then, come what may, they will never accept thy terms, which would reduce Greece to slavery; and further, they are sure to join battle with thee, though all the rest of the Greeks should submit to thy will. As for their numbers, do not ask how many they are, that their resistance should be a possible thing; for if a thousand of them should take the field, they will meet thee in battle, and so will any number, be it less than this, or be it more. (Herodotus, Histories, 7.102)

Incredulous, Xerxes did not believe what he'd heard:

. . .how could a thousand men, or ten thousand, or even fifty thousand, particularly if they were all alike free, and not under one lord-how could such a force, I say, stand against an army like mine? Let them be five thousand, and we shall have more than a thousand men to each one of theirs . . .For mine own part, I believe, that if the Greeks had to contend with the Persians only, and the numbers were equal on both sides, the Greeks would find it hard to stand their ground. (Herodotus, Histories, 7.103)

Like so many leaders - before and after him - Xerxes should have heeded the admonition!

On the other hand ... the Great King had his personal bodyguard, an elite fighting force called "The Apple Bearers" and/or "The Immortals." Scholars believe reference to "Immortals" was based on the unit's key feature: Whenever a man died, another instantly took his place.

As such, the Great King's personal guard, who served him in the palace and elsewhere, always fought at full-strength of 10,000 men. Herodotus:

The Ten Thousand, who were all Persians and all picked men, were led by Hydarnes, the son of Hydarnes. They were called "the Immortals," for the following reason. If one of their body failed either by the stroke of death or of disease, forthwith his place was filled up by another man, so that their number was at no time either greater or less than 10,000 . . . Of all the troops the Persians were adorned with the greatest magnificence, and they were likewise the most valiant. Besides their arms, which have been already described, they glittered all over with gold, vast quantities of which they wore about their persons. (Herodotus, Histories, 7.83)

Are there any surviving pictures of an Immortal? Scholars believe a frieze from the king's palace at Susa - now at the Louvre in Paris - may give us a glimpse of Xerxes' most reliable lancers and archers:

  • Archers, most likely from the King's personal guard.

A test of will, between the Persians and the Spartans, was about to unfold. Demaratus told the Great King what his elite forces would face in battle:

One-against-one, they [the Spartans] are as good as anyone in the world. But when they fight in a body, they are the best of all. For though they are free men, they are not entirely free. They accept Law as their master. And they respect this master more than your subjects respect you. Whatever he commands, they do. And his command never changes: It forbids them to flee in battle, whatever the number of their foes. He requires them to stand firm - to conquer or die. O king, if I seem to speak foolishly, I am content from this time forward to remain silent. I only spoke now because you commanded me to. I do hope that everything turns out according to your wishes. (Herodotus, Histories, 7.104. George Rawlinson translation.)

It would be a fight to the death.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5124stories and lessons created

Original Release: Oct 07, 2013

Updated Last Revision: Apr 17, 2015


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