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The Number Problem in the Persian Wars 480-479 BCE
#1
Hi,

way back in the day I contributed to some threads on Xerxes' invasion of Greece, and why an army of 1,800,000 soldiers or 300,000 soldiers or 180,000 soldiers is up there with "and then Zeus smote them all with lightning for sacrilege" or "and when they saw the rightful king and his ten followers, everyone bowed down and deserted the pretender" in terms of believability. Quite a few people cite an English article by F. Maurice who believed up to 150,000 soldiers could have been fed and watered, but not many know a German article by Robert von Fischer who looked at the whole route and the whole description and decided that around 40,000 soldiers was most plausible. Like Maurice, he was a trained and experienced staff officer, and his assumptions about things like the amount of baggage are pretty close to the best guesses of people like Jonathan Roth for the Roman army (because, yes, these things vary! But they only vary so far, and its much easier to make an army bulkier or slower than a 1914 vintage army than to make it more compact and swift-marching).

I have a summary and translated excerpts on my site.
Nullis in verba

I have not checked this forum frequently since 2013, but I hope that these old posts have some value. I now have a blog on books, swords, and the curious things humans do with them.
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#2
(08-11-2019, 09:02 AM)Sean Manning Wrote: Hi,

  way back in the day I contributed to some threads on Xerxes' invasion of Greece, and why an army of 1,800,000 soldiers or 300,000 soldiers or 180,000 soldiers is up there with "and then Zeus smote them all with lightning for sacrilege" or "and when they saw the rightful king and his ten followers, everyone bowed down and deserted the pretender" in terms of believability.  Quite a few people cite an English article by F. Maurice who believed up to 150,000 soldiers could have been fed and watered, but not many know a German article by Robert von Fischer who looked at the whole route and the whole description and decided that around 40,000 soldiers was most plausible.  Like Maurice, he was a trained and experienced staff officer, and his assumptions about things like the amount of baggage are pretty close to the best guesses of people like Jonathan Roth for the Roman army (because, yes, these things vary!  But they only vary so far, and its much easier to make an army bulkier or slower than a 1914 vintage army than to make it more compact and swift-marching).

  I have a summary and translated excerpts on my site.

The argument is interesting, but in modern reconstructions there are a lot of bias. First of all is to think that the ancients were incapable of planning and organizing.

We can reply to your observations with the same Roth's words: "Numbers in any ancient source should neither be accepted nor rejected categorically and the best method for judging numbers is to look at their plausibility, and coherence."

So, what we know? That Persians, with all the power of their massive empire, where invading the small greece.
[Image: AchaemenidMapBehistunInscription.png]

The small Greece where able to deploy hundreds of navies, and despite this they were in clear numerical inferiority. It is absolutely coherent that for the ground army the situation was the same.

Is it all? No. In some reconstructions what is used as RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) to establish how many soldiers a region could sustain? The 20th century RDA of the USA army... nice, another bias, because it is highly plausible that ancient soldiers where less tall and on average older.

And, finally, we are talking about the persian army, not about a group of people who have lost their way. It is largely plausible and coherent that, apart what was possible to find in the regions where they moved (pillaging), they were able to count on supplies from local allied and in supplies from the empire.

So, at the end, probably we are not talking about an army one million strong, but we are talking about a massive army.
- CaesarAugustus
www.romanempire.cloud
(Marco Parente)
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#3
(08-20-2019, 08:15 AM)CaesarAugustus Wrote: The argument is interesting, but in modern reconstructions there are a lot of bias. First of all is to think that the ancients were incapable of planning and organizing.
Hi Marco,

No, the argument is that the Persians were not able to solve problems which no other army before the Napoleonic Wars solved, and that armies of 80,000 men or 160,000 men behave in ways which Xerxes' army in Herodotus does not. In science, we call this uniformitarianism and avoiding special pleading.

I don't know the Chinese and Indian sources as well as the Near Eastern and European, but every time I try to back up claims for armies of hundreds of thousands of men in ancient China, I find the kind of things that if they were written in Akkadian or Latin nobody would take seriously, its all round figures in stories.

