Her name means “strong and immortal.” Pantea Arteshbod, commander of the Persian Immortal army, the equivalent of today’s special forces.
Members of this elite force had to be Persian by blood and withstood rigorous training from the age of seven. The force was known as “The Immortals” because they were always kept at a strength of precisely 10,000 men. Whenever a man was killed or seriously wounded, he was immediately replaced by another man to maintain the fighting force’s precise number. It was a force that could not be weakened or defeated.
And for a time during Persia’s Achaemenid Dynasty, this force was led by a woman.
Pantea was born in approximately 540 BC, and wielded power as an influential commander under Cyrus the Great. Her husband was General Aryasb. Together, Pantea and Aryasb commanded the elite force of Immortals who performed the dual roles of both Imperial Guard and elite army forces during the Persian Empire’s expansion. Their force was the core of the Persian army in wartime and the royal guard in peacetime.
In Persian folklore, Pantea was considered to be the most beautiful and toughest woman in all of Asia. She is said to have kept her face covered in battle to prevent the enemy and her fellow soldiers alike from falling in love with her.
Today, we argue about whether women should have combat roles in the military, and most recently, in special forces units. In August of 2015, Captain Kristen Griest and 1st Lieutenant Shaye Haver, two West Point graduates, made history by becoming the first women to graduate from the Army’s elite Ranger School. Major Lisa Jaster graduated on October 16, 2015. According to the Army Times, “Army Secretary John McHugh defended the Army’s decision to open Ranger School [to women] and outlined data that showed female candidates performed just as well – and in some cases better than – their male peers.”
Over two thousand years ago in Persia, a woman was leading a special forces unit. No arguments. No debates. Pantea should be remembered for her bravery and for being one of the first in a long line of Persian women who held roles that we have long considered to be historically suited to men. We should remember her, and we should remember Kristen Griest, Shaye Haver, and Lisa Jaster. These women have shown us what is possible — that young women, whatever their dreams, can achieve anything. In any position or role they wish to fill. Women have been doing so for centuries.