Question regarding Xerxes I's Persian army at Thermopylae.


What were the advance soldiers ahead of the Immortals called, during the Battle of Thermopylae. Were they slaves? How well trained were they?
I look forward to your feedback.

Here is an excellent account of the events leading up to the battle and a description of Xerxes’ army.

The answer to your question might depend on the definition of ‘slave’. Apart from the elite Persians and the Immortals, it is highly unlikely that any of those fighters were paid for their work, or even that they had much choice about staying. It’s not hard to imagine that Xerces recruited them with promises of vast amounts of Greek loot, and then kept them in line with executions and the whip.

Of the long list above, it was the Medes and Cissians who were sent in first, before the Immortals.

The Achaemenid host was basically a quasi-feudal array. There was a core royal Persian army and then a large mass of satrapal musters from the various subject peoples of the empire. In this particular case it appears that the initial assault was made by Medes and Cissians under one Artapanus, prior to the try by the Immortals under Hydarnes. By description the Medes and Cissians, minor details in dress aside, were equipped to the same standard as the regular Persian infantry - long bows, short spears and short swords with wicker shields. Basically these were particularly favored subject peoples, especially the Medes who were ethnically, culturally and linguistically pretty close to the Persians proper. They paid less tribute and supplied more troops than other subject peoples. In fact the Medes were basically the #2 people and virtually a co-dominant ethnic group in the empire, forming a section of the ruling class, providing regular troops and military commanders. The Cissians of Elam/Susiana were a bit farther out, but like other Eastern Iranian groups a lot closer to the center of power than, say, the Phoenicians or Scythians. Basically it appears that the closer to the Persian center you were as a subject people that very roughly the less tribute you paid and the more troops you supplied.

It is highly likely that in the case of favored subject people like the Medes we’re talking about more upper and upper-middle class origins, trained to shoot bows, ride and fight from youth. These weren’t simple tribal levies, but likely quasi-standing professional troops - part of the core army. Slave troops were probably not very likely. I wouldn’t rule out any individual slaves in Xerxes’ expedition, but there is no indication that they ever formed a large mass of soldiers in the Persian army. This is as opposed to mercenaries which the Persians made heavy use of, particularly Greeks as time wore on but also other groups like Jews.

The Bible, a contemporary work, refers to the Persian Empire as “The Kingdom of Persia and Medes” (Paras ve-Madai).

The Persians and Medes were certainly close enough that the Greeks at the time didn’t seem to know or much care about the difference. The Greek term for switching sides to the Persians was “medizing”, joining the Medes. So Persian, Median, whatever, they all looked the same to the Greeks, at least. Although from the inside, the difference would presumably have been much more acutely felt. The Persians were originally a subject people to the Medes, instead of the other way around, until Cyrus the Great rebelled and switched things up. It all sounds to me like the sort of thing that would leave a cultural grudge or two. I probably wouldn’t risk confusing them to a Persian or Median noble’s face.

paras u-madai, Persia and Media.

The term slaves had a fairly well defined meaning in the ancient world, and the armies if Xerces were not it.

The term is used by Greek commentators as a political point to emphasize the lack of freedom in the Persian political system, versus the Greek Political system (also the reason we call it a POLItical system from Polis)

The soldiers of Xerces would have been recruited from vassal strates how were required to contribute soldiers in time of war. It was the way empires made war (and how they continued to, until the rise of the nation state)

Also given how ancient battles worked. Was the idea of having waves of troops who could be dispatched in turn even feasible?

Even if you aren’t in a phalanx ancenit armies we’re still huge blobs of troops with few means to communicate once battle had been joined. Outside of seige warfare I am not sure it would be possible to have distinct waves of troops who could attack and then disengage without routing the troops behind them

If it was the phalanx would not have been so effective, even when outnumbered. As large armies could have brought their full force to bear a bit at a time, gradually wearing down the phalanx. Instead it was an all or nothing thing and once the front rank broke that was it, game over

Well, maybe not as such, until you get to the Roman legions. But that’s a whole 'nother story. Back to Thermopylae, it’s not exactly clear how Persian infantry tactics worked. But in any case, the idea wasn’t troop rotation. Xerxes would have expected the first wave to get the job done, but then they were turned into infantry kebab on the Greek spears. Oops. Only after that was the next wave sent in. As for why not deploy more troops at a time, the Persians could only send so many men in one go into the narrow pass, which was the whole reason why the Greeks chose Thermopylae as the place to make their stand in the first place.

We the crack troops 'The Immortals" usually in the rear, as the final offensive, much like the Janissaries under the Ottomans?

Which was pretty ironic coming from folks like the Athenians and Spartans. The Athenians in particular very helpfully emphasized the egalitarianism of their citizen government with its freedom of speech, while conveniently ignoring their very large slave population. They of course didn’t count ;).

However, of course the support train had many slaves.

Indeed, as did the Greeks of course

There really isn’t enough detail available from the sources to make that sort of claim. We know they were involved in a number of campaigns and were used as regular troops, as at Thermopylae. So they weren’t just decorative palace fixtures or royal bodyguards. But just how they were usually deployed tactically relative to the rest of the army is uncertain. It is likely that as an elite corps they were more often held in reserve, but it is entirely possible that depending on the circumstances they might have been occasionally been at the front of the line as the best armored( it appears they may have worn bronze or iron scale )and most reliable shock troops.

ETA: For that matter the Kapikulu like the Janissaries weren’t necessarily always held in the rear either. Often they formed the center with the artillery park, with the feudal cavalry deployed on the wings.

As *Tamerlane says, it’s hard to tell from the limited sources. At Thermopylae, at least, the Immortals weren’t the first troops sent into action, but they did enter the battle on the first day. It’s not like they were held back until Xerxes ran out of options. Later, the Immortals (or however many were left of them) were part of the force sent around the path revealed by Ephialtes, to hit the Greeks in the rear. It seems to me that they were troops that the Persians were certainly careful with, but when s got real, they didn’t hesitate to use them.

And you can thank you namesake for that Tamerlane. If there were any Persian accounts from that era, they probably were lost during the Mongol invasions.

You can spread the blame there a bit to earlier generations as well( gotta give the first wave its bloody due ), but it’s a fair cop. Good ol’ Timur was not exactly a keen preservationist, especially during sieges.

Thanks Tamerlane. Very helpful.

[quote=“DrDeth, post:13, topic:823964”]

However, of course the support train had many slaves.[/QUOTE

Zoroastrianism repudiated slavery. As a Zoroastrian himself, Xerxes I presumably did so as well, although I haven’t been able to find any evidence of it. Any links referencing the royal family’s/Archaemenid dynasty’s view of slavery?