Persians, Hyrkanians, Armenians, Derbikians and others: Curtius Rufus on the mixed composition of the army of Darius III (first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Persians, Hyrkanians, Armenians, Derbikians and others: Curtius Rufus on the mixed composition of the army of Darius III (first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 15, 2023,

Ancient author: Quintus Curtius Rufus (first century CE), History of Alexander 3.2.1-10 and 4.11.6-13 (link).

Comments: In these passages from his history of Alexander’s conquests, Curtius Rufus outlines his information about the ethnic composition of the Persian king Darius III’s army at both the battles of Issos and of Arbela. The Derbikians are notable as they are frequently described by other authors as an extremely uncivilized people located on the Caspian sea (link).

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)


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.


[Composition of Darius’ army at the battle of Issos in Cilicia, ca. 333 BCE]

When the death of Memnon [commander of the western regions of the Persian empire] was announced, Darius [III, reigning ca. 336-330 BCE] was naturally anxious, set aside all other hope, and decided to fight a decisive battle in person. For he condemned everything that had been done through his generals, believing that many of them had been lacking in care, and all in good fortune. Accordingly, having encamped outside Babylon, he made a display of all his forces, in order that they might enter upon the war with the greater confidence. After building a circular enclosure capable of containing a gathering of 10,000 armed men, he began to number them as Xerxes had done [Herodotos – link]. From sunrise to nightfall the troops entered the enclosure, as they had been discharged. Then, when sent out, they filled the plains of Mesopotamia, an almost countless mass of horsemen and foot-soldiers, which gave the appearance of being greater than it actually was. There were 100,000 Persians, among them 30,000 horsemen. The Medes had 10,000 horsemen and 50,000 foot-soldiers. Among the Barkanians there were 200 horsemen armed with double-edged axes and small shields closely resembling the cetra [i.e. Spanish shields]. They were followed by 10,000 foot-soldiers armed in the same manner as the horsemen. The Armenians had sent 40,000 foot-soldiers, besides 7000 horsemen. The Hyrkanians (or: Hyrcanians) had mustered 6000 as excellent horsemen as those descent groups (gentes) could furnish, as well as 1000 Tapurian horsemen. The Derbikians had armed 40,000 foot-soldiers, most of whom carried spears tipped with bronze or iron, but some had hardened the wooden shaft by fire. These were also accompanied by 2000 horsemen from the same descent group. An army of 8000 foot-soldiers and 200 horsemen had come from the Caspian sea. With these were other less known descent groups that had mustered 2000 foot and twice that number of horsemen. Another 30,000 Greek mercenaries who were excellent young soldiers were added to these forces. However, Darius’ hurried approach prevented him from calling in the Baktrians, the Sogdians, the Indians, and others living near the Red sea [including what we now call the Indian Ocean], whose names were unknown even to Darius himself. The one thing that Darius did not lack was soldiers.


[Composition of Darius’ army at the battle of Arbela, ca. 331 BCE]

Therefore Darius, who wished to fight in open plains, ordered his soldiers to arm themselves and drew up his line of battle. On his left wing were Baktrian horsemen, about 1000 in number, the Daans, with the same number, and the Arachosians and the Susianians with 4000. One hundred scythed chariots followed these soldiers. Next to the chariots was Bessus with 8000 horsemen, who likewise were Baktrians. The Massagetians came up behind with 2000. To these he had joined the infantry forces of many peoples, not mingled together, but each group arranged with the horsemen of its corresponding descent group. Then Ariobarzanians and Orontobatians led the Persians with the Mardians and the Sogdians.

These men commanded divisions of the forces, in charge of the whole was Orsines, a descendant of the “seven Persians” and tracing his genealogy also to Cyrus, that most re­nowned king. These were followed by other descent groups, not very well known even to their allies. Phradates came after these descent groups, leading fifty four-in-hand chariots, with a large army of Kaspians. Behind the chariots were the Indians and the rest of those living on the Red Sea [i.e. Indian Ocean], mere names rather than auxiliaries. The rear of this part of the army was brought up by other scythe-bearing chariots, to which he had joined the foreign soldiers.

These were followed by those who are known as the “Lesser” Armenians, the Armenians near the Babylonians, and both by the Belitians and those who live in the mountains of the Kossaians. After these marched the Gortuians, really a Euboian descent group, who formerly followed the Medes, but were now degenerate and ignorant of their native customs. Next to these he put the Phrygians and the Kataonians. Then the Parthians, inhabiting the lands now held by the Parthians from Scythia, brought up the rear of the whole force. That was the form of the left wing.

The right was held by the nation of Greater Armenia with the Kadusians, the Cappadocians, the Syrians, and the Medes. These also had fifty scythe-bearing chariots. The sum of the entire army consisted of 45,000 horsemen, and the infantry numbered 200,000. Drawn up in this manner, they advanced ten stadium-lengths, and then, being ordered to halt under arms, awaited the enemy.

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