Incredible invasion: how the largest army in history ate itself

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Incredible invasion: how the largest army in history ate itself
Incredible invasion: how the largest army in history ate itself

Two and a half thousand years ago, in the spring of 480 BC, Xerxes, king of Persia, began ferrying his army across the Black Sea straits. The data of Herodotus about its million-strong population for centuries were considered fiction. However, recent decades indicate the opposite: most likely, the ancient Greek historian was right. Contrary to our usual ideas about antiquity, then it was possible to realize what seems possible only in the modern era. Let's try to figure out how Xerxes came up with something that historians until the end of the 20th century considered impossible.

Persian "immortals"

People imagine the history of mankind in a linear fashion. 300 thousand years ago, Homo sapiens were few, and they were inept. Four to five thousand years ago, they were already making pyramids, but they still could not do anything, and there were few of them. Two thousand years later, they were able to do a little more, but they still lived, in fact, in large villages, and in an extremely primitive way.

Such a picture of the world has taken root in us because it corresponds to the ideas of progress, as they were narrowly understood in Europe of the New Time. Then it was believed that since modern society is developing relatively quickly, it means that in the past societies were much less developed. The idea is simple, logical, but incorrect: it does not at all take into account the fact that in the past societies have repeatedly passed through cycles of degradation.


Nevertheless, the very idea of ​​the “primitiveness of the past” took root in the minds of many historians so deeply that Herodotus in modern Europe was perceived not as “the father of history” (as in Ancient Hellas), but as a storyteller. Let's take the position of a 19th century historian. The "story" of Herodotus tells the unimaginable: that a person can run 240 kilometers without stopping, that the Persians dug a canal through the Athos peninsula for more convenient advancement of the fleet - although that in the center is noticeably higher than sea level.

All this is clearly impossible, argued many scientists of that time. Nor can a horse or any other animal on Earth run 240 kilometers, let alone a man. And with the rest of the "father of history" the same - some fairy tales.

"Underground" miracle channel

In the 1990s, modern historians decided to check whether a channel was actually dug through the Athos peninsula by the Persians. According to Herodotus, the Persians dug it in order to avoid a dangerous rounding of the peninsula (during the first invasion, even before Xerxes, a large fleet of Darius died there in a storm). With the help of geophysical prospecting and drilling, scientists found out that such a channel was in fact there. Its width was at least 30 meters, and its depth was at least three meters with a length of more than two kilometers.


In the central part of the peninsula, where the surface is more than 15 meters above sea level, the canal ran well below the surface level: it had no locks, and so that the triremes could pass through it, the builders had to literally dig a route through the hill. The ships that passed through it went through a very deep trench 30 meters wide.

It is interesting that Herodotus, describing it, claims that the width, by order of Xerxes, was made such that it would allow two triremes to walk in parallel at once. With the oars working, one trier takes just under 14 meters.

It would seem that we are facing another miracle of the ancient world.In terms of the volume of earthworks, it is comparable only to the canal from the Nile to the Red Sea, built by Darius, the father of Xerxes. But what is the significance of the fact of its existence for history? We will explain this below.

The Million Army

According to Herodotus, the army with which Xerxes invaded Europe consisted of 1.78 million people. Of course, 19th century historians found it hard to believe: Napoleon's Grand Army was much smaller, and then faced big supply problems. And then, to maintain such an army, you need a powerful economy. How could the "primitive" peoples of antiquity have it?


The verdict of historians, starting with Hans Delbrück, was merciless: an army of this size, if it operated according to the norms of the European armies of the modern era, would stretch from Persia to the Dardanelles and could not be used in one place. Focusing on the logistics of the times of Prussia, he considered that the Persians could not have more than 80 thousand people, whom the historian attributed to ethnic Persians. All the stories about the conscription into the army of the empire of Xerxes of all its nationalities, he wrote off to Herodotus' tales.

Delbrück's opinion has long been dominant, but over time, questions have arisen. And the key was the fleet. Let us recall Aeschylus, a participant in the naval war of 480 BC, the author of a number of tragedies that took place in the Athenian theater. In 472 BC, just eight years after the Persian invasion, he staged the play The Persians, in which he described the enemy's fleet in the Battle of Salamis as follows:

“About three hundred in total

The Greeks turned out to have ships, but to them

There are ten selected. And Xerxes has a thousand

There were ships - this is not counting those

Two hundred and seven, special speed."

Aeschylus is a participant in the battle, and he saw with his own eyes the size of the Persian fleet. The people sitting in the Athenian theater were rowers and warriors on 180 Athenian triremes in the same battle (the total number of their crews was about 36 thousand men, most of the adult Athenian citizens).

