Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
HISTORY: THE ACHAEMENID DYNASTY
Analysis of Herodotus in
Livio Catullo Stecchini
Size of Persian Army
method advocated by Niebuhr became generally accepted by ancient historians, but
they hesitated in accepting his specific conclusions about the true nature of
the events of 480 and 479 BCE, because this would have meant questioning not
only Herodotus' ability to judge reality, but that of all the Greeks. It was
only after Gobineau formulated his theory about the intrinsic difference in the
mental endowment of the several human races that critical historians dared to
agree with Niebuhr on this specific issue. On the matter of quantification,
Niebuhr and the critical historians begged the question: Herodotus was
unscientific and hence used numbers at random.
In 1862 Gobineau wrote from Persia to his daughter: "As to the Greeks, you
can have them, one and all, except for Pythagoras," and, in 1867, in a
letter from Athens he declared that the ancient accounts of the battles of
Marathon, Salamis, and Plataia "are no more true than the heroism of
Miltiades and the honesty of Themistokles, a bandit and a scoundrel!"
Gobineau was perfectly clear-minded and completely honest about the aims of his
scholarship; he saw that if, by destroying the authority of numbers, the Scythian
campaign of King Darius could be reduced to a "perplexing dream," the
same could be accomplished with the accounts of the Greek campaign of King
Xerxes. Thereby, not only Herodotus, but all the Greeks would be convicted as
liars, and the entire value of Greek civilization would be put in question.
The Greeks considered their successful resistance against the might of Persia as
the best evidence of the worth of their greatest cultural achievement: Greek
paideia had created a personality type such that, when the Greeks found
themselves confronted with the greatest military force ever mobilized up to that
time, they did not lose heart, because they were convinced that as individuals
they were physically and intellectually superior to any enemy.
The best expression of this spirit was the resistance of King Leonidas of Sparta
and his band of braves at Thermopylai. Shortly after the event, the poet
Simonides wrote for them this epitaph:
four thousand from the Peloponnese Once fought three thousand thousands.
did not mean that Leonidas and his men actually fought three million soldiers,
because indeed at the end only three hundred Spartans remained to resist the
Persians unto death, but that Greece's finest hour was when, confronted with
invading forces amounting altogether to about three million, it did not panic or
surrender, even though the active resistance on land had to be limited to such
relatively puny efforts as the episode of Thermopylai. Some Greek cities, such
as Thebes, capitulated before the Persian invaders, but others, among which were
the leading cities of Athens and Sparta, remained convinced that with courage
and careful rational planning they had a chance of preserving their
independence. The very size of the Persian effort proved to them that the enemy
was engaged in a desperate gamble so that, if the Greeks were willing to risk
total destruction, they could count on favorable probabilities. The element of
extreme daring in taking a calculated risk is emphasized also by Thukydides (I
73, 144) in his references to the Greek strategy in this war.
The tragedy Persians, written by Aischylos, a participant in the war, and put on
the stage by young Perikles eight years after the events, presents the Greeks as
that kind of people who did not flinch when their small city states were swept
by "a great flood of humans" similar to "a wave of the sea that
cannot be contained by the most solid dikes" (lines 87-90). The whole of
Asia had been emptied and brought to Europe (548-550). "The rash ruler of
populous Asia pushes a human herd to the conquest of the entire world"
(73-75). When the defeat of the navy forced King Xerxes to withdraw his army,
the retreat turned into such a disaster that it destroyed entire nations
In the same spirit Herodotus centered his narrative on the size of the Persian
forces, which amounted to millions. His figures, except for one point on which
he must be corrected, agree with those provided by other Greek writers. Herodotus
had a specific reason as an historian to put the main emphasis on the size of
the Persian forces: as in the Scythian campaign it was the geographical
distances that proved to be the decisive factor, so in the Greek campaign it was
the numerical strength of the Persian army and navy that influenced most the
dynamics of the events.
