My Objection to Moral Objections to the Ice Bucket Challenge

I’m a contrarian by nature. If something is trending on social media, my natural inclination is to figure out what’s wrong with it, and hopefully spoil some of the fun (I can be a real sourpuss). For instance, here are two goofs in everyone’s favorite movie, Frozen:

Elsa's braid passes through her arm

Elsa’s braid passes through her arm

Kristoff's thumb clips into Anna's side

Kristoff’s thumb clips into Anna’s side

So you can imagine my frustration when the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge exploded over my Facebook newsfeeds, and I was nominated (more on that later). As is my wont, I began reading up on some of the contrarian literature to figure out how to respond.

But I found myself annoyed by the arguments and the poor philosophy involved, so much so that I dumped a bucket of ice over my head. This piece by William MacAskill for Quartz, in particular, gets it seriously wrong.

MacAskill writes:

The key problem [with the Ice Bucket Challenge] is funding cannibalismThat $3 million in donations doesn’t appear out of a vacuumBecause people on average are limited in how much they’re willing to donate to good causes, if someone donates $100 to the ALS Association, he or she will likely donate less to other charities… Research from my own non-profit… has found that, for every $1 we raise, 50¢ would have been donated anyway… So, because of the $3 million that the ALS Association has received, I’d bet that much more than $1.5 million has been lost by other charities.

Sure, I buy the crowding out argument—it seems reasonable that people have a budget for charity, and increased giving to one area can mean less giving to another. But it ignores the possibility of expanding the overall pool of charitable funds. A campaign like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge with a highly visible commitment mechanism (i.e. if you get tagged and don’t donate or pour ice over your head, you’re an asshole) seems to me like an excellent way to force people into giving when they ordinarily wouldn’t have. Implicitly, MacAskill even acknowledges this: if 50¢ on the dollar is crowding out other charities, then 50¢ of new money is going to charity. That’s $1.5 million that wouldn’t have gone to charity otherwise.

He adds:

Almost every charity does the same thing — engaging in a race to the bottom where the benefits to the donor have to be as large as possible, and the costs as small as possible We should be very worried about this, because competitive fundraising ultimately destroys value for the social sector as a whole. We should not reward people for minor acts of altruism, when they could have done so much more, because doing so creates a culture where the correct response to the existence of preventable death and suffering is to give some pocket change.

… There is a countervailing psychological force, called commitment effectsIf in donating to charity you don’t conceive of it as “doing your bit” but instead as taking one small step towards making altruism a part of your identity, then one good deed really will beget anotherThis means that we should tie new altruistic commitments to serious, long-lasting behavior changeRather than making a small donation to a charity you’ve barely heard of, you could make a commitment to find out which charities are most cost-effective, and to set up an ongoing commitment to those charities that you conclude do the most good with your donations

I find critiques like this odd, because they’re essentially critiques of human nature. I view the “competitive fundraising” and the “minor acts of altruism” as responses by charitable organizations to the constraints of human behavior. People have limited funds to give, and there are a lot of good causes out there, so of course there’s competition. Moreover, human beings are naturally myopic, prone to recency bias, and vulnerable to sensationalism, so charities respond by trying to catch people’s attention and attract one-time donations—the “minor acts of altruism” and loose “pocket change” that MacAskill derides. In this sense, the slickly-filmed Kony 2012 campaign and the viral ALS Ice Bucket Challenge campaigns were exceptionally well-designed.

But the correct response shouldn’t be to complain (as MacAskill does) about how people don’t make long-term commitments to charitable giving, because human beings don’t seem inclined to act in that way to begin with. Given the choice of trying to alter human nature or fitting the incentive structure of charity to fit human nature (á la Kony or ALS), I would prescribe the latter.

Prescriptive philosophical arguments should deal exclusively with the world we live in, not some moral fairyland where we can assume away problems of human nature. That’s the realm of economics.

And, in large part to raise awareness for Lou Gehrig’s Disease (and in small part to stand by my argument), here is me dropping a bucket of ice over my head.

