Incredible invasion: how the largest army in history ate itself

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 crossing with his army across the Black Sea straits. Herodotus' data were considered fiction for a number of centuries. However, findings that took place in recent decades indicate the opposite: most likely, the ancient Greek historian was right. 

Contrary to historians' notions of antiquity, new data has made it clear: Xerxes performed something historians considered impossible until the end of the 20th century.

People imagine the history of mankind linearly. 200,000 years ago , Homo sapiens were a small, inept group. Four or five thousand years ago, humans already build pyramids, but still there were not enough people to build more complex societal structures. 

Two thousand years later they were able to do a little more, but still lived in large villages, in an extremely primitive societal structure.


Such a picture of the world has become firmly established because it corresponds to the ideas of progress, as they were narrowly understood in modern Europe. Then it was believed that since modern society is developing relatively rapidly, then 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 repeatedly went through cycles of development and degradation.

Nevertheless, the very idea of ​​the primitiveness of the past has taken root so deeply in the minds of many historians that Herodotus in modern Europe was not perceived as the “father of history” (as in Ancient Greece), but as a storyteller. 

The Xerxes Canal

The stories of Herodotus tell the unimaginable: that a person can run 240 kilometers without stopping, that the Persians, to protect their fleet, dug a canal through the Athos Peninsula - although in the center it was noticeably higher than sea level.

All this is clearly impossible, argued many scientists of that time. Neither horse nor any other animal on Earth can run 240 kilometers without stopping, let alone men. The rest of his records were also considered fairy tales. 

In the 1990s, modern historians decided to check whether the canal was actually dug through the Athos peninsula. According to Herodotus, the Persians dug through it in order to avoid dangerous sail around the peninsula (during the first invasion, before Xerxes, Darius lost his large fleet in a storm). 

Using geophysical exploration and drilling, scientists have discovered that such a channel was actually there. Its width was about 30 meters, and its depth was not less than three meters with a length of more than two kilometers.

Photo of the Athos Peninsula from the stratosphere with the Xerxes channel applied to it by a graphic editor. The overlay was done at that point on the peninsula where the real canal was located, the central part of which was 15 meters below the surrounding area
Xerxes ordered the canal's construction as part of the preparations for his intended invasion of Greece in 480 BC.

In the central part of the peninsula, where the surface is more than 15 meters above sea level, the canal went much lower than the surface level: it had no locks, and so the triremes (ancient oar-driven warships) could pass through it, the builders had to literally dig a route through the hill. The vessels that passed through it went through a very deep trench of 30 meters wide.

It is interesting that Herodotus, describing the canal, claims that the width, by order of Xerxes, was made so that it allowed two triremes to go simultaneously in parallel. With working oars, one trireme takes up a little less than 14 meters.

It would seem that this is yet another miracle of the ancient world. In terms of excavation, it is only comparable to the Ancient Suez Canal (Canal of the Pharaohs), a canal from the Nile to the Red Sea, built by Darius, father of Xerxes. But what does the fact of its coexistence have for history? We will explain this below.

The size of Xerxes forces during the second invasion of Greece


According to Herodotus, the army with which Xerxes invaded Europe consisted of approximately 2.5 million military personnel. Of course, it was difficult for 19th-century historians to believe this estimate: the Napoleon's great army was much smaller, and it faced great supply problems as a consequence. 

To maintain such an army, a powerful economy is needed. How could the "primitive" people of antiquity achieve it then? Only part of Greece fought with the Persians. Despite its modest size and population, Greece was able to put up a fleet with a crew of 60 thousand people. The huge Achaemenid Empire (522 BC - 486 BC) was clearly able to recruit a much larger fleet and army.

The verdict of historians, beginning with Hans Delbrück (1848-1929), was merciless: an army of this size, acting according to the norms of the European armies of the New Age, would have stretched from Persia to the Dardanelles and could not have been utilized in one place. 

Focusing on the logistics of the time, 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 multinational draft in Xerxes' empire, he wrote off as Herodotus's tales.

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

Know then, in numbers the barbaric fleet
Was far superior: in ten squadrons, each
Of thirty ships, Greece ploughed the deep; of these
One held a distant station. Xerxes led
A thousand ships; their number well I know;
Two hundred more, and seven, that swept the seas
With speediest sail: this was their full amount.

