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?
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. Continue reading
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 the final blow has been the availability of cheap cell phones which let people communicate across long distances without writing.
What the article does not say is that people have been making a living writing letters and simple documents for about four thousand years. In the cosmopolitan world of the Late Bronze Age, Egyptian villagers had the local scribe write them letters and contracts. Soldiers on the island of Elephantine sent short notes to and from their friends and relations on the mainland. Of the several hundred which survive from the Achaemenid period, many are written in a single hand yet under many different names. High medieval teachers wrote textbooks on formal letter-writing. While many men in some societies could read, the skills to write neatly and to compose an elegant letter or official document tended to be rare, so many people in a wide range of societies preferred to find a professional. After such a long time, it would be sad if the trade ends not with universal literacy but with the triumph of the spoken word.
Further reading: J.M. Lindeberger, Ancient Aramaic and Hebrew Letters (1994), Jac J. Janssen, “Commodity Prices From the Ramesside Period.” E.J. Brill: Leiden, Netherlands, 1975, James J. Murphy, Three Medieval Rhetorical Arts (1971)
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.