Rule, Britannia? Do Hegemons Enforce Peace? (Paper)

May at Harvard means Reading Period, and Reading Period means writing papers and for studying exams. I took an economics tutorial this semester on the Political Economy of International Conflict, which I absolutely loved–it was a chance to combine two of my favorite subjects, economics and military history.

Hopefully some of that enthusiasm rubbed off on the final paper I wrote for the class, which is on hegemonic stability theory. In a nutshell, the idea is that if one country (a hegemon) is much more powerful than the others, this country’s ability to unilaterally impose costs on aggressors will deter smaller countries from going to war. In the paper, I set up a game theoretic model to express this a little more formally, and ran some regressions to test this hypothesis empirically.

Here is the link: Rule, Britannia? Do Hegemons Enforce Peace?

This was the first real independent research paper I’ve ever done, so it was actually a little exciting. (That last sentence takes second prize in “nerdiest sentences uttered by me this month”, after: “It sucks that Lucasfilm is making the Expanded Universe non-canon, because that means all my Star Wars books are obsolete”.) Some personal observations after writing it:

  • Once you get the hang of it, LaTeX makes your life a lot easier–it handles citations smoothly and makes equations less of a pain. For a brief moment, when I was running Stata and LaTeX at the same time to compile some regressions, I felt like an economics god. Then I remembered that these are the preferred tools of most academic economists. And I felt less cool.
  • I was really happy to get some statistically significant results in my analysis. But I definitely did feel the pressure of producing something that was statistically significant–it certainly wouldn’t have felt as good if I’d turned in a regression table bereft of those lovely asterisks. And this was only a term paper–imagine the pressure career academics must feel! No wonder science suffers from “exaggeration [and] cherry-picking“.
  • Academic writing is a very weird and very specific genre. The goal is clarity at the expense of all else, and unfortunately “all else” happens to include readability. At some point when I have more time I’ll try and recast this as a blog post, with less jargon (what is a dyad, anyway?) and a little more wit.
  • Nevertheless, I enjoyed writing this! There’s nothing more fun and satisfying than being creative and–and when it’s something you’re really interested in, all the better.

Thank you for reading. If you’re a Harvard student and read this on top of all the papers you have to cover, kudos to you. Now get back to studying!

The Worst Hyperinflation in World History

No real analysis here, but an interesting thing I picked up in my reading:

Weimar Germany is typically thought of as the worst modern example of hyperinflation. In terms of its political consequences, it certainly was disastrous. But the dubious honor of the worst inflation in world history actually goes to postwar Hungary:

When the war ended, the U.S. dollar traded at 1,320 pengös, already a severe collapse from the 5.4 pengös to the dollar of 1938… By the end of 1945 Hungarian prices had risen four hundred-fold, and the pengö had ropped to 290,000 to the dollar… By the end of July one U.S. dollar was worth five nonillion pengös (a nonillion is ten followed by thirty zeros). The government printing presses could not keep pace with the wild inflation, and at this point all of Hungary’s banknotes in circulation combined were worth one one-thousandth of an American cent (Frieden, Global Capitalism, p 273).

Scary stuff.

“House of Cards” Season 2 Review (Spoiler-Free)

Today I can happily say that I am free of my House of Cards addiction. This is, of course, only two days after the premiere of all of Season Two’s episodes on Netflix. Such a release strategy practically begs for binge watching, and I am one of its victims.

Of course, finishing a days-long TV binge inevitably leaves a feeling of emptiness inside. But after experiencing this season of House of Cards, I can definitively say that something felt missing.

Perhaps it’s the series’ lack of fleshed-out, sympathetic characters. Every player in House of Cards is either a puppet or a puppet-master, and every decision is made in cold, calculated self-interest. It’s hard to relate to anybody.

The main character, Vice President Frank Underwood, is not so much a character as a bulldozer, plowing over all the obstacles before him. His fourth wall-breaking asides only reinforce the sense that he operates on a plane above all his political adversaries. Underwood is played admirably by Kevin Spacey, who (alone among the cast) at least seems like he’s having fun.

Frank is half of the series’ most interesting relationship, the manipulative, Machiavellian marriage of Frank and Claire Underwood. Claire, played by Robin Wright, is even steelier than her husband, and she has some choice scenes early in the series to show off her hard-boiled ruthlessness.

