The Persian army was very multicultural in its make up. It consisted of trained regular units of Persian and Median infantry and cavalry supplemented by conscripts from subject nations within the empire and well as hired mercenaries or garrison troops from within or from outside the empire. The full time regular soldiers such as the Immortals were supplied with arms and armour and so are uniformly equipped, many allied contingents supplied their own equipment and fought in their own style.
Hordes of lightly armed bow and javelin-man and non fighting camp attendants, wives, concubines and slaves account for the vast numbers that were characteristic of the Persian army.
There is a reasonable amount of reference material available for us to gain an understanding of the Persian army's organisation, training, uniforms and equipment. Some of it is very detailed, some misleading and some fictitious.
Persian armies, like earlier middle eastern armies and later Asian armies, were organised on a decimal basis, regiments, units and corps were grouped in tens, hundreds and thousands. An officer being responsible for ten men, another for one hundred, one thousand and ten thousand.
Number of Troops
Name of Unit
Title of Commander
Achaemenid kings from Cyrus to Darius III acted as the Commander in Chief of their armies for most battles and campaigns but would at times, hand control to one or more of their generals. The king appointed the army's chief of staff and the army generals.
These were either Satraps, (Provicial Governors), or men of high birth, mostly of Persian or Median decent and generally a close relative to the King. The Satraps would normally assume control of the troops from their satrapy or region but could also be promoted to command divisions or armies of mixed nationalities. The generals to turn were responsible for appointing the Baivarapatish and Hazarapatish or captains of 10,000 and 1,000.
Herodotus lists the troops in Xerxes' invasion force in 479 BC and the names of their commanders. He also partly describes the delegation of command,
"The marshalling and numbering of the troops had been committed to them; and by them were appointed the captains over a thousand, and the captains over ten thousand; but the leaders of ten men, or a hundred, were named by the captains over ten thousand. There were other officers also, who gave the orders to the various ranks and nations; but those whom I have mentioned above were the commanders. "
Xenophon in "The Education of Cyrus", described a similar decimal organisation but mentions a 'leader of five', which is believed to be a reference to a 'file closer'. He describes a system of promotion, men who distinguished themselves by their courage or leadership could be promoted to a captain of 5 or 10, or a leader of one thousand men. It would seem that a common soldier could possibly be promoted as high as a 'Hazarapatish' (commander of 1,000).
The ten thousand Immortals are an example of promotion within the Persian army. The term "Immortals" was the Greek word to describe how their number was always kept at full strength. Any vacancy was filled by men being promoted from other regiments. Not only did the Immortals receive a regular pay for their services, they had the prestige of being allowed to bring their wives and concubines with them on campaign.
Herodotus' description of Xerxes' infantry & cavalry guard regiments of 1,000 also supports the idea of promotion within the Army. He says the 'spear-bearer's were, "all men of the best and noblest Persian blood".
This system of rewarding bravery and skill may have had its drawbacks. Although the Persian were noted for their strength and courage in battle, their desire to be noticed by their King or commander may also have attributed to men breaking ranks to rush out at the enemy. Herodotus described the Persians at Marathon as fighting in disorder, groups of 10 men or less would break from the ranks to attack the Greek line.
Mercenary troops were more characteristic of later Achaemenid Persian armies but even in the early 5th century, Greeks were being employed in the service of Persian commanders. The term medizing came to describe such troops who were seen to be pro-Persian or in Persian service. Medizing comes from the word Mede which was the general term used by the Greeks to describe all Persian/Medean peoples.
Ionian Greeks supported the Persian invasion of Scythian territory in 512 B.C. Although they revolted against Persian rule in 499 B.C. and fought and lost a war lasting 6 years to keep their independence, they still served in the Persian army in 490 B.C. Fighting side by side with the Persians at the battle of Marathon. A battle in which would have meant the end of independence for the rest of Greece.
The Scythians, or Sakae, were extremely good archers and fighters and were employed as mercenaries by both the Persians and Greeks. They are quite often seen portrayed on Greek vases.