Comparative evidence for food requirements varies, but only within limits (and we actually have ancient Greek rules of thumb in Herodotus and Thucydides, and earlier Mesopotamian ones, we can compare them to the ones used in recent handbooks). To support armies in the high tens of thousands, Romans and Hapsburgs and Turks had to store supplies along their route in advance, transport supplies by water, and forage. Those let them feed and move armies of tens of thousands of men, but not hundreds of thousands of men. In world history, the first good evidence for armies of hundreds of thousands of men seems to be around the Napoleonic Wars (contemporary documents are good evidence. itemized lists of contingents by a contemporary supported by other sources is good evidence. round numbers in a famous writer long afterwards are not good evidence).

The only way we know that Greek fleets were outnumbered is Herodotus and the early poets, and more than a hundred years ago Hans Delbrück pointed out that almost everyone says they were outnumbered by the enemy (I am sure that if you asked the Gauls or the Britons, they would say that the Romans outnumbered them, but that is not what Caesar says). Herodotus seems to have got his numbers for the Persian fleet from Aeschylus who probably got them from Homer's Catalogue of Ships (so the Persians having 1,200 ships tell us that Asia invading Europe was just as important as Europe invading Asia long ago, the story Herodotus begins the Histories with ... Thucydides also begins his history by arguing that his war is at least as important as the Trojan War).
Nullis in verba

I have not checked this forum frequently since 2013, but I hope that these old posts have some value. I now have a blog on books, swords, and the curious things humans do with them.
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#4
I cant say I've ever been able to reconcile the numbers myself, it may be that a figure of a million just means more then you can possible imagine or an irresistable force rather then the actual number involved in the campaign, its clear though that any substantially large force relying on the land would quickly "empty the granarys and drink the rivers dry" of any region they marched through.


To know the real numbers in anycase the Greeks would have had to have access to the roles of the Persian army at least, and if they did they may well believe they were facing an invasion of 1,000,000+, its not difficult to believe that the Persian Empire could count on such numbers, even if in all practicalitys it wasn't possible to amass this number as a single cohesive force.



So I'm for a much more reasonable number, though 40.000 doesn't sound enough to me as I don't think it would frighten the Greeks en masse into surrender, which would surely be the point.

A staged advance with colomns numbering in the 10s of thousands, with a strong advance guard taking strategic points (either by diplomacy or force of arms) such as ports and creating supply bases as they go would seem more logical and the strong Persian Navy would doubtless aid in this, under these circumstances I think an army numbering 150,000 becomes less unreasonable and even perhaps rather conservative, and would doubtless prove a real threat to the Greeks.


Just my opinion not written in stone.
Ivor

"And the four bare walls stand on the seashore. a wreck a skeleton a monument of that instability and vicissitude to which all things human are subject. Not a dwelling within sight, and the farm labourer, and curious traveller, are the only persons that ever visit the scene where once so many thousands were congregated." T.Lewin 1867
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#5
(08-21-2019, 06:54 AM)Sean Manning Wrote:
(08-20-2019, 08:15 AM)CaesarAugustus Wrote: The argument is interesting, but in modern reconstructions there are a lot of bias. First of all is to think that the ancients were incapable of planning and organizing.
Hi Marco,

  No, the argument is that the Persians were not able to solve problems which no other army before the Napoleonic Wars solved, and that armies of 80,000 men or 160,000 men behave in ways which Xerxes' army in Herodotus does not.  In science, we call this uniformitarianism and avoiding special pleading.

  I don't know the Chinese and Indian sources as well as the Near Eastern and European, but every time I try to back up claims for armies of hundreds of thousands of men in ancient China, I find the kind of things that if they were written in Akkadian or Latin nobody would take seriously, its all round figures in stories. 

  Comparative evidence for food requirements varies, but only within limits (and we actually have ancient Greek rules of thumb in Herodotus and Thucydides, and earlier Mesopotamian ones, we can compare them to the ones used in recent handbooks).  To support armies in the high tens of thousands, Romans and Hapsburgs and Turks had to store supplies along their route in advance, transport supplies by water, and forage.  Those let them feed and move armies of tens of thousands of men, but not hundreds of thousands of men.  In world history, the first good evidence for armies of hundreds of thousands of men seems to be around the Napoleonic Wars (contemporary documents are good evidence.  itemized lists of contingents by a contemporary supported by other sources is good evidence.  round numbers in a famous writer long afterwards are not good evidence).