So the series at least has two interesting leads—greater shows have been built on less. What gives?

Perhaps, then, it’s this season’s lazy plotting. The writers constantly dangle threads and allow them to meander between episodes, only to cut them off abruptly, almost casually—which makes you wonder why they bothered in the first place. A subplot about hackers and government surveillance (with some not-too-subtle digs at Edward Snowden and the NSA) is particularly cringe-worthy.

But (thankfully) these subplots only occupy half of the running time, leaving space for the series to focus on the Underwoods’ brutal rise to power. And this central plot line, I think, is why I chose to spend over ten hours in three days watching a flawed TV show.

Frank Underwood may be merciless, even unsympathetic, but (as even President Obama admits) he sure gets a lot done. He bullies Congress into passing crucial budget legislation, deftly manages a foreign policy crisis, and carefully undermines a domestic political threat. And I think that is the level that House of Cards operates at—fantasy and wish fulfillment. Even if Frank Underwood is a cold-blooded sociopath, it sure is satisfying to see someone knock Congressional heads together and bring a measure of order to the chaos of Washington.

Demography of Middle-earth: the Shire

This is the third part of my series on the demography of Middle-earth. The first part concerned Gondor, and the second part was about Rohan. I also posted recently about the economic impact of Smaug.

Map of the Shire

The Shire was the most populous region in the largely depopulated land of Eriador. Home of the “half-grown Hobbits, the hole-dwellers”, it was a gentle land, largely unknown to and unknowing of the wider world. Throughout the Third Age, the Hobbits lived a peaceful pre-industrial existence, tilling the fertile earth, growing pipe-weed, and generally staying out of the business of those they called the “Big People”.

In the prologue to the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien describes the Shire as being forty leagues from east to west, and fifty leagues from north to south–an area of roughly 18,000 square miles (a league is three miles). It was divided into four quadrants, or farthings: Northfarthing, Westfarthing, Eastfarthing, and Southfarthing. There were significant variations in climate between the farthings: for instance, Northfarthing was the only region that regularly saw heavy snowfall, while Southfarthing was warm enough to produce the best pipe-weed in the Shire.

Located in the Westfarthing, Michel Delving was the largest town in the Shire and, as the seat of the mayor, its de facto capital. Hobbiton, the home of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, was also in the Westfarthing and near the geographical center of the Shire. Other larger settlements included Tuckborough, Bywater, and Frogmorton.

Bilbo Baggins

Bilbo Baggins and the out-of-place waistcoat

It’s no secret that Tolkien based the Shire on memories of the idyllic English countryside from his youth. What’s noted less often is how anachronistic the Shire is when compared to the rest of Middle-earth: Bilbo Baggins wears a waistcoat with gold buttons, when waistcoats were only invented in the 17th century; Bilbo also keeps a clock on his mantlepiece, when clocks that size were only built starting the 16th century; and Lobelia Sackville-Baggins carries an umbrella, an invention that came to England only in the mid-17th century. Indeed, the Shire seems closer to depictions of the semi-mythical Merry England of the 16th and 17th centuries than to the gritty, pre-Renaissance realms of Gondor and Rohan.

This series has thus far relied on historical parallels to make estimates about Middle-earth’s population. Gondor, if you recall, was compared to Constantinople and Norman England; Rohan was compared to the Goths. We already know the place of comparison for the Shire–historical England, as Tolkien imagined it. Thus our comparison is wholly dependent on our choice of year.

Using any date after 1700 would  be a grave overreach: by this time the Agricultural Revolution in Britain was well underway. Jethro Tull invented the seed drill in 1701, and England’s population would skyrocket shortly afterward due to the growing food supply. Moreover, Tolkien was explicit about the Hobbits’ distaste for machinery; in the Prologue, he notes that “they do not and did not understand or like machines more complicated than a forge-bellows, a water-mill, or a hand-loom”. We will have to accept Lobelia’s umbrella as a fantastical anachronism–admittedly a small concession in a world of trolls and dragons.

