Mortal Gods: The Achaemenid Persians for Mortal Gods!

Hello everyone!

Yes, yes, it is Phatis again. Hold your applause! Okay applaud. Now stop again. Get it out of your system? Good.

I don’t know why you’re all so happy. We’re just talking about the Persians, after all. The same Persians who set ablaze my beloved Athens! Bah! And now here I am, tasked with writing about them. It’s fine, I’m not mad.

Truth be told, the Persians were pretty admirable even if they did launch an invasion or two of the Greek mainland. And honestly they were not the monsters that movies like 300 makes them out to be; they were quite brilliant, actually. And they accomplished some truly amazing and wonderful things through daring and reason.

This combination of bold and brilliant is what made them such fearsome warriors in antiquity; it is why they were such a threatening force and why so many Greeks medized and joined them. It is why Athens launched a counteroffensive campaign against them after their second invasion had been repulsed and they had already pulled out of mainland Greece.

As much as I may hold a 2500-year-old grudge, I absolutely did and do respect the Persians. And in this blog we’re going to look at why is that. And towards the end of this post, I am going to convince you to take a warband of them for Mortal Gods.

So where to begin? First, let’s just remember that most of our written sources about the Persians were not written by friendly or impartial sources. Most of the writers were Greeks–and Athenians at that. We did not really approve of the Persians for…you know, reasons. And so a lot of what is written (for what little there is) comes to modern readers through this lens of bias.

Secondly, we are focusing on the Achaemenid Empire. This is the empire that ruled from 550 BCE until its fall by the military arm of Alexander the Great’s Makedonian Empire in 330 BCE. A lot of information exists about the Persian Sassanid Empire, but this is far too late for our time period (beginning in 224 CE, or about 554 years after the Achaemenid Empire fell!) and we must reject the urge to conflate the two.

Right, got those two bits? Let’s get cracking.

1. That’s Pronounced Ahk-ee-ah-men-id

The origins of the Persians is highly obscured; but what can be said with some certainty is that the Persians were originally a series of tribal settlements who paid tribute to Ekbatana, the capital of the Median Empire. The history of Media is unfortunately just as suspect; if we believe Herodotos’ story then there were four kings starting with Deiokes at the beginning of the 8th Century BCE (who is said to have united and ruled over parts of Iran and Anatolia) and ending with the fall of Astyages in 549 BCE. But there are timeline issues with Deiokes and discrepancies with the list of kings in other contemporary sources.

Of the Persian tribes, the three post powerful were the Pasargadae (to which the royal house of Persia, the Achaemenids, belonged), the Maraphii, and the Maspii. It is said that Astyages’ daughter married into the Achaemenid clan. It would be her son, Kyros, who would unite the Persian tribes into a federation in 552 BCE and launch a revolt against his grandfather, Astyages, and the Medians. In 549, Kyros marched his united Persian army against Ekbatana. But rather than fight, the Median peoples turned on Astyages and laid down their arms. Upon his victory, Kyros then claimed the title of king and the moniker ‘the Great’. Then began the gradual annexing of various tribal states and kingdoms within the region of the near East, starting with Lydia in 547 BCE.

An interesting rumor about Kyros is that he did not kill the rulers of the regions he conquered. This may be because of the melting pot of the lands’ peoples he was absorbing; they all had different needs, customs, traditions, and religious practices. To manage them all meant that he needed the advice of local leaders. It may have been this rumor which led the peoples of Babylon to roll out the welcome mat for him when he showed up on their doorstep in 539 BCE. Once there, Kyros did all he needed to do to establish himself as the rightful religious ruler of the kingdom; he performed rituals, returned religious icons to their temples, and more.

The lands he conquered to would pay a tribute and in return he would establish a local civil government, build roads and additional infrastructure, establish a strong bureaucratic system, open up trade, and also enforce a standardized imperial language to bring all of the peoples together. The communities which came under Persian control soon saw vast improvements to their lives and flourished. And what’s more, all was allowed to worship their own deities at their own houses of worship and live according to their own traditions.

