Some Terrifying Numbers
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Categories: Ancient

Some Terrifying Numbers

St. Felix in the armour of roughly 1400 with a red surcoat with a white cross on it
St. Felix (probably not the bishop of Nola?) From a polyptych by Battista da Vicenza (b. ca. 1375, d. 1438), Vicenza, Museo Civico, inv. no. A 18-22.  Photo by Sean Manning, 2020.

So a lot of us have spent the past month or two staring at some scary numbers and working out their implications. These numbers are based on counts, even if the authors had to make some assumptions and do some arithmetic to turn something they can count into what they want to know. I spend a lot of time staring at Greek numbers for barbarian armies, and if they were based on counts they are hard to understand:

  • If we have multiple sources, they give numbers which vary widely, even if they all drew on the same earlier writers
  • The smallest Greek number for a barbarian army, 100,000, is as big as the largest army we can document in western Eurasia before the Napoleonic Wars, even if we are very generous about what counts as ‘documentation’ (hard-hearted historians would say we need archives so no army strength can be known until about a thousand years ago)
  • The smallest Greek number for a barbarian army is about as many as the biggest army which any Near Eastern ruler claims to have commanded.
  • Either there are no numbers for individual units, or the numbers given add up to a much smaller number than the grand total
  • Usually, no source for the numbers is given: we are not told whether they are an estimate by scouts or by the enemy’s clerks.
  • Such vast armies could not march, camp, and fight in the usual fashion or on the described battlefield.

If we assume that these numbers are based on counts, we have to chose one of the figures in our different sources, then ‘correct’ it by adding, subtracting, multiplying or dividing until it fits our expectations. As a fellow named Whatley said in 1920, these theories often sound convincing until you read the next article with another ingenious theory that contradicts the first one. So assuming that these numbers are based on counts has not lead to new knowledge that people with different perspectives can agree on, it has just lead to endless arguments and speculation.

So a few years ago, I asked myself what would we expect to see if these numbers are drawn from something other than counting. And instead of looking at different writers’ figures for the same army, I looked for the same number in stories about different armies. Have a look at the fifteen eighteen lines on this table and decide if you see what I see.





RIMAP A.0.102.10, iii:15-16

845 BCE

Šalmanessar III crossed the Euphrates with 120,000 men

Judges 8:10


Gideon and his 300 soldiers kill 120,000 Midanites

Hdt. 2.158.5

5th century BCE

120,000 Egyptians die building a canal for pharaoh Necho

Ctesias F. 13.28, 30 Lenfant

4th century BCE

120,000 Persians attack Plataea, 120,000 Persians die after Xerxes retreats from Greece

Xen. Anab. 1.7.11-13

401 BCE

Deserters claim that Artaxerxes II has 1,200,000 men

Xen. Anab. 3.5.16401 BCEThe Carduchi annihilated a royal army of 120,000 men which invaded their country

Xen. Hell. 1.5.21

4th century BCE

An interpolator says that the Carthaginians invaded Sicily with 120 triremes and an army of 120,000 men

Xen. Cyr. 1.2.15

4th century BCE

They say that the Persians are about 12 myriads”

Xen. Cyr. 6.2.104th century BCESpies report that the coalition against Cyrus includes 120,000 Egyptian infantry

Xen. Cyr.  8.6.19

4th century BCE

An elderly Cyrus commands 120,000 cavalry and 600,000 (5 × 120,000) infantry

2 Chronicles 28:6

4th century BCE?

Pekah of Remaliah slew 120,000 valiant men in Judah in a single day

Jonah 4:11

4th century BCE?

There are more than 120,000 persons in Nineveh, and also many cattle

Judith 2:15

2nd century BCE?

Holofernes gathers an army of 120,000 men and 12,000 cavalry

I Maccabees 11:45

c. 100 BCE

The 120,000 people of Antioch rise up against their king

Justin, Epitoma Pompei Troagi, 41.5.7

1st century CE (original 1st century BCE)

Arsaces, the second Parthian king, fought Antiochus with 100,000 infantry and 20,000 cavalry

Plut. Vit. Sulla 22.4

2nd century CE

Sulla says that he defeated a Pontic army of 120,000 men at Chaeronea

Plut. Vit. Lucull. 7.4

2nd century CE

Mithridates trained 120,000 infantry in the Roman fashion and invaded Bithynia

Cassius Dio 62.2.3 (fragment)c. 200-222 CEBoudicca gathers an army of 120,000 Britons and urges them to revolt

These texts span a thousand years, three languages, and even more cultures and religions, but the figure of 120,000 (2 × 60 × the largest named number in most Semitic languages) or 1,200,000 (2 × 60 × the largest named number in ancient Greek) shows up again and again. Most of these sources are not ones which ancient historians find trustworthy for numbers, they are stories about long ago and far away. And I think stories is the key word. This number does not appear in documents about the actual strength of specific units on specific days, just in stories that someone might ask to hear for the sheer joy of hearing them.