Herodotus reports that the King of Persia, after he had brought his army from
Asia to Europe on two pontoon bridges thrown across the sea at the Hellespont,
proceeded to a muster of the army and the navy at Doriskos, near the present Greco-Anatolian
frontier. Herodotus uses the narrative of this muster in order to list and
describe in detail all the contingents that composed this army drawn from 46
nationalities (VII 59-88). The infantry would have been counted by letting the
men pack completely a precinct that could hold 10,000 men; since the precinct
was filled 170 times, the infantry would have consisted of 1,700,000 soldiers
(VII 60). This counting by units of 10,000 is mentioned also by Aischylos (line
981). Herodotus reckons that since for each combatant there was at least one
non-combatant camp-follower or supply man, the total of the army on foot must
have been about 3,400,000 men. But since other Greek sources estimate the
effectives of the Persian army around 700,000 or 800,000 soldiers, Herodotus
must have been guilty of error: the figure of 1,700,000 must have included the
non-combatants. Herodotus estimates that the cavalry amounted to about 80,000
horsemen plus 20,000 men mounted on camels or chariots (VI 84). Later the
Persian forces were joined by men provided by the European allies in an amount
that Herodotus guesses might have been 300,000 (VIII 85).
When Gobineau questioned the figures cited by Herodotus and other ancient
writers, (58) he submitted a solid argument that was accepted by Macan and fully
developed by J. A. R. Munro in 1902. (59)
There seems to be a contradiction between the number of men under the command of
the Persian officers and the ranks of these officers; if the ranks and the
titles are considered, the Persian army appears to have included only 300,000
infantry and 60,000 cavalry. In my opinion, the normal strength of the Persian
army and navy had been doubled by King Xerxes for that particular campaign,
keeping the usual hierarchical structure but doubling the number of men and
ships under the command of the high officers, who were all Persian.
Gobineau thought that he had made a laughing stock of the Greeks by proving that
in calculating the size of the Persian army Herodotus had exaggerated almost
four times and the other Greek writers two times. But the climate of opinion was
changing rapidly among the scholars of ancient history. When in 1895 Macan
published the first of his five volumes on Herodotus he thought of himself as a
radical critic, but by the time he published the last volume in 1908 he found
himself to be holding a rather moderate position. When in 1901 G. B. Grundy
estimated the size of Xerxes' army at "several hundred thousands" he
was expressing an old-fashioned view. He justified himself by declaring:
"The tendency which is sometimes displayed to belittle the Persia of this
time, is in violent disagreement with such evidence as is extant." (60)
For historians of the critical school, the theories of Gobineau about the
ancient mind became undisputed truth, so that they could carry them to their
full implications. In 1887 Hans Delbrueck stated that the army of Xerxes must
have included 55,000 fighting men at the most. (61)
Later he was so encouraged by the praise bestowed upon him as a pioneer by
Eduard Meyer (62) and Beloch, that he reduced the maximum to 25,000, adding that
the correct figure probably was between 15,000 and 20,000. (63)
Delbrueck was a military historian, yet his argument is not grounded on
technical considerations, but on psychological ones. He observes that Herodotus
could have derived his information either from oral sources or from official
Persian records. Oral sources were totally untrustworthy in matters of figures;
furthermore, the eyewitnesses were all dead at the time of Herodotus (about
forty years after the events). Oriental military annals were totally false when
they dealt with figures; a proof of this is that Herodotus drew from Persian
official inscriptions the allegedly preposterous figure of 700,000 men for the
Persian army that marched against Scythia.
