Medes, Assyrians, Baktrians, and others: Herodotos on the mixed composition of the Persian army under Xerxes (fifth century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Medes, Assyrians, Baktrians, and others: Herodotos on the mixed composition of the Persian army under Xerxes (fifth century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 11, 2024,

Ancient author: Herodotos of Halikarnassos, Histories, or Inquiries, portions of book 7 (link).

Comments: Writing about 420 BCE, Herodotos (also Latinized as Herodotus) of Halikarnassos in Karia (Caria) outlines the ethnic composition of king Xerxes’ (reigned 486-465 BCE) Persian army, providing details about the appearance and military equipment of each people. This also provides a picture of the military as a social setting in which peoples of various backgrounds would potentially encounter one another and where cultural encounters and potentially cultural transmission would take place.

Works consulted: Sarah F. Derbew, Untangling Blackness in Greek Antiquity (Cambridge, UK: CUP, 2022), 98-128.

Mixed ethnic composition of armies series:

  • Herodotos on the Persian king Xerxes’ army (link)
  • Curtius Rufus on the Persian king Darius III’s army (link)
  • Polybios on Hannibal’s army at the battle of Cannae and on military equipment (link)
  • Polybios on Italian armies and the Celtic invasion of 225 BCE (link)
  • Polybios on Ptolemy IV’s and Antiochos III’s armies (link)
  • Polybios on Antiochos IV’s army (link)


Book 7

[1. Peoples among the infantry]


61 Those that served in the army [of the Persian king Xerxes] were as I will now show. Firstly, there were the Persians. For their equipment they wore on their heads loose caps called “tiaras,” and on their bodies sleeved tunics of diverse colours, with scales of iron similar in appearance to the scales of fish, and short pants on their legs. For shields they had wicker bucklers, their quivers hanging beneath these. They carried short spears, long bows, and arrows of reed, and daggers that hung from the belt by the right thigh. Their commander was Otanes, father of Xerxes’ wife and son of Amestris. These Persians were in old time called by the Greeks Kephenes, but by themselves and their neighbours “Artaei.” But when Perseus the son of Danae and Zeus had come to Kepheus the son of Belos, and taken his daughter Andromeda to wife, a son was born to him whom he called Perses, and him he left there; for Kepheus had no male issue. It was from this Perses that the Persians took their name.

[Medes and Kissians]

62 The Medes in the army were equipped like the Persians. In fact, that fashion of armour is Median, not Persian. Their commander was Tigranes, an Achaemenid [Persian]. These were in old time called by all men “Arians,”​ but when the Colchian woman Medea came from Athens among the Arians they changed their name, like the Persians. This is the Medes’ own account of themselves. The Kissians [from Elam] in the army were equipped like the Persians, but they wore turbans and not caps. Their commander was Anaphes son of Otanes. The Hyrkanians​ [from near the Caspian sea] were armed like the Persians. Their leader was Megapanus. who was afterwards the governor of Babylon.


63 The Assyrians of the army wore on their heads helmets of twisted bronze made in an outlandish fashion not easy to describe. They bore shields and spears and daggers of Egyptian fashion, and wooden clubs studded with iron, and they wore linen upper-body-protection. These are called by Greeks “Syrians,” but the barbarians called them “Assyrians.” With them were the Chaldeans. Their commander was Otaspes son of Artachaees.

[Baktrians and Sakians / Scythians]

64 The Baktrians in the army wore head-gear most similar to the Median, carrying their native bows of reed and short spears. The Sakians, who are Scythians, had on their heads tall caps, erect and stiff and tapering to a point. They wore short pants, and carried their native bows, daggers, and axes, which they call “sagaris.” These were Amyrgian Scythians, but were called “Sakians.” for that [Sakians] is the Persian name for all Scythians. The commander of the Baktrians and Sakians was Hystaspes, son of Darius and Cyrus’ daughter Atossa.


65 The Indians wore garments of tree-wool,​ and carried bows of reed and iron-tipped arrows of the same. Such was their equipment. They were appointed to march under the command of Pharnazathres son of Artabates.