As the ancient Near East came under his control and his influence spread, these allowances and infrastructural improvements meant that within the Empire, at least, there was a real sense of peace. For Kyros and the Achaemenids, it provided an easy means to maintain control over all the lands and peoples who were conquered.

Nine years after he absorbed Babylon, in 530, Kyros the Great died. His son Cambyses II, whom his father had previously appointed as co-ruler of the Empire with him, would succeed his father as the king.  He would expand his father’s Empire by defeating and absorbing Egypt following the Battle of Pelusium and the Kingdom of Kush in 525 BCE, establishing a permanent garrison at Elephantine to keep the Kushites from revolting.  There is a fun anecdote about the Battle of Pelusium; according to the late (and wildly unreliable) source provided by Polyaenus, apparently Cambyses told his soldiers to use cats as shields to storm the city because the Egyptians revered them and would not dare to shoot arrows and risk hitting them. The absurdity of this is obvious to anyone who has ever tried to hold a cat for longer than a few moments; now imagine  trying to hold an especially angry one in the middle of a pitched battle while also trying to, you know, fight. See? Don’t trust every ancient source.

1872 painting of the Battle of Pelusium by Paul-Marie Lenoir who, seemingly, was not a fan of cats.

Now there is a rumor that, despite the peace within the Empire on the surface, trouble brewed between the Achaemenids. A revolt in Persia prompted Cambyses to stop his advance farther into Kushite territory and beyond and was said to have been started by his brother (Bardiya), whom he had killed before setting off the Egypt. But if this story is true, it was started by an imposter pretending to be the sibling. However it happened (or by whomever), Cambyses died on his way back. This left a bit of a vacuum in the line (though it was apparently filled for a very short time by either the individual pretending to be Cambyses’ brother Bardiya or it actually was Bardiya). Cambyses would leave his successor with a vast Empire, spanning from the Hindu-Kush region in Asia all the way to Egypt.

The individual who would fill the role would actually be a relative of Cambyses: Darius (the Great). It is reported that the confusion above with the brother—imposter or not—was created by Darius in order to usurp Bardiya (or his imposter) from the throne. Upon Bardiya’s removal, Darius assumed the title of king.  A series of rebellions and revolts ignited throughout the Persian Empire following his ascension to the throne—most notably by the Ionian Greeks in Anatolia and also those in Thrake. But revolts also broke out with Ekbatana and Babylon as supporters of Bardiya rose against Darius. But being the skilled tactician he was, he was able to subdue all of them and return the Empire to relative peace.

But not before punishing Athens and sacking Eretria for giving its assistance to Aristagoras (the organizer of the Ionian Revolt). This also lead to the partial success with the first Persian invasion of Greece; not only did he capture Naxos, expand into Makedonia, and re-subjugate Thrake, he also successfully ended the first Ionian Revolt. Though he tried to take Athens, this failed spectacularly when we Athenians, with the assistance of some additional hoplites from Plataia, stopped his advance cold at the Battle of Marathon.

Battle of Marathon

While putting down rebellions and sacking Aegean city-states, Darius was also an expansionist. He pushed the Persian Empire to its fullest glory. He would launch campaigns farther into India, capturing Punjab in 518 BCE, secured and expanded his territories in Egypt, and fought his way into Europe to his north, particularly against the Skythian tribes that dwelled there. At the time of the height of his power, he had also expanded Achaemenid Persian boundaries to their largest geological area, spanning from Makedonia to the greater Indus Valley. It encompassed roughly 2.1 million square miles.

It should also noteworthy that despite his military accolades, he was also a brilliant leader. He established regions of his empire as satrapies. In charge of each of these regions (20 in all), Darius appointed a relative loyal to him and also established a garrison leader that would only be answerable to Darius himself. This meant that the local governors could not abuse their power or make an attempt to gain more of it, lest they be slain or taken prisoner by the garrison.  And throughout the Empire, he established a type of secret intelligence network which kept watch in the shadows for any trouble brewing. With the tribute that was paid, he headed up massive public works projects, building walls, roads, bridges, canals, irrigation systems, and more. He also put a great deal of that money into building and outfitting his army and navy. To prove that the Persian Empire cared about its ever-expanding melting pot of civilizations, Darius even established a new capital at Persepolis. All the artisans and crafters from across the Empire were invited to participate in the architectural process, showcasing amazing craftsmanship from every satrap.

