Some Terrifying Numbers
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.