Tuesday, February 05, 2008

How Large Was Xerxes' Army? 2

In the Histories, Herodotus asserts that Xerxes had over five million men (combatants and non-combatants) with him when he arrived at Thermopylae. In an earlier post, I referred to a theory by which Herodotus – who did not speak Persian, after all – arrived at such an impossible number in part through a misunderstanding, mistakenly believing that units of 1,000 men were in fact units of 10,000 men.

Robert Strassler’s remarkable The Landmark Herodotus includes an essay devoted to this topic. In “The Size of Xerxes’ Expeditionary Force,” Michael A. Flower has no doubt that Xerxes’ forces must have been orders of magnitude smaller:
The requirements of supply, maneuverability, logistics, finance and command and control would have made it impossible for Xerxes to have led an army even a quarter of the size of the one that Herodotus has given him.

Professor Flower, however, apparently rejects the idea that the miscalculation was based on the mistake described above:
How can we arrive at a more realistic figure? One very simple solution has been suggested. It is to suppose that the Greeks consistently misinterpreted a Persian chiliad (a unit of 1,000 men) as a myriad (a unit of 10,000 men), and thus one should divide Persian numbers by ten. That would given an original invasion force of 170,000 infantry. But even that is too large an army, given the inevitable problems of logistics, supply, and command. Other solutions must be sought.

In the end, a range of considerations leads Flower to the conclusion that Xerxes’ land army was probably no more than 80,000 infantry plus 10,000 cavalry, and perhaps as few as 40,000 to 50,000 infantry. On the naval side, Flower guesstimates that Xerxes’ fleet consisted of 300 to 600 triremes rather than the 1,207 claimed by Herodotus (and by Aeschylus) – a number that looks suspiciously like the number of ships that Homer says sailed for Troy.

I won’t go into greater detail because I want to motivate anyone who has an interest in Xerxes and Herodotus to run out and buy The Landmark Herodotus. It is true that The Landmark Herodotus represents a substantial investment: it currently sells at Amazon for $29.70. The Penguin paperback, in contrast, is only $8.00. Even so, if 300 has piqued your interest in Xerxes and the Persian invasions of Greece, I encourage you to consider the Landmark version.

Even if you’re generally familiar with some of the basics, ancient Greek history is strange and distant. We tend to portray the Greeks as our immediate cultural ancestors, and we can certainly see reflections of ourselves in them – that is why they have garnered so much attention and fascination over the centuries. But at the same time, the ancient Greeks are profoundly alien. In many ways, the more you learn about the Greeks, the more you realize how utterly different their views and assumptions concerning the world were from ours. (Take a look, for example, at this recent paper on The Laws of War in Ancient Greece.)

Herodotus compounds the difficulty, in several ways. First and foremost, he was composing for a contemporary audience of fellow Greeks. It was unnecessary for Herodotus to spell out his basic assumptions – about religion, morality, politics, geography, history and a host of other issues – for auditors who shared a common culture.

Second, Herodotus’ Histories are not simply an annalistic recital of events during a discrete period. Herodotus is historian, geographer, ethnographer, archaeologist, travel reporter and a few other things wrapped into one. Names of persons, places and regions race by. His delightful stories are by turns largely fictional or based in substantial fact. At times displaying logic and analysis, at others profound gullibility, he can leap from then-recent history to legend, myth and folk-tale without batting an eye.

In short, it is all too easy to read the Histories – and even enjoy them – without appreciating half of what Herodotus is saying. But to really understand the author, the work and the earthshaking events he is describing, the reader needs a lot of help. That is what the Landmark supplies. The maps alone are worth the price of admission. There are scores of them interspersed with the relevant text, so you don’t have to go around hunting for them, as well as dozens of helpful pictures and illustrations. Hundreds of annotations accompany the text providing background and explanation. At the end, there are twenty-one essays (including the essay on the size of Xerxes’ forces, discussed at the beginning) that analyze topics from the Spartan state and Greek religious festivals to the nature of hoplite and trireme warfare. A Glossary explains terms from Achaimenids to tyrant, and there is an index that is compulsive in its detail and completeness.

The picture at the top purports to depict Aeschylus (not Herodotus), who fought at Marathon, and whose play The Persians forms another primary source for the history of Xerxes' invasion.


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