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?
I encourage you to click on the photo above and see it at full size. This is not a source for how real 16th century armour was made (and an expert tells me that its not a very good replica), but how Daniel Tachaux made a replica during the First World War.
In the chapter of my dissertation on the Greek sources, I had to talk about the size of Persian armies. One of the few details about Persian armies which most Greek writers give is that they had a specific and very large number of men, and no other kind of evidence lets us estimate the size of armies in the field (the Behistun inscription lists the number of enemies killed and taken alive in various battles, and it is possible to estimate how many bow estates or temple soldiers were available in some parts of Babylonia, but neither is a reliable guide to the size of royal armies in the field). The reason why we are so determined to give the size of Achaemenid armies is that the classical tradition tells us that we should.
I side with the skeptics, such as George Cawkwell, who feel that the numbers for barbarian armies in ancient sources are not worth much, and that as they drew on similar populations and administrative systems, Achaemenid armies were probably about as big as Hellenistic and Roman ones. In a broad survey like my thesis, I had no time to propose numbers for specific cases, even if I decided that that were possible. (My master’s thesis lays out the evidence for Cunaxa as clearly as I could, although today I would add a few sentences). While arguments against vast armies are not always perfectly formed, I am not sure that the remaining believers in countless Persian hordes are really driven by the evidence (a great article by T. Cuyler Young has some suggestions about the psychology and literary forces involved). So instead of arguing back and forth about logistics and the lengths of columns, I focus on some other perspectives.
Asya Pereltsvaig, Martin W. Lewis, The Indo-European Controversy: Facts and Fallacies in Historical Linguistics (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2015) ISBN 978-1107054530 Bookfinder link
A few years ago, some very bad linguistics was published in some very famous journals and credulously reported by newspapers which are very widely read. Usually, academics respond to nonsense by ignoring it, because proving something wrong is much more work than claiming it in the first place (Brandolini’s Law), and because the authors of bad research rarely respond well to criticism and fans of that research are not always interested in a second opinion. But two blogging philologists, Martin Lewis and Asya Pereltsvaig, have written an entire book exploring the problems with these papers and standing up for the importance of geography and historical linguistics in any attempt to understand past languages and cultures.
One way I use this blog is as a commonplace book. Researchers often assume that to publish something in the fifth or fourth century BCE was more or less the same as to do it in 1950 AD: one wrote and corrected it, checked it carefully, sent it out to be copied and distributed, and thereupon ceased to interact with it unless at some distant time you decided to publish a second edition. Douglas Kelly is not so sure:
The other possible line of enquiry that appears fruitful is to consider what Xenophon expected to happen to a copy of the Hellenica when he let it out of his hands. Modern criticism assumes, as in the case of Plato’s dialogues, that the text went to individuals who read it, aloud of course, in private. So some may well have done, but the hypothesis being advanced here is that Xenophon expected his Hellenica, like the rest of his works, to go to those small groups of his peers: that educated and leisured audience saw a book more as the occasion for a sociable gathering for discussion than something for solitary reading. … The assumption here (and it can only be an assumption but at least is an explicit one that arises to explain things otherwise without cogent explanation) is that these small private reading circles could turn their attention to historical working as much as to philosophical writing. That Xenophon tried his hand at both might suggest that he expected much the same audience for either. Xenophon himself came from the small social class as that from which the little, club-like groups visible in some of Plato’s dialogues were drawn. His Socratic writings were addressed to a similar audience as were Plato’s, although in Xenophon’s case the audience will have been less rigorous in its taste for philosophical arguments and more interested in the practical lessons of conventional ethics. In Xenophon’s hands the writing of history for such an audience was going to be gentlemanly and edifying.
– Douglas Kelly, “Oral Xenophon,” in Ian Worthington ed., Voice into Text: Orality and Literacy in Ancient Greece pp. 161, 162
Now suppose that Xenophon discussed the things he cared about with such groups of peers, and sometimes gave them a copy of his current version of a particularly good lecture (which he had adjusted as he spoke according to his audience) or had someone come approach him between the mimes and the flute girls to ask if he was going to really slander so-and-so in his history, so that in his world, before he had become a ‘classic’ to be edited and glossed, multiple versions circulated and people were as likely to hear his ideas orally as to read them. That is hypothetical, but no more hypothetical than the assumption that he worked like Isaac Asimov!
Robin Hanson, the economist and futurist with a great deadpan, has been thinking about why academic research tends to clump around particular problems. Like many American thinkers today, he appeals to a theory of mind where most of what people do is really about status and social position and nobody is sincere. In his post Idea Talkers Clump, he puts it thus:
I keep encountering people who are mad at me, indignant even, for studying the wrong scenario. While my book assumes that brain emulations are the first kind of broad human-level AI, they expect more familiar AI, based on explicitly-coded algorithms, to be first.
… I’d estimate that there is now at least one hundred times as much attention given to the scenario of human level AI based on explicit coding (including machine learning code) than to brain emulations.
But I very much doubt that ordinary AI first is over one hundred times as probable as em-based AI first. …
In addition, due to diminishing returns, intellectual attention to future scenarios should probably be spread out more evenly than are probabilities. The first efforts to study each scenario can pick the low hanging fruit to make faster progress. In contrast, after many have worked on a scenario for a while there is less value to be gained from the next marginal effort on that scenario.
