The Persian War Machine: Organization and Command – Part I

The Persian war machine made empires beforehand look miniature. The Persians were able to take the best from all over the Near East and turn it into a force that could not be defeated for many centuries to come. The article you are about to read just skims the surface of a fascinating story that largely goes unnoticed.

Organization and Command

The Persian military organization was much like that of the provinces, wherein the provinces had a degree of autonomy that filtered down to local rule, and provinces provided troops to the king when needed. Because of this, it makes it difficult to identify what is distinctively Persian when it comes to their military system.

When it comes to command, it is headed by the “king of kings” or shahanshah in Persian. On the surface, the heart of command is with the king, like Darius leading his army into Scythia, Xerxes into Greece, like Artaxerxes II fought his brother Cyrus, and Artaxerxes lead his forces against both the Phoenicians and Egypt. However, the king could not always be on campaign. The reason for this is that if the king should be away for a certain period he risks much. A king cannot rule effectively if he is absent for a long period. In doing so, he leaves the art of governance in hands of officials who cannot always be trusted and in a worst case scenario, may attempt a coup d’etat, like Darius the Great who seized the throne of Persia after the death of Cambyses II.

As demonstrated, some Persian monarchs went on campaigns, but in many cases, the trust was placed in the hands of the men trained to do so—the commanders who were specifically sent from the royal court. One such example was Mardonios, who took command of the Persian military operations in Greece after Xerxes withdrew in 479 BCE. However, if the conflict was a local affair, the provincial satrap could conduct military operations against the aggressor both foreign and domestic.

King Xerxes I of Persia from his tomb at Naqshe Rustam

King Xerxes I of Persia from his tomb at Naqshe Rustam (CC BY-SA 2.0)

With generals leading armies, comes military emblems. The use of standards was key in informing the troops who was in command and where to find him. The Persian standard was primarily displayed on the tent. The emblem of the Achaemenid’s was a golden eagle with its wings outspread. However, the image of the eagle was of less importance due to the ever present images of the sun-disc found in Achaemenid art.

Standard of Cyrus the Great

Standard of Cyrus the Great (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Faravahar, one of the best-known symbols of ancient Iran (Persia). Relief in Persepolis.

Faravahar, one of the best-known symbols of ancient Iran (Persia). Relief in Persepolis. (CC BY-SA 3.0)


When it comes to recruiting, most were not full-time soldiers. Darius, king of Persia, calls them kara, which can mean “people-army or host.” In other words, they were the “people’s army.” In any case, they were not entirely militia nor considered levy but a reserve allowed holding land so long as they provided military service. The person in charge of the recruiting process was the satrap. Once orders filtered down from the Persian king, the satrap would pass the order down to his subordinate, which the Greeks called hyparchoi, “lieutenant-governors.” It was the duty of the lieutenant-governors to issue orders to the lower officials to seek out eligible men to fill the ranks. This was not always an easy task and one can see why when it’s understood that many of the Persian provinces were not ethnically universal. The Satrap would give such a job to lower officials who were native to the province.

For example, take the province of Parthia; it may have had four different ethnic groups. A satrap who was Median would be representing these four ethnic groups. Because of this, it was crucial that the satrap had officials of every ethnic background within his court to help orchestrate the day-to-day affairs of governance, including military recruitment and in a worst-case scenario, mustering for times of war. However, as mentioned earlier, depending on the nature of the conflict, particularly provincial, it did not require the mustering of the entire army of Persia.

When the King of Persia did give the call to war the mustering of the Persian army can be summed up in four headings. First, a body of Persian cavalry often accompanied Satraps. Second were men who provided military service for land-holdings. Third, garrisons; Garrison troops were predominantly mercenaries recruited outside the empire, think Greek. Fourth were the provincial levies and native troops, the bulk of the Persian army when on the move.

Relief of Persian soldiers, Persepolis.

Relief of Persian soldiers, Persepolis. (CC BY-SA 3.0)


Historical details of the military training of the ancient Persian army seem nonexistent. However, Xenophon’s Cyropaedia describes the military training process a Persian youth went through. According to Xenophon 1.2.9, a Persian male at age seventeen would undergo combat training for a length of ten years.

Now the young men in their turn would live as follows: for ten years after they are promoted from the class of boys they passed the nights, as we said before, about the government buildings. This they did for the sake of guarding the city and to develop their powers of self-control; for this time of life, it seems, demands the most watchful care. And during the day, too, they put themselves at the disposal of the authorities, if they were needed for any service to the state. Whenever it was necessary, they all remained around the public buildings. But when the king went out hunting, he took out half the garrison; and this he did many times a month. Those who went must take bow and arrows and, in addition to the quiver, a sabre or bill in its scabbard; they carried along also a light shield and two spears, one to throw, the other to use in case of necessity in a hand-to-hand encounter.

