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

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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Bow Estates Already Under Nebuchadnezzar

Sometimes the tablet-gods smile on us. Over the last hundred years, scholars have worked to establish when the properties known as bow, horse, and chariot estates first appeared in Mesopotamia. Earlier writers often saw them as examples of Iranian feudalism, imposed on Babylonia by the Medes or Persians, but there were a few examples under Nabonidus. Then in 1998 Michael Jursa reread a text from Uruk from the 35th year of Nebuchadnezzar with the following lines:

(15) 1 GUR 2 PI ŠE.NUMUN E2 GIŠ.BAN ša2 {m}Dan-/e-<>\-a
ša2 {m}{d}U.GUR-da-a-nu a-na er-ru-šu-tu2
i-ir-ši maš-ka-a-nu ša2 {m}Gi-mil-lu
a-di {m}G-mil-lu ŠE.NUMUN i-šal-lim

rašû i/i “to get, acquire”
erušutu > erēşu “to seed
maškanu “security, pledge”

1 kur 2 pi of seed (ie. field which is sown with 7 bushels of barley), the bow estate of Dannēa, which Nergal-dān acquired to sow, is pledged to Gimillu, until Gimillu received the barley.

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On Sketching Tablets

A photograph of a cuneiform tablet against the backdrop of graph-paper and bubble-wrap
Tablet HS 643 in Jena. On the graph paper in the background each small square is 1 mm wide.

At the beginning of October I had the pleasure of visiting the Frau Professor Hillprecht Collection in Jena to handle and sketch tablets. Doing so made clear to me some of the issues with reading and publishing cuneiform tablets. In this post, I will try to explain what those issues are.

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A Famous Couplet

Self at Naqš-e Rostam, May 2016. Is it not passing brave to study this, And stroll in triumph through Persepolis? With apologies to Christopher Marlowe.

The Armour of Patroklos

A painting of a circle withing which a man in Greek armour is crouching and bandaging the arm of a second who is sitting on his round shield
A Red Figure Vase of Achilles and Patroclus, painted around 500 BCE. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I am sick again this week and have not been able to finish a craft project which I wanted to talk about, so I thought I would post half a thought about armour instead. The vase painting above is one of the most famous. Pottery geeks try to assign it to a group of paintings from the same workshop, students of mythology appreciate that Akhilles and Patroklos are labeled, and students of material culture enjoy the details of military equipment. The view of the shoulder-piece springing upwards as soon as it is untied, and of the skirt of ‘feathers’ stopping above the genitals, have shaped many modern ideas about Greek armour. Long ago Peter Connolly repainted it for his Greek Armies.
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A tomb relief depicting a man in a toga with six writing boards, Archaeologisches Museum, Schloss Eggenburg, Graz. Photo by Sean Manning, September 2015. A good long time ago, Julius Caesar faced the problem of how to boast about military achievements so great and so numerous that one war threatened to... Continue reading: VENI VIDI VICI

A New Script from Iron Age Georgia?

A stone step about a foot high covered completely with a row of deep marks like letters
One sample of the possible script from the excavations at Graklani in eastern Georgia-in-the-Caucasus. Photo from Georgia Today, 20 August 2015; photographer not named.

I am still sick, so this week I will be brief and talk about some of the papers which were read at the conference of the Societas Iranologica Europaea in St. Petersburg. Abdoula Souvadar did his best to argue that a sheet of silver containing an inscription in Old Persian which claims to be the word of Otanes announcing that Darius has become king is not a modern forgery. Askold Ivantchik discussed 235 arrowheads found in the ruins of a small fort near Gordion in Phrygia which seems to have been destroyed by Cyrus’ armies. So far, most of the physical remains of Persian battles and sieges which have been found come from Anatolia. And Vakhtang Licheli talked about an Iron Age site which he is excavating on the hills above a main highway in Georgia-in-the-Caucasus. Most of this site appears to date roughly to the Achaemenid period in the sixth, fifth, and fourth centuries BCE. For most of his paper he discussed the sorts of details of interest to specialists, but in the last few minutes he mentioned something else. Some of the stone altars at this site have deep marks like letters carved in them, but none of the marks looks like a known script such as the Imperial Aramaic or Attic Greek alphabets. Several people in the audience whipped out cell phones and cameras to catch Dr. Licheli’s slides, but it turned out that the photos of the possible text is available online.

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