Aeschylus - a participant in the battle, 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 Athenian citizens were adults).

If you stage a play among eyewitnesses of the events, you will not distort: ​​it will be too easy to convict you. Aeschylus could not risk his reputation: he was the greatest playwright of his 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 Persian naval armada.

Triremes are highly specialized vessels: they had no ballast, and continued to float even after being shipwrecked. For maximum combat speed they had three rows of oars, the lower of which was very close to the water. Therefore, they were practically unsuitable for transportation of goods and did not have their own significant reserves on board. They needed a fleet of supply vessels. Herodotus claims that the Persians had another three thousand supply ships.

This evidence seems reliable: acting at a distance from their bases, the Persians simply could not operate triremes without the availability of support vessels, which should have been more than the main ships. On the trireme there is simply no enough fresh water and food for a long independent sail. The Greek crews could pick up supplies on the shore, but the Persians could not count on it.

Exact reconstruction of the trireme according to excavations in Piraeus. The number of rowers on this vessel is 170, with 30 infantry men. The very presence of one and a half thousand triremes among the Greeks and Persians makes the naval battle of Salamis the largest of all in history by the number of personnel.
Exact reconstruction of a trireme according to excavations in Piraeus. The number of rowers on this vessel is 170, with 30 infantry men. The very presence of one and a half thousand triremes among the Greeks and Persians makes the naval battle of Salamis the largest of all in history by the number of personnel.

And here a big problem arises: such a fleet size is incompatible with Delbrück's idea that the ancients could not contain large armies. Triremes needed 170 rowers, plus 30 soldiers. It follows that 1200 triremes had to be manned by 240,000 people. 

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 at least 500,000 people.

Using 1200 triremes, you can immediately transfer 36,000 soldiers. On 3,000 auxiliary ships - even more, because they carry fewer rowers, rely more on sails, and therefore have more space for cargo and passengers. 

A question arises: if Delbrück is right, and there were only 80 thousand people in the Persian army, why did the Persians simply not cross the Aegean Sea in ships? Why did they build two bridges over the Dardanelles and dig a canal in the path of their fleet after crossing to Europe?

Xerxes' Pontoon Bridges

The fact that the Persians built a bridge across the strait, connecting Europe and Asia for the first time, is described not only in Herodotus' records, but, in general, in all ancient sources describing the invasion of Xerxes. All sources also agree that there were two bridges. The question is, how in ancient times it was possible to quickly build multi-kilometer bridges across the sea? And why was this done?

The first question is easy to answer. Struck by the unusual nature of the event, Herodotus described it in relatively detail, referring to eyewitness accounts. Bridges were made of pontoons. As such, a small number of triremes and a significant number of penteconters — fifty lightweight ships with one rowing deck — were used. This ship was three dozen long and no more than four meters wide, with a crew of 80 people. Two bridges required 674 such ships.

Part of one of the two Xerxes bridges in the artist's view. According to Herodotus, a wooden flooring was stuffed on ships, over which a layer of soil was poured
Part of one of the two Xerxes bridges in the artist's view. According to Herodotus, a wooden flooring was stuffed on ships, over which a layer of soil was poured.

From this one it is clear: the estimate of the size of the Persian fleet by Greek authors is correct. Two bridges across the sea: one for the army, the other for the columns of its supply (they went along a parallel road) - demanded 674 ships (for fifty thousand crew members), and the Persians easily sacrificed them. No one will donate such an armada if he does not have thousands of other ships. It turns out that Herodotus' estimate of the number of Xerxes' ships is quite reliable.

But this is not the only detail with which it is possible explain the size of the Persian army. We use logic. Seaports were located on both banks of the Dardanelles at that time. The Persians had more than four thousand vessels capable of transporting people and supplies considerable distances (hundreds of kilometers): at least 30 infantry men in triremes, and up to 20 men in penteconters. If we assume the number of vessels was 4,000, the capacity of each to transport 20 people. It turns out that in one trip the persians could transport 80 thousand people.