  The only way we know that Greek fleets were outnumbered is Herodotus and the early poets, and more than a hundred years ago Hans Delbrück pointed out that almost everyone says they were outnumbered by the enemy (I am sure that if you asked the Gauls or the Britons, they would say that the Romans outnumbered them, but that is not what Caesar says).  Herodotus seems to have got his numbers for the Persian fleet from Aeschylus who probably got them from Homer's Catalogue of Ships (so the Persians having 1,200 ships tell us that Asia invading Europe was just as important as Europe invading Asia long ago, the story Herodotus begins the Histories with ... Thucydides also begins his history by arguing that his war is at least as important as the Trojan War).
I repeat, in your same references you can read that what you suggest makes little sense and is plausibly wrong.

If you search for certainties, you are wasting your time. If you want to suggest that the huge persian empire was going to invade Greece with an army of stragglers, you are wasting our time.

As your same sources tell us, we can safely assume that:
- Persians needed a massive army
- to feed the army it was possible to count on at least three channels
-- pillaging
-- local and close allies
-- supply columns (and we know that the Persian fleet was enormously preponderant)

If you want to deny this points, honestly you should change the thread title and open a topic of fantastic history.

PS in the Parthian campaigns Rome moved armies well over one hundred thousand soldiers (without counting followers), in arid or semi-desert territories. Should it be a problem to move a large army a few kilometers from the sea, with fleets available to disembark supplies?
- CaesarAugustus
www.romanempire.cloud
(Marco Parente)
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#6
(08-21-2019, 10:09 AM)CaesarAugustus Wrote: in the Parthian campaigns Rome moved armies well over one hundred thousand soldiers (without counting followers), in arid or semi-desert territories.

What evidence do we have for this? As far as I know, the only figures for Parthian/Persian invasion forces are those of Galerius in AD298 (25,000 men) and Julian in AD363 (65,000) - the latter number comes from Zosimus, who quotes much higher figures for tetrarchic civil war armies operating in Europe, for example.

Contrast this with the contemporary panegyricist on Constantine, who said that emperor never led more than 40,000 men, as, in the words of Alexander the Great, a greater number than that is 'no longer an army but a mob'...

Surely the point is that we should be dubious of all our upper-range estimates for ancient armies. The higher the number, the greater the caution.
Nathan Ross
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#7
(08-21-2019, 07:26 PM)Nathan Ross Wrote:
(08-21-2019, 10:09 AM)CaesarAugustus Wrote: in the Parthian campaigns Rome moved armies well over one hundred thousand soldiers (without counting followers), in arid or semi-desert territories.

What evidence do we have for this? As far as I know, the only figures for Parthian/Persian invasion forces are those of Galerius in AD298 (25,000 men) and Julian in AD363 (65,000) - the latter number comes from Zosimus, who quotes much higher figures for tetrarchic civil war armies operating in Europe, for example.

Contrast this with the contemporary panegyricist on Constantine, who said that emperor never led more than 40,000 men, as, in the words of Alexander the Great, a greater number than that is 'no longer an army but a mob'...

Surely the point is that we should be dubious of all our upper-range estimates for ancient armies. The higher the number, the greater the caution.
Already Mark Anthony, according to Plutarch, Anthony's Life - 37, deployed more than 110.000 soldiers, more than 150 years before. 

That we should be dubious is true, but we have to be dubious of everything and not just about upper numbers. But we should avoid to give random numbers. And, as said by the same Roth: "Numbers in any ancient source should neither be accepted nor rejected categorically and the best method for judging numbers is to look at their plausibility, and coherence."

For example, as you may remember, it was simply inconsistent the fact that Septimius Severus lost 50000 men in Scotland.

PS If I rememeber correctly, Zosimus is the one that reported Shapur I conquered Nisibis, despite the fact the the same Shapur I in his same inscriptions at the Ka'ba-ye Zartosht has not included Nisibis in his conquests.
- CaesarAugustus
www.romanempire.cloud
(Marco Parente)
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#8
Ivor,

yes, if someone wants to believe Xerxes sent 80,000 or 120,000 soldiers I can't say they are wrong ... but I have trouble believing in Maurice's "up to 150,000 soldiers" or Christopher Matthews' 300,000 soldiers because those are outside of the range we see in testable sources around the world from the Bronze Age to the 18th century CE, and because I don't think the war was as important to the Persians as it was to the Athenians. Aeschylus and Herodotus swear that the war was a life or death struggle for supremacy between Europe and Asia, but I believe the Persians looked at it like the Romans looked at wars in Britain or Germania.