If you stage the play among eyewitnesses of the events, then you will not distort: ​​it will be too easy to catch you. Aeschylus could not risk his reputation: he was the greatest playwright of this period, and any accusation of untruthfulness would have grave consequences for him. Finally, not a single modern source on the events of 480 BC. does not give other figures for the number of the Persian naval armada.

Important: triremes and warships took part in the battle. They are highly specialized vessels: they have no ballast, they float on the surface even after a shipwreck, and for maximum combat speed they have three rows of oars, the lower one very close to the water. Therefore, they were practically unsuitable for the carriage of goods and did not have their own significant supplies on board. They needed a fleet of supply vessels. Herodotus claims that the Persians had another three thousand of them.

This evidence looks reliable: operating at a distance from their bases, the Persians simply could not operate triremes without the presence of support ships, which should have been more than the main ships. The trier simply does not have enough fresh water and food for a long independent voyage. For the Greeks, the crews of the ships found it easier than ever to take water and food on the shore, but the Persians in Hellas could not count on this.


And here a big problem arises: this size of the fleet is incompatible with Delbrück's idea that the ancients could not support large armies. The triremes are well known from the pictures: they require 170 rowers, plus 30 fighters. 1200 triremes are 240 thousand people, no options. Supply vessels can accommodate a smaller crew, but there are more of them, so they should have about the same number of people. That is, one Persian fleet, the number of which clearly follows from the many testimonies of contemporaries, should have had half a million people.

On 1200 triremes, you can transfer 36,000 infantry at once.The 3,000 support ships are even more, as they carry fewer rowers, rely more on sails, and therefore leave more volume for cargo and passengers. The question arises: if Delbrück is right, and there were only 80 thousand people in the Persian army, why did not the Persians simply cross the Aegean by ships? Why did they build two bridges across the Dardanelles and dug a canal on the way of their fleet after crossing to Europe?

And by the way, about bridges …

The Greatest Pontoon Bridge Building Miracle of All Time

The fact that the Persians built a bridge across the sea strait, for the first time connecting Europe and Asia, is described not only by Herodotus, but, in general, in all ancient sources about the invasion of Xerxes. Moreover, it is specified everywhere: there were two bridges. The question is, how in ancient times it was possible to quickly build many kilometers of bridges across the sea? And why was this done?

The first question is easy to answer. Struck by the strangeness of the event, Herodotus described it in relative detail, referring to eyewitness accounts. Bridges were made of pontoons. As such, a small number of triremes and a significant number of penteconters were used - fifty-oar light ships with one rowing deck. This vessel is three dozen long and no more than four meters wide, with a crew of 80 people. A total of 674 ships were used for two bridges.


This alone shows that the Greek authors' estimate of the size of the Persian fleet is correct. Two bridges across the sea: one for the army, the other for its supply columns (they walked along a parallel road) - required 674 ships (for fifty thousand crew), and the Persians easily sacrificed them. No one will sacrifice such an armada if he does not have thousands of other ships. It turns out that the message of Herodotus about 4, 2 thousand ships of Xerxes is quite reliable.

But this is not the only detail that can be used to explain the situation with the size of the Persian army. We use logic. At that time there were seaports on both banks of the Dardanelles. The Persians have more than four thousand ships capable of transporting long distances (hundreds of kilometers): triremes - from 30 infantry men, penteconters - up to 20. Let's take the number of ships for four thousand, the capacity of each - for 20. It turns out that in one voyage they can transport 80 thousand people.


The speed of rowing ships of that time during the rest of the rowers was not less than 9 kilometers per hour. Let's say the journey from one port to another will take several hours - but all the same, the Persians can transfer 160 thousand in a day.

If their army numbers several hundred thousand people, then there is no point in building two bridges across the sea. It's easier to ferry everyone across the straits by ships, and then go on land. Why didn't the Persians do that? The answer lies elsewhere from Herodotus:

“Having crossed to Europe, Xerxes began to observe the crossing of his troops, moving across the bridge under the blows of scourges. The passage of the tsarist army continued for seven days and seven nights without rest."

The width of each of the bridges would hardly be less than the width of the pontoons (which were the penteconters deployed across the bridges). That is, it was at least 30 meters, like an eight-lane highway, and there were two bridges. This means that their throughput is very high: at least ten thousand people should pass through the bridge 2-3 kilometers in an hour.

