'The Immortals' reenactment at the 2,500 year anniversary Persepolis Celebration - Image courtesy of 'Flames of Persia' directed by Shahrokh Golestan
The 300 Spartans lead by King Leonidas were the elite warriors of the Greek garrison which defended Thermopylae in 480 B.C., as were the Immortals who were their heralded counterparts in the Persian army. As the name implied, an aura of invincibility surrounded this unit which totaled 10,000, since Herodotus wrote that when one of their number were either killed or incapacitated, he was immediately replaced. This crack fighting division which was comprised of Medes, Elamites or Persian warriors also served as the royal bodyguard of Xerxes I and who were commanded during the Battle of Thermopylae by Hydarnes II, son of Hydarnes I.
'The Immortals' as depicted at the Winter Place of Susa
Unlike their portrayal in the Warner Bros.' movie '300' which was based on the illustrations from the Frank Miller comic book series, the Immortals differed greatly from their depiction in the movie as clad in black, masked and subsequently revealed as hideous creatures underneath.
'The Immortals' in the '300' movie compared to their depiction in the comics
In the 1962 20th Century Fox movie 'The 300 Spartans' the depiction of the 'Immortals' is much more accurate which can be evidenced bythe portrayal of their commander 'Hydarnes', played by Donald Houston. In addition, the stature of 'The Immortals' within the Persian army is symbolized by their appearance in the background as the royal bodyguard of Xerxes I.
Donald Houston's 'Hydarnes' - Commander of the Immortals and David Farrar's 'Xerxes I' in 'The 300 Spartans'
As an indication of the distinction, which was accorded this select group of hand-picked warriors, Herodotus went to great lengths to describe their appearance. Herodotus wrote that these warrior elite were armed with a wicker shield, dagger, a bow and arrows. In addition, 9,000 infantrymen of this unit carried a short spear, to which was affixed on the butt-end, the shape of a pomegranate made of silver. The remaining 1,000 royal guards stood on the periphery and carried a spear with a golden pomegranate instead of the silver one.
'The Immortals' from Simon Chew's illustration in 'The Persian Army'
According to Herodotus, during the first day of the Battle of Thermopylae, Hydarnes' division was ordered to engage the Spartans after the Medes and the contingents of Cissians and Sacae tribesmen were repelled. The following passage which was published in 1980 and written by Ernle Bradford, the author of 'Thermopylae - Battle for the West' is a testament to the bravery of the 'The Immortals'.
"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. Once again their shorter spears could not penetrate that formidable bristling line of the Greeks, nor their arrows pierce the great bronze shields. As countless wars have shown, courage is not enough. Against superior weaponry even the bravest must fail, and when those better weapons were wielded by men whose whole life had been nothing but a preparation for war the outcome was inevitable." - Bradford
'Immortal' warrior - Illustration from John Warry's 'Wafare in the Classical World'
After this initial engagement, the Immortals were not mentioned by Herodotus in the second day's fighting. Therefore, it is possible that on this day, others were recruited from within the Persian army to replace the dead and wounded so as to bring the division up to its full strength of 10,000. However, there is always the possibility that on the third day, the Immortals whose numbers were reduced by the aforementioned losses, were reinforced by others who had not as yet been inducted. As can be seen from the monuments and accounts which have survived several millennia, the Immortals' uniforms were resplendent with riches, therefore, more likely than not, a ceremony would have been conducted to honor those for inclusion into this division. The question which remains unanswered is would they have inducted these warriors immediately after a battle?
Persian 'Immortal' statue
In conclusion, and in all probability, the group of Immortals that surrounded the remaining Greek warriors on the third and final day of the battle may not have been at their customary full strength of 10,000 and may have been complemented by Persians from other regiments.