Let’s first try the calculation with the population numbers from 1520, the earliest date in my 16th-17th century Merry England timespan with reliable figures. Around 1520, England and Wales’s rural population was approximately 1.82 million, which gives a population density of around 31 people per square mile. Translated to the Shire’s area, this yields a population of around 558,000. If we used England and Wales’s rural population from 1600 (2.87 million), the Shire’s estimated population shoots up to around 890,000.

My gut instinct is that this second estimate is too high; it can serve as our upper bound. Indeed, even the lower bound struck me at first as too large. However, after further thought, I think it can be justified. Tolkien is keen to note that the Shire is a rich and bountiful land, blessed with fertile earth that was carefully tilled even before the arrival of the Hobbits. Moreover, Hobbits lived much longer than their 16th-century human counterparts, regularly reaching the age of 100. With these considerations in mind, it seems plausible that the Shire could support a Hobbit-population of around half a million.

The Macroeconomic Impact of Smaug

Today, I’m taking a break from my demography of Middle-Earth series to tackle a problem in my chosen field of study–economics. More specifically, today’s post is about the macroeconomic impact of Smaug, the red dragon of Erebor, on the economy of Middle-Earth.

smaug-the-hobbit copy

Surprisingly, there already exists a sizable literature on this subject.

To summarize, the consensus is that the arrival of the great wyrm of the North was both a fiscal and monetary shock: fiscal, due to the enormous damage to the productive capacities of the people of Middle-Earth (the destruction of Dale and Erebor, the roasting and consumption of countless skilled Dwarven miners and smiths); and monetary, because of the abrupt removal of the biggest hoard of currency in Middle-Earth.

How big a hoard, you might ask?

According to one calculation, Smaug is more than 60 meters long, and has a wingspan of over 50 meters–by all measures, an impressive beast. But those who have seen the movie know that Smaug is easily dwarfed by his massive bed of gold and jewels; he’s able to lie completely hidden beneath his treasure hoard. And recall that in the film the Dwarves’ plan to rid themselves of the dragon involves <spoiler>drowning him in a pool of molten gold</spoiler>

Now, by one estimate, the sum total of all the gold mined in human history would form about a 25 meter cube, with a value of over $12.4 trillion dollars (using the present gold price of roughly $1240 USD per ounce). The treasure hoard of Smaug is many times that size, making the wealth of the dragon many times greater than the modern United States’s annual GDP! And that’s just considering the value of the gold; once you factor in the value of the countless jewels and gems of his hoard, Smaug’s wealth simply becomes incalculable (Forbes, eat your heart out).

It’s easily conceivable that the massive shock to the money supply caused by the loss of the hoard started a deflationary spiral in the surrounding area, resulting in a severe depression in economic activity. No wonder the area around the Lonely Mountain was so desolate!

An interesting follow-up question would be the effects of the return of the hoard to Middle-Earth’s economy with the eventual slaying of the dragon. The re-introduction of such a vast amount of currency to the money supply would almost certainly have a massive inflationary effect on the surrounding economy–certainly not a welcome development for the people of Esgaroth and Erebor trying to rebuild their homes in the wake of the dragon. To borrow a phrase–out of the frying pan, into the fire!

If you liked this post, you might also like my posts on the populations of Gondor and Rohan.

“The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug” Review

Tolkien fans who were shocked when Tom Bombadil was excised from the Fellowship of the Ring, beware – the Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug may cause a minor cardiac event. In the eyes of this Tolkien fan, most of the changes are welcome, but make no mistake: Peter Jackson’s kinetic, action-driven trilogy has clearly departed from the mild bildungsroman written by an Oxford don. This is Jackson’s Middle-Earth now – we are only visitors.

But my, what a trip it is. No filmmaker at work today is able to evoke a living, breathing world with the authority of Peter Jackson. The sets are masterful and the CGI is seamless; every dollar of the $200 million budget is there on-screen. Of particular note are the Dickensian Lake-Town, as squalid as Minas Tirith was magisterial, and a nasty nest of forest spiders.

The main knock against the CGI is, unfortunately, Jackson’s tendency to overindulge. Occasionally the movie descends into physics-free, video game mayhem (recall the acrobatic goblin tunnels sequence from the previous movie for reference). This is entertaining, I’ll admit, but clashes with Jackson’s attempts to make the tone of his Hobbit darker and more thematically consistent with his Rings trilogy.

