army size

army size

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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Three Links

A recent editorial reminded me of the problems of estimating army sizes. Many ancient armies were not divided into neat units of uniform size, they did not have a central quartermaster’s service or staff which tracked numbers, and as Thucydides reminds us everyone lied about the strength of their own forces. Reporters who want to estimate the size of a demonstration face similar problems and rhetorical pressures (chose a high number to shock, or a low one to dismiss? Trust the police or the protestors? Base it on whether the crowd seemed larger or smaller than one whose size you ‘know’?) Like ancient historians, modern reporters don’t always give a source for their numbers, but when people ask them they tend to be frank:
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