Yes, sometimes there can be scale economies to work on a topic; enough people need to do enough work to pass a critical threshold of productivity. But I see little evidence of that here, and much evidence to the contrary. Even within the scope of working on my book I saw sharply diminishing returns to continued efforts. So even if em-based AI had only 1% the chance of the other scenario, we’d want much more than 1% of thinkers to study it. At least we would if our goal were better understanding.
But of course that is not usually the main goal of individual thinkers. We are more eager to jump on bandwagons than to follow roads less travelled. All those fellow travellers validate us and our judgement. We prefer to join and defend a big tribe against outsiders, especially smaller weaker outsiders.
Now, I share his frustration when I see large amounts of attention being devoted to some problems, while others which seem just as interesting are ignored. If smart people have been arguing about something for 200 years, and no new sources or methods have appeared, I have trouble believing that my opinion will add anything to the conversation (this is Daniel Kahneman’s principle “thou shalt respect base rates, and not let thyself make excuses about why this time is different” and Edsger W. Dijkstra’s Third Golden Rule for Scientific Research [EWD 637]). On the other hand, as an ancient historian from Canada, I can think of some other reasons why research tends to clump.
At the beginning of October I had the pleasure of visiting the Frau Professor Hillprecht Collection in Jena to handle and sketch tablets. Doing so made clear to me some of the issues with reading and publishing cuneiform tablets. In this post, I will try to explain what those issues are.
A few weeks ago I was distracting myself by chatting about the Battle of Magnesia with Michael Park, a very thoughtful lover of ancient history. This battle was a shocking upset where the Seleukid king and and army raised from his whole kingdom were scattered by a small army from Rome and Pergamon which had not seemed very eager for the fight. The longest surviving accounts are by Livy (written about 150 years after the fact) and Appian of Alexandria (about 300 years later) both of whom had access to contemporary sources. This campaign is interesting to me because Antiochus’ enemies trotted out some 300-year-old tropes from the Persian wars to depict him as an Asiatic despot seeking to enslave Europe with his countless but feckless soldiers. However, they were limited by the fact that Antiochus and his Friends paid people to tell their story in fashionable Greek, so they could not claim that Antiochus had hundreds of thousands of soldiers or wore foreign clothing or was too cowardly to go into battle himself. If they went too far, people who had heard other versions after dinner or read them in a library would cry foul.
In this battle the fighting began on the wings, and each side won on its right: Antiochus and his Friends drove a legion back to its camp with the first charge, while panic broke out on his left wing and Eumenes of Pergamon found himself in control of the field there. The infantry on both sides had not yet engaged: perhaps Antiochus was nervous of the stories that while thyreophoroi were normally no danger to a Macedonian phalanx, the Roman ones had a way of getting into the small gaps which emerged if a phalanx tried to move too quickly or crossed rough ground. Livy gives us his version of what happened next:
I hope that everyone reading a blog like this has read the late John Keegan’s Face of Battle. In 1976, Keegan interrupted the quiet field of military history with some rude questions: Why was it that so many “battle pieces,” however detailed and colourful they sounded, did not explain what happened and how? Just where did the idea of the decisive battle come from? How much did we really know about famous battles? Using a few carefully chosen examples, he demonstrated how conventionalized and unrealistic many stories about battles were, even those by “serious historians” writing “technical accounts.” And then he suggested that two things had to be done: historians needed to study the “battle piece” as a genre and consider the tropes and assumptions which shaped it, and they needed to ask what individuals and small groups actually did in battle. He then explained that he did not have the energy, skills, and ambition to write a history of the battle piece as genre. Thus the next three chapters of his book are studies of what happened on three different battlefields in northern France, beginning with a sketch of the strategic situation and the course of the battle then narrowing in to focus on how and why the men on both sides fought. He borrowed some exciting new ideas from psychology and sociology and literary criticism, and added a fifth chapter with an extended comparison between soldiering and mountaineering to make the point that for the last century or so combat had come to demand more and more of soldiers to the point that it was difficult to envision what a clash between two modern armies would look like, even before the first nuclear weapon went off.
John W.I. Lee, A Greek Army on the March: Soldiers and Survival in Xenophon’s Anabasis. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2007. DOI http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511482830 Bookfinder link to the hardcover version.
John Lee’s book on the Greek-speaking half of the army of Cyrus the Younger does not seem to have found the audience which I think it deserves. That is a shame, because I found it very useful when I was writing my Master’s thesis, and I think that a wide variety of other people both inside and outside the university would find it helpful too.
Many books on life in the Ten Thousand have been written by retired soldiers or policemen, and implicitly or explicitly take the bureaucratic armies of the last hundred and fifty years as a model. Writers searched for a detailed chain of command with large units made up of small ones and a network of officers and non-commissioned officers, a relationship between the organization of the army in camp and the organization of the army in formation, and other things which modern armies have. It was possible to do this by ignoring or minimizing a large number of anomalies. John Lee had the courage to ask “what if we take Xenophon seriously? What if we accept that what he describes seems very different from a modern army, and ask him what he means?” And so he wrote a book about how the Ten Thousand functioned as a community of men and women living and marching and fighting together.