[Various peoples in northern Persia territory]

66 The Arians were equipped with Median bows, but in everything else they were like the Baktrians. Their commander was Sisamnes son of Hydarnes. The Parthians, Chorasmians, Sogdians, Gandarians, and Dadikians in the army had the same equipment as the Baktrians. The Parthians and Chorasmians had for their commander Artabazus son of Pharnakes, the Sogdians Azanes son of Artaeus, the Gandarians and Dadikians Artyphios son of Artapanos (Artabanos). 67 The Kaspians [from the southwestern shores of the Caspian sea] in the army wore cloaks, and carried the reed bows of their country and short swords. Such was their equipment. Their leader was Ariomardos, brother to Artyphios. The Sarangians [from what is now southwestern Afghanistan] made a brave show with dyed garments and knee-high boots, carrying bows and Median spears. Their commander was Pherendates son of Megabazus. The Paktyians wore cloaks and carried the bows of their country and daggers. Their commander was Artayntes son of Ithamitres. 68 The Utians and Mykians and Parikanians were equipped like the Pactyians. The Utians and Mykians had for their commander Arsamenes son of Darius, the Parikanians had Siromitres son of Oiobazos.


69 The Arabians wore mantles with belts, and carried at their right side long bows curving backwards.​ The Ethiopians [i.e. southern Ethiopians] wore skins of leopards and lions. They carried bows made of palm-wood strips that were four cubits long in full and carried short arrows pointed not with iron but with a sharpened stone, the type of stone used to carve seals. Moreover, they had spears pointed with a gazelle’s horn sharpened to the likeness of a lance, and studded clubs in addition. When they went into battle they painted half their bodies with gypsum and the other half with vermilion. The Arabians and the Ethiopians, who dwell above [i.e. south of] Egypt, had for commander Arsames son of Darius and Artystone daughter of Cyrus, whom Darius loved best of his wives, and had an image made of her of hammered gold.

[Ethiopians and Libyans]

70 The Ethiopians above  Egypt [i.e. southern Ethiopians] and the Arabians had Arsames for commander, and the Ethiopians of the east​ (for there were two kinds of them in the army) served with the Indians. They did not differ in appearance from each other, but only in speech and hair. For the Ethiopians from the east are straight-haired, but Libyans have the woolliest hair of anyone. These Ethiopians of Asia were for the most part armed like the Indians; but they wore on their heads the skins of horses’ foreheads, stripped from the head with ears and mane. the mane served them for a crest, and they wore the horses’ ears stiff and upright. For shields they had bucklers of cranes’ skin. 71 The Libyans came in leather garments, using javelins of charred wood. Their commander was Massages son of Oarizus.

[Paphlagonians from northern Asia Minor]

72 The Paphlagonians in the army had plaited helmets on their heads. They had small shields and short spears, as well as javelins and daggers. They wore the shoes of their country, which reach half-way to the knee. The Ligyians, Matienians, Mariandynians, and Syrians were equipped like the Paphlagonians. These Syrians are called by the Persians “Kappadocians” (Cappadocians). Dotos son of Megasidros was commander of the Paphlagonians and Matienians and Gobryas son of Darius and Artystone was commander of the Mariandynians, Ligyians, and Syrians.

[Phrygians, Armenians, Lydians, and Mysians]

73 The Phrygian equipment was most like the Paphlagonian, with only small differences. By what the Macedonians say, these Phrygians were called “Brigians” as long as they lived in Europe, where they were neighbours of the Macedonians; but when they changed their home to Asia they changed their name also and were called “Phrygians.”​ The Armenians, who are settlers from Phrygia, were armed like the Phrygians. Both these together had for their commander Artochmes, Darius’ son-in-law. 74 The Lydian armour was most similar to Greek armour. The Lydians were formerly called “Meionians” [Maionians], till they changed their name and were named after Lydos, son of Atys. The Mysians wore on their heads helmets of native form, carrying small shields and javelins of charred wood. These are settlers from Lydia, who are called Olympienians after the mountain Olympos. The commander of the Lydians and Mysians was that Artaphrenes, son of Artaphrenes, who made the attack on Marathon with Datis.

[Thracians and Bithynians]

75 The Thracians in the army wore fox-skin caps on their heads, and tunics on their bodies. Mantles of diverse colours were their covering. They had shoes of fawn-skin on their feet and legs, and carried javelins, little shields and daggers. These took the name of “Bithynians” after they crossed over to Asia. Before that they were called (as they themselves say) “Strymonians,” since they lived by the Strymon [modern Struma] river. hTey say that they were driven from their homes by Teukrians and Mysians. The commander of the Thracians of Asia was Bassakes son of Artapanos.

