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John Claughton: Ancient Greek, mathematics and the Coronavirus

19 March 2020

My brother, Andrew, studied Maths, Further Maths and Physics at A Level and I studied Latin, Greek and Ancient History at King Edward’s so we were the perfect early 1970’s enactment of C P Snow’s two cultures in our house, 22 Greville Drive, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15. So, fifty years on we bring somewhat different perspectives when discussing the coronavirus and the health of our 92-year-old father. My brother’s approach is evidence-based and statistical: ‘We do know the number of those who have died of the virus whereas we are bound to underestimate the number of those who have had the virus undetected. After all, we cannot know what is undetected. So, we over-estimate the magnitude of the death rate (deaths/cases) and consequently the danger of the virus(1).

My approach is different. The Battle of Marathon, in which the Athenians defeated the invading Persians, took place 2510 years ago. Herodotus tells us (Book 6, chapter 117) that 192 Athenians died and he’s almost certainly right. After all, there was a burial mound on the battle site with the names of the dead and Herodotus could count. No one would be on the list who hadn’t died there and no family would allow a relation who had died there not to be included. The numbers and names are about as good as any 20th war memorial at a school or in a town.

There is another number for the dead at Marathon, the Persian dead and that number is 6,400. This looks a bit or a lot wobblier because it is so much bigger than 192. On the other hand, there are two reasons to give it some credence. Firstly, in ancient battles, when you lost, you lost badly – an enemy in flight is more killed than killing. Secondly, Xenophon, a historian writing at the other end of the 5rh century, (Anabasis, Book 3, chapter 12) tells us that the Athenians had vowed a goat to Artemis for every Persian killed and had to do a deal with the goddess so she would settle for 500 a year. So, there had been a good reason for careful counting.

However, Herodotus was not always so good when the numbers, like the numbers of those infected, got bigger. In chapter 184 to 186 of Book 7, Herodotus engages in a seemingly careful calculation of the Persian forces that came against Greece ten years after Marathon and comes to the figure of 5,283,220. In fact, he comes to a figure of 2,641,610 and then decides that every soldier must have a batman and so doubles it. Good old Herodotus, never a man to do things by halves.

Unlike 192 or 6.400, this is a daft figure, an invading army greater than any ever seen: D-Day was  only 230,000. However, the best way to express the daftness was devised fifty years ago by an ancient historian at Oxford, Professor George Cawkwell. He proved that, if 5,283,220 soldiers had set forth against Athens on the roads of the 5th century, the first man would have arrived in Athens before the last one had got across the Hellespont. He also did some excellent work on the length of battle-lines if thousands of elephants were deployed. 

So, whether we are waiting for the barbarian or for the coronavirus, we each have different ways of counting, good numbers, daft numbers and unknown numbers. Who knows whether GCSE Maths or GCSE Greek is the more useless at such moments.

John Claughton


(1) In China we know 3,200 people died, and there are 85,000 known cases, therefore the death rate amongst those known to have had the disease is 3.8%. But there are 1.4 billion Chinese, so the death rate amongst the population is 0.00023%. Or put another way you would have to fill Wembley Stadium 5 times with randomly chosen Chinese citizens before you found a body.