dis manibus
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dis manibus

Dis Manibus James Randi

Canadian by birth, American by choice James Randi died on 20 October 2020 at the age of 92. He was an escape artist, author, TV and radio personality (getting his start as a guest with Long John Nebel in New York State), and skeptical investigator who humiliated fraudsters Uri Geller and Peter Popoff and triggered... Continue reading: Dis Manibus James Randi

Dis Manibus David Graeber

Anthropologist and activist (not always easy to separate in the United States) David Graeber has died at the age of 59 in Venice. He is probably best known for his book Debt and his involvement in the Occupy movement. I first got to know one of my regular thoughtful correspondents while talking about one of... Continue reading: Dis Manibus David Graeber

Laudatio Ed Brayton

From Birger Johansson: Ed Brayton, humanist and scienceblogs.com founder, is dying in hospice in the United States after a long struggle with various health problems. His last post is at https://www.patheos.com/blogs/dispatches/2020/08/10/saying-goodbye-for-the-last-time/ I am with T. Greer: when a Snorri Stirluson comes to tell the tale of the death of the open Internet, they will spend... Continue reading: Laudatio Ed Brayton

Dis Manibus Anton Powell

Anton Powell, Welsh ancient historian and publisher, died on 11 June 2020. As a researcher, organizer of conferences and editor of books and serieses, he helped launch a transformation in understandings of early Sparta away from the moralistic gossip from Roman writers like Plutarch and hoary fables about Lycurgus to focus on what contemporary texts,... Continue reading: Dis Manibus Anton Powell

Dis Manibus Arthur Keaveney

Classicist and Roman and Achaemenid historian Arthur Keaveney, retired from the University of Kent, died of covid-19 at the age of 68 on 23 June 2020. Non fuit, fuit. Non est, non curat. You can find testimonies from his colleagues at https://www.kent.ac.uk/european-culture-languages/news/12944/in-memoriam-arthur-keaveney and from his wife at https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/jul/10/arthur-keaveney-obituary

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 eighteen lines on this table and decide if you see what I see.


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