How reliable are ancient sources regarding military strength and casualties- a historical analysis.
Updated: Mar 11, 2019
Browsing through ancient history articles on Wikipedia, one might find themselves questioning the feasibility of the vast numbers of soldiers stated on the strength and casualties section of ancient battles, especially those of Imperial China and the Persian-Greek wars.
Take for example, the battle of Gaixia (Ancient China, 202 BC)- Are we to expect that over 800,000 people (out of a total estimated world population of one hundred and fifty million) amassed to take part in a pitched battle, which resulted in the violent deaths of over 200,000 men. Or the battle of Battle of Ipsus (301 BC, Phrygia), which led to a combined number of 134,000 infantry, 25,000 Calvary, 475 elephants and 100 scythed chariots engaging one another in a ferocious flurry of death.
To the skeptical reader, these numbers may sound grossly exaggerated.
They are not entirely unrealistic. Historians believe that pitched battles involving three or four hundred of thousands of men were certainly probable ¹, and there is evidence to back it up. This does not mean that ancient chroniclers didn't exaggerate or straight up fabricate accounts of battles, but rather that there is a grain of truth to to many of the numbers stated.
The way this was done was mainly through use of conscription. In the Han Dynasty, for example, all male commoners were liable for conscription from the age of 20 to 56. Usually, they were taken for a year of training and then another year to serve on the frontier, or as guards. Since much of the Chinese population lived in big cities of hundreds of thousands, this was not particularly hard to enforce.
This leaves us with several interesting questions:
Q: How did ancient armies on such a large scale manage to feed themselves?
A: Through a complex supply chain. Both the Macedonians and Persians employed the use of hundreds of Ox drawn carts, horses and boats. Xenophon notes that An Ox cart could carry around 1450 pounds (658 Kg), enough supply of grain to feed about 480 of Alexander's men for the day. ² Soldiers themselves were also expected to carry supplies on their backs.
While on the move, armies usually stuck near rivers or other water sources. The Persians devolved a complex system of transport ships, allowing them to deploy armies away from home for months on end.
Q: How were ancient armies on such a scale coordinated
A: The armies were divided through a complex hierarchy of divisions, brigades and other smaller units. Dedicated messengers existed to pass orders through the chain of command. There was also the use of flags, drums and gongs.³ Flags pointed to the direction of movement, beating drums signaled to advance and gongs marked the orders to halt.
¹de Souza, p. 41
³Wuzi, Chp. 3-4