He even had plans to invade Greece once again after his failed attempt at Marathon. But in order to fund his new campaign, he decided to raise taxes on the provinces, sparking unrest–particularly in Egypt. Another uprising followed and his worsening health meant that he would never have the chance to take his revenge on Athens. That would fall to his son, Xerxes I.

2. The Rise and Fall of Xerxes 

With the Persian Empire starting to crumble under its own weight, Darius would pass into legend in 486 BCE. At that point, Xerxes would gain the throne. Kyros and Darius both had a prowess for dealing with the vast melting pot of cultures, traditions, and religions that made up the Empire. But this would be a strength that Xerxes did not possess as strongly. In order to deal with the Babylonian tax uprisings, he sacked the city. Where Kyros marched into Babylon on palm frond-laden streets to a welcoming city, Xerxes destroyed a sacred Babylonian religious icon and burned down the temple.

This was Xerxes’ way. And unfortunately for the Persians, it marked the beginning of the end for their Empire as it was known then.

In 480, the time had come for Xerxes to take up his father’s work against the Greeks. It had taken him the better part of four long years to build up enough resources to launch this campaign. He would entrust  He began moving his army and fleet into the Hellespont. From there he launched two separate forces–one on land and one by sea. The size of his force is impossible to know, but gathered evidence for ancient sources suggest that the fleet and the army were both massive. Herodotos gives the ridiculous number of 2 million men and 1,000 war ships and about 3,000 transport ships.

Those numbers sound ridiculous; they probably are over-exaggerated. Then again, these numbers wouldn’t be all that difficult for the Persian Empire which, by some modern estimates, consisted between 17 and 50 million people (that last number, if true, would be a whopping 44% of the world’s population at the time of the second invasion of Greece)! However modern estimates range between 70,000-100,000 men; most scholars today lean towards the lower range of numbers. And that seems more reasonable. Herodotos’ estimates of about 1,000 warships seems legitimate given that various satrapies contributed ships (the largest being Egypt with 200 ships and Phoenicia with 300 ships–both are comparable to navies of existing ancient states of the time).

A lot has been written about the campaigns of the Second Persian Invasion of Greece, so I won’t go into too much about it here (especially since our core game focuses on what happens to the world once Xerxes retreats), but it does deserve some discussion.

First and foremost, the Persians were effective fighters, though the competency of the troops the Greeks were facing largely depended upon which province of the Empire from which they came. Herodotos puts a great deal of emphasis on the battle-hardened and veteran status of the Egyptian forces under Xerxe’s command–they were heavily armored like the hoplite and unlike their other counterparts in the Persian army. But there is some dispute here about how unarmored the Persian forces were.

After all, by the time the Persians invaded Greece under Xerxes, they had been a functional, well-disciplined, and well-organized fighting force for seventy years. That’s roughly three, maybe even four generations. They had been fighting expansion wars and putting down uprisings against the Skythians, the Ionians, the Celts, the Indians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Libyans, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Kushites to name just a few. And they’d been winning.  Think about how great of an army you have to be to grow from a small tribute-paying state under control of the Median Empire and in just 70 years become the largest empire ever to exist on the planet.

The unfortunate bit about our source material is that so much of it is tainted with bias. Herodotos paints Xerxes as a terrible leader who bumbles his way through the entire Greek campaign by rejecting the council of those who appear wiser. But this doesn’t quite make logical sense. Xerxes may have been more arrogant in his command of the army and navy than his father and grandfather, and he certainly may have underestimated the Greeks–largely because the Greeks themselves were fractured and disloyal to each other–but he did make strong tactical decisions and managed to win decisive victories against the Greeks during the first half of the campaign.

