Anachronistic Morality and the Persian Wars

a photo of a farm with concrete and chain link fence in a European city centre
rus in urbe, Pradl, Innsbruck, photograph by Sean Manning June 2020

A lot of people are interested in the second Persian expedition to Athens, and in the ethics of that expedition. For some people today, it is about freedom and slavery. For others, it is a clash between two races or nations to determine which is stronger and will absorb the loser. But when the ancients thought about the rights and wrongs of that war, they brought up some other aspects. Lets have a look at the famous story about the Persian heralds who came to Greece to ask the cities to submit to the King’s authority by giving him earth and water.

The Internet loves the image of the tough Spartans throwing Persian emissaries into a pit rather than give them what they had asked for (it makes a great meme). But the ancients knew that this was against the laws of gods and men. So Herodotus spends one sentence on the crime, then five paragraphs on the punishment which befel the Spartans and the Athenians for their crime.

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Cross-Post: Some Thoughts on Guy Halsall’s “Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West”

Even in this most unusual year, the plants grow and people play volleyball This week’s blog post is on Ancient World Magazine: a review of Guy Halsall’s “Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West 450-900” (Routledge, 2003). Halsall is a thoughtful scholar, and when I read his book I was struck... Continue reading: Cross-Post: Some Thoughts on Guy Halsall’s “Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West”

Achaemenid Shields are a Puzzle

Figure 6-2 from my forthcoming book from Franz Steiner Verlag. Some types of gerron (wicker shield) used in the Achaemenid empire in the time of Darius I and Xerxes. Top: peltē and wooden imitation of a sticks-and-leather shield from Tuekta in the Altai (different sections of ‘sticks’ are painted red, white, and black; similar shields appear in Neo-Assyrian art). Middle: rectangular wicker shields. Bottom: violin-shaped or figure-eight shields. Note that they are worn on the arm like a peltē or an Argive shield, not held in the fist like the Tuekta shield. Source: The J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu CA, no. 83.AE.247 (digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program), State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, no. 2179/96 (photo by author); Gerhard 1847: Taf. CLXVI; western entrance of the Tachara of Darius (sketch by author), Persepolis; two reliefs on the Apadana, Persepolis (photo by author)

If you look at modern paintings and miniatures, you would think we have a good idea of the type of shield used by Achaemenid infantry in the time of Darius and Xerxes. They cite Herodotus book 7 chapter 61 and show the large rectangular kind on the middle row of the picture above. But as I argue in chapter 6.5.2 of my forthcoming book from Franz Steiner Verlag, things are more complicated. These large rectangular shields appear on the doorposts of two buildings at Persepolis and on two or three vases from Athens (out of thousands of soldiers at Persepolis and Susa and thousands of Red Figure vases). The person who published the sketch on the middle left thought it showed a battle against the Phrygian allies of the Amazons. And this type of shield does not agree with Herodotus’ words that quivers were hanging beneath the shields, unless we understand ‘beneath’ quite loosely.

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Cross-Post: Oxbow Books Sale

Pavel Vaverka reminds me that Oxbow Books has its usual spring sale right now. Here are some of the ones that my gentle readers might be interested in: Thomas Fischer and M. C. Bishop, Army of the Roman Emperors: Archaeology and History (Oxbow Books, 2019) £45 ISBN: 9781789251845 Paul R. Sealey, EAA 118: A Late... Continue reading: Cross-Post: Oxbow Books Sale

Where Did Ancient Slaves Come From?

a phoot of a cat walking determinedly across an asphalt street
This Tirolean cat has a place to get to and does not care what tries to get in its way, like me when I get a research burr in my blanket! Photo by Sean Manning, May 2020

A retired economist in another country wants to know how we know that many ancient slaves were prisoners of war, kidnap victims, or the children of slaves. Ok! Readers who don’t want to hear about slavery and child abandonment might want to skip this one.

So in the Ur III period around 2000 BCE we see massive numbers of people being rounded up and deported into labour camps near Ur. Some were starved to death so their supervisors could sell their rations, and others seem to have been blinded to stop them running away (they could still haul water and do other simple tasks). A bit later we have contracts where parents sell their children to someone willing to feed them during sieges or famines. Moving on to the 8th and 7th century BCE, the archive from Nippur (Oriental Institute Publication 114) and the Iliad describe people being captured by raiders and bandits and either ransomed or enslaved. A little later we see massive numbers of captives being dedicated to the gods in Babylonia, where they would work for the rest of their lives for the temple (although it is worth noting that these širāku had what we would call human rights other than the right to move freely and choose their employer- there were even worse statuses to be placed in). We also see that people with unfree status were tattooed or branded so they could be identified if they ran away. Later stories about Solon around 600 BCE describe how farmers in Attica fell into debt and were forced to sell themselves and their lands, possibly share-cropping for one sixth of the produce (the ἑκτημόριοι “sixth-parters”).

Starting with the first surviving Greek historians Thucydides and Herodotus at the end of the 5th century BCE, we have account after account of prisoners of war and the populations of captured cities being sold into captivity or executed by Greek cities or Persian kings. We also know that one of the biggest employers of slaves near Athens was the silver mines, and mine slaves seem to have had a very short life expectancy. Early Greek and Latin had words for “home-born slave” and “bought slave” and slave-holders told each other that the first kind was best. In Egypt under the Ptolemies, letters and slave names indicate that many slaves were abandoned children left out with the trash: whoever took them in and fed them owned them. There is an Akkadian phrase which may mean something similar: where Greeks said that these foundlings came “from the dungheap” (ἀπὸ κοπρίας), Babylonians seem to say they came “from the dog’s mouth” (ie. they were about to be eaten by stray dogs: ša pī kalbi). The idea that if someone was going to die and you save them, you can do what you like with them is very common in different cultures because it let masters tell themselves that whatever they did was not as bad as killing.

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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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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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