Some background on brutality of ancient wars before diving into Viking history – 1 of 2

Viking warrior with sword standing near Drakkar on the seashore. I think that is an ax on his belt. Raiding has paid off well since he is illustrated wearing chain mail. Longboat in background, which was shock and awe stealth technology in the 9th and 10th centuries. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

I’m going to take a look at finances of the Viking era, similar to what I’ve done on legionnaires during the Roman Empire and the plunder gathered by Alexander the Great. There isn’t a lot of information available, but I’ll look at some I was able to find.

The Viking era has recently captured my interest, leading me to read a fair amount on the history of the times.

(Cross post from Attestation Update.)

This is the first time I have dived deep into the adventures of the Norwegians, Danes, and Swedes back then.

My paternal grandfather and grandmother both emigrated from Norway, settling in South Dakota before meeting each other, marrying, and starting a large family.

So it is appropriate to dive into my ancient legacy, later in life though it may be than for most of my cousins.

Why a series of posts on finance in the Viking world? Because I want to.

One of the things I learned early on in blogging is that a person should write on what is of interest. An audience will develop or not, but cannot be predicted. Thus, a blogger should write on what is of interest.

Why post this discussion on this blog? Because this is where I write of accounting issues and it is a short jump into financial issues such banking in general because I am interested in banking and finance. From there is a very short trip to the wide, ever expanding world of banking fiascos. From there, it is possible to jump back a couple of millenniums to ancient finances of Rome and Alexander. From Rome it is merely a few centuries forward to the Vikings. All of that fits within a blog on accounting.

Before I get started

One of the aspects of the Viking era that jumps out is the violence and the widespread plundering.

Several accounts I’ve read say that capturing slaves on raids and selling them into the Arab worlds was more lucrative that making off with all the gold and silver you can find and the loot you can carry.

The ancient world was astoundingly violent.

I’d like to offer two of many possible illustrations.

Roman destruction of Jerusalem

In 70 A.D. the Roman Empire laid siege to Jerusalem, sacked it, and destroyed the entire city, killing essentially everyone crowded behind the city wall at the time. The euphemism is that apart from one wall and one tower, there was not so much as one stone left on top of another anywhere in the city.

The wall and tower were left so that for centuries to come, everyone can see this is what will be left if you go too far in irritating Rome.

Remember forever: Rome did this.

Don’t. Mess. With. Rome.

My two main sources for this post are:

I won’t get into the background of the war, details of the campaign, or the final siege.

Wikipedia says the Romans had 4 full legions, with 70,000 troops.

Let’s work those numbers. A legion at full strength would have about 6,000 legionaries. Four legions would be about 24,000 Roman soldiers. If the auxiliaries were about the same size as the each legion to which they were attached, that would be another 24,000 soldiers, for around 48,000. Obviously the Romans picked up some more auxiliaries as they marshaled their troops.

The siege was long, with lots of losses on both sides. When the troops finally broke into the temple they were battle crazy. They proceeded to slaughter the people who had retreated as they advanced.

Josephus was a Jew who changed sides and worked for the Romans after he was captured. He wrote two famous books, a history of the Jewish people and a history of the Roman conquest of Jerusalem.

In The Jewish War, location 6:420, Josephus says there were 1,100,000 people killed during the siege, the accompanying starvation, and follow-on slaughter. (Update:  See quote below and specific link to text.)

In addition, he says there were 97,000 taken captive. I’ll guess the captives had one of two destinies: either slaving away in the mines in Egypt before a highly premature death, or a battle or two in the Coliseum. Some of them may have just been bait for the lions in the Coliseum.

The Wikipedia article says that tally is not credible, since there were only somewhere around a million people living in all Judea at the time and there were a lot of people still alive after the Romans finished demolishing Jerusalem.

Both sets of numerical claims are believable. The Wikipedia conclusion is not.

Roman soldiers in Testudo, or turtle, formation. If you lived 2,000 years ago and happened to see one of these moving in your direction, you were about to have a very bad day. Photo courtesy of Adobe Stock.

Why a million deaths is believable

Keep in mind that the siege had started a few days before Passover. That is a time of celebration when anyone in the Jewish faith who could manage to do so would make the trip to Jerusalem for the grand celebration.

For example, Acts chapter 2 tells us that during Pentecost, which happens shortly after Passover, Parthians, Medes, and Elamites were present, along with people from Rome, Cyrene, Egypt, Pamphilia, Phrygia, Pontus, Asia (modern Turkey), Cappadocia, and Mesopotamia. That is an extremely large area to draw visitors from.

Josephus immediately after making a claim defends his number by saying that during one particular Passover, the priests in the temple counted 255,600 animal sacrifices. He assumed ten members of a family for every one of the sacrifices, which would suggest there were around 2,500,000 people in Jerusalem that particular year.