Eduard Meyer disposed of the textual evidence by declaring: "There is no
need to explain that all these figures are absurd"; the maximum figure for
the Persian army at Doriskos should be 100,000 combatants plus an equal amount
of train. (64)
De Sanctis called Herodotus' figures "laughable" and set the maximum
at 100,000 men. Ernst Obst, in a special monograph, estimated the maximum of the
combatants at 90,000. (65)
Beloch set the figure at 60,000 and W. W. Tarn concurred. (66)
J. B. Bury, who belonged to an older generation and had not entirely accepted
the new approach, settled for 180,000, half of the figure calculated by Gobineau,
Macan, and Munro. (67)
Robert Cohen, in reviewing the several current opinions, draws the line at
estimates that made the Persian army smaller than the lowest possible estimate
of the opposing Greek forces; he doubts the maximum of 40,000 Persian fighting
men set by Robert von Fischer. (68)
In conclusion, since the beginning of this century there has been among scholars
a substantial agreement to the effect that the army that King Xerxes brought
across the Hellespont for the invasion of Greece numbered between 50,000 and
Among the more recent writers I may quote Giulio Giannelli who declares that the
Persian land force may have amounted at most to 300,000 men including the
unarmed service men, (69)
Ulrich Wilcken who believes that the fighters were about 100,000, (70) and
Helmut Berve who believes that they were over 100,000 when King Xerxes moved
from the concentration point in Asia. (71)
Xenophon, who had direct knowledge of the Persian Empire and its army, believed
that Xerxes had come to Greece with "an innumerable army" (Anabasis
III, 2). Xenophon thought that he was describing a memorable feat when he
explained how under his leadership a band of 10,000 first-rate Greek soldiers
were able, in spite of the Persian army, to withdraw from the heart of the
Persian Empire. He would have written a more important work if he had explained
how King Xerxes came to Greece with a force that militarily was not much
superior to Xenophon's companions, since the average member of the Persian army
was an indifferent soldier compared to the perfectly drilled Greek athletes, and
was able to get out of Greece alive. If it is true that the Persian army
consisted of something between 50,000 and 100,000 fighting men, it follows not
only that the Greeks were a nation of liars or dreamers, but also that the
actions of the Greeks and of the Persians were totally irrational. One must
wonder why the Persians should have sent by land an army that could have been
easily transported on ships; why should the fleet have followed the army along
the coast step by step for five months, suffering great losses because of
storms; why should the Greeks have avoided any major military engagement on land
for almost two years; why should the Athenians have abandoned their city to the
Persians, allowing them to destroy it and massacre the poorer citizens who did
not have the means to seek refuge abroad; why should the coalized Greeks have
decided that the only possible strategy consisted of abandoning the country to
the enemy, while trying to defend the line of the Isthmus of Corinth.
Herodotus (VII 22) relates that in preparation for his campaign King Xerxes sent
crews of workmen drawn from the several provinces of the Persian Empire to cut a
canal twelve stadia long across the promontory of Mount Athos. According to Herodotus
it was so wide that two triremes could row through it abreast (VII 24);
according to Demetrios of Skepsis (Strabo VII 35) it was a plethron, or 100
feet, wide. By the reports of our contemporaries who have examined the traces of
it, the cut reached as much as "sixty feet below the natural surface of the
ground, which at its highest point rises only fifty-one feet above
On this basis it can be calculted that the excavation of the canal would have
required the digging and disposing of roughly 2 million cubic meters of earth,
which must have taken up at least 10 million working days. Since the canal was
finished in about three years, at the minimum 10,000 men must have been steadily
engaged in the digging, assuming that there were not stones to be removed and
rock to be cut. Other men were engaged in constructing protective dikes at the
two entrances into the canal. The crews were so large that grain had to be
brought from Asia.
Since Herodotus (VI 33-36) provides the most precise technical details, nobody
has questioned the truth of the statement that King Xerxes, in order to bring
his army from Asia to Europe, caused two bridges to be built across the sea at
Hellespont. The bridges consisted of 360 and 316 triremes and penteconters tied
together by cables that had been especially prepared in Egypt and Phoenicia.
