Wild guess on the tally of people enslaved by Alexander the Great

Statue of Alexander the Great at Thessaloniki, Greece. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.
Statue of Alexander the Great at Thessaloniki, Greece. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

One more followup on the human devastation caused by Alexander the Great.

There are a lot of posts on my blog discussing Professor Frank Holt’s delightful book, The Treasures of Alexander the Great: How One Man’s Wealth Shaped the World.

(Cross post from Attestation Update.)

In Appendix 2, the professor tallies the reported plunder, tribute, and other resources seized by Alexander the Great. Quantifying the destruction is not possible because the ancient literature often does not quantify amounts, only that slaves, or plunder, or cattle, or tapestries, or something else was seized.

The professor does quantify the reported information in an algebraic format. I’ve previously mentioned:

Total proceeds from the wars is then estimated in a formula expressed as 81.67( X) +311,761.

The author guesses the grand total for his years of campaigning at something between 300,000 and 400,000 talents. With the fixed portion of the second estimate at 311k, I think the total would be well over 300k.

Those amounts are in talents, with each talent being a massive amount of wealth. For an order of magnitude, consider that my guess is an ancient Athenian talent would be expressed something somewhere in the range of around $28M today.

I just went through the Appendix looking at the tally of slaves taken.

There are 19 incidents with no number mentioned.

There are four incidents with specific tally of slaves: 30,000, 30,000, 40,000, and 70,000.

The professor points out that large numbers, especially 30,000, usually is not a specific count but a broad estimate, meaning a really big amount.

So with that information, here is my formula for the number of people who spent the rest of their short life as slaves of the Greeks:

  • 19X + (30,000 + 30,000 + 40,000 + 70,000)

Those 23 incidents simplify to:

  • 19X + (170,000)

I’ll introduce a measure of the uncertainty:

  • 19X + (170,000 +/- 25%)

I’ll make an uneducated guess that each of those X incidents is not just grabbing a few people here or there. I’ll guess it is the total number of soldiers who surrendered, residents in a town that surrendered after a siege, and basically anyone in the area who could not run faster than soldiers when an army tried to stand up to Alexander. Essentially, everyone the soldiers could capture in those 19 incidents.

So, the accountant in me desperately wants to further reduce that formula of 19X + (170,000 +/- 25%).  So, here is my uneducated guess multiplied by pull-it-out-of-thin-air assumptions.

I’ll start with the point estimate of 170K, then add 25%, then subtract 25%. I’ll completely assume since the X incidents weren’t “30,000” events that they were smaller. I’ll assume 5k, 10k, and 15k. Then I’ll combine those strings of wild assumptions.

Here is the result: 

     -25%      point      +25%
        128         170           213
          19             5        223        265           308
          19           10        318        360           403
          19           15        413        455           498


The results of my long string of wild guesses and blind assumptions would suggest Alexander made slaves of somewhere between 200,000 and 500,000 people. My unsupportable guesses suggest most likely number is 300,000 or 400,000. (Are you catching on to the idea that those are astoundingly soft numbers?)

A third of a million people spending the rest of their life suffering in slavery. That is a staggering amount of human misery.

Keep in mind that doesn’t include the massive number of people killed in the carnage of battle or who ran to the hills and died of hunger after the army moved on. I cannot imagine how we could even start to quantify that number.

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