It is comforting to think that Greek and Roman numbers for barbarian armies are based on counts, because that makes them sound rational and empirical and lets us use those numbers to say something about the ancient world. But that assumption creates a lot of problems. If we assume that the numbers in one story are often based on numbers in another story, then suddenly we can explain some of the things that were hard to understand. And this would not make the ancients any more or less irrational than the moderns who give their own numbers for the Persian wars, multiplying or dividing ancient numbers until they have something they can believe in and that fits numbers they have read in stories about the Siege of Vienna or Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. Basing numbers for big frightening things on counts is not natural, it is one of the hardest things in the world to do.

After I wrote this post, I learned that my old sparring partner Patrick Waterson, who was a firm believer in the big armies in the Old Testament and Herodotus and an active member of the Society of Ancients, UK, died in the UK on 14 January 2020. SIT·TERRA·TIBI·LEVIS·COMILES

Further Reading:

  • Whatley, N. (1964) “On the Possibility of Reconstructing Marathon and Other Ancient Battles,” The Journal of Hellenic Studies 84 pp. 119-139
  • Skepdic ‘Anchoring Effect’

This is based on chapter 6.6.1 of my first book which is forthcoming from Franz Steiner Verlag in winter 2020/2021.

Edit 2023-02-14: added Cassius Dio

Edit 2023-02-21: added the royal army in Xen. Anab. 3.5.16

Edit 2023-03-08: addded Xen. Cyr. 6.2.10

Edit 2023-05-04: over on his blog, Andrew Gelman points to an article in The Atlantic with the phrase “These numbers are what we might call “decorative statistics.” Their purpose is not to convey an actual amount of money but to sound big and impressive. That doesn’t keep them from being added, subtracted, divided, or multiplied to yield other decorative statistics”

Edit 2023-05-29: see also Lock, F. P. (2012) The rhetoric of numbers in Gibbon’s History (Newark : University of Delaware Press)

Edit 2023-10-01: someone almost got it!

I’m sometimes embarrassed by where I have been forced to find my statistics … Often, the only place to find numbers is in a newspaper article, almanac, chronicle or encyclopedia which needs to summarize major events into a few short sentences or into one scary number, and occasionally I get the feeling that some writers use numbers as pure rhetorical flourishes. To them, “over a million” does not mean “>106“; it’s just synonymous with “a lot”.

Matthew ‘Atrocitology’ White
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8 thoughts on “Some Terrifying Numbers

  1. Aaron Bell says:

    Good points well made, Sean. Patrick would have enjoyed it, and it would have been fun to read his response. Great news about your book. Many congratulations!

  2. jwebster2 says:

    Yes look forward to the book

  3. Andreas Johansson says:

    How different from the PhD thesis (which I enjoyed reading) is the book going to be?

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Good question! The footnotes are fixed and everything I cite is now in the bibliography, I added maps (upper satrapies, lower satrapies, and one of Neo-Assyrian warfare) and illustrations and indices, and I added in some more sources (a cool Japanese excavation in Iran, the original list of armies of 120,000 was shorter) and a couple of paragraphs on the idea of battle as a Trial by God which I somehow left out of chapter 3. I also translated all the French and German in the main text because not everyone can read English and French and German. So I would say it is a more polished version of the original with more or less the same structure.

      1. Andreas Johansson says:

        Thank you!

  4. russell1200 says:

    How on earth could you know the number of an opposing army even if you were there on the day of battle. You could tell in some cases if their line stretched longer than yours, but it still wouldn’t be clear about what might be behind them.

    If your own army was a coming together of disparate groups, it isn’t very likely you would necessarily know how many were in your army – unless you decided to make a concerted effort to figure it out, or if there was some sort of payment/restitution involved and you were the one in charge of payments.

    How many people were at Woodstock 1969? You see some very round numbers like 1-million estimated.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Yeah, whenever there is a big protest or march the police give one estimate and the organizers give another estimate and it takes a lot of digging to find what those estimates are based on and who is fibbing. And generals usually gave up on trying to know how many were in their army, and just focused on the number of fighters times a factor to allow for everyone else. And they had to deal with scams like someone claiming they brought 98 men, actually bringing 87 and pocketing the difference in pay and equipment (plus the money that the other 11 paid to not have to go).

      There is one battle where Thucydides half-admits that he could not figure out which side had the larger army because everyone exaggerates the enemy and tries to hide their own strength (although being Thucydides, he tells you who he thinks probably had the most, and not the arguments for the other position).

  5. The Size of Achaemenid Armies – Book and Sword says:

    […] is the kind of number which specialists in the ancient Near East are very suspicious of. Many Greek numbers for eastern armies, such as the 180 myriads (the highest decimal number with a name in Greek) of soldiers which […]

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