War is more than just drawing out swords and arrows and killing enemies. It is also a psychological battle. If you could intimidate your enemies enough that they would lose hope of winning even before the war began, then you’ve already won. During the Achaemenid Empire, There was a unit called the Persian Immortals, who knew that only too well and used this knowledge to their advantage.

Illusion of Immortality

Achaemenid soldiers historical parade 2.500 years celebration.

The Achaemenid heavy infantry led by Hydarnes the Younger was kept constantly at exactly 10,000 to live up to their name and make their adversaries think that they were indeed immortal. They would dress up the same, and those killed, wounded, or sick were immediately replaced with a new one to make the enemies think that none of them fell. Who would want to fight against a virtually indestructible army?

Not the Cats

According to some accounts, another psychological technique that the Persians used was observed during the Battle of Pelusium— the first major battle between the First Persian Empire and Egypt.

Bastet was one of the most popular figures in lower Egypt, as protector of the houses and fields. Ossama BoshraCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Polyaenus, a 2nd-century Greek author, wrote that one of the strategies that the Persian warriors used was taking advantage of their knowledge that Egyptians had high regard for animals, especially cats. Egyptians believed that cats were magical creatures that could bring good luck and would often dress them in jewelry. They even had a feline goddess named Bastet whom they worshipped. Now that the Persian army knew this, they brought with them these sacred animals in front of them and let the Egyptian know about it. The Egyptians refused to shoot their arrows in fear of hurting the animals. Although there were some arguments that Polyaenus exaggerated things regarding the use of cats during this battle.

Shower of Arrows

One more popular tactic they used was their shower shooting, as a shock and awe tactic. This was observed when they fought against the Romans.

Persian Horse Archer. The Battle of Gaugamela. Photograph: Luis García (Zaqarbal), 3 December 2008 / Wikimedia Commons

As reported by Archery Historian, “Parthian military tactics were a great nuisance to infantry based armies of the past such as the Romans. The Battle of Carrhae, fought in 53 B.C. between the Romans and Parthians, resulted in one of the most epic defeats for the Romans in history. The Parthians were masters of mounted archery and would employ the tactics of all mounted steppe armies. Creating chaos with their maneuvers, the Parthians would wear down their adversaries while constantly showering the enemy with arrows. They would also set up ambushes and the infamous feigned retreat.”

If you didn’t already know, this is where you entice the enemy to pursue you as you fake or “feign” a retreat. Once the enemy is sufficiently convinced, and in hot pursuit, your mounted archers turn in the saddle to shoot backward at the pursuing enemy. The Parthians were so competent at this maneuver that shooting backward on a horse is still known today as “the Parthian shot.” In modern times, we mispronounce it as “A parting shot” for someone taking a shot at you as they leave., but we are actually referring to the Parthians when we say it. Thousands of years later.

End of Immortality

Spithridates (Persian governor) attacking Alexander from behind at the Battle of Granicus.

The Persians were pretty successful at what they did until they pissed Alexander The Great. He wasn’t called “Great” for no reason, so when he was almost sliced on the head by a Persian soldier during the Battle of the Granicus in 334 B.C., Alexander swore that he would take down the Persian Immortals. He studied their tactics, and so when the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 B.C. happened, the Great Alexander succeeded and defeated the not-so-immortal-anymore soldiers.  It probably helped Alexander enormously that the men in his army were veterans of many battles and were not easily spooked.  This was in a time when armies were raised in a rather hasty fashion and the troops were often ill-equipped and not well trained.

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