The Greek historian Herodotus in his book “The Histories 1.135,” states that they “educate their boys from five to twenty years old, and teach them only three things: riding and archery and honesty.” Strabo 15.3.18 states:

From five years of age to twenty-four they are trained to use the bow, to throw the javelin, to ride horseback, and to speak the truth; and they use as teachers of science their wisest men, who also interweave their teachings with the mythical element, thus reducing that element to a useful purpose, and rehearse both with song and without song the deeds both of the gods and of the noblest men. And these teachers wake the boys up before dawn by the sound of brazen instruments, and assemble them in one place, as though for arming themselves or for a hunt; and then they divide the boys into companies of fifty, appoint one of the sons of the king or of a satrap as leader of each company, and order them to follow their leader in a race, having marked off a distance of thirty or forty stadia.

 Furthermore in 15.3.19:

They serve in the army and hold commands from twenty to fifty years of age, both as foot-soldiers and as horsemen; and they do not approach a market-place, for they neither sell nor buy. They arm themselves with a rhomboidal wicker-shield; and besides quivers they have swords and knives; and on their heads they wear a tower-like hat; and their breastplates are made of scales of iron. The garb of the commanders consists of three-ply trousers, and of a double tunic, with sleeves, that reaches to the knees, the under garment being white and the upper vari-coloured. In summer they wear a purple or vari-coloured cloak, in winter a vari-coloured one only; and their turbans are similar to those of the Magi; and they wear a deep double shoe.

Exhibit of Achaemenid Archers

Exhibit of Achaemenid Archers (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The military machine of Cyrus the Great was not as one would think—it was not professional by any means, at least not first. Understand that the professional Persian military force would come but the nucleus of the Persian military, particularly the guardsmen, were the true professionals. This is not to say that those inhabitants of the non-Persian ethnic provinces (satrapies) like Bactria, Maka, and Sogdia, to name a few, did not have professional soldiers. Like many provinces, including Pars or Persia, they too had troops of a lesser standard and because of this, they were not seasoned and unused to command and control. Herodotus 7.223 mentions that at the battle of Thermopylae 480 BCE, the Persian officers pushed the “men to go forward against their opponents, who are lashed towards the Spartans by their officers.” Now, one can take this to mean as I had previously stated or that it was custom for officers to whip their men forward, professional or not, like the Roman centurions who carried vine-staffs.

A cenotaph to Marcus Caelius, a centurion of Legio XVIII, killed at the Battle of Teutoburger Wald. Note the prominent display of the vine staff, his sign of office.

A cenotaph to Marcus Caelius, a centurion of Legio XVIII, killed at the Battle of Teutoburger Wald. Note the prominent display of the vine staff, his sign of office. (Public Domain)

Brief Evolution

When Cyrus set out against Media he relied more on friends and kinsmen from local tribes. You could say it was the uniting of the clans and tribes only when times of trouble presented itself and when it was over, they returned to their homes and pastures. This type of force consisted of a few professionals with the vast majority being militias. The professional army that Cyrus pieced together did not come until he conquered Media and even then it would have taken some time to build a truly professional fighting force. But what one can gather from the early Persian military history is that it resembled the military structure of the once mighty Empire of Assyria. Like the Assyrians, the Persians set apart land for the professional soldiers and estates for their elite cavalrymen and even archers. Moreover, the Persians seemed to have been influenced by the Assyrians and most likely their Babylonian counterparts in the technology of siege equipment. Such examples are the battering ram, and the use of ladders to scale walls, as well as siege towers, in which they could place slingers or archers to fire upon the defenders on the wall in order to divert them, while allowing the combat engineers below to unearth the wall.

A large wheeled Assyrian battering ram with an observation turret attacks the collapsing walls of a besieged city, while archers on both sides exchange arrows. From the North-West Palace at Nimrud, about 865-860 BC.

A large wheeled Assyrian battering ram with an observation turret attacks the collapsing walls of a besieged city, while archers on both sides exchange arrows. From the North-West Palace at Nimrud, about 865-860 BC. (Public Domain)

Overall, Cyrus had a great army after the fall of Media, which would continue down through his successors. But the question is what made them great? In order to gain a full understanding of this we must take a deeper look into the military apparatus of the Persian army to see how they were able to conquer such a vast and diverse territory.

Cam Rea is an author and military historian. He has written numerous articles for Ancient Origins Premium and Classical Wisdom Weekly as well as several books.

Top Image: Deriv; Faravahar carved in stone at Persepolis, Iran, (Public Domain)and Persian archers (Public Domain)

By Cam Rea


Briant, Pierre. ‘From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire’. Publisher: Eisenbrauns; 1st English Edition edition (January 1, 2002)

Farrokh, Kaveh. ‘Shadows in the Desert : Ancient Persia at War’. Publisher: Osprey Publishing (2007)

Head, Duncan. ‘The Achaemenid Persian Army’. Publisher: Montvert (1992)

Herodotus, Histories

Strabo, The geography of Strabo.

Xenophon, Cyropaedia



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