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Thread: How big were ancient and medieval armies?

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    How big were ancient and medieval armies?

    I'm wondering because I was always under the impression that 10,000 men was a lot. In TLOTR, Boromir's like "nobody just walks into Mordor...you can't even do it with 10,000 men!!!" But then again I once heard that 20,000 men was not a lot. And I think I might also have heard things that show that there were often forces consisting of greater numbers than ten-thousand persons at a time. So what was a large army by ancient or medieval standards? Or average? Exceptionally large? How in size did ancient and medieval armies compare in size to today's militaries? I once heard that Rome, at one point, had 400,000 men...but clearly they couldn't have been using all of that to invade more stuff because undoubtedly quite a portion of that army must have been used just to hold and patrol the land the Romans had already conquered.

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    So what was a large army by ancient or medieval standards?

    "Ancient" and "Medieval" are time standards, but time alone does not determine much. The first thing that you have to consider is geography. Some places were lot more militarized than others: In tribal societies you can have every able-bodied man considered as an armyman, but in more advanced societies only a fraction of the men were in the military... so on and so forth. But as a rule of thumb, you can say that the River Valley Civilizations of the ancient world fielded the largest armies.

    Or average?

    Again it does not make much sense to average over all the different places with time alone as the consideration.

    Exceptionally large?

    The Chinese, but it depends on your definition of the military: All armies have to do some non-military labor or another... the Chinese armies just had to a lot more of the non-military labor than others, so it is an ambiguous state of affairs whether they had a large military or they had a large conscripted work-force.

    How in size did ancient and medieval armies compare in size to today's militaries?

    They were smaller, by our definition of armies.

    I once heard that Rome, at one point, had 400,000 men...but clearly they couldn't have been using all of that to invade more stuff because undoubtedly quite a portion of that army must have been used just to hold and patrol the land the Romans had already conquered.

    Rome could field up to 10 Legions ~ around 60,000 men ~ in a single campaign in 2nd Century CE. Of course there were exceptionally bigger ones, but this was the most common. But the Roman Army as a whole could itself be much larger, as it not only held and patrolled... but its proconsuls were also empowered to carry out independent campaigns in their locality.

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    Hello Spongegod,

    in the 14th century Dimitrij Donskoj lead an army of 70,000-120,000 men (this numbers are reported by different historical sources) to beat the Tartars, that had an army of also more than 100,000 men. But you can assume that far more than the half of his men were peasants recruited by force.
    As much I remeber this was by far the largest army in medieval times.

    I'm not an expert, but 400,000 men seems to me unrealitically high concerning Rome.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Feuerbach View Post
    I'm not an expert, but 400,000 men seems to me unrealitically high concerning Rome.
    Rome had steady supply of grain from North Africa and Black Sea area (and both places were geographically much different than they are today), so they could afford lot more soldiers than later Europeans could imagine until they discovered cheap corn and potato in 17th Century. As you can easily see, as soon as they got the food they were able to raise much larger armies than their medieval forefathers. Food was not such a big limitation to river-valley civilizations in the East until 18th Century, so they were always able to raise large armies.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Feuerbach View Post
    Hello Spongegod,

    in the 14th century Dimitrij Donskoj lead an army of 70,000-120,000 men (this numbers are reported by different historical sources) to beat the Tartars, that had an army of also more than 100,000 men. But you can assume that far more than the half of his men were peasants recruited by force.
    As much I remeber this was by far the largest army in medieval times.

    I'm not an expert, but 400,000 men seems to me unrealitically high concerning Rome.
    For an estimated population of around 40/50 million inhabitants the Roman Empire could largely afford an army that strong. Besides, the average of 400,000 soldiers to protect the borders is quite the consensus among historians.

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    You have to look at the overall population and the number of soldiers to truly compare how large an army was.

    The world wasn't populated 2000 years ago like it is today. Rome was the largest city on earth with more than 1 million inhabitants which wasn't eclipsed until 18th or 19th century London. Now we have Shanhai with 17+ million or something like that.

