Posts on events before the middle of the first millennium CE

Staring Evil in the Face: Some Thoughts on Hanson’s “The Other Greeks”

a view to the bottom of a river on a sunny winter day

Victor Davis Hanson, The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization (The Free Press: New York, 1995)

I hold then, that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labour of the other. Broad and general as is this assertion, it is fully borne out by history. This is not the proper occasion, but, if it were, it would not be difficult to trace the various devices by which the wealth of all civilized communities has been so unequally divided, and to show by what means so small a share has been allotted to those by whose labour it was produced, and so large a share given to the non-producing classes. The devices are almost innumerable, from the brute force and gross superstition of ancient times, to the subtle and artful fiscal contrivances of modern.

– John C. Calhoun, “Slavery a Positive Good,” 6 February 1837

I finally read The Other Greeks by Victor Davis Hanson in summer 2018. This book, published in 1995, contains an argument that farmers working 9- to 13-acre (20-30 3 to 5 hectare) plots were key to Greek culture wrapped in two rants about the decline of the American family farm and the decadence of American academics. Victor Davis Hanson’s writings on ancient agrarianism are less famous than his political columns and his ideas about Greek warfare, but I enjoyed working through this book. Farming is obviously a topic that Hanson cares deeply about, and because he put so much care into this book I can tell that he sees some of the implications of his argument.

The ancient history in this book is interwoven with the story of a 40 acre farm near Selma, California which the Hansons have held for five generations (only three generations were able to make a living from it, his parents got jobs in town and he tried to keep the farm going after his grandfather retired but found that the only way was to use his salary and royalties from teaching and punditry to subsidize the farm). In his view, both classical Greek and modern US culture were at the best while society was dominated by rural small farmers, and any threat to this class is a threat to freedom and democracy.

To my knowledge, Victor Davis Hanson has never written about why his Swedish great great grandparents were able to take a share of “the richest farmland in the world” for a token price in 1875, just like Wikipedia estimates that the indigenous population of the San Joaquin Valley fell 93% from 1850 to 1900 but falls silent on what exactly happened (today all the nations of the Yokuts are a few thousand strong, about as many as one of the little farming towns Hanson loves).

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Sue Brunning and the Quest for the Perfect Sword

the cover of Sue Brunning's book "the Sword in Early Medieval Northern Europe"

Archaeologist Sue Brunning has a new book on the sword around the North and Baltic Seas. In an interview she brings up a way of thinking about the parts of a sword which is worth pondering:

There are common features that all swords had to have in order to be swords.

First, a blade – which I describe in the book as the “body” of the sword because it is the part that “does the work”, from a physical point of view; it is usually concealed beneath “clothing” (the scabbard) and only those most intimately acquainted with the sword would see and come to know its finer details. The blade also, like a body, became the repository for history, reputation, character…

Second, a hilt (or handle), which I describe as the “face” because this was the focus of a sword’s visual identity – it was the part that most people could see and come to recognise, as it was not concealed by “clothing” like the blade was. Hilts, like faces, had unique features manipulated by their owners; they could be altered to shape their identities in a desired way; and eventually, as we all know, they would show signs of ageing – wear patches, like wrinkles.

Next, the scabbard – the early medieval sources disagree to some extent over how essential this component was, but in reality it was quite important. It enabled you to carry the sword on your body, as well as keeping it bright and sharp thanks to the fur lining.

Within these three basic components, there was huge scope for customising your weapon in how it was decorated, the materials that were used and so on. This was a way to make your sword your own, or – I would argue – its own!

– Sue Brunning, “Sue Brunning on early medieval swords,” un trabajo tartamudo, 31 January 2020

I think that thinking about all three parts lets you understand swords much better than focusing on just one. If you aren’t a sword person, you might be surprised to learn that the standard typologies of Viking swords and rapiers just consider the hilts- which is like assigning cars a typology based on the bumper and paint, but the hilt is the easiest part to divide into groups and the people writing the typologies had never used a sword.

Roman swords in the 200 years after Augustus have fairly small and plain blades, but the scabbard are rich in finely worked brass and silver. And while swords and spears were as common in the early Roman empire as long guns are in rural Canada- Cicero, the gospels, and Petronius agree on that- soldiers were the only ones allowed to wear swords in public. The rich scabbards let soldiers communicate their wealth and taste at their own expense: Chaucer shows you how to size up someone using their clothes and knives and purse (the fancy scabbards also carried on a Celtic tradition, but that is another story). The army probably defined standards which blades had to meet (Cassius Dio accuses unruly Judeans of manufacturing weapons which would fail the army test and then stockpiling them), but how much bling a soldier wore was his own business.