It turns out that in any case, more than a million soldiers and a huge number of oxen and other livestock should be transported across the strait. If so, then the need to build bridges is understandable. It is quite difficult to transport so many people, cattle and horses on ships: during storms, which are frequent in the area, the transport will have to be stopped, and then the army will be divided into two parts.

In other words, two pontoon bridges across the Black Sea straits can only be explained in this way: Herodotus's instructions on the huge size of the Persian army are correct, because no other reasonable explanation for the expenditure of 674 ships on pontoons for bridges can be invented.

Actually, many other reports about the preparation of the Persians for war cannot be explained otherwise than by the number of millions of their army. She was described as comprised of a wide variety of nationalities, recruited from the Indian to the Libyan portions of the Achaemenid empire. To understand the scale and comprehensiveness of such mobilization, it is enough to recall the following from Herodotus:

“On the way, the Lydian Pythias approached Xerxes and said:“Master! I have five sons. It fell to them all to go with you on a campaign to Hellas. Take pity, O king, over my advanced years and release one of my eldest son from the campaign, so that he will take care of me and dispose of my property. Take the other four with you, and I wish you a happy return and the fulfillment of your plans."

And Xerxes, in terrible anger, answered him with these words: “You wretch!.. Now that you have shown yourself to be an impudent person, you still will not suffer a well-deserved punishment, but less than a well-deserved one. Your hospitality will save you and your four sons. But the one to whom you are most attached will be executed.” Having given such an answer, the king immediately ordered the executioners to find the eldest son of Pythias and cut it in half, and then put one half of the body on the right side of the path, and the other on the left, where the army was supposed to pass.

The executioners carried out the royal command, and the army passed between the halves of the body."

This is the behavior of people who have problems with the number of conscripts and their evasion from service. Meanwhile, the population of the Persian Empire at that time was about 50 million people. No one will call for five people from the family of a rich man, like the Pythias, if he does not have an urgent need for it.

Of course, an army of this size was extremely difficult to feed in a relatively small Greece. Despite the fact that the Persians began to pull grain and other resources to the west of Asia Minor several years before the invasion, it was nevertheless quickly discovered that it was very difficult to deliver them into the depths of Greece - also because the Greek combined fleet could always attack the sea. delivery routes, and overland transportation was much more complicated.

As a result, as the same Herodotus emphasizes, the army experienced hunger:

“Xerxes hastily moved towards the Hellespont and arrived at the crossing in 45 days. The tsar brought with him, one might say, the pitiful remnants of the army. Wherever and to whatever people the Persians came, everywhere they got their bread by robbery. If they did not find bread, then they ate grass on the ground, ripped off the bark of trees and cut off the tree foliage of both garden and wild trees for food, leaving nothing. Hunger prompted them to do this. In addition, on the way, the army was struck by a plague and bloody diarrhea, which killed the soldiers. The sick had to be left, entrusting food and care to the cities through which the king passed. Some had to be left in Thessaly, others in Siris, in Paeonia, and in Macedonia."


It should be noted that the unreality of supplying such a huge army to Xerxes even before the invasion of Europe was pointed out by his uncle Artaban: "… I suppose, if you do not even meet resistance … we will begin to suffer from hunger."

As we can see, although Delbrück and other historians were wrong in denying the very possibility of the concentration of huge armies in antiquity, in some ways their assessment is logical. The Persians were in fact taking great risks by recruiting a million-strong army and trying to supply it in Greece, where, unlike the Achaemenid empire itself, there was no effective network of wide roads suitable for supplying huge masses of people.

How Xerxes' Record Army Size Lead Him to Defeat

It turns out that the Persians concentrated an army of millions in size on a record small piece of land, literally squeezed an elephant into the bottleneck. Even in the twentieth century, such huge groups were trying not to concentrate so closely: it is elementary dangerous for them. And not only in terms of supply, but also due to the threat of an epidemic.

A natural question arises.If the risk of starvation for such a huge army was clear to Xerxes' uncle even before the crossing to Europe, then why was it not clear to the king himself? According to Herodotus, his counterarguments on supply difficulties were:

“Artaban! Everything you say is absolutely correct. Nevertheless, one should not be afraid of adversity everywhere and attach importance to everything equally. If you had thought of weighing all possible grave consequences at any unforeseen accident, you would never have done anything. It is better to dare to do anything and experience half the dangers than to be afraid in advance of how he might suffer in some way later … But can a person even know the right path? I think not. Those who decide to act are usually lucky. And whoever does nothing that thinks about everything and hesitates is unlikely to be the winner … Having conquered the whole of Europe, we will then return back without experiencing either hunger or any other misfortune. After all, we, firstly, go on a campaign ourselves with large supplies [of food], and then, whatever country and nationality we come to, we will take from them all the bread [that will be there]. We are going to war against the farmers, not against the nomads."

