From ancient times until the modern day, governments have long prized keeping statistics and catalogs of their resources. In a war-torn age, numbers concerning manpower and military size are especially of interest. Kavadh I (r. 488-496, 498-531), a ruler of Sāsānian Persia, lived in one such age of prevalent warfare and he reportedly took very seriously the task of calculating the number of his warriors who did not return from battle. To aid him in this grim task, Kavadh I reportedly encouraged his military to follow an interesting tradition that resulted in a tangible and visible representation of how many people were lost.
According to the historian Procopius (c. 490-565), Kavadh’s warriors were required to submit a token of sorts to the Sāsānian Persian government before they left on campaign. The historian suggested that these relinquished items were usually small weapons, and if the Persian ruler was present, the warriors would place these tokens in containers set before their leader. Procopius described the alleged ceremony: “the king sits on the royal throne, and many baskets are set there before him; and the general also is present who is expected to lead the army against the enemy; then the army passes along before the king, one man at a time, and each of them throws one weapon into the baskets” (History of the Wars, I.18). After the troops passed by, the many filled baskets were reportedly sealed up, labeled, and placed in a safe location. The baskets (and the tokens locked inside) would not be retrieved until the army returned from its campaign.
As the story goes, once news of an army’s return from battle reached the Persian court, officials would race off to wherever they stored the sealed tokens to retrieve the respective baskets for the homebound army. Then, as Procopius claimed, “when this army returns to Persia, each one of the soldiers takes one weapon out of the baskets. A count is then made by those whose office it is to do so of all the weapons which have not been taken by the men, and they report to the king the number of soldiers who have not returned” (History of the Wars, I.18). Therefore, the unclaimed tokens left in the baskets could be tallied up for a broad number of who was lost in the war from that particular army, be it from death, capture or desertion. Of course, it would be just as easy to write down a head-count of the warriors, themselves, before and after their campaign, or to collect records from the officers who led the forces into battle. Yet, Procopius’ proposed ceremony, if it indeed was put into use, would certainly create a striking visible representation of the human cost of war.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Convivial meeting of Kai Khosrow by Hossein Qollar-Aqasi, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- History of the Wars by Procopius, translated by H. B. Dewing. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1919.