Xerxes’ Pontoon Bridge across the Hellespont. Or maybe it’s the largest raft ever constructed?

His crossing of the Hellespont on the pontoon bridges is pretty ingenious (even if parts of the narrative as told by Herodotos are suspect). And his victories at Thermopylae and Artemisium are noteworthy (yes, despite the rhetoric, Thermopylae was indeed a Persian victory). And of course when the Greek league realized that his forces were entering the mainland, Athens evacuated its citizens to the Peloponnese; it was a good thing too, as Xerxes burnt it to the ground.

Thankfully the Greeks had the idea to harbor their fleet at Salamis and wait for the Persians. Not only did the Greeks manage to win a decisive victory there, but the havoc and destruction they caused on the Persian fleet was enough to break Xerxes, as soon after the battle had ended, he made a hasty retreat back to Persian, leaving his subordinate, Mardonius, in charge of the Persian army in Boiotia. Xerxes’ fleet moved off to Mykale to lick its wounds. These were sound strategic plans; Boiotia was loyal to Persia and Greek vassals willingly joined with Mardonius. Meanwhile Mykale was thought to have been far enough away and fortified enough to allow for the fleet to regroup.

Unfortunately Xerxes’ sacking of Athens did not sit well with the budding imperial city-state. Athens not only sent a large contingent of Hoplites and light troops to fight at Plataia, it also sent a massive fleet filled up with marines and skirmishing infantry to destroy whatever was left of the Persian fleet at Mykale.

Mardonius was relatively successful against the first push of the Greeks at Plataia; he had nearly 100,000 men with him (about 20% of his force was made up of Greek allies from the Boiotian League and sympathetic poleis). His forces are not all laid out in our ancient sources, but Herodotus does list that there was a Skythian contingent, a contingent of heavily armed and armored Egyptian marines, a large contingent of Indian infantry from the Indus Valley, the elite Immortals, and Bactrians. The Greek contingent with the Persians consisted of those from Thrake, Makedonia, Thebes, Lokris, Thessalia, and Phokis (and some other smaller poleis). They also had a few thousand cavalry in support, consisting mostly of Persians, Skythians, and Indians.

The Greek league forces arrayed against Mardonius were only about half the size, as the Greek forces were split in two–one attacking at Plataia and the other at Mykale. So the league was primarily made up of Spartans (10,000 hoplites plus 35,000 helots), Athenians (about 8,000 hoplites plus an equal amount of light skirmishers), Korinthians (5,000 hoplites), with the Megarians and Sikyonians both delivering about 3,000 hoplites each. The Athenians with their allies were left to deal with the Greek traitors and the Spartans and their Peloponnese allies focused on taking down the Persian elite troops.

The battle ebbed and swayed initially, but then the Greeks on the right flank (the Spartans and other Peloponnesians) began to take heavy losses due to Persian cavalry and archer attacks. With the Athenian line engaged with the Boiotians on the left and unable to support the Spartans, the right was about to fold. It was then that the Spartan line drove forward, the weight of the phalanx pushing back against the lighter Persian troops. They were simply not heavily equipped enough to handle the for force of the Greek line, though they tried to rally. However a stone smacked Mardonius in the head and killed him, which finally routed the Persians.

Mardonius is hit with a stone and dies; the worst game of sticks and stones ever played.

On the other side of the Aegean, the Athenians were launching a massive beach assault at Mykale. The Greek fleet consisted of something close to 250 ships and held an army of 40,000 men (mostly Athenians and Spartans). The Persian fleet and troops there, despite being larger in size, were assaulted head on by the Athenians who were invigorated after learning about the victory at Plataia. The Spartans had moved along to the north of the Persian forces in an attempt to flank them, but the Athenians were determined to beat the Spartans to victory, and drove into their encampment. By the time the Spartans arrived, the camp was decimated and looted and the Persian ships docked at the harbor were destroyed. It was a decisive victory for the Greek league.