I think that logistical arguments are better at giving an order of magnitude than an exact limit, both because of all the uncertainties and assumptions, and because lots of things are possible if everything goes right but not if there is a typical level of screwups. I use experts like Robert von Fischer to help me understand why bigger armies are slower and why empires with twice the population don't have armies twice as large.

After Greek stories about eastern barbarians, I don't know of anyone who even claims to have had a million soldiers under arms at the same time until the 19th century. Specialists in India and China talk about hundreds of thousands, but I don't remember even reading a claim that a Chinese or Indian dynasty had a million soldiers in service in the same year until the Tiaping Rebellion.

If anyone has good evidence for an imperial Roman army larger than the 19 legions on one side at Philippi and Actium, I would be glad to hear it. Some people throw around big figures for the Marcomanni Wars or the Dacian Wars, but they seem to be based on studying diplomae and multiplying every unit which may have been involved at some point by its paper strength ... but not every unit served at once and thanks to documents we know that Roman units were often under strength and often split off vexilations.

If someone believes that Persian armies were completely different from those which left us reliable sources from the Bronze Age to 1800, and different from the armies that Near Eastern kings boasted about, they will of course come to different conclusions about the size of armies than I do.
Nullis in verba

I have not checked this forum frequently since 2013, but I hope that these old posts have some value. I now have a blog on books, swords, and the curious things humans do with them.
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#9
(08-21-2019, 09:20 PM)CaesarAugustus Wrote: Mark Anthony, according to Plutarch, Anthony's Life - 37, deployed more than 110.000 soldiers.

Aha, so he did. Although Plutarch says that 60,000 were Roman soldiers and most of the rest local allies, who would be operating on their own home ground, pretty much. Still, an impressive army - whether we believe it or not is another question!

Just counting numbers of people over a few tens of thousands is very difficult, as we find with conflicting estimates of crowd sizes today. Most military sources are probably multiplying numbers of units based on a 'paper' unit strength; Antony had at least 10 ten legions in Parthia, as he marched this many out of Phraaspa. So was this his whole strength? And has Plutarch just calculated 10x6000(or 15x4000)=60K ?


(08-21-2019, 09:20 PM)CaesarAugustus Wrote: That we should be dubious is true, but we have to be dubious of everything and not just about upper numbers.

Yes indeed. Although some sources are more reliable than others. I would far rather believe Ammianus that 6000 barbarians were killed at Strasbourg, rather than Zosimus, who claims it was 60,000! But, again - who's counting? Quoting gigantic army sizes and vast numbers of dead makes military narrative more epic and exciting, which is why historians are always exaggerating them...


(08-22-2019, 06:56 AM)Sean Manning Wrote: Some people throw around big figures for the Marcomanni Wars or the Dacian Wars, but they seem to be based on studying diplomae and multiplying every unit which may have been involved at some point by its paper strength ...

They certainly do, and we've discussed these claims several times. Often the estimates seem to rely on one person quoting another person, often imperfectly, with the estimates scaling bigger with every misquote. The internet also, of course, acts as a gigantic amplification device for unlikely historical claims.
Nathan Ross
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#10
Also, Justin has Xerxes invade Athens with 70 somethings of imperial troops and 30 somethings of local allies (Epitoma Pompei Troagi 2.18.10). So the size of Antony's army in Plutarch is the sum of round numbers (60,000 Romans + 10,000 Celtic and Iberian cavalry + 30,000 allies), making a symbolically meaningful total (the numbers 100,000 and 120,000 show up again and again in stories about eastern wars but not in documents or lists of individual contingents and their strengths), which echoes another story about a powerful army marching to a sad fate. I won't dismiss it out of hand, but its in that grey area, like the numbers at Cannae, Philippi, and Actium.

