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I have been reading "The Anabasis and the Indica" by Arrian. In the battle at Sangala Pimprana, the numbers are hundred dead on Alexander's army and seventeen thousand dead on the other side. How realistic is this number?

"In the capture some seventeen thousand of the Indians were killed, and over seventy thousand taken prisoner: there was also a haul of three hundred chariots and five hundred horses. The losses in Alexander’s army amounted to slightly under one hundred over the whole siege. "

My point is this is hand to hand combat - a 1:170 ratio seems like either butchering of women, kids and elderly or exaggeration –

You are right, its Sangala - "On the second day out from the Hydraotes he reached a city called Pimprama: the Indian tribe living here were called the Adraïstae. They agreed terms of submission to Alexander. On the day after this surrender he rested his army, then on the next day resumed his advance on Sangala, where the Cathaeans and the neighbouring tribes who had joined them were ranged for battle in front of the city on a not very steep hill: round the hill they had placed three rings of wagons, to form a triple rampart behind which they had made their camp."

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  • My point is this is hand to hand combat - a 1:170 ratio seems like either butchering of women, kids and elderly or exaggeration
    – shoonya
    Nov 18 '21 at 3:46
  • You are right, its Sangala - "On the second day out from the Hydraotes he reached a city called Pimprama: the Indian tribe living here were called the Adraïstae. They agreed terms of submission to Alexander. On the day after this surrender he rested his army, then on the next day resumed his advance on Sangala, where the Cathaeans and the neighbouring tribes who had joined them were ranged for battle in front of the city on a not very steep hill: round the hill they had placed three rings of wagons, to form a triple rampart behind which they had made their camp."
    – shoonya
    Nov 18 '21 at 3:50
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    Please make any corrections by editing the question, as comments may get removed. An inaccurate question about the accuracy of historical information probably needs clarification. The Wikipedia article on the Anabasis has a section concerning criticism of the historical validity of the writing. The same author (Bosworth) is mentioned in the article on Porus, where a relevant quote might be warns against an uncritical reading of Greek sources who were obviously exaggerative.
    – justCal
    Nov 18 '21 at 4:28
  • You can dispel concerns that this number represents the slaughter of many innocents by looking at the other number listed in the selected quote you wrote: over seventy thousand taken prisoner. This indicates only about 20% of the city population were killed. This is almost the exact percent a historical demographer would expect to represent the military-capable portion of a population.
    – justCal
    Nov 18 '21 at 14:17
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Ancient battles were very different from modern ones. When looking at battles today, we think of Verdun or Stalingrad as typical of big battles, with horrific losses on both sides being the norm. But in ancient times, most battles had relatively few casualties in the early phase. Both sides would fight against one another with little losses, until one side broke. When the victor pursued, losses for the loser could be horrific.

Most ancient states, such as Rome or Macedon, retained detailed casualty lists. Dead soldiers were honored, given memorials, and their families rewarded. Thus, you can almost always be confident in the numbers of their dead. On the other hand, enemy death tolls are somewhat harder to calculate, but still generally reliable.

Source: Casualties and Reinforcements of Citizen Soldiers in Greece and Macedonia

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Death ratios such as 1:100 are possible and whats more, are typical when there is a technological superiority gap. Think bronze weapons against iron weapons; tanks against cavalry; Spanish conquistadores spades and armor against mesoamerican macuahuitls.

That said, it is well known that the ancient writers figures for battles (participants, deaths, loot, etc) have a general tendency to really overestimate. Yet, what they wanted to transmit is often considered correct: the narrator wants you to know that there's was a technological superiority gap, and a Greek soldier could realistically kill 170 enemies.

That the added total numbers actually happened for the battle is a secondary issue for the narrator. They were lenient on the truth numbers to help the narration stress the superiority gap. After all, most ancient historians tell stories.

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  • Your suggestion is well followed up in literature. - jstor.org/stable/4409174 - stresses on the professional soldiers in army while porus's army was made up of tribesman - with no distinct fighting style. The macedonian army was fighting phalanx formations and also had inducted persian forces with success.
    – shoonya
    Nov 18 '21 at 15:10
  • There was very little or no technological gap between Alexander and his enemies. His superiority was in training, discipline, and tactics. The reason for disproportionate death rates also has nothing to do with technology. Many ancient battles had similarly disproportionate death rates even with identical technology, identical soldiers, and identical training. See Pharsalus for example. Ancient battles usually involved few losses outside of the pursuit, where 90% or more of the deaths took place.
    – Master
    Nov 18 '21 at 17:33
  • Furthermore, your description of ancient historians as telling stories is only true in so far as every historian tells stories. Ancient historians were often just as rigorous or more so than modern ones. You say they were lenient on "truth" but there is no proof of that.
    – Master
    Nov 18 '21 at 17:33

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