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Persian society in the time of Darius and Xerxes

The Persian Army

Principal Focus
The Persian Army

This tutorial was written by
Stephen Rowland
Sydney Institute of TAFE



describe and assess the significance of key people, groups, events, institutions, societies and sites within the historical context


explain historical factors and assess their significance in contributing to change and continuity in the ancient world

H4.1 use historical terms and concepts appropriately

Principal Focus

The investigation of the key features of the society of ancient Persia at the time of Darius and Xerxes, through a range of archaeological and written sources and relevant historiographical issues.

Through the study of this tutorial you will learn about the nature and role of the Persian Army with particular attention to its organisation and composition.

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The Persian Army


The Persian army was drawn from the tribes of the Persians, the kara (Xenophon, Cyropaedia). Asarmes said Persia was blessed "with good people, with good horses" (Kent, 1953:AmH, AsH).

The chariot was always an important part of the Persian army.

By the time of the rule of King Darius, there had been significant changes in the Persian army. The army was still commanded by the nobility and the aristocracy but it was now "a complex military establishment", the spada; the professional army (Frye, 1962: 108).

It was tactically superior to its rivals but inferior to the Greek mercenaries (Frye, 1962: 109).

His "small" army "smote ... exceedingly" a larger Median rebel force (Behistun Inscription II, 25), and a later rebel Armenian force (II, 26).

Darius' claims become more questionable, with each successive victory. Either, his victories were unconvincing, or the rebels in his empire were exceedingly stupid, or maybe they wanted to have their nose and ears cut off, an eye put out, kept bound on public show, and then impaled. (Behistun Inscription II, 33)

  1. What qualities allowed Cyrus to build a strong army?
  2. How did the kara differ from the spada?
  3. From the evidence of the Behistun Inscription do you think the army was tactically advanced, or just persistent?

Composition of the Persian Army

Below the leadership were the soldiers (Frye, 1962:108-11). They were from the skauthi (poor or weak) (Weisehoefer, 1996:35).

Some were cavalry (asabara), some chariotry (always an important part of the Persian army), but most were infantry (pasti).

Illustrations can be found in the Apadana of Persepolis (Oriental Institute, 1998).

The cavalry included not only horses but could also include camels, which came from Arabia (Cassin-Scott, 1977:34).

The army was multinational, as illustrated in reliefs found at Persepolis and also mentioned by the historian, Herodotus (VII,61FF) and playwright, Aeschylos (Persae, l.304-330).

Commanders were always Persians.

Units were made up of multiples of tens: tens, hundreds, and thousands (with a Chiliarch as leader) (Burn, 1984:314).

Communication was through standard bearers (Cassin-Scott, 1977:33).

Service in the army did not begin before the age of 20, nor extend past 55.

The elite force we know as "the immortals", was armed with bows and quivers.

Herodotus (VII, 41) tells us that they were always kept at 10,000, with replacements arriving whenever needed, and there was a chosen 1,000 who acted as a royal bodyguard.

Weapons were the bow and the short sword (akinakes). In reliefs at Persepolis, the spear is commonly depicted (Oriental Institute 1998).

They used elephants and scythed chariots.

Armour-of-mail was used to protect both men and horses (Xenophon, Anabasis 1.8.7). The cavalry wore practical Median dress, bronze helmets and horse-hair crests, and a quilted linen cuirass.

Importantly, their horses were large, and they used bridles and saddle-cloths. Officers wore quilted armour (Cassin-Scott, 1977:36,38)

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Colonial Service

Soldiers were liable for service in the garrisons of the Great King, scattered around the subject cities of the empire and its colonies.

The garrison at Elphantine on the Nile River showed the multinational nature of the Persian army. It was made up of Jews and Iranians (Lewis, 1990:5). Herodotus (IV.204, V. 15, VI. 3, 20, 119) said troops were sent from their native lands to other parts of the empire.

Military colonies also provided a sure source of troops, when needed. This was based in Census information "kept by army scribes at the main mustering points of the satrapy" (Kuhrt, 1995:695).

When not in battle, the military colonists in Babylonia were required to maintain the canals (Kuhrt, 1995:696).

Garrisons were connected by the efficient road and communication system (Graf, 1994:169)

Organisation of the Persian Army

Pay and rations were often the same thing: meat, wine and grain (Frye, 1962:111).

Lewis (1990:2) argued that the huge payments made to senior men were to support their whole retinues. Panarka was paid 205 litres of flour, 2 sheep, and 102 litres of wine a day (Persepolis Fortification text a 4).

Even Bakatatanna and his companions "who feed the horses and mules of the king" were paid 13 sheep and 5 portions (PF 1793). The horses were well taken care of, with wine (PF 1757).

The food dumps which Xerxes arranged for his invasion of Greece (Herodotus,VII,25) came from "all over Asia" and fed an army which "drank the rivers dry".

In Elphantine, in Egypt, papyri record supplies to the garrison on a similar scale to Persepolis (Lewis, 1990:5). By Alexander's time, the Greeks saw this as a disadvantage.


Unlike Cyrus, Xerxes relied on overwhelming force. Although he invaded Greece with a force of 5,280,000 (Herodotus), he was unsuccessful.

Later King Artaxerxes was to use diplomacy, creating the "Peace of Kallias" (Diodorus, xii,2,4) and a large stock of gold for bribes (Cook, 1983:128).

Darius II also used diplomacy and money (Thucydides, VIII,37 and 58). They gained better results.

Later the focus of the army was to shift from expansion to garrison duty and fighting was carried out to put down rebellion (Cook, 1983:130) rather than extend the empire (Xenophon, Hellenika, 2.1.13).


  1. Why might such an army have difficulty controlling its empire?
  2. What do you consider the strengths of the Persian army to be?
  3. What do you consider the weaknesses of the Persian army to be?
  4. Assess the role of the army in the economy of the empire.

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Burn, A.R. (1984) Persia and the Greeks Duckworth, London.
Cassin-Scott, J (1977) The Greek and Persian Wars 500-323 BC Osprey Publishing, London.
Dandamaev, M.A. (1989) A Political History of the Achaemenid Empire trans
Frye, R.N. (1962) The History of Persia Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London.
Graf, D.F. (1994) The Persian Royal Road System in Achaemenid History VIII Continuity and Change (ed) Sancisi-Weerdenburg, H. and Kurht, A and Cool Root, M., Nederlands Instituut vor het Nabije Oosten, Leiden.
Herodotos (1985) The Histories, trans Rex Warner, Penguin, Harmondsworth.
Kent, R.J., (1953) Old Persian Grammar, texts, Lexicon, American Oriental Society, New Haven.
Kuhrt, A. (1995) The Ancient Near East c. 3000-330 BC Vol 2 Routledge, London.
Lewis, D.M. (1990) The Persepolis Fortification Texts, in Achaemenid History IV Centre and Periphery (ed) Sancisi-Weerdenburg, H. and Kurht, A. Nederlands Instituut vor het Nabije Oosten, Leiden.
Oriental Institute (1998) Persepolis and Ancient Iran Oriental Institute University of Chicago.
Thucydides (1972)The Peleponnesian War trans Rex Warner, Penguin Harmondsworth.
Wiesehoefer, J. (1996) Ancient Persia 550BC-650 AD trans Azodi, A. IB Tauris Publishing, London.
Xenophon. (1980, 1983) Anabasis, Cyropaedia Xenophon in Seven Volumes, 3, 5, 6. Carleton L. Brownson. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA; William Heinemann, Ltd, London.

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