India

The Largest Armies in World History

A reproduction of a battle between Persians and Macedonians painted on glazed tiles
This battle scene is crowded, but just how many men are supposed to be involved? A detail of the reproduction of the Darius Mosaic from Pompeii in the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo by Sean Manning, September 2015.

The most recent issue of Ancient Warfare magazine (X.6) contains an article on the battle of Chang-Ping in the Warring States period where allegedly several hundred thousand conscripts lost their lives. In western Eurasia, the first reliable evidence that anyone brought a hundred thousand or more combatants to a battle appears around the time of the Napoleonic Wars. (I could talk about what counts as reliable evidence, but suffice it to say that this is an empirical question and that numbers in stories about armies long ago and far away do not count). Occasionally one hears higher figures from India or China. Does any of my gentle readers know if those sizes are based on any real evidence, or just the usual choice between the various numbers given in stories about the battle?

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The Work of Laying Siege

Stories about capturing animals from a town, attaching fire to them, and releasing them to burn it to the ground are common. Sometimes these appear in stories about clever old kings which should be read with a grain of salt, but other times they appear in sober technical manuals. The only version from ancient Southwest Asia which I know is the story of Samson and the foxes (Judges 15), but a book attributed to one of Chandragupta’s ministers has another one in the chapter entitled THE WORK OF LAYING SIEGE.

Getting hawks, crows, pheasants, kites, parrots, sarikas, owls and pigeons, with nests in the fort, caught, he should release them in the enemy’s fort with fire-mixtures tied to the tails. Or, from the camp stationed at a distance, he should set fire to the enemy’s fort with human fire, being guarded by bows with flags raised aloft. Read more


Twilight of the Scribes

The BBC has a short piece on the vanishing of professional letter-writers in India (link). A generation ago, someone who wanted a letter written or a package addressed could hire someone to do that for them outside most post offices in big cities. In the author’s view, rising literacy rates make letter-writers less necessary, but... Continue reading: Twilight of the Scribes

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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