Hawking Up Hairballs

Friday, November 30, 2007

This Really Shouldn't Bother Me

I read a lot of history. I've done so ever since I was a kid. Right now I'm finishing up Persian Fire, a history of the Persian Empire's conflict with the Greeks in the fifth century B.C. During that conflict, the Battle of Thermopylae took place. Some five thousand Greeks, led by three hundred Spartans, held off a much larger Persian force for a couple of days. The details of the battle are neither here nor there as far as what I want to talk about. The ancient Greek hisorian Herodotus wrote about this battle, and claimed that Xerxes's Persian army had a million men in it. Modern-day scholars dispute that figure. They don't all agree on its size, but they seem to agree on something around 250,000 men. I don't buy it, and for some reason it really bothers me. I know it shouldn't. For Christ's sake, it's a detail of a battle that took place 2500 years ago. It just goes to show you the poverty of my life, I guess, but it still bothers me.

I just plain don't understand how Xerxes' could have supplied such a horde. A few years ago, I read Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton by Martin van Creveld, a prominent contemporary military historian. In it, he says that in the Middle Ages in Europe, there were never armies much bigger than 25-30,000. In those days, they lived off the land, plundering the surrounding countryside as they passed through it. Such were the physical limits of this plundering that it could not support larger forces. From the accounts of ancient historians, Xerxes was well prepared for his invasion of Greece, and he brought stores of grains, etc., with him. Still, it seems implausible to me that he could have supplied an army of 250,000 given the types of roads and available transports of the day. Using a formula of van Creveld's devising that estimates grain usage, a force that size, along with its supporting personnel, in this case wagon drivers, bread bakers, etc., would require 560 tons of grain a day. That's a mind-boggling quantity of grain. There's other evidence against it as well. According to Persian Fire's account, taken mainly from Herodotus, cities along the route of the army were notified that the army was coming and required to not only feed the armies, but to put on a sumptuous feast for Xerxes and his retinue. Given that cities at that time were on the order of 10-20,000 in population, how could they feed a host of 250,000 even under coercion? It just doesn't seem possible.

I don't know if there are any scholars of the period who have looked into this in depth. The books that I've read on the period would seem to indicate that there aren't. If there are, I'd certainly like to look them over. If anyone reading this has anymore information, please comment. Like I said, this seeming inaccuracy bothers me.


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