Herodotus, Thucydides, and Polybius all walk their readers through calculations in the form (men per unit/ship/soldier x number of units/ships/soldiers) so its likely that some numbers in writers like Diodorus or Plutarch come from the same kind of calculations.

Catherine Rubincam and Reinhold Bichler have some great articles on numbers in Greek historians.
Nullis in verba

I have not checked this forum frequently since 2013, but I hope that these old posts have some value. I now have a blog on books, swords, and the curious things humans do with them.
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#11
(Yesterday, 07:48 AM)Sean Manning Wrote: Also, Justin has Xerxes invade Athens with 70 somethings of imperial troops and 30 somethings of local allies (Epitoma Pompei Troagi 2.18.10).  So the size of Antony's army in Plutarch is the sum of round numbers (60,000 Romans + 10,000 Celtic and Iberian cavalry + 30,000 allies), making a symbolically meaningful total (the numbers 100,000 and 120,000 show up again and again in stories about eastern wars but not in documents or lists of individual contingents and their strengths), which echoes another story about a powerful army marching to a sad fate.  I won't dismiss it out of hand, but its in that grey area, like the numbers at Cannae, Philippi, and Actium.

Herodotus, Thucydides, and Polybius all walk their readers through calculations in the form (men per unit/ship/soldier x number of units/ships/soldiers) so its likely that some numbers in writers like Diodorus or Plutarch come from the same kind of calculations.

Catherine Rubincam and Reinhold Bichler have some great articles on numbers in Greek historians.
Well, for Mark Anthony's army we have the number of soldiers, it is very likely that the number in men was greater because a roman army does not include just the soldiers but also the non-combatants. 

According to Roth, from your sources, we know that the ration between combatants and non-combatants (calones and lixae) may vary between 2:1 to 4:1 (with some exceptions in which it was also 1:1 or even greater). And, generally, the ratio legionaries and auxiliares around 1:1.

And we should add merchants and other men or woman that always follow the army.

So, it is very likely that in number of men we are talking about big numbers.


But, apart that, the topic round around the possibility to support big numbers for the persian army (and as usual, when a similar topic start the point is to deny similar figures for all ancient armies... don't ask me why I don't like similar topics).

To reply to this point (regardless of the secret purpose), we can simply reply with the words taken from Roth (The Logistic of The Roman Army):
as Bernard Bachrach noted in his study of medieval logistics: “to rely as a matter of longterm strategy planning on success at foraging is a prescription for military disaster.

This is for medieval logistic, but, as written, this can be applied to all period. Despite that the simple foraging is already including:
- pillaging
- requisition
- real foraging
these were just a part of the supply chain, that included also:
- supplies from nearby allies
- supply trains
- purchases from merchants or agreements with merchants

Even for water. From Roth we already know that a normal stream was able to satisfy a normal army. But, if necessary, it was possible to take water using trains. And we have several examples for this. Roman army was used to have water supplies also from long distances, and a series of ostraka from Egypt’s Eastern Desert record the use of waterskins in very large numbers by the military.

So, coming back to the topic, and starting from the fact that we will never have complete and real evidences for anything, it is useless to give random numbers. This is for huge numbers, but also for small numbers. It is useless to say that a region was not enough to support that numbers, because also ancient armies was accustomed to rely on trains.
- CaesarAugustus
www.romanempire.cloud
(Marco Parente)
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#12
(Yesterday, 11:21 AM)CaesarAugustus Wrote: Well, for Mark Anthony's army we have the number of soldiers, it is very likely that the number in men was greater because a roman army does not include just the soldiers but also the non-combatants.
Marco, I am looking at numbers of soldiers because nobody counted everyone, so if I tried to compare numbers of heads I would be comparing one calculation to another calculation. So Herodotus claims that there were many noncombatants in addition to his 1,800,000 soldiers, 1,207 triremes, and 3,000 smaller ships, but he does not claim to know how many there were, he shows his reader how he estimates them (and because we can read cuneiform, we know his assumptions were wrong: Mesopotamian armies did not have a servant for each soldier, they had central groups of cooks, leatherworkers, and so on). The same for the size of the Greek army at Plataea: he only claims to know the number of hoplites, Helots, and unarmed Thespians, he says he is estimating the rest.