A small model of penteconter in a Greek museum. Such ships were about 30 meters long, and carried 50 rowers and another 30 landing troops.
A small model of penteconter in a Greek museum. Such ships were about 30 meters long, and carried 50 rowers and another 30 landing troops

The speed of rowing vessels of that time was at least 9 kilometers per hour. Suppose a trip from one port to another takes several hours - but all the same, the Persians could transfer 160 thousand per day.

If their army numbers are only several hundreds of thousands of people, then there is no point in building two bridges across the sea. It’s easier to transport everyone across the straits by ships, and then continue on land. Why did the Persians not do that? The answer lies elsewhere in Herodotus' records.

The width of each of the bridges would hardly be less than the width of the pontoons (which were penteconters deployed across the bridges). That is, it was at least 30 meters, like an eight-lane highway, and two bridges. This means that their throughput is very high: at least ten thousand people must pass through the bridge in 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 cattle should be transported through the strait. If so, the need for bridge construction is understandable. Transporting so many people, cattle and horses on ships is quite difficult: during storms, frequent in this area, transportation will have to be stopped, and then the army will be split into two parts.

In other words, two pontoon bridges across the Black Sea straits can only be explained as follows: Herodotus’s indications of the enormous size of the Persian army are correct, because no other reasonable explanation for the consumption of 674 ships for pontoons for bridges can be devised.

Actually, many other reports about the preparation of the Persians for war cannot be explained otherwise than by the millionth size of their army. According to descriptions, it consisted of a variety of nationalities recruited from the Indian to the Libyan parts of the Achaemenid empire. To understand the scale and inclusiveness of such a mobilization, it is enough to recall the following from Herodotus:

“On the way, Lydian Pythius approached Xerxes and said:“ Lord! I have five sons. It all fell to them all to go hiking with you on Hellas. Take pity, O King, over my advanced years and free one of my eldest son from the campaign, so that he takes care of me and disposes of my property. Take the four others with you, and I wish you a happy return and fulfillment of your plans. ”

And Xerxes in terrible anger answered him with these words: “Scoundrel! .. Now that you have proved yourself insolent, you still will not suffer a well-deserved punishment, but less well-deserved. 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 them in half, and then put one half of the body on the right side of the road and the other on the left, where the army was supposed to go.
The executioners fulfilled the imperial command, and the army passed between the halves of the body. "

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

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

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


“Xerxes hastily moved to the Hellespont and arrived at the crossing point in 45 days. The king brought with him, one might say, miserable remnants of the army. Wherever and to what people the Persians came, everywhere they got their bread by robbery. If they didn’t find bread, they ate grass on the ground, peeled the bark of trees and tore off the foliage of both garden and wild trees for food, leaving nothing. This was prompted by hunger. In addition, the plague and bloody diarrhea that destroyed the warriors hit the army along the way. The patients had to be left, entrusting food and care for them to the cities through which the king passed. Some had to be left in Thessaly, others in Syris, in Peony, and in Macedonia. ”Unlike the first Persian campaign in Greece in 490 BC, the invasion of Xerxes took place without major battles on land: the king’s army was so large that they simply did not dare to fight it on land and win the Hellenes.Unlike the first Persian campaign in Greece in 490 BC, the invasion of Xerxes took place without major battles on land: the king’s army was so large that they simply did not dare to fight it on land and win the Hellenes / © Wikimedia Commons

It should be noted: the unreality of supplying such a huge army to Xerxes even before the invasion of Europe was indicated 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 concentrating huge armies in antiquity, their assessment is logical in some ways. The Persians actually took great risks, 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 the record size of Xerxes army led 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 so hard not to concentrate: it was elementarily dangerous for themselves. And not only in terms of supply, but also because of the threat of an epidemic.