This was an extremely risky operation since a storm could have completely
wrecked the fleet of ships tied together by the cables and by a causeway; in
fact, a storm had broken up the bridges before the crossing of the army had
started. According to the historians of the critical school, these bridges would
have been in use for only a few hours. Von Fischer calculates that at most they
could have been used for nine hours a day on two successive days. Bury, since he
took a moderate position and ascribed 180,000 fighting men to the Persian army,
estimated that the crossing was completed in two days.
Very few scholars deny that the Persian fleet disposed of at least 600 triremes
plus other warships and transports. Since a trireme could remain fit for action
with 100 soldiers on board and could transport up to 300 passengers, a fleet of
600 triremes could have easily carried 60,000 soldiers with their supplies
directly from Asia Minor to Attika. This is what was done in the case of the
Persian landing at Marathon ten years earlier. In 480 BCE the construction of
two bridges across the sea at the Hellespont would have been a pointless gesture
if the Persian army had been a force of 100,000 men or less.
In my opinion, one bridge was built across the straits in the case of the
invasion of Scythia, but two were built for the invasion of Greece because the
army had been doubled. One bridge was used for the fighting men and the other
for the train (VII 55); they were used for seven days and seven nights (VII 56).
In 1882 Max Duncker calculated, by the experience of the German army of his
time, that an organized military force can cross a pontoon bridge ten feet wide
in the number of 100,000 men in a day. He assumed that the bridges over the
Hellespont were moderately used at night since usually the Persian army moved
only in the daytime. I suggest that the nights may have been used to bring up
stragglers and to clear the bridgeheads as as to avoid bottlenecks.
The time spent in advancing the 1000 km. that separate the Hellespont from
Attika was such that the Persian army, which had left Sardis early in the year,
was ready to move beyond Athens only around September 20, at the very end of the
season for military operations. According to Herodotus (VII 115), the crossing
of the Hellespont (probably including the regrouping and muster at Doriskos)
took a month, most likely part of April and part of May. Athens was reached
three months later, advancing the army about 10 km. a day, (VII 115), but it
took one month more to bring up to Athens all the forces and to regroup them.
This delay compromised the entire campaign. The few days gained by the Greeks
through the resistance at the Thermopylai combined with a contemporaneous naval
action at Artemision, proved most valuable given the lateness of the season. If
the Greeks had not reckoned that the time factor was essential, the desperate
resistance at the Thermopylai would have been a theatrical gesture. Much can be
imputed to Oriental sloth, but even the puritanical Old Testament does not give
any indication that Persian kings and their generals spent their time feasting
and carousing. The delay can be explained only by the size of the Persian
If the figures given by Herodotus are condemned as an irresponsible invention,
the value of the rest of his work must be placed in doubt, and his competence as
a historian brought into question. For instance, J. B. Bury, who was among the
more moderate of Herodotus' critics, concludes his essay on Herodotus with the
was in certain ways so lacking in common sense that parts of his work might
seem to have been written by a precocious child. He undertook to write the
history of a great war; but he did not possess the most elementary knowledge
of the conditions of warfare. His fantastic statement of the impossible
numbers of the army of Xerxes exhibits an incompetence which is almost
incredible and is alone enough to stamp Herodotus as more of an epic poet than
a historian. It matters not whether he worked out the arithmetic for himself
or accepted it entirely on authority; this is a case in which to accept is as
heinous as to invent. Heinous for a historian; and if we judge Herodotus by
the lowest standard as a historian of war, this case invalidates his claim to
testimony of Herodotus is dismissed on account of his prelogical mentality, but
there remains to be explained how a man with such a mind could invent a detailed
presentation of a military plan of action that is perfectly rational and would
satisfy any expert of logistics. Herodotus (VI 20) explains how the campaign
began to be prepared four years in advance. King Xerxes would have spent one
more year (481 BCE) in bringing up his forces from Susa to Sardis, where he
spent the winter. Supply dumps for food and fodder were established to the north
of the Greek mainland long before the beginning of the operations; "for the
dumps the most convenient sites were chosen after a survey, the provisions being
brought from many different parts of Asia by a relay of transport ships and
ferry barges" (VII 25). After grain deposits were established, inhabitants
of the sites along the route to be followed by the army were employed for months
to grind the grain into flour. The preparations made by the King's officers
along the route included the buying and fattening of the herds of cattle, and
there were even set up coops for poultry (VII 119).
