comparative evidence

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 http://irows.ucr.edu/. 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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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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Slavery in Mesopotamia

A reception at the Collège de France, Paris.

At the 65th Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale I was chatting to the excellent JoAnn Scurlock and Eva von Dassow about ancient slavery. The conversation turned to abortatative attempts in the Bronze Age to require all slaves to wear a distinctive hairstyle, and I mentioned the Roman senator who laughed down a proposal to make slaves wear distinctive clothing by asking whether they wanted slaves to see how many they were (I think Seneca tells the story). And that turned the discussion to some differences between Mesopotamian and Greco-Roman slavery. As always, when I am retelling a conversation you can attribute the wise insights to other people, and the arrant nonsense to me and my poor understanding and shaky memory.
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Dungeons and Historians

A tunnel into darkness under Schloss Neuhaus in Südtirol. Any similarity to the tunnel under the Playmobil pirate island is totally coincidental; I can’t comment on whether there were any giant centipedes, gnolls, or 10′ deep pits inside, although for enough money I might sell a badly-drawn map and some cryptic warnings. Photo by Sean Manning, April 2015.

A few weeks ago, Martin Rundkvist published a light-hearted post on how archaeology spoiled his ability to enjoy dungeon fantasy (the kind of fantasy inspired by D&D, where humans and humans-with-funny-ears venture into underground compounds full of monsters and loot). I think I underwent a similar experience, although it started earlier and the details varied (elementary-school-me worked his way though a library of terrible TSR and Star Trek novels, but teenaged-me never learned the cloak trick). So I have a different perspective on some things than he does. Martin points out that the idea of a handful of heroes assaulting a fortress full of fighters is absurd. But stories about professional dungeon-crawlers and monster-slayers tend to be much more like the Iliad or Beowulf, where a hero can cut through entire armies (with nameless buddies to finish off the wounded) or slay a monster who has ripped up a hall full of warriors, than like our world, where “not even Hercules can fight two.” And everyone knows that dungeons are shaped like that because it is easy to draw on graph paper and copy onto your battle mat, not because it is ‘realistic.’ So this week, I would like to give my historian’s perspective on some of the issues which he looked at from his archaeological perspective.

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A Deed Never Yet Done

Line drawing of a relief where pharaoh with a falcon overhead draws his bow as his two-horse chariot tramples he fallen or fleeing enemy
A deed done over and over again: two dynasties after Amenhotep, Ramses III smites the Libyans (from The Epigraphic Survey (eds.), Medinet Habu, Volume 1: Earlier Historical Records of Ramses III. Oriental Institute Publications 8. Plate 18 c/o the generous Oriental Institute https://oi.uchicago.edu/research/publications/oriental-institute-publications-oip )

While I do not think that many Bronze Age or Classical bows were as powerful as the longbows from the Mary Rose or the hornbows from the Tokapi Palace, I can think of one or two exceptions. Today I would like to give one which I recently stumbled over while reviewing an article by Pierre Briant. As often happens, reading this passage again revealed something which I had not remembered.

The Great Sphinx Stele tells the following story of Pharaoh Amenhotep II of the New Kingdom:

He also came to do the following … Entering his northern garden, he found erected for him four targets of Asiatic copper, of one palm in thickness, with a distance of twenty cubits between one post and the next. Then his Majesty appeared on the chariot like Mont in his might. He drew his bow while holding four arrows together in his fist. Then he rode northward shooting at them, like Mont in his panoply, each arrow coming out of the back of its target while he attacked the next post. It was a deed never yet done, never yet heard reported: shooting an arrow at a target of copper, so that it came out of it and dropped to the ground.

Andrea M. Gnirs, “Ancient Egypt,” in Kurt Raaflaub and Nathan Rosenstein eds., War and Society in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds (Cambridge MA, 1999) p. 84 citing the Great Sphinx Stele of Amenhotep II in Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature: A Book of Readings. Volume 2. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976) pp. 41, 42.
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A “Primitive” Battle in Afghanistan

The horrors of these domestic feuds [amongst the Eusofzyes, Kipling’s “Yusufzaies”] are sometimes aggravated by a war with another Oolooss [roughly a “tribe,” p. 211]. Many causes occasion these wars, but the commonest are the seduction of a woman of one Oolooss by a man of another, or a man’s eloping with a girl of his own Oolooss, and seeking protection from another. This protection is never refused, and it sometimes produces long and bloody wars. I shall show their nature, as usual, by the example of the Naikpeekhail.
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The Indian Petí Cuirass

A black and white photo of a body armour and helmet of layered cotton 2 cm thick with a smooth surface
Cloth body armour with shoulder flaps and helmet with cheek and neck flaps, captured from Tipu Sultan in 1799, Victoria and Albert Museum catalogue numbers 3517:1to:6/(IS)

Sultan Tipu was a warrior king, and like a warrior king he died when his enemies stormed his palace. Those enemies seized his treasury and hauled it to London, and as London has not been sacked since, most of his treasure is still there. Amidst the jewelled patas and the musical automata is a cloth armour.

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