Whereas if we compare numbers of soldiers, we can start from numbers in sources (although who gets counted is still an issue).

Its important to compare numbers for the same thing, because generally the number of soldiers in a war is greater than the number present in any one army, and the number who start a campaign is always greater than the number present in the main army months later. People often use the first kind of number to argue that the second kind of number could have been higher than we ever see.

(Yesterday, 11:21 AM)CaesarAugustus Wrote: But, apart that, the topic round around the possibility to support big numbers for the persian army (and as usual, when a similar topic start the point is to deny similar figures for all ancient armies... don't ask me why I don't like similar topics).
Spend some time looking through ancient sources in different languages for armies of more than 100,000 soldiers. I think you will find that there are fewer than you think, and they are in the Old Testament, a few Late Antique writers who knew the Old Testament, stories about barbarian invaders who the writer never saw, and the Roman civil wars which ended with Augustus becoming emperor.
Nullis in verba

I have not checked this forum frequently since 2013, but I hope that these old posts have some value. I now have a blog on books, swords, and the curious things humans do with them.
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#13
(Yesterday, 07:27 PM)Sean Manning Wrote: Marco, I am looking at numbers of soldiers because nobody counted everyone, so if I tried to compare numbers of heads I would be comparing one calculation to another calculation.  So Herodotus claims that there were many noncombatants in addition to his 1,800,000 soldiers, 1,207 triremes, and 3,000 smaller ships, but he does not claim to know how many there were, he shows his reader how he estimates them (and because we can read cuneiform, we know his assumptions were wrong: Mesopotamian armies did not have a servant for each soldier, they had central groups of cooks, leatherworkers, and so on).  The same for the size of the Greek army at Plataea: he only claims to know the number of hoplites, Helots, and unarmed Thespians, he says he is estimating the rest.

Whereas if we compare numbers of soldiers, we can start from numbers in sources (although who gets counted is still an issue). 

Its important to compare numbers for the same thing, because generally the number of soldiers in a war is greater than the number present in any one army, and the number who start a campaign is always greater than the number present in the main army months later.  People often use the first kind of number to argue that the second kind of number could have been higher than we ever see.

Spend some time looking through ancient sources in different languages for armies of more than 100,000 soldiers.  I think you will find that there are fewer than you think, and they are in the Old Testament, a few Late Antique writers who knew the Old Testament, stories about barbarian invaders who the writer never saw, and the Roman civil wars which ended with Augustus becoming emperor.
Dear friend,

I think that we have already confuted the main objection, that was related to the "difficulty" to feed a massive army. We have seen that there is no reason for which we should think that a massive army should rely on what it is possible to find on the spot, any army worthy of the name would rely on logistics. Obviously, more or less efficient, but surely it would not rely exclusively on what it found on site.

We have also seen that it is possible to find several different references to big armies, even before AD. I would think to Mark Anthony's army in Parthia. But also to the Battle of Arausio, or to the Battle of Alesia. We can discuss until the end of the time, but it is a fact that we have these references and and they are consistent in their scenario.

Now, what we miss to have a coherent scenario for the Persian invasion in Greece? An estimate of the Greek forces that is able to contextualize the numbers.
Do we have some data? Luckily yes. We know that, thanks to silver mine found, Athens had been able to deploy a significant number of triremes. Maybe not the 200, but according to Herodotus 180 just for Salamina. According to Plutarch, the initial desiderata was to create a fleet of 200 triremes. Now, what does it means? That just Athens was able to have a naval force of around 40000 men. Just for the naval force. We perfectly know that there was not just Athens, and that there was not just the naval force.
And our scenario is not complete. We have seen that Greek forces were able to deploy tens of thousands of men but despite this, they abandoned and evacuated, practically without fighting, one of their principal capitals... the same Athens, that same city that was able to deploy around 40000 men just for the fleet. There is only one explanation for this, that the Persian army was so huge, so massive, that the evacuation was the one of the few cards available.

Now, the scenario is complete. We have seen that it is practicable, and it is coherent not only from a Persian point of view, but it is consistent with the reaction that we can read in the Greek army. A Persian army of 40000 men is absolutely inconsistent with what happened, apart from being denied by literary sources.
- CaesarAugustus
www.romanempire.cloud
(Marco Parente)
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