According to Herodotus it was the very size of the Persian army that caused its
collapse. The King initiated a disastrous retreat without ever having met a
major Greek military force on land. Aischylos too stresses that it was the land
itself, meaning the supply problem, that was the main enemy of the Persian army
(line 792). The enterprise of Xerxes could be the subject of a tragedy because
the doom was caused by his own actions. "Rash Xerxes, emptying the entire
expanse of our continent" (718); he is called "rash" again on
line 754. He was rash because he tried a gamble in which the chances were
against him (346). Towards the end of the tragedy the ghost of King Darius
appears to draw the lesson of the disaster: to the question, "What course
of action is the best for the Persian nation after these developments?"
(788-789), he answers that there is no alternative but to abandon the effort to
conquer Greece because the land itself is an ally of Greece. This is the
political conclusion that Perikles wanted to stress, since he hoped to convince
both the Athenians and the Persians to follow a policy of reconciliation since
neither side had reason to be afraid of the other. This conclusion agrees point
by point with the interpretation of the strategy that Herodotus (VII 46-52)
presents in the form of a conversation between King Xerxes and Artabanos at the
crossing of the Hellespont when the latter was appointed regent while the King
was in Europe. It is not that Xerxes followed an irrational strategy, but that,
in order to succeed in an almost impossible enterprise, he tried a strategy that
could have succeeded only by a series of favorable outcomes of chance events.
However, at the end of Aischylos' tragedy, King Xerxes stresses that the extent
of the disaster that followed the failure of the campaign was unpredictable and
the chorus agrees with him that it was "an unexpected disaster"
(1005). The poet underscores this interpretation when he points out that
"winter began precociously" during the retreat (496).
According to Herodotus, the King had concluded that it was necessary for the
national survival of Persia to destroy the power of Athens and Sparta; the
course of history, as yet unknown in Herodotus' time, proved that the King was
right. According to Herodotus, the King knew quite well that he was engaging in
a risky enterprise, but decided that the gamble was reasonable if there was a
chance whatsoever of success (VII 10, 50). King Xerxes was a rational ruler who
decided that all the resources of his empire had to be engaged in a calculated
risk, since the very existence of that empire was at stake. The King had in mind
not only the support given by the Greek mainland to the revolt of his Greek
subjects of Asia Minor and the humiliation suffered by the Persian army at
Marathon in 490 BCE, but probably most of all the support given by the Greeks to
the revolt of Egypt, a key province of the imperial system. Preparations for the
Greek campaign were initiated immediately after the end of the campaign for the
pacification of Egypt (VII 8). At that moment the King would have said,
"All we possess will pass to the Greeks or all they possess will pass to
us" (VII 12). It is currently assumed that Herodotus was totally ignorant
of what is called philosophy of history, whereas here he predicted correctly
history's future course. The Kings of Persia as well as the Greeks foresaw what
finally took place about a century and a half later: if the Persian universal
empire could not subdue the Greeks of the mainland, a Greek universal empire
would replace it. Even before the start of the Persian Wars Aristagoras with the
help of a map had tried to convince the Spartans of this possibility. The
situation was summed up by Aischylos, a participant in the battle of Salamis,
when he presented Xerxes as uttering the eloquent line (405):
uper pantwn agwn
"everything is at stake in the present fight"
my opinion, the King decided to double the normal table of organization of the
Persian army, which was 300,000 infantry and 50,000 cavalry, plus about one
non-combatant for each combatant. This would explain the figures of Herodotus
and the figures provided by other Greek writers. The apparent contradictions
noticed by Gobineau between the titles of the Persian officers and the number of
men under their command would be resolved. In the case of the cavalry, the
Persians did not succeed in filling up the intended strength, so that they
brought to Greece 20,000 men mounted on camels and on chariots whose usefulness
in that land was most dubious. The mobilization of the Persian army from Thrakia
to Arabia and from India to Egypt was such a complex operation that of necessity
it had to take a certain bureaucratic rigidity.
