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

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





RIMAP A.0.102.10, iii:15-16

845 BCE

Šalmanessar III crossed the Euphrates with 120,000 men

Judges 8:10


Gideon and his 300 soldiers kill 120,000 Midanites

Hdt. 2.158.5

5th century BCE

120,000 Egyptians die building a canal for pharaoh Necho

Ctesias F. 13.28, 30 Lenfant

4th century BCE

120,000 Persians attack Plataea, 120,000 Persians die after Xerxes retreats from Greece

Xen. Anab. 1.7.11-13

4th century BCE

Deserters claim that Artaxerxes II has 1,200,000 men

Xen. Hell. 1.5.21

4th century BCE

An interpolator says that the Carthaginians invaded Sicily with 120 triremes and an army of 120,000 men

Xen. Cyr. 1.2.15

4th century BCE

They say that the Persians are about 12 myriads”

Xen. Cyr.  8.6.19

4th century BCE

An elderly Cyrus commands 120,000 cavalry and 600,000 (5 × 120,000) infantry

2 Chronicles 28:6

4th century BCE?

Pekah of Remaliah slew 120,000 valiant men in Judah in a single day

Jonah 4:11

4th century BCE?

There are more than 120,000 persons in Nineveh, and also many cattle

Judith 2:15

2nd century BCE?

Holofernes gathers an army of 120,000 men and 12,000 cavalry

I Maccabees 11:45

c. 100 BCE

The 120,000 people of Antioch rise up against their king

Justin, Epitoma Pompei Troagi, 41.5.7

1st century CE (original 1st century BCE)

Arsaces, the second Parthian king, fought Antiochus with 100,000 infantry and 20,000 cavalry

Plut. Vit. Sulla 22.4

2nd century CE

Sulla says that he defeated a Pontic army of 120,000 men at Chaeronea

Plut. Vit. Lucull. 7.4

2nd century CE

Mithridates trained 120,000 infantry in the Roman fashion and invaded Bithynia

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Was Hadrian’s Wall Proceeded by an Earth-and-Post Construction?

Hadrian’s wall across Britain has left complex traces in the forms of trenches, pits, scraps of stonework which were not salvaged by later farmers and road-builders, and of course inscriptions boasting of what the dedicator had accomplished. Geoff Carter, the archaeologist of Britain, is working on his theory that Hadrian’s Wall was first built as... Continue reading: Was Hadrian’s Wall Proceeded by an Earth-and-Post Construction?

Big Data in World History: Seshat vs. DRH

Ancient historians have been in the big open data business for almost 200 years, with Mommsen’s establishment of the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum to publish all surviving ancient Latin inscriptions in 1853. Right now there are two competing projects to create an encyclopedia of quantitative data on world religious history which could be subjected to statistical tests: the Database of Religious History at UBC, and Peter Turchin’s Seshat project in the USA. Turchin belongs to a Russian tradition of social scientists such as Andrey Vitalievich Korotayev who want to find predictive, mathematical laws of history, often in the forms of cycles. A recent paper based on Seshat data has provoked not one but two responses only six weeks after publication.

  • Harvey Whitehouse et al., “Complex Societies Precede Moralizing Gods Throughout World History,” Nature 568 (20 March 2019) pp. 226-229
  • Edward Slingerland et al., “Historians Respond to Whitehouse et al. (2019), ‘Complex Societies Precede Moralizing Gods Throughout World History'”, PsyArXiv Preprints, 2 May 2019
  • Bret Beheim, Quentin Atkinson (yes, that Atkinson), et al., “Corrected analyses show that moralizing gods precede complex societies but serious data concerns remain,” PsyArXiv Preprints, 2 May 2019

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Folk Wrestling in Poland

The field behind the Zentrum für alte Kulturen, Langer Weg, Innsbruck, on 31 January 2019

Over on Patreon, Maciej Talaga talks about the folk sports which Polish peasants used to play in the slack times of the agricultural year. As he says, outside of the harvest season peasant societies tend to have more workers than useful things for them to do, so people on the land have to find ways to amuse themselves.

Biady, that is wrestling, was one of the most popular. It was played mostly by older boys and unmarried men, but there were exceptions. Participants would establish a specific hold – you can see it demonstrated on the video – and try to throw each other down without breaking it. Such matches could last anything from a few seconds to up to half an hour (with a single successful throw!). They involved no judges or coaches, as none of the participants would receive any formal training.

The latter was also the very reason why documenting “biady” required a specific research strategy. Since this martial game had no technolect or jargon, practitioners had no consistent way to talk about it. They couldn’t discuss given techniques, as we are used to do in HEMA, since there were no names for wrestling actions involved. Even less so in regard to tactics and theoretical concepts. In effect, my Grandpa also had hard times answering my inquisitive questions which I started bombarding him with after I discovered he has a vivid memory of this fascinating tradition. Being a simple man, he not only was surprised that anyone found it interesting, but also lacked words to explain martial matters in a structured way.

Having realised these difficulties, I called for help: I have a pleasure to run a little youth club teaching HEMA to some fantastic boys and girls. Three of them, Krzysztof Markowski, Marcel Kwapisz and Bruno Biernacki, enthusiastically agreed to assist me in a research trip. We went by bus to Wizna, a town located some 30 km away from my grandparents’ house in Łomża, and took a walk to visit the only Polish folk wrestler we knew about. And this time we were prepared much better – instead of asking questions, we started “biadying” in front of my Grandpa in the hopes that it would be easier for him to comment on our performance than talk about “biady” from a scratch on his own. And it worked!

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Rochberg on Omens

Your humble correspondent in the Central European blizzard of January 2019

One of the books which I would like to find time to read is Francesca Rochberg’s Before Nature: Cuneiform Knowledge and the History of Science (University of Chicago Press, 2016) {available from the publisher}. About a decade ago, she was puzzled why Mesopotamian omen lists include situations which can never occur, such as the appearance of the sun at midnight or a lunar eclipse which moves from west to east across the moon. The Mesopotamian literati were intimately familiar with the movements of the heavens, and had thousands of years of records, so they probably had a firm conviction that this was not the sort of thing which could happen in the ordinary course of events. Were these absurd? The result of block-heads mechanically multiplying omens to cover different combinations of left/right, the three watches of the night, the four directions, and so on regardless of whether that combination was possible? Violations of the order of the heavens on special command of the gods?

Perhaps this is where we step into the realm of the conceivable, or the conceptually possible, as differentiated from the possible, or at least the metaphysically possible … To say certain phenomena in the omen lists are “impossible” or “absurd” because they do not occur and cannot be observed is our judgement and occurs nowhere in the ancient sources. That is to say, our definition of impossible (not in accordance with real properties) is not expressed in the texts. It seems more consistent with the overall makeup of the omen lists that recording a phenomenon as an entry in a codified omen list is evidence that it was regarded as epistemically possible [something which a reasonable person may chose to believe]. That is, the list of statements (P) constitute data, or knowledge, on the basis of which the diviner makes judgements and draws conclusions about what will happen. The use of the terms possible and impossible are, among other things, relative to one’s accepted knowledge of how and what things are.

– Francesca Rochberg, “Conditionals, Inference, and Possibility in Ancient Mesopotamian Science,” Science in Context 22.1 (March 2009) pp. 5-25
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Edward I’s Draft Dodgers

As I have been working on my thesis, I found a reference which I was looking for but could not find back when I was writing my Master’s thesis. It described one of Edward I’s wars in Scotland where over the course of a few months, half of his infantry threw down their issued crossbows... Continue reading: Edward I’s Draft Dodgers

The Wellcome Trust and the Urban Graveyard Effect

In the first two weeks of August there was a great kerfuffle about a BBC educational cartoon which showed a couple in Roman Britain who would be called multiracial in Late Capitalist Britain. Angry essays were typed, tweets flew with the wrath of the Stymphalian Birds, and many people hurried to let the Internet know which faction they aligned with. Neville Morley did a good job of summarizing how most ancient historians think about the problem in his blog post Diversitas et Multicultaralismus (no, a dark-skinned official and his light-skinned wife would not have been unheard of at Bath or Hadrian’s Wall; genetic data is exciting but just one of many kinds of evidence which historians draw upon to understand the past; genes are only loosely connected to identity). The Romans could be horrible snobs and bigots, but most of their stereotypes and slurs were directed at people from other parts of Europe and the Mediterranean … they do not seem to have been very interested in whether people had dark skin and kinky hair. In this post, I would like to talk about one of the methodological questions I have after reading the Wellcome Trust paper from 2015 by Leslie et al. which some people have been citing as evidence that negligible numbers of people from Africa had children in Britain before the 20th century (doi:10.1038/nature14230).

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War and Culture

The countryside in Khuzestan (ancient Susiane/lowland Elam) near Ahwaz where 30 years ago the king of Babylon and the assembly of the land of Iran fought a terrible war.

As part of my dissertation I have to talk about conscription and how well it functioned in the Ancient Near East, and that turned me to a classic article. As I was searching for it I found another which I want to talk about.

Back in 1999, Norvell Atkine set out to explain to the American imperial elite why the “Arab armies” which they had armed and trained were so reluctant to fight the way that Americans told them to fight. These armies kept losing, so why were they rejecting help from more effective soldiers like him and his friends? “There are many factors—economic, ideological, technical—but perhaps the most important has to do with culture and certain societal attributes which inhibit Arabs from producing an effective military force.” When I read it the first time, I took away his lovely anecdotes about the culture clash between American military personnel and the Arab officers which they had been assigned to collaborate with. Atkine focusses on the armies of Mubarak’s Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. But a few years ago, Caitlyn Talmadge wrote a scholarly article on one of the Arab armies which he is less interested in: Saddam Hussein’s. Her article has an abstract, so I will let her speak for herself:

Saddam’s Iraq has become a cliché in the study of military effectiveness—the quintessentially coup-proofed, personalist dictatorship, unable to generate fighting power commensurate with its resources. But evidence from the later years of the Iran-Iraq War actually suggests that the Iraqi military could be quite effective on the battlefield. What explains this puzzling instance of effectiveness, which existing theories predict should not have occurred? Recently declassified documents and new histories of the war show that the Iraqi improvements stemmed from changes in Saddam’s perceptions of the threat environment, which resulted in significant shifts in his policies with respect to promotions, training, command arrangements, and information management in the military. Threat perceptions and related changes in these practices also help explain Iraq’s return to ineffectiveness after the war, as evident in 1991 and 2003. These findings, conceived as a theory development exercise, suggest that arguments linking regime type and coup-ridden civil-military relations to military performance need to take into account the threat perceptions that drive autocratic leaders’ policies toward their militaries.

To put it bluntly, Saddam spent his time in power worried that someone would toss him in his own torture chambers. After all, most of the governments in the region, including his Baˀath party, were descended from a group of soldiers who had overthrown the previous regime. So he set up policies to ensure that the army was not a threat to him: strictly limiting communication between units, requiring minor acts to be authorized from Baghdad, refusing to allow different types of troops to train together, and killing officers who were too popular. This kept him in power for 25 years and able to play warlord, even if it also meant that his adventures cost the lives of too many of his own soldiers for little or no gain. The only time that he relaxed these politics was the late 1980s, when it seemed like if the war continued, his regime might collapse. As soon as he had driven the Iranians back across the border and made peace, he treated the army just like he had before, because once again he was more worried about a coup from within than an invasion from without. And while Saddam was crazy (and perhaps not the sharpest knife in the drawer), his 25 year rule suggests that he knew how to stay in power.
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