[Pisidians, Kabeleeans, Milyans]

76 The [Pisidians] had little shields of raw ox-hide. Each man carried two wolf-hunter’s spears. They wore helmets of bronze, with the ears and horns of oxen represented in bronze, and crests in addition. Their legs were wrapped round with strips of purple stuff. In this country is a place of divination sacred to Ares. 77 The Kabeleeans,​ who are Meionians [Maionians], and are called Lasonians, had the same equipment as the Cilicians (Cilicians). When I come in my recording to the place of the Cilicians, I will say what it was. The Milyans had short spears and garments fastened by brooches. Some of them carried Lykian (Lycian) bows, and they wore caps of skin on their heads. The commander of all these was Badres son of Hystanes.

[Moschians, Kolchians and other peoples from east of the Black Sea]

78 The Moschians wore wooden helmets on their heads, and carried shields and small spears with long points. The Tibarenians, Macronians and Mossynoikians in the army were equipped like the Moschians. Their commanders who marshalled them were Ariomardos son of Darius and Parmys, the daughter of Cyrus’ son Smerdis, for the Moschians and Tibarenians, and Artayktes son of Cherasmis, who was governor of Sestus on the Hellespont, for the Makronians and Mossynoikians. 79 The Marians wore on their heads the plaited helmets of their country, carrying small shields of hide and javelins. The Kolchians had wooden helmets and small shields of raw ox-hide and short spears, and swords in addition. The commander of the Marians and Kolchians was Pharandates son of Teaspis. The Alarodians and Saspirians in the army were armed like the Kolchians. Masistios son of Siromitres was their commander.

[Peoples on the Red Sea]

80 The island tribes that came from the Erythraian sea [Red Sea, including Arabian Sea], and from the islands where the king plants those who are called “Exiles,” wore dress and armour most similar to the Median. The commander of these islanders was Mardontes son of Bagaeus, who in the next year,​ being then general at Mykale, was there slain in the fight.

81 These are the peoples (ethnē) that marched by the mainland and had their places in the land army. Of this host the commanders were those of whom I have spoken, and these were the ones that marshalled and numbered the host and appointed captains of thousands and ten thousands, the captains of ten thousands appointing the captains of hundreds and of tens. There were others too, including leaders of troops and peoples. . .

[2. Peoples among the cavalry]

84 There are horsemen among these peoples, yet not all of them furnished cavalry, and only the ones I will list: first the Persians, equipped like their foot soldiers, save that some of them wore headgear of hammered bronze and iron. 85 There are also certain nomads called Sagartians. they are Persian in speech, and the fashion of their equipment is somewhat between the Persian and the Paktyan. They supplied eight thousand horsemen. It is their custom to carry no armour of bronze or iron, except daggers only, and to use ropes of twisted leather.​ In these they trust when they go to battle. This is their manner of fighting: when they are at close quarters with their enemy, they throw their ropes which have a noose at the end. Whatever they catch, be it horse or man, the thrower drags it to himself, and the enemy entangled in this way in the coils is killed. 86 This is their manner of fighting. Their place in the army was with the Persians. The Median horsemen were equipped like their foot soldiers, and the Kissians likewise. The Indians were armed in like manner as their foot soldiers. They rode swift horses and drove chariots drawn by horses and wild asses. The Baktrians were equipped as were their foot soldiers, and the Kaspians in a similar manner. The Libyans too were armed like the men of their infantry, and all of them drove chariots as well. So likewise the Kaspians and Parikanians were armed as the men of their infantry. The Arabians had the same equipment as the men of their infantry, and all of them rode on camels no less swift than horses.

87 These peoples only are riders. The number of the horsemen was shown to be eighty thousand, besides the camels and the chariots. All the rest of the riders were ranked in their several troops, but the Arabians were posted at the back. For the horses that cannot stand the sight of camels, their place was in the back, that so the horses might not be frightened.

88 The captains of horse were Harmamithres and Tithaeus, sons of Datis; the third who was captain with them, Pharnuches, had been left behind sick at Sardis. For as they set out from Sardis, an unwelcome mishap happened to him: a dog ran under the feet of the horse that he rode, and the surprised horse reared up and threw off Pharnuches. After his fall he vomited blood and his injury turned to a wasting sickness. The horse was dealt with right away according to Pharnuches’ command: his servants led it away to the place where it had thrown their master and cut off its legs at the knee. That is how Pharnuches lost his captaincy.

