Month: January 2020

Be Careful with Rein Taagepera’s Lists of Largest Empires

A map of Eurasia and Africa with biomes and ancient and medieval states marked
Isn’t this a cool map? The places where states which controlled at least a million square kilometers before 1800 were founded, from Turchin, “A Theory for the Formation of Large Empires.” Look how many there are in North China and Southwest Asia, and how few in Southeast Asia or Europe! (Although part of that is the fact that we treat the long history of the Byzantine and Roman empires as one thing, but each Mongol or Chinese dynasty as different)

After a chat with T. Greer of The Scholar’s Stage, I read an interesting article by Peter Turchin called “A theory for formation of large empires” (2009). He is curious whether other world regions show the same pattern as China of empires beginning in the steppe or in the neighbouring farmland not the richest and safest agricultural districts. As he says, a lot of research focuses on the decline and disintegration of empires, not so much how a single king can come to rule millions or tens of millions of people in the first place: why do some empires last centuries when most fall to pieces within decades?

Turchin catalogued 64 states until the year 1800 CE with an area of at least a million square kilometers, and found that “over 90% of historical mega-empires were located next to or within the Old World arid zone extending from the Sahara desert to the Gobi desert” (which is a slightly different claim than the one about steppe frontiers, but never mind). When I read his list, one line popped out at me:

A table with statistics on empires including Assyria, Media, Achaemenid Persian, Alexander's (Hellenistic), Seleucid, and Parthia

The table lists a Median empire with 2.8 million square kilometers in -585 (which is 586 BCE in Julian astronomical years with a year 0, but I think he means 585 BCE). That would have been as large as Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan combined. And the trouble is that such an empire probably did not exist, and if it did exist we don’t know its area.

Read more

How the Greeks Got Battering Rams

The hollow bronze head of a battering ram with a toothed striking surface and decorative rams' heads on the sides near the open back
This may have been part of the first battering ram deployed in Greece. It was made sometime in the 5th century BCE, around the time when later Greeks remembered battering rams were first deployed, and dedicated to Zeus at Olympia. Archaeological Museum, Olympia, object B2360 c/o

People who see the ancient Greeks as an especially progressive and technically advanced people have a lot to boast about, but they have to admit that their heroes were a bit backwards at siege engineering. We have pictures of battering rams from Egypt and Upper Mesopotamia dating back to the third millennium BCE, and Early Bronze Age texts which mention them from Ebla in Syria, and in the 18th century BCE petty kings like Zimri-Lim of Mari took them for granted and students in scribal colleges dutifully memorized the proper Sumerian names for all the parts, but they are absent from early Greek vase painting, absent from the Homeric epics, and absent from Greek traditions of their wars until the time of Pericles. That is about 2000 years later than the first evidence for battering rams from Syria and Egypt.

Greek stories about their early wars, and the archaeology of Iron Age Greece, make it clear that Greek soldiers were very eager to take and destroy walled cities, but apparently they were too impatient to sit outside a town for a few months while they built something the size and complexity of a small boat and pushed it through enemy fire against a wall or gate. People who admire the Greeks usually say a few words about the Assyrians as masters of siegecraft then slip into telling a triumphant story of Greek progress from humble beginnings.

Later Greeks and Romans did not know about the Mari letters or Old Kingdom tomb paintings, but they saw that their ancestors lacked the siege engines which were used in their own times, and they told two types of stories about How the Greeks Got Siege Engines.

Read more
paypal logo
patreon logo