To be honest, though, I’m sometimes embarrassed by where I have been forced to find my statistics, but beggars can’t be choosers. Very few historians have the cold, calculating, body-count mentality that I do. They prefer describing the quality of suffering rather than the quantity of it. Often, the only place to find numbers is in a newspaper article, almanac, chronicle or encyclopedia which needs to summarize major events into a few short sentences or into one scary number, and occasionally I get the feeling that some writers use numbers as pure rhetorical flourishes. To them, “over a million” does not mean “>106“; it’s just synonymous with “a lot”.
Matthew White’s Great Big Book of Horrible Things (W.W. Norton and Company, 2011) lists 100 tragedies, but the 101st tragedy is the book itself. White worked very hard to find numbers for various atrocities, and noticed that often he could find no source for the number in the glossy magazine or the airport book. He noticed that some of the numbers seemed to be just made up, he noticed that some didn’t seem to be meant to be taken literally, and he noticed that often the new book or article relies on the old book or article without correcting its mistakes or asking whether we have learned anything since. When I look at the website which became the book, I see how he came close to agreeing with me that almost all of these numbers before the 19th century say more about other modern numbers than about the past. He could have written a good book about how we just don’t know how many people were killed by Tamurlane, or the An Lushan Rebellion, or the Crusades. But instead he wrote yet another book full of made-up numbers backed with footnotes, and he gave old nonsense a whole new audience when a very famous Canadian psychologist took his numbers and ran with them.
Someone associated with the SESHAT project has taken Andre Costopoulos’ suggestion to focus on things which leave good archaeological evidence like metallurgy. They wrote a study of the spread and improvement of iron technology across the Old World. That is a topic that I am an expert on, so how does the paper hold up?
Turner, Edward A. L. (2020) “Anvil Age Economy: A Map of the Spread of Iron Metallurgy across Afro-Eurasia.” Cliodynamics 11.1 https://doi.org/10.21237/C7clio11145895
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).
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:
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.
Economists such as Gregory Clark and Brad DeLong like to tell people that between the dawn of time and 1800 or 1900 there was no growth in GDP per capita and very slow population growth. As an ancient historian this leaves me scratching my head. I decided to write this post after reading the 1998 version of DeLong’s ideas but similar ones appear to be common.
When I wrote my MA, I spent months wracking my brains and scouring libraries in hopes that I could estimate the population of the Achaemenid empire within a factor of two or three. Little did I know that a much more precise figure was available! By share of population, the largest empire was the Achaemenid... Continue reading: The Population of the Achaemenid Empire