[3. Peoples in the navy]


89 The number of the triremes was shown to be twelve hundred and seven. These were the ones that furnished them. First, the Phoenicians; they, with the Syrians of Palestine, furnished three hundred. For their equipment, they had on their heads helmets just about in the Greek fashion. They wore linen upper-body-protection, and carried shields without rims and javelins. These Phoenicians lived in the old days, as they themselves say, by the Red Sea. They passed over from there and now inhabit the sea-coast of Syria. That part of Syria and as much of it as reaches to Egypt, is all called Palestine. The Egyptians furnished two hundred ships. These wore plaited helmets and carried hollow shields with broad rims, as well as spears for sea-warfare and great pole-axes. Most of them wore upper-body-armour (cuirasses) and carried long swords.


90 Such was their armour. The Kyprians furnished a hundred and fifty ships. For their equipment, their princes wore turbans wrapped round their heads. The people wore tunics, but in all else were like the Greeks. Their tribes are these:​ some are from Salamis and Athens, some from Arkadia, some from Kythnos, some from Phoinike, and some from Ethiopia, as the Kyprians themselves say.

[Cilicians / Cilicians]

91 The Cilicians (Cilicians) furnished a hundred ships. These, too, wore on their heads the helmets of their country, carrying bucklers of raw ox-hide for shields, and clad in woollen tunics. Each had two javelins and a sword fashioned almost the same as the single-edged swords (falchions) of Egypt. These Cilicians were in old time called Hypachaians, and took the name they bear from Kilix a Phoenician, son of Agenor.​ The Pamphylians furnished thirty ships: they were armed like Greeks. These Pamphylians are descended from the Trojans of the dispersal who followed Amphilochos and Kalchas.

[Lycians / Lycians]

92 The Lycians (Lycians) furnished fifty ships. They wore upper-body-armour (cuirasses) and shin-armour (greaves), carrying bows of cornel-wood and unfeathered arrows and javelins. Goat-skins hung from their shoulders, and they wore on their heads caps set about with feathers. They also had daggers and scimitars. The Lycians were of Cretan descent, and were once called Termilians. They took the name they bear from Lykos son of Pandion, an Athenian.

[Dorians, Ionians, and Greek islanders]

93 The Dorians of Asia furnished thirty ships. Their armour was Greek. They were of Peloponnesian descent. The Carians (Carians) furnished seventy ships. They had scimitars and daggers, but for the rest Greek equipment. Of them I have spoken in the beginning of my history, telling by what name [Lelegians] they were formerly called. 94 The Ionians furnished a hundred ships. Their equipment was like the Greek. These Ionians, as long as they were in the Peloponnese dwelling in what is now called Achaia, before Danaus and Xouthos came to the Peloponnese, as the Greeks say, were called Aegialian Pelasgians. They were named Ionians after Ion the son of Xouthos. 95 The islanders furnished seventeen ships. They were armed like Greeks. They were also a Pelasgian people (ethnos), which was later called “Ionian” by the same right as were the Ionians of the twelve cities who came from Athens. The Aiolians furnished sixty ships. They were equipped like Greeks. In former days they were called “Pelasgian,” as the Greek story goes. Of the people of the Hellespont, those of Abydos had been charged by the king to abide at home and guard the bridges. The rest that came from Pontos [the Black Sea region] with the army furnished a hundred ships, and were equipped like Greeks. They were settlers from the Ionians and Dorians.

[Persians, Medes, and Sakians / Scythians]

96 There were fighting men of the Persians, Medes and Sakians [Scythians] on all the ships. The best sailing ships were furnished by the Phoenicians, and among them by the Sidonians. These, like those of them that were ranked in the land army, had their numerous leaders of peoples, whose names I do not record, as not being needful for the purpose of my history. For these several leaders of peoples are not worthy of mention, and every city, too, of each people had a leader of its own. These came not as generals but as slaves, like the rest of the armament. Who the generals of supreme authority were, and who the Persian commanders of each people, I have already said.


Source of the translation: A. D. Godley, Herodotus, 4 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1920-25), public domain, adapted and modernized by Daniel Mitchell and Harland.

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