The first part of the argument of the leader of the largest army of antiquity is shocking. These are the same “we need to get involved in a fight, and then the war will show the plan” and “what is there to think, shake it”, which are ridiculed in numerous anecdotes about the army and the military in our country.


The second point looks more reasonable: the Persians concentrated large reserves in the west of Asia Minor for several years, and besides, they really went to fight with the farmers, and not the nomads. Why have they not been helped by their own as well as local food supplies?

The key problem was that the Persians, firstly, did not plan to lose their dominance at sea, through which it was possible to deliver food from Asia Minor, and after the defeat at Salamis, this dominance was lost, it turned out that a quick delivery was no longer possible.

The second problem was that Hellas was, compared to the Persian Empire, not particularly populated or rich. Again a word to Herodotus:

“The Hellenic cities, which received the Persian army and were supposed to treat Xerxes, fell into great need, so that their citizens even lost their homes and property … the Thasians … for example, the treat cost 400 talents in silver … The costs were approximately the same. other cities, as shown by the reports of the chiefs [in charge of the food supply of the troops]”.

In fact, we are talking about a small amount: 400 talents is just 10 tons of silver. Xerxes' annual income in terms of silver was 14,500 talents (or hundreds of tons of silver). But for Ancient Greece, these were unaffordable expenses: the strongest Hellenic union of the 5th century BC, Delossky, which controlled Athens, had an annual expenditure of only 460 talents of silver.

The difference in the wealth of these parts of the world was natural. Around 480 BC The Persian kingdom controlled an estimated 50 million people. The population of Ancient Greece never exceeded 5 million. To lead a million-strong army into such a region without detailed reconnaissance is, in fact, a gamble.

Why did Xerxes go for her? Judging by his position in the retelling of Herodotus, he was, as they say, "a risky guy." But this is not the only reason. As far as we can understand, from childhood he grew up in an environment where it was explained to him that he was the very best, the best of the best, and the like. Even his name means "a hero among kings." If we from birth instill in a person the idea that he is exceptional, he will not only believe in it, but will also act in such a way as to demonstrate that he is exceptional.


And there are a lot of such episodes in his biography. At the beginning of the construction of the bridge, he ordered to carve the raging sea, which interfered with the crossing, and to throw shackles into it. Xerxes was not an idiot: after these measures, he noted that he regretted that the seas were not subject to either kings or gods.That is, his flogging of the sea was clearly a symbolic act. But the episode indicates that he needed to demonstrate his power over everything.

And the need for demonstrative actions designed to satisfy their own intracranial cockroaches (and not their own objectively existing needs) does not lead to good. It can actually interfere with making smart decisions.

Let's take the same channel through the Athos Peninsula, passing below ground level. Already Herodotus noted that it was much easier to do the drag. Why did the Persians dig it with the hands of the local population? The "father of history" attributes this to Xerxes' vanity. But it seems that he is not quite right. If the king has convinced himself that he must demonstrate what is superior to all others, then such a channel may well be a demonstrator.

A similar situation could have developed with the army. Objectively speaking, Xerxes did not have any need for 1.7 million soldiers in Hellas. But he emphasized that the very demonstration of such a huge army to the Greeks should demoralize them. As we know, this is not entirely true: some of the Greeks continued to resist, despite the enemy's superiority in people. But what if Xerxes did not understand this and expected his army to make a deeper impression on the Greeks?

Ultimately, the king's passion for gigantomania and demonstration of his exclusiveness ended sadly for him. He relied on a large number of his ships and risked a fight with the Greeks in the narrow strait of Salamis, where the numerical superiority of the Persian fleet was impossible to make good use of. Without naval supplies, his huge army was doomed and he fled. Undoubtedly, there was no point in such a number of them: half the size - only less would suffer from hunger.

But, nevertheless, one cannot but admit: Xerxes' love for the protrusion of his exceptional capabilities is very useful, from the point of view of modern historians. It clearly shows the unevenness of material and technical progress over the past 2,500 years. Neither five hundred nor a thousand years ago, no one could have assembled such huge armies, especially on such a small piece of land as northern Hellas.

It seems that the empires of antiquity, due to a thriving economy and a huge population, were much more advanced than they thought until recently. Perhaps we should turn our noses up less, comparing the possibilities of modern civilization with those that existed even thousands of years ago.

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