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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 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

4th century BCE

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

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.  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

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Important Assyriological Discovery!

a carved ivory pommel with ruminant heads and a scabbard chape with a great cat pouncing on a ruminant
The ivory pommel and chape of an akinakes and scabbard in the Louvre. For more information see Bernard, Paul (1976) “À propos de bouterolles de forreaux achéménides,” Revue Archéologique pp. 227-246 or for our Russian friends Perevodčikova, E.V. (1983) “Subjects Depicted Upon the Bouterolles of Akinakes-Sheaths in the Achaemenid Period.” Vestnik Drevnej Istorii 3 (165) pp. 96-103

Between looking for work and finishing articles, I have been working on a book on Achaemenid warfare which bears a certain similarity to a 2018 Innsbruck PhD dissertation and should be released this year. In Austria you make the mechanical fixes and the changes in response to the committee’s comments after the thesis is accepted, not before (in Canada, you are normally given a list of changes by the committee, make them, and pass the revised version back to the committee for them to approve before you are granted the title).

I never converted to citation-management software, preferring a simple word processor file with bibliographic information and notes on everything I had read, wanted to read, or thought I might one day want to read. When I was assembling the different files into a dissertation, I stripped out the metadata and dumped the individual entries into the bibliography then sorted it alphabetically with Tools → Sort. So one problem I had is that some works in the footnotes were not in the bibliography, and some notes were in different formats than others. To sort this out I went through each chapter recording the works cited, then removed duplicates and standardized the format, then combined the eight separate lists into one and removed the duplicates again. I checked that list against the bibliography, making sure that everything in the footnotes was in the bibliography.

And that leads to the important question, out of the roughly 1,232 works in the final bibliography (77 pages x 16 citations per page), how many do I actually cite?
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What is a Martial Art?

A display of wicker shields, helmets and face-masks, bows in bowcases, and sabres on a whitewashed wall
Captured Turkish arms from the 2. Rustkammer, Schloss Ambras, Innsbruck, July 2013

Back when I started historical fencing, I thought about what is a martial art and came up with a definition which worked for what I was doing (ie. trying to learn to fight a particular way). Someone interested in martial arts communities might chose a different definition: someone is an Olympic wrestler or SCA heavy fighter because they participate in a certain kind of event, and how they move is irrelevant.

Definition: A martial art is a subset of all the possible ways of moving effectively in combat which works well together and is sufficient to solve a martial problem.

We shall divide this sermon into six parts.
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A Correction on Lists of Empires

Two peacocks with their tails down walking across gravel with a snowbank and a holly or ivy hedge in the background
Somebody’s tail is not very flufffy this February

I would like to make two corrections to my post on Rein Taagepera’s study of the size of empires.

When I compared the 2006 and 2009 updates to Taagepera’s lists, I missed one new empire in the 2009 article: Scythia. I have added it to the original post.

I said that the 2006 article added eight empires to Taagepera’s lists. I was wrong. I trusted a note on page 221 of the 2006 article by Turchin, Adams, and Hall:

Our list of large historical states was based on the compilation by Taagepera, which has been systematized and posted on the web by Chase-Dunn and coworkers We checked the Taagepera list with all major historical atlases in the library of the University of Connecticut and found eight additional empires that fit our criteria (Axum, Hsi-Hsia, Kara-Khitai, Srivijaya, Maurian, Kushan, Gupta, and Maratha).

Four of their eight empires (Axum/Aksum in the Horn of Africa, Srivijaya in Indonesia, the Hsi-Hsia/Western Xia who were rivals of the Song Dynasty in China, and Maratha in South Asia) appear to be absent from Taagepera’s articles, but the other four are present and accounted for: Kara-Khitai (as W. Liao in Taagepera 1997), Gupta (Taagepera 1979 p. 132), Kushan (Taagepera 1979 p. 132), Maurian (as Maurya in Taagepera 1979 p. 132).

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Too Many People for the Land, or Too Much Land for the King?

Herodotus’ Cyrus (9.122.3) said that soft lands birth softies. I don’t think he was thinking of Tirol! Looking west at the Alps south of Innsbruck, September 2019.

A very popular story today explains that when people learn agriculture, they quickly breed to fill the landscape and got hungrier and hungrier until a war or a plague came. In this view, peasant life was a zero-sum game and shaped by the scarcity of land and the ability of those who claimed it to squeeze resources from those who worked it: there just was not enough land for everyone to have enough to eat, and if a village cleared woods or turned hillsides into rice paddies and harvested four bushels where they used to harvest three, before too long there would be four villagers where there used to be three and they would all be hungry again. This has been strengthened by archaeologists studying the first farmers and people working in poor countries since 1945, but the core idea goes back to the Reverend Thomas Malthus in 1834 and to early population historians who saw that every 200 years the population of England was high and wages were low until disaster drastically reduced the population and a period of low population and high wages began. This story is a good match for part of the historical record, but people who look at other parts tell other stories.

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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.

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