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

“Artaban! Everything that you say is absolutely correct. Nevertheless, one should not be afraid of adversity everywhere and give equal importance to everything. If you had thought, at any unforeseen chance, to weigh all possible grave consequences, you would never have done anything. It is better to dare at all and experience half of the dangers, than to be afraid in advance of how not to suffer somehow later ... Can a person even know the right way? It seems that no. Those who decide to act usually have good luck. And whoever does what he thinks about everything and hesitates is unlikely to be the winner ... Having conquered all of Europe, we will then go back without experiencing either hunger or any other disaster. After all, first of all, we ourselves go on a hike with large supplies of [food], and then, no matter what country or nation we come to, we will take from them all the bread [which will be there]. We are going to war on farmers, not on nomads. ”

The first part of the argument of the leader of the largest army of antiquity is shocking. These are the same “you need to get involved in a fight, and then the war will show the plan” and “what you need to think, you need to shake”, which are ridiculed in numerous jokes about the army and military in our country.The battle of the island of Salamis caused Xerxes to retreat, despite dominance on land. Without sea supplies in Hellas, the millionth Persian army risked a banal death from hunger.The battle of the island of Salamis caused Xerxes to retreat, despite dominance on land. Without sea supplies in Hellas, the millionth Persian army risked a banal death from hunger / © Wikimedia Commons

The second point looks more reasonable: the Persians concentrated large reserves in the West of Asia Minor for several years, and in addition, they really went to fight with the farmers, and not the nomads. Why did not their own help them, as well as local food supplies?

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

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

“The Hellenic cities, which hosted the Persian army and were supposed to treat Xerxes, fell into great need, so that their citizens even lost their homes and property ... to the beggars ... for example, the treat cost 400 talents in silver ... The costs were about as great 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 are just 10 tons of silver. Xerxes' annual earnings in terms of silver amounted to 14,500 talents (or hundreds of tons of silver). But for Ancient Greece it was an overwhelming waste: the strongest Hellenic alliance of the 5th century BC, Delossky, which controlled Athens, had annual expenses of only 460 silver talents.

The difference in the wealth of these parts of the world was logical. Around 480 BC The Persian kingdom controlled approximately 50 million people. The population of ancient Greece never exceeded 5 million. To lead a millionth army into such a region without detailed reconnaissance is essentially a gamble.

Why did Xerxes go to 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 they explained to him that he is the very, very best, the best of the best, and the like. Even his name means "a hero among the kings." If from birth we instill in a person the thought that he is exceptional, he will not only believe in it, but will act in such a way as to demonstrate that he is exceptional.



Execution of Xerxes’s command to flog the sea for misconduct as presented by the artist.Execution of Xerxes’s command to flog the sea for misconduct as presented by the artist / © Wikimedia Commons

And there are plenty of such episodes in his biography. At the beginning of the construction of the bridge, he ordered to carve out the raging sea, which interfered with the crossing, and throw shackles at him. Xerxes was not an idiot: after these measures, he noted that he regrets that the seas are not subject to either kings or gods. That is, flogging the sea on his part was clearly a symbolic action. But the episode indicates: he needed everyone to demonstrate his power.

And the need for demonstrative actions designed to satisfy their own intracranial cockroaches (rather than their own objectively existing needs) does not bring to good. She is indeed capable of hindering the adoption of reasonable decisions.

Take the same channel through the Athos Peninsula, which passed below ground level. Herodotus already noted that it was much easier to make a reload. Why did the Persians, at the hands of the local population, dig it? The Father of History attributes this to the vanity of Xerxes. But, it seems, 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 be with the army. Objectively speaking, Xerxes had no need for 1.7 million warriors 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 Hellenes continued to resist, despite the superiority of the enemy in humans. 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 the demonstration of his exclusivity ended sadly for him. He relied on a large number of his ships and ventured to fight the Greeks in the narrow strait at Salamis, where the numerical superiority of the Persian fleet was impossible to really use. Without sea supply, his huge army was doomed, and he fled. Undoubtedly, there was no sense in such a number: half as much - it would suffer less from hunger.

But, nevertheless, one cannot fail to admit: Xerxes’s love for sticking out his exceptional abilities is very useful, from the point of view of modern historians. It clearly shows the unevenness of material and technical progress over the past 2500 years. Neither five hundred nor a thousand years ago could anyone have gathered such huge armies, especially on such a small piece of land as northern Hellas.

It seems that the empires of antiquity, due to a prosperous economy and a huge population, were much more advanced than they had only recently thought. Perhaps we should lift our nose less, comparing the capabilities of modern civilization with those that existed even thousands of years ago.