There are indications in Herodotus that the doubling of the army and of the
fleet was an idea of the King, and that it was opposed by his uncle Artabanos,
the brother of the late king Darius, and Xerxes' main military advisor. When the
King was about to cross the Dardanelles, Artabanos stated that nobody could find
fault with the size of the King's army and navy and that if the King insisted on
increasing his forces, the land and the sea would become his enemies (VII 49);
but the King replied that the greatest possible forces had to be risked if there
was a possibility of success (VII 50). Apparently Artabanos was asking the King
to cross into Europe with only the normal Persian force. Herodotus tells an
anecdote to the effect that after an inhabitant of the area had exclaimed,
addressing Xerxes: "Why, O god, have you assumed the shape of a Persian and
assumed the name of Xerxes, in order to lead the human race to the conquest of
Greece? You could have achieved the same result without going to that
trouble" (VII 56).
After the battle of Salamis, Mardonios convinced the King to withdraw from
Greece, leaving there a force of 300,000 infantry (VIII 100, 101). The King
withdrew from Greece with an army that must have been about equivalent to that
left with Mardonios; Herodotus (VII 100) declares that the King withdrew with
the greater part of the army because his basic estimate of the forces was in
excess. The following year the King waited with a part of the army in Sardis
while Mardonios continued the operations in Greece. This seems to have been the
plan that Artabanos had suggested in the first place: to strike Greece with the
normal Persian force while the King remained in Asia with the rest of the army
and navy. Herodotus reports that the first statement of the King at the
conference in which the war against Greece was discussed for the first time, was
that he had decided to add to the dunamis of Persia at least as much as it had
been increased by his predecessors (VII 8); the Greek term dunamis means
"military and political power," but also quite specifically
"force of war."
The Size of Persian Fleet
to the Main page: The Persian Wars
Histoire des Perses, Vol. II, p. 191.
Observations on the Persian Wars," The Journal of Hellenic Studies,
XXII (1902), pp. 294ff.
B. Grundy, The Great Persian War (London, 1901), p.
Delbrueck, Die Perserkriege und die Burgunderkriege (Berlin, 1887),
des Alterthums, Vol. III (Stuttgart, 1901), p. 377.
Delbrueck, Geschichte der Kriegskunst Vol. I (Berlin, 1920), p. 106.
Meyer, op. cit., p. 374f.
Obst, Der Feldzug des Xerxes in Klio, Beiheft 12 (Leipzig, 1914), p.
W. Tarn, "The Fleet of Xerxes," The Journal of Hellenic Studies
28 (1908), p. 208 n.
B. Bury, History of Greece third ed. (London, 1963), p. 269. Cf.
Munro, op. cit. (1902), pp. 296f.; Macan, Herodotus, The Seventh,
Eighth and Ninth Books, (London, 1908), Vol. II, p. 164.
Cohen, La Grece et l'hellenization du monde antique (Paris, 1934), p.
164. R. von Fischer, Das Zahlenproblem in Perserkriege 480-479 v. Chr."
Klio, N. F., vol. VII, pp. 289ff.
di storia greca, fourth ed. (Rome, 1961), p. 212.
Geschichte, ninth ed. (Munich, 1962), p. 140.
Geschichte, vol. I (1951), p. 253.
Rawlinson, History of Herodotus (New York, 1880), p. 26.
B. Bury, The Ancient Greek Historians (London, 1908).
is the Light on the Path to Future"
British Institute of Persian Studies