When the Greeks and Persians met at Marathon the Scythian mercenaries employed by Athens refused to fight their Asiatic brothers, and a group of them even switched sides during the battle. (Proabably not their wisest decision considering the outcome.)
Datis the Persian commander must have respected their fighting abilities as he positioned them in the Persian centre, a position of honour in any army. There they distinguished themselves by breaking the Greek centre.
Interestingly, Scythians were also employed by the Persians to teach their troops the art of archery.
Persians placed little value or prestige in camels and riding one into battle certainly did not appeal to them. However camels did have a significant part to play in at least one of their battles. The Arabs supplied archers mounted on camels to Xerxes in 480 B.C and possibly to aid Cambyses II conquest of Egypt in 525 B.C. However, the most famous use of camels in the Persian army or posssibly any other would have to be Cyrus' use of camels against the Lydians. Xenophon and Herodotus both describe an improvised unit of camels, animals that had been captured or taken from the baggage train. Each animal carrying a pair of archers. Although they managed to frighten the Lydian horses they apparently took no part in the fighting and were afterwards returned to the baggage train.
Chariots were still being used throughout the Achaemenid period in a number of different roles. Foreign contingents still maintained their use, however Persian's military use was now limited to that of a command vehicle, with a number of exceptions.
Although the chariot was not longer the main offensive arm it was still seen as a symbol of authority and power. Generals would still use them in cultural and military parades, for hunting and to transport themselves to battle.
No only is Xerxes recorded as being carried in a chariot during his invasion of Greece but he also took with him the sacred chariot of Ahura-Madza.
The golden solar chariot that was dedicated to the one great god. It was pulled by eight white horses with the charioteer walking behind holding the reins as no mortal was allowed to ride in it.
In Xerxes invasion of Greece, both the Indian and Libyan contingents were said to have brought a chariot force.
Cyrus the Great, according to Xenophon, would never refuse two gifts, horses and good weapons. He captured many chariots but considered them an inefficient use of horse and human resources. " He abolished this system in favour of the war-chariot proper, with strong wheels to resist the shock of collision, and long axles, on the principle that a broad base is the firmer, while the driver's seat was changed into what might be called a turret, stoutly built with timber and reaching up to the elbow, leaving the driver room to manage the horses above the rim. The driver's themselves were all fully armed, only their eyes uncovered. He had iron scythes about two feet long attached to the axles on either side, and others, under the tree, pointing to the ground, for use in a charge. Such was the type of chariot invented by Cyrus, and it is still in use to-day among the subjects of the Great King."
Cyrus is said to have fielded a force of 300 Chariots divided into 3 commands of 100 against Croesus. One hundred of his own, a hundred from his Assyrian ally Abradatas of Susa and a hundred converted from the old Median chariots.
There is debate about whether the Scythed chariot were used by the Early Achaemenid Persians, Xenophon is the only reference to their use by Cyrus the Great and they do not appear to have been used by Darius or Xerxes in their campaigns against Greece.
In support of Xenophon, scythed chariots are recorded on both sides of the battle at Cunaxa 401B.C. The difficulty of transporting them overseas in the invasion of Greece. Four horses, and the carriage would not only take up valuable space on board a boat but also when the army was in march, the presence of numerous chariots would greatly lengthen the army's march formation. This could cause delays was well as making it harder to defend against attack when on the march.. They would be useless in any attacks on cities or fortifications. And finally they inclusion or not in the army would be dependent on the individual preferences of the King or commander.
Xenophon describes Cyrus' mobile towers as a car with 8 poles, drawn by eight yoke of oxen, to carry the lower compartment of the battering engines, which stood, with its wheels, about twenty seven feet from the ground. The towers were built with galleries and parapets, each of them could carry twenty men. They were built of planks as thick as the boards of a stage.
According to Xenophon's description of the battle of Thumbra, they were positioned behind the first line of infantry. The Egyptians forced the Persian infantry backwards until the war wagons behind came into shooting range.