It would be the end of Xerxes’ hopes of invading Greece. With his army in shambles and his fleet all but destroyed, he tried to come out of the folly with some of his gains intact.  Athens, however, would not let his offenses against their city slide. They launched a wildly successful counterattack and incited the second Ionian revolt in Anatolia. By the 460’s, the Athenians–leaders of the Delian League–would liberate nearly all of the islands of the Aegean, as well as Thrake, Makedonia, the Thrakian Chersonese, and well into the western Persian borders. It culminated in another massive battle at Eurymedon, which left the Persian attempts to regain some military footing in the Aegean completely decimated.

Xerxes would be assassinated in 465, a year after the defeat at Eurymedon.

3. The Achaemenid Persians During the Peloponnesian Wars  

Falling the death of Xerxes, the Achaemenids fell into decadence and corruption, with assassinations and coup attempts by various branches of the clan. But there were some minor victories for Persia in the meantime.

In 463, the Athenians attempted to support a revolt in Egypt; they sent a massive expeditionary force–one of the largest up until that point–and gained some ground initially. But the omens were not in their favor. The Persians managed to completely destroy the entire expedition and put down the revolt, securing those lands until Alexander the Great would conquer the region in the Hellenistic Period.

Towards the end of the Peloponnesian Wars between Athens and Sparta, the Persians sent money and promised troops (though the latter never happened) to the Spartans as a way to usurp Athenian control of Greece. It was a subversive move which worked in their favor. With the additional income, Sparta was able to raise a navy and afford to buy up all the veteran sailors from across the Greek world before Athens could do so–and they outbid Athens every time. Sparta, once their rival and sworn enemy, became a puppet for the Persians in their move to indirectly punish the Athenians.

But despite this. it was clear that the Persian Empire’s heydays were now well behind them. At the end of the 5th century BCE, and following the conclusion of the Peloponnesian Wars, a coup was started by Kyros the Younger against his brother, Artaxerxes. Kyros raised a mercenary army of 10,000 Greek soldiers–many of them veterans of the Peloponnesian Wars. Among the 10,000 was the Athenian Xenophon, who would later write a history of the struggles of the campaign in Persia.

4. Achaemenid Persians in Mortal Gods

So now that you have some background on the history, famous campaigns, and battles in which the Persians fought, let’s talk a little about the units that feature in Mortal Gods and some of the ones we hope to someday include.

First the core Persian force; these you can get right now in the card pack available on the Mortal Gods website; it contains everything you need to create your own Persian Sataba (or company/warband):


Pro-tip: click the links of the names above to see the corresponding miniatures on the Footsore website.

Persian satrap infantry, including an archer from the Indus Valley and an Egyptian Marine.

To supplement these forces, you can also pick up some new Persian plastics from Wargames Atlantic here.

These are your core Persian cards and units. But they aren’t the only forces available to a Persian commander! After all, the Persian Empire was a melting pot of culture and ideas and peoples. And we want to represent that. We have started by making the Egyptian Marines available as part of this deck, but more are possible in the future.

  • Indus Valley
    • Light Indian Infantry
    • Medium Indian Infantry
    • Indian War Elephants (Yep!)
  • Skythian mercenaries
  • Thrakian mercenaries (cards and miniatures already available)
  • Greek mercenaries (cards and miniatures already available)
  • Egyptian
    • Heavy Egyptian Infantry
    • Light Egyptian Infantry

And these are just a few of the many options we would like to bring into the game for your Persian force!

That about wraps up the Persian blog post for Mortal Gods! The next blog will be on the Kushites! Expect that very soon!

This has been your lovable friend–and your spectre with the vector on all things Mortal Gods–Phatis, signing out.


About the Author

Hi there! I'm Phatis. So there I was, minding my own business in Hades, when the Footsore blokes summoned me by some ritual or another and bound me to this thankless Fate--writing about Mortal Gods. But fear not, mortals! I do enjoy my profession, even if I am only compensated by way of caffeinated drinks.

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