Now a word about those changes to Tolkien’s vision. Without venturing too far into spoiler territory, I can safely say that Jackson makes explicit some darker connections between the Hobbit and the Rings trilogy that were left buried in the books. Jackson had to up the stakes to justify the price of admission of three movies, but most of the pastoral, childlike wonder of the book is lost. Nor is the writing in this regard particularly deft – I found myself rolling my eyes when “evil” and “darkness” were spoken about in ominous tones for the hundredth time.

The addition of the elf warrior Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), a character absent from the book, I feel was necessary; with Galadriel absent, she’s the only noteworthy female character in the almost three-hour film. In her gymnastic feats of orc-slaying she’s more than a match for the other chief elven character, the returning Legolas (Orlando Bloom). Interestingly, these two characters (neither of whom appear in the book) form two corners of an unexpected love triangle. Even more interestingly, I didn’t mind – the dialogue in the romance scenes is sprightly and provided a welcome relief from the endless orc-slaying.

Indeed, amidst all the swashbuckling and barrel-riding one can forget that there are some pretty fine actors in this film. Ian McKellen continues to embody Gandalf the Grey, and Stephen Fry find the right note of sleaziness as the venal Master of Lake-Town. In my review of an Unexpected Journey, I feel I unjustly overlooked Martin Freeman’s performance as Bilbo Baggins, the titular hobbit. Freeman is excellent. In this world of epic quests, sorcerers, and one magnificent dragon, he gives a naturalistic performance with an endearing set of tics and a unique, off-hand delivery which helps ground the fantasy.

But more about the dragon. Smaug is the best dragon ever committed to film, bar none. He moves with real weight and authority, and his sonorous rumblings – the digitally enhanced voice-work of Benedict Cumberbatch – are appropriately terrifying. Smaug’s conversation with Bilbo, like the riddle sequence with Gollum in the previous film, is easily the best part of the movie. Smaug comes in only during the last third, just when my focus began to drift – but then he grabs hold of it, as only a thousand-ton dragon can, and doesn’t let go until the film’s abrupt and anticlimactic end.

It’s rare that a movie with a running time close to three hours can hold me in rapt attention. I complained that an Unexpected Journey could have easily lost half an hour on the cutting-room floor; it would be difficult to identify parts of this movie that could be cut without loss. The film moves briskly, sometimes too briskly, and the ending feels more like a setup for the next film than a proper emotional release.

But, like its predecessor, the delights of Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth far exceed the faults. See it for the experience of a cinematic universe better-realized than any other, and for the work of a director who clearly loves his subject and his craft.

And for that cunning, fiery dragon at the end.

Ender’s Game Film Review (Spoiler-Free)

Ender’s Game, that adolescent sci-fi novel about juveniles in alien-fighting boot camp, has often been described by its author Orson Scott Card as “unfilmable”. Nearly thirty years after its initial publication, Ender’s Game finally has a Hollywood adaptation — and yet it may still retain Card’s descriptor.

I read the book back in 7th grade and have fond memories of it. As a teenager juiced up on too many video games and way too much military history, I loved the book’s titanic space battles and its in-depth psychological examination of what it took to turn a boy into a commander.

7th-grade me would have loved much of this movie — specifically, the dazzling battle scenes. Amidst the chaos of 3D space combat, director Gavin Hood maintains clarity and cohesion. The Battle Room — the vast, gravityless training ground where cadets test their mettle — is brilliantly realized, as are the maneuvers within it. We can see Ender’s feints and stratagems in motion, and (rare for an action film) we can appreciate Ender’s strategic talents through visuals alone.

Unfortunately, all unqualified praise of the film ends with the battle scenes. In general, the pacing of Ender’s Game feels off. The first act seems choppy and rushed, as if Hood is flipping through the book’s necessary exposition and early character development to get to the bits with the bang-bangs! and pew pews! The second act, which is dominated by action, is enthralling. Then Hood seems to drop the ball; an essential twist in the last act is not given its requisite dramatic weight, and the final coda doesn’t quite feel like it belongs in the same movie.