So, over a million people being in Jerusalem at the time of Passover is quite believable.

The anger level of troops after winning a siege is off the charts, so massive slaughter is also believable.

I’ve seen in several places during my reading of Alexander and the Romans that if you did not surrender before a siege was put in place or shortly after it started, the typical consequence was slaughter.

Thus 1,100,000 people killed and another 100,000 taken into slavery, or a loss of 1.2M people, is quite believable to me.

I’ll go with Josephus’ tally.

As for the physical destruction of the city, I’ll guess 24,000 Roman legionaries could do a better job tearing down stuff as they could do building stuff.

Cutting edge warrior in the Roman era. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.


Update 8/3/19: 

To give specific cites for this discussion, here is a quote from JosephusWar of the Jews as explained in Book VI, Chapter 9, paragraph 3. This is from Prof. William Whiston’s translation, which having been published in 1737 has long since passed into public domain.

3. Now the number (26) of those that were carried captive, during this whole war, was collected to be ninety-seven thousand. As was the number of those that perished during the whole siege eleven hundred thousand. The greater part of whom were indeed of the same nation [with the citizens of Jerusalem], but not belonging to the city it self. For they were come up from all the country to the feast of unleavened bread; and were on a sudden shut up by an army; which at the very first occasioned so great a straitness among them, that there came a pestilential destruction upon them; and soon afterward such a famine, as destroyed them more suddenly. And that this city could contain so many people in it, is manifest by that number of them, which was taken under Cestius. Who being desirous of informing Nero of the power of the city, who otherwise was disposed to contemn that nation, intreated the High-priests, if the thing were possible, to take the number of their whole multitude. So these High-priests, upon the coming of that feast which is called the passover, when they slay their sacrifices, from the ninth hour till the eleventh; but so that a company not less than ten, (27) belong to every sacrifice: (for ’tis not lawful for them to feast singly by themselves). And many of us are twenty in a company. Now the number of sacrifices was two hundred fifty six thousand and five hundred: which, upon the allowance of no more than ten that feast together, amounts to two millions seven hundred thousand, and two hundred persons that were pure and holy. For as to those that have the leprosy, or the gonorrhœa; or women that have their monthly courses, or such as are otherwise polluted, it is not lawful for them to be partakers of this sacrifice. Nor indeed for any foreigners neither, who come hither to worship. (note: emphasis added)

Footnotes by Prof. Whiston’s:

(26) The whole multitude of the Jews that were destroyed during the intire 7 years before this time, in all the countries of, and bordering on Judea, is summed up by archbishop Ussher, from Lipsius, out of Josephus, at the year of Christ 70, and amounts to 1,337,490. Nor could there have been that number of Jews in Jerusalem to be destroyed in this siege, as will be presently set down by Josephus, but that both Jews and Proselytes of Justice were just then come up out of the other countries of Galilee, Samaria, Judea, and Perea, and other remoter regions, to the passover, in vast numbers: and therein cooped up, as in a prison, by the Roman army: as Josephus himself well observes in this and the next section: and as is exactly related elsewhere, V.3.1 and V.13.7.

(27) This number of a company for one paschal lamb, between 10 and 20, agrees exactly with the number 13, at our Saviour’s last passover. As to the whole number of the Jews, that used to come up to the passover, and eat of it at Jerusalem: see the Note on II.14.3. This number ought to be here indeed just ten times the number of the lambs, or just 2,565,000 by Josephus’s own reasoning. Whereas it is, in his present copies, no less than 2,700,000, which last number is however nearest the other number in the place now cited, which is 3,000,000. But what is here chiefly remarkable is this; that no foreign nation ever came thus to destroy the Jews at any of their solemn festivals, from the days of Moses till this time: but came now upon their apostacy from God, and from obedience to him. See the Note on II.19.2. and the IVth Dissertation, § 43-54. Nor is it possible, in the nature of things, that in any other nation such vast numbers should be gotten together, and perish in the siege of any one city whatsoever, as now happened in Jerusalem.

Several specific comments of note.

  • Number of slaves taken: 97,000.
  • Number killed in Jerusalem:  1,100,000 (eleven hundred thousand).
  • Notice Josephus’ calculation of the number of people partaking of the Passover feast. That calculation is based on the tally in one year taken by the high priests of the number of lambs sacrificed for the Passover meal: 256,500. At between 10 and 20 ceremonially clean people per lamb, that is a minimum of about 2,600,000 people in Jerusalem that year.


Next: Human trafficking by Alexander the Great. Also, perspective on the ‘blood eagle’ form of execution.

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