Persians: Curtius Rufus on military processions and royal luxury (first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Persians: Curtius Rufus on military processions and royal luxury (first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 6, 2024,

Ancient author: Quintus Curtius Rufus (first century CE), History of Alexander 3.3 (link).

Comments: In this passage, the first century Roman historian, Curtius Rufus, focusses on characterizing the distinctive dress and military customs of the Persians, emphasizing the supposedly excessive and effeminate nature of Persian ways in relation to Macedonians.


[Prophets and others interpret Darius’ dream about Alexander wearing Persian clothing]

Then, worried as Darius [III, reigning 336-330 BCE] was by pressing cares, he was also tormented in sleep by visions of imminent dangers which were either caused by anxiety or by the divining power of a prophetic mind. Alexander’s camp seemed to him to shine with a great glow of fire, and he dreamed that a little later Alexander was brought to Darius dressed like he himself had been when he was made king. Then he dreamed that, as he was riding on horseback through Babylon, he had vanished from his sight, horse and all.

Beside this, the prophets (vates) had distracted his troubled mind by varying interpretations. Some said that the dream indicated a good omen for the king because the enemies’ camp had burned, and because he had seen Alexander, after laying aside his royal garments, brought to him dressed like a Persian and, furthermore, dressed like a common person. Others disagreed because they proposed that seeing the Macedonians’ camp illuminated foretold brilliance for Alexander. They proposed that the fact that Alexander was even fated to seize the rule of Asia was shown beyond doubt, since Darius had worn the same garments when he was named king.

Furthermore, worry reminded them of old omens because, as is usual, they thought about how Darius at the beginning of his rule had ordered that the form of the Persian scabbard of the scimitar should be changed to that shape which the Greeks used, and that the Chaldeans had at once declared that the empire of the Persians would pass to those whose weapons he had imitated. However, Darius himself, rejoicing greatly both because of the prediction of the prophets which was made public, and the vision which had appeared to him in his sleep, gave orders that the camp should be advanced toward the Euphrates.

[Persian ancestral customs relating to processions in war and royal dress]

It was an ancestral custom of the Persians not to begin a march before sunrise. When the day was already bright, the signal was given from the king’s tent with the horn. Above the tent, from which it might be seen by all, there gleamed an image of the sun enclosed in crystal. Now the order of march was as follows: In front on silver altars was carried the fire which they call sacred and eternal. Next came the Magians chanting their traditional hymn. They were followed by three hundred and sixty-five young men clad in purple robes, equal in number to the days of a whole year, because the Persians also divided the year into that number of days. After that, white horses drew the chariot consecrated to Jupiter. These were followed by a horse of extraordinary size, which they called the steed of the Sun. Golden wands and white robes adorned the drivers of the horses. Not far off there were ten chariots, embossed with plenty of gold and silver. These were followed by the horsemen of twelve descent groups of varying arms and customs [link to passage on the ethnic composition of the army].

Next marched those whom the Persians call “the Immortals” to the number of ten thousand. No one else in the march was more decorated with the splendour of barbarian wealth. They wore golden necklaces, garments decorated with cloth of gold, and long-sleeved tunics decorated with gems. Shortly after followed those whom they call the king’s kindred, amounting to 15,000 men. With its almost feminine elegance, this group stood out for luxury rather than for suitable weaponry. The troop next to these, who were accustomed to take care of the royal robes, were called “spear-bearers.”

These preceded the king’s chariot, in which he rode outstanding among the rest. Both sides of the chariot were adorned with images of the gods, embossed in gold and silver; the yoke was ornamented with sparkling gems, and on it rose two golden images a forearm-length high of the king’s ancestors, one of Ninos, the other of Belos [i.e. Curtius or his source is mixing up Persians with Babylonians or Assyrians]. Between these they had consecrated a golden eagle, represented with outstretched wings.

The garments of the king were noteworthy beyond all else in luxury. He wore a purple-edged tunic woven about a white centre, a cloak of cloth of gold decorated with golden hawks, which seemed to attack each other with their beaks. A golden belt was wrapped around him just like women wear. He had a scimitar with a sheath made from a single gem. The Persians called the king’s head-dress cidaris. This was bound with a blue fillet variegated with white. The chariot was followed by 10,000 lancers, carrying spears richly adorned with silver and tipped with a point of gold. About two hundred of the noblest relatives of the king attended him on the right and on the left. The rear of this part of the procession was brought up by 30,000 foot-soldiers, followed by four hundred of the king’s horses.

Next (separated by one stadium-length) one chariot carried Sisigambis, Darius’ mother, and in another was his wife. A group of women of the queens’ household rode on horses. Then followed fifteen of what they call “harmamaxae.” In these were the king’s children along with the women who took care of them and a herd of eunuchs, who are not at all despised by those peoples. Next rode the 365 concubines of the king, these were also royally dressed and decorated. After these 600 mules and 300 camels carried the king’s money, preceded by a guard of bowmen. Next to this division rode the wives of his relatives and friends, and troops of suppliers of provisions and attendants. Last of all were bands of light-armed troops, to bring up the rear, each with its own officers.

[Macedonian army]

On the other hand, if anyone saw the Macedonians’ army, its appearance was different. Their men and horses gleamed not with gold and many-coloured garments but with steel and bronze. This was an army prepared to stand or to follow, not over-weighted with excessive numbers or with baggage, watchful, not only for the signal, but even for the nod of its leader. So there was enough room for both a camp and the army’s supplies. For this reason, Alexander did not lack soldiers in the battle. Darius, king of so vast a multitude, was reduced by the narrow limits of the place in which he fought to the small number which he had scorned in his enemy.


Source of the translation:  John C. Rolfe, Quintus Curtius [Rufus]: History of Alexander, 2 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1946), public domain (Rolfe passed away in 1943), adapted by Harland.

Leave a comment or correction

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *