Some Terrifying Numbers


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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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Cross-Post: Dis Manibus Paul ‘Xenophon’ McDonnell-Staff (12 March 2020)


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Hi all,

Just a note to say that regular contributor and poster Paul McDonnell-Staff – “Xenophon” as members would know him – died on March 12th. Paul suffered from an illness, which I won’t go into here, for the last five years of his life. Though it did not always look like it here, Paul and I were strong friends over a couple of decades. There’s nothing better than pointing out the foibles of your mate! The “Old Man” (as I called him) and I (“Bertie Old thing” as he’d address me) had an ongoing relationship for some two decades. I recall us downing three bottles of red (after a beer or two over dinner) in “Brisvegas” going over the Second Diadoch War, the nature of the hypaspists and the foibles of “certainty” in a hotel in Brisbane some thirteen years ago. What others in the bar made of the hard copies of Diodoros, the Tacticians and Plutarch is anyone’s guess. As ever, we parted in disagreement on whatever sticking point(s) we’d arrived at by bottle three.

One of the effects of the Old Man’s serious and restrictive illness was that it attacked his phalanges. Given this, I was constantly surprised at the amount he could type – the email trees, on many subjects, were no bonsai – more like giant redwoods. Though one had to be patient. That back and forth will be missed.

Paul had been writing on ancient military history for decades going back to John Warry’s Warfare in The Classical World. From it’s inception, we both wrote for Ancient Warfare. The articles we prepared were the source of much private and occasional Pothosian debate. I recall calling him, at the editor’s suggestion, to see if he was still corporeal as he’d he’d missed a deadline by a couple of days (something he never did). He suggested that were he not “the whole world would…”. I suggested Demades’ acid quip was a little beyond the pale. He continued writing for Ancient Warfare under the nom de plume “Tacticus”. The journal will miss him and so will I.

Vale “Old Man”

Michael Park.

Paul was more of a rhetorician and less of a scientist than I am, but I still learned a lot from him. He knew the classical literary sources, including the unfashionable ones like Aelian, very well. There is another memorial from Jasper Oorthuys at Karwansaray and some of his comments on In Antiquity, Fighting Wasn’t a Young Man’s Game and How Many Arrows in a Scythian’s Gorytos?

I am surrounded by the ghosts of dead friends, dead communities, and dead activities. For an age that has made it hard to move at all: its hard to keep putting my heart into communities which will just vanish like the fog on a sunny day however hard I work, and hard to keep reaching out to new communities when the last one cut off my hand or used it to toss me into the nearest wall. But I also know that in this life there is one thing to do and that is to make good art. For in Sheol where we are going there is no work or planning or knowledge or wisdom.

Important Assyriological Discovery!


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a carved ivory pommel with ruminant heads and a scabbard chape with a great cat pouncing on a ruminant

The ivory pommel and chape of an akinakes and scabbard in the Louvre. For more information see Bernard, Paul (1976) “À propos de bouterolles de forreaux achéménides,” Revue Archéologique pp. 227-246 or for our Russian friends Perevodčikova, E.V. (1983) “Subjects Depicted Upon the Bouterolles of Akinakes-Sheaths in the Achaemenid Period.” Vestnik Drevnej Istorii 3 (165) pp. 96-103

Between looking for work and finishing articles, I have been working on a book on Achaemenid warfare which bears a certain similarity to a 2018 Innsbruck PhD dissertation and should be released this year. In Austria you make the mechanical fixes and the changes in response to the committee’s comments after the thesis is accepted, not before (in Canada, you are normally given a list of changes by the committee, make them, and pass the revised version back to the committee for them to approve before you are granted the title).

I never converted to citation-management software, preferring a simple word processor file with bibliographic information and notes on everything I had read, wanted to read, or thought I might one day want to read. When I was assembling the different files into a dissertation, I stripped out the metadata and dumped the individual entries into the bibliography then sorted it alphabetically with Tools -> Sort. So one problem I had is that some works in the footnotes were not in the bibliography, and some notes were in different formats than others. To sort this out I went through each chapter recording the works cited, then removed duplicates and standardized the format, then combined the eight separate lists into one and removed the duplicates again. I checked that list against the bibliography, making sure that everything in the footnotes was in the bibliography.

And that leads to the important question, out of the roughly 1,232 works in the final bibliography (77 pages x 16 citations per page), how many do I actually cite?
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Cross-Post: Roland Warzecha Workshops 2020


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A bout with Viking shields and blunt swords.  One fenceruses the strange palm-up cut which was taught in late medival marital arts but not most other traditions.

Roland Warzecha is teaching five (!) workshops this year on his interpretation of fighting with Viking Age shields, and on the sword-and-buckler system of Royal Armouries MS. I.33. The living-history related workshops include:

April 4/5, Viking Museum Haithabu: Viking shield (cancelled due to insufficient enrolment)

June 13/14, History Park Bärnau: Viking shield

August 1/2, History Park Bärnau: Sword & buckler. You are welcome to bring your 13th/14th century shields, too.

September 12/13, Viking Museum Haithabu: Hedeby Bouts

September 7–13, Viking Museum Haithabu: Hedeby Viking Week

All of these events except the Berlin Buckler Bouts are on the margin of ‘enough students to justify it and not, so if you are able to travel to Germany and interested in Viking Age or c. 1320 living history, check them out!

You can find more information about equipment and about the 2020 workshops on Patreon. He is very close to reaching his next fundraising milestone!

What is a Martial Art?


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A display of wicker shields, helmets and face-masks, bows in bowcases, and sabres on a whitewashed wall

Captured Turkish arms from the 2. Rustkammer, Schloss Ambras, Innsbruck, July 2013

Back when I started historical fencing, I thought about what is a martial art and came up with a definition which worked for what I was doing (ie. trying to learn to fight a particular way). Someone interested in martial arts communities might chose a different definition: someone is an Olympic wrestler or SCA heavy fighter because they participate in a certain kind of event, and how they move is irrelevant.

Definition: A martial art is a subset of all the possible ways of moving effectively in combat which works well together and is sufficient to solve a martial problem.

We shall divide this sermon into six parts.
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A Correction on Lists of Empires


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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 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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Is That a Dagger I See Before Me?


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I certainly should like to see Peisander the demagogos learning to turn somersaults among the knives; for, as it is now, his inability to look spears in the face makes him shrink even from soldiering.

– Xenophon, Symposium, 2.14 (tr. Loeb, slightly edited)

Concerning the dagger, that which is to bee done therewith, it is to be noted, that for great advantage, it would be holden before with the arme streched forth & the point respecting the enemie, which although it be far from him, yet in that it hath a point, it giveth him occasion to bethink himself.

– Giacomo di Grassi, “On the Sword and Dagger,” in Ragione di adoprar sicuramente l’Arme (1570, tr. London 1594)

But all Etruria’s noblest felt their hearts sink to see
On the earth the bloody corpses; in their path the dauntless Three;
And, from the ghastly entrance where those bold Romans stood,
All shrank, like boys who unaware, ranging the woods to start a hare,
Come to the mouth of a dark lair where, growling low, a fierce old bear
Lies amidst bones and blood.
Was none who would be foremost to lead such dire attack?
But those behind cried “Forward!”, and those before cried “Back!”
And backward now and forward wavers the deep array;
And on the tossing sea of steel, to and fro the standards reel;
And the victorious trumpet-peal dies fitfully away.

– Thomas Babington Macaulay, Horatius at the Bridge (1842)

Some Thoughts on “The Smart Girl’s Guide to Privacy”


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A snowy field with construction cranes in the distant background beyond a fence

Violet Blue, The Smart Girl’s Guide to Privacy: Practical Tips for Staying Safe Online (No Starch Press: San Francesco CA, 2015) Digita Publications

Writer and journalist Violet Blue is working on a new edition of The Smart Girl’s Guide to Privacy. So even though its a little bit late for Data Protection Day on 28 January, I think its time to dust off my review. Her book has a clear and distinct vision of its audience, and avoids the traps which most writers on security and privacy fall in to.

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Too Many People for the Land, or Too Much Land for the King?


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Herodotus’ Cyrus (9.122.3) said that soft lands birth softies. I don’t think he was thinking of Tirol! Looking west at the Alps south of Innsbruck, September 2019.

A very popular story today explains that when people learn agriculture, they quickly breed to fill the landscape and got hungrier and hungrier until a war or a plague came. In this view, peasant life was a zero-sum game and shaped by the scarcity of land and the ability of those who claimed it to squeeze resources from those who worked it: there just was not enough land for everyone to have enough to eat, and if a village cleared woods or turned hillsides into rice paddies and harvested four bushels where they used to harvest three, before too long there would be four villagers where there used to be three and they would all be hungry again. This has been strengthened by archaeologists studying the first farmers and people working in poor countries since 1945, but the core idea goes back to the Reverend Thomas Malthus in 1834 and to early population historians who saw that every 200 years the population of England was high and wages were low until disaster drastically reduced the population and a period of low population and high wages began. This story is a good match for part of the historical record, but people who look at other parts tell other stories.
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Be Careful with Rein Taagepera’s Lists of Largest Empires


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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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