    You could say 10,000 men is a lot if you only have 100,000 inhabitants to draw from. But it's not many if you have a nation of 50 million.

    Of course now we augment our forces with technology so we can do more with fewer soldiers.
    "Only Nixon can go to China." -- Old Vulcan proverb.

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    The problem with medieval numbers (less so with ancient) is that they were generally used by chroniclers to impress, not to give accurate information. So armies of 5-10 thousand were usually "among the hundreds of thousands" when extolled by contemporaries.

    By looking at purchases and payment records I've seen a couple of pretty good historians put most medieval armies fielded by the nations themselves (such as England and France at Agincourt, Crecy, Poitiers, ect) at not exceeding 20000, and most were far smaller.

    A good book to read about this period (covering specifically the 100 years war) is A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuckman (I think that is the name of the author... I don't have the book on me at the moment).

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    I agree with smaller. Just imagine the problems of logistics and transportation ,when your transport eats more than your army. Even feeding all these guys usually meant pilfering from the countryside,which was usually already empty or torched. I really admire those old warriors. These people because of circumstance, were probably tough as nails.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Exarecr View Post
    I agree with smaller. Just imagine the problems of logistics and transportation ,when your transport eats more than your army. Even feeding all these guys usually meant pilfering from the countryside,which was usually already empty or torched. I really admire those old warriors. These people because of circumstance, were probably tough as nails.
    Depends... once the late middle ages rolled around there seemed to be a lot more focus on honor and extravagant display than actually financing a successful military/political campaign. They really did have a completely different world view than is the case today.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Feuerbach View Post
    Hello Spongegod,

    in the 14th century Dimitrij Donskoj lead an army of 70,000-120,000 men (this numbers are reported by different historical sources) to beat the Tartars, that had an army of also more than 100,000 men. But you can assume that far more than the half of his men were peasants recruited by force.
    As much I remeber this was by far the largest army in medieval times.

    I'm not an expert, but 400,000 men seems to me unrealitically high concerning Rome.
    That is actually probably a bit low at its height. During the Early Imperial Augustus had nearly 50 legions at the end of the war with Mark Antony. Thats 256,000 Legionaries, but does not count auxiliary troops. If each legion had on average just 3000 auxiliary troops (total 8156) thats 407,600 men under arms not counting the navy. At one point at the battle of Actium, August could field 400 warships (300 men on average each for a Liburnian) plus 16,000 legionary marines and 3,000 archers thats at least another 139,000 men. not counting transports and the inflated numbers from the bigger galleys.

    So at its height Rome probably fielded closer to 600,000 or 700,000 troops in all services. Out side of China we would not see Armies like that until Napoleon.

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    Quote Originally Posted by zraver View Post
    So at its height Rome probably fielded closer to 600,000 or 700,000 troops in all services. Out side of China we would not see Armies like that until Napoleon.
    Competent empires in India maintained armies around 600,000 troops, well before and after Rome. Around 800,000 was usually the upper-limit for the classic 3:5 patterned forces in India. But they never reached the ridiculous size of the Chinese imperial armies, which were recorded to have reached up to 3 million in some cases.

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    Cactus do you know any details of indian pre mughal armies and their composition?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Cactus View Post
    Competent empires in India maintained armies around 600,000 troops, well before and after Rome. Around 800,000 was usually the upper-limit for the classic 3:5 patterned forces in India. But they never reached the ridiculous size of the Chinese imperial armies, which were recorded to have reached up to 3 million in some cases.
    I don't know why I forgot India but yes you are right. Population density favored the East.

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    Quote Originally Posted by bolo121 View Post
    Cactus do you know any details of indian pre mughal armies and their composition?
    Only of the armies of two of the more famous ones that dominated the Indo-Gangetic plains. What exactly are you looking for?

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    Just what the structure of any famous army of that period would be, details on what tactics they favoured, weapons used, chain of command (such as there was) and so on. Also what kind of logistics they employed and the speed such a force could march at.

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