Around 550 BC, the Persians rose to power in the Middle East. Having overthrown the last King of the Medes, Cyrus the Great of Persia seized control of territories dominated by the Medes, beginning an empire of his own. A series of campaigns in the west led to the expansion of Persian territory to include Babylon and Lydia.
Here are some facts about the armies with which that empire was forged and defended.
A Military Upbringing
From the age of five until he was 20, every Persian boy was trained in archery and horse riding. After that, he spent four years in compulsory military service. Up to the age of 50, he could be called upon to serve again if needed.
A large part of the Persian Army was made up of archery units. To protect the archers from enemy fire, the units included two sorts of soldiers. Some carried bows. Others instead carried pavises, large shields with which to protect their comrades. These men were the sparabara or “pavise-bearers.”
Persian pavises, unlike those of the Middle Ages, were made up of rectangles of leather stretched across a framework and cured to harden them. It made the shields lighter than the solid wooden ones used to protect medieval crossbowmen.
The use of sparabara was not a new tactic. The Persians took an approach previously used by the Assyrians and adapted it to their needs. Instead of having an equal number of shield bearers and archers, with a single line of missile troops behind the shield wall, they had more archers than sparabara. It increased the volume of fire a line of shields could support.
The Persian Army was divided into regiments a thousand men strong. These were called hazarabam, meaning “a thousand.” The hazarabam was divided into ten sataba of a hundred men, which were further divided into units of ten called dathaba. At each level of this command structure, the unit had its own leader.
Divisions of 10,000 were also formed by bringing together ten hazarabam. The Persian name for such units has been lost. The Greeks referred to them as myriads.
The regular Persian infantry was primarily equipped with bows and falchions; broad swords with a curved blade along one edge. The leader of each dathabam was sometimes armed with a spear so he could defend the others better from his place in the front rank.
The elite of the Persian Army was a myriad called the Amrtaka, meaning “immortals.” This part of the army was always kept at full strength, drawing from the best available soldiers.
At the heart of the Amrtaka were the Arstibara or “shield-bearers,” the elite of the elite. These were all Persians of high social rank, drawn from the rest of the Amrtaka to form the King’s private unit.
Warriors from Conquered Lands
Just like the Imperial Romans and Napoleonic French would do in later eras, the Persians included troops from conquered territories in their armies. Subject people such as the Medes were obliged to raise units to fight for their overlords.
The Persians were initially short of cavalry. To get around this, they used cavalry brought in by conquered nations.
As he expanded the empire, Cyrus the Great became nervous that these allies, especially the Medes, might side with his enemies. To ensure he could not be deprived of cavalry in this way, he created Persian cavalry troops.
To do this, he gave the Persian nobility both horses and the wealth to maintain them, proceeds from his western conquests. He ordered them to ride everywhere and that to travel on foot would be a source of disgrace for a Persian noble.
Having bribed and badgered his nobles into learning to ride, he recruited his cavalry from among them. At its heart was an elite regiment drawn from the Huvaka or “kinsmen,” the 15,000 noblemen at the very top of Persian society.
Traditional Persian robes were not suited for riding. The Persian cavalry, therefore, adopted a clothing style from the Medes, featuring trousers and shorter tunics. These were usually brightly colored, as befitted the noble status of the cavalrymen.
Founding a Fleet
The early conquests of the Persians were entirely based on land. As they moved west, Egypt came into their sight. To successfully invade Egypt, they needed to be able to support and supply their armies by sea. The Pharaoh Amasis dominated that part of the Mediterranean, so Cyrus the Great’s son and successor, Cambyses, built a fleet.
This fleet not only allowed the Persians to invade Egypt; it also let them launch attacks into Europe.
Marines, Not Sailors
There were few Persian sailors. Not many Persians could swim. To crew the fleet, Cambyses recruited men from the coastal cities of Phoenicia.
Persian troops still played a vital part in the fleet. They were the marines. Naval combat mostly consisted of boarding actions, so they were responsible for the hard fighting that would win or lose a naval battle.
Moving Toward Mercenaries
As the empire expanded, its rulers increasingly turned to mercenaries to fill its army. They provided professional soldiers, took pressure off the Persian population, and made them less reliant on mass levies.
Another change took place from the mid-5th century. Persian cavalry began using shields. They were made from wicker and leather to keep them light. These shields were an imitation of those carried by the Saka, who the Persians had frequently fought. Persian heavy cavalry regiments eventually adopted them.
Takabara or “spear-bearers” also became increasingly important in the 5th century. These troops were initially drawn from subject tribes within the empire. Over time, the usefulness of men with spears and shields was increasingly recognized. They became particularly prominent during reforms in the 4th century organized by the Greek mercenary General Iphicrates.
General Sir John Hackett, ed. (1989), Warfare in the Ancient World.