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Hollywood and its portrayal of the Immortals

By John Trikeriotis

There is a saying whose derivative reads, ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’, and even though it’s exact origin is unknown the adage appears to be true. For example, a moment or even the single frame of a movie that is frozen in time can be regarded positively or negatively depending on its context and the way it is perceived by the viewer. One such indelible imprint promoted by Warner Bros. prior to the premier of 300: Rise of an Empire was that of the image below. While the focus is on Eva Green who portrays Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus, it is the image of the masked Persian warriors in the background, which viewers may find perplexing.

Top Image © Warner Bros. - Bottom Image © Frank Miller’s, “300”

There are many historical incongruities that have pervaded this film and its predecessor 300, which was based on the 480 BCE, Battle of Thermopylae. However, one of the distortions which has been remained consistent throughout both of these motion pictures is that of the Immortals, who in the scene are seen accompanying the queen. While many viewers of these movies are aware that their portrayal has been effectuated from the Frank Miller comic book series, their adaptation nonetheless denigrates one of the elite units of the Achaemenid Empire.

Herodotus of Halicarnassus, who was the primary historian of the Graeco-Persian Wars, recorded that this crack division “was known as the Immortals, because it was invariably kept up to strength; if a man was killed or fell sick, the vacancy he left was at once filled, so that its strength was never more nor less than 10,000.” Comprised mainly of Persians, along with Medes from northern Iran and Elamites from the south, they “were not only the best but also the most magnificently equipped.” Herodotus (7.41.2) also wrote, “Of these a thousand had golden pomegranates instead of spikes on the butt-end of their spears, and were arrayed surrounding the other nine thousand, whose spears had silver pomegranates.”

Left - Immortal © John Warry, “Warfare in the Classical World
Top Right - Persian Immortal Guards reenactment during Persepolis parade October 1971
© Roloff Beny ,"Bridge of Turquoise”
Bottom Right - The Immortals at Susa

While the campaign dress of the Immortals differed from their ceremonial accoutrements depicted on the steles of Persepolis, it is believed to have consisted of a tunic, trousers and leather boots. Their military garments were in stark contrast to that of the comics, and especially the 300 and Rise of an Empire motion pictures, which relied on the Miller illustrations. Furthermore, their uniform correlated more closely to the representation of this superbly trained unit whose impressive array was depicted in the 20th Century Fox movie, The 300 Spartans. Despite being clad in black, their depiction in the 1962 film was more stately than the anachronistic portrayal of the warriors in the comic book series/300 movies who looked more like Samurai.

The Immortals from “The 300 Spartans”  © 20th Century Fox

Since Herodotus was born c. 484 BCE, he wasn’t a participant in the battles that he recorded unlike the Greek historians, Thucydides and Xenophon. As a result, he was obviously too young to have fought in the campaigns of the Graeco-Persian Wars (490-479 BCE). Therefore, he was reliant on the oral testimony of observers, survivors of these battles and even the relatives of the commanders and their combatants. Historians agree that his figures for the Persian army are grossly exaggerated since the logistics to feed an army of infantry numbering 2,100,000 are highly implausible. However, there maybe a benign explanation for this overstatement - perhaps Herodotus may have confused the Persian terms for myriarch and chiliarch (10,000 vs. 1,000, respectively). Based on this theory which has been promulgated, we have a much more reasonably sized army of 210,000.

There is a conundrum with respect to the Immortals since the Persepolis Fortification Tablets which were discovered in the 1930’s do not make mention of this corps d'elite. However, it is interesting to note that when Xerxes the Great rode from Sardis, in addition to the Immortals, “Behind him marched a thousand spearmen, their weapons pointing upwards in the usual way - all men of the best and noblest Persian blood.” These men complemented the division that Herodotus had identified as the ‘Ten Thousand’ strong.

Diodorus Siculus (Translation by Charles Henry Oldfather) (17.59.3) wrote, “Knowing that the king was watching their behaviour, they cheerfully faced all of the missiles which were cast in his direction. With them were engaged the Apple Bearers, brave and numerous, and in addition to these Mardi and Cossaei, who were admired for their strength and daring, So called from the fact that the butts of their spears were carved in the likeness of apples. They constituted the royal foot guards.”

The Greek historian Heracleides of Kyme in one of the extant fragments of his books, Persika which were preserved by Athenaeus (12.8) wrote, “The Melophori (Gr. Apple Bearers) are one of his troops of guards, all Persians by birth, having golden apples on the points of their spears, a thousand in number, all picked men out of the main body of ten thousand Persians who are called the Immortals.” What should be articulated is that Xerxes’ father, Darius the Great at one time served as one of Cambyses’ bodyguards, therefore, it is possible that the corp of 1,000 ‘elite within the elite’ was comprised of Persian nobles. Based on these varying accounts, the composition of the Immortals is predicated on conjecture as to and whether or not they included the King’s ‘Spear Bearers’ (Melophori/Apple Bearers) as a separate and distinct unit, or perhaps they were one and the same. What is indisputable though is that these warriors were the finest of the Achaemenid Empire.

Achaemenian Soldier image © Iman Maleki -

Author Ernle Bradford in his book The Battle for the West: Thermopylae wrote of the Immortals during the iconic conflict which was the basis for 300, “Brave they were and disciplined they were, but they found, as had the Medes and others before them, that in the confines of the pass their numbers were a hindrance rather than a help.” Furthermore, Mr. Bradford added, “As countless wars have shown, courage is not enough.”

To viewers and especially students who are unfamiliar with the events of the Graeco-Persian Wars, 300 and 300 Rise of an Empire invalidate these noble warriors. In one of the more incongruous moments of the follow-up movie, after Artemisia had assumed the de facto leadership from Xerxes who was relegated to a subordinate role, the masked Immortals were seen flanking the queen. Their antithetical depiction coincided with that of the same infantrymen who were identified as Xerxes’ warrior elite in the first movie. These accretions have reinforced a negative perception of the Persian army which differs from the Herodotean narrative (9.62.4), “In courage and strength they were as good as their adversaries, but they were deficient in armour.” Dr. A. M. Snodgrass inferred about the intrepidity of the Persian forces during the landmark battles in his book, Arms and Armor of the Greeks, “We shall never know quite how Marathon was won, but we can be fairly certain that valor alone would certainly have not won it, nor even perhaps the combination of courage with the somewhat rudimentary tactical skills for which the style of Greek warfare at that time gave scope. The superiority of Greek equipment must have been an important factor here and elsewhere, and at times a decisive one.”

Movies are an extremely powerful medium to which there is a gravitas attached, even if they are based on historical events adapted from a comic book series, such as 300 and 300: Rise of an Empire. As a result of the box office success of 300, Warner Bros. has remained consistent with its lack of historicity and its diminution of the Persian royalty and its warriors. This is one of the reasons that a petition has been started to request that Warner Bros. insert a disclaimer or explanatory message with the impending release of the movie on the secondary market. I hope you consider supporting this invocation.

About the author:
John Trikeriotis is a lecturer of ancient Greek warfare and a member of the archaeological group, “The Leonidas Expeditions.” In addition, he maintains the website
and can be followed on Twitter and Google.

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