That last criticism, by the way, is directed less at Hood (who also penned the script) than at Orson Scott Card. As this review is spoiler-free, I’ll leave out the details, but suffice it to say that Ender’s Game works best as a psychological study of turning a boy into a killer, less as a pseudo-mystical query about the intelligent meaning behind Nature. Sequels are best left to separate movies.

As many of my friends noted, there’s simply too much material in the books to fit into a two-hour movie. In this sense, adapting a much-beloved novel is a curse; fans will inevitably clamor at any part, however minor, that is excised from the whole. But a couple of shrewd character condensations or cuts would have helped the pacing — a subplot between Ender and a girl at the Battle School seems awkward and forced, and I lost count of how many pigheaded bullies Ender had to stand up to. Moreover, cuts would have yielded time to examine Ender’s fragile psychological condition, which is given passing reference now and then but rarely shown (not told) by actor Asa Butterfield.

Now, to return to my original point about un-filmability. On a surface level, Ender’s Game (the film) is remarkably faithful to the book — essential plot points are preserved and details are adhered to fastidiously. Yet it isn’t quite successful as a movie. The unfortunate truth is that a faithful transcription of Ender’s Game to celluloid is not cinematic good sense; the action inevitably dominates the characters, and the mysticism of the coda will only confuse audiences. Paradoxically, in committing Ender’s Game to film Gavin Hood may have proven Orson Scott Card right all along.


I’ve been fairly quiet on this site recently, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been busy. Here are two articles I recently wrote:

  • An op-ed in the Crimson about potential US intervention in Syria
  • An article on the Mets’ Ike Davis for baseball journalist Peter Gammons’s new site

Demography of Middle-Earth: Rohan

Rohan - Land of the Horse-Lords

This is the second part of a series on the demography of Middle-Earth. The first part concerned Gondor.

After Gondor, Rohan was the greatest of the Realms of Men, and the first to strike a decisive blow against Sauron’s plans in the War of the Ring. However, despite its outsize role in the Lord of the Rings, calculating Rohan’s population with any degree of accuracy is a difficult task.


In the time scale of Tolkien’s legendarium, Rohan was a recent invention. The Rohirrim were once known as the Eotheod, a nomadic people who wandered the North of Middle Earth. They were not learned like the Dunedain of Gondor and Rohan, but they were no friends of Sauron either.

Rohan’s story begins with an invasion of Orcs and Easterlings in Year 2510 of the Third Age (roughly 500 years before the events in the Lord of the Rings). By this time, Gondor’s strength had waned and its line of kings had failed. The invaders overran the eastern province of Calenardhon and threatened Gondor proper. Desperate for help, Cirion, Steward of Gondor, sent messengers north to the Eotheod asking for aid.

Gondor’s armies were on the brink of destruction when, unexpectedly, Eorl’s host appeared from the North. The combined armies of Gondor and the Eotheod routed the invaders, and in gratitude, Cirion gave the depopulated province of Calenardhon to Eorl and his people. The two rulers also exchanged eternal vows of friendship, the first such oaths since those that bound Gil-Galad and Elendil’s Last Alliance at the beginning of the Third Age.

Probably the best battle scene ever filmed.

Probably the best battle scene ever filmed.

Real-World Parallels

Calculating Rohan’s population is less of a quantitative exercise than calculating Gondor’s population, as it is highly dependent on the assumptions you make about Rohan’s culture and society. Tolkien left precious few clues about the exact makeup of Rohan’s society, so my final estimate of its population will likely be more controversial than my estimate for Gondor’s.

Tolkien clearly had the Anglo-Saxons in mind while imagining Rohan: the names Eomer and Hama were taken directly from the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf. Similarly, in one of his letters, he mentions the armor of Anglo-Saxon horsemen from the Bayeux tapestry, a depiction of the Norman invasion of England, as an inspiration for the armor of the Rohirrim. However, to go ahead and equate the Rohirrim with the Anglo-Saxons would be too hasty. The Angles and Saxons were not horse-riders; their preferred means of transport was by sea, on boats. Imagining the Rohirrim (Sindarin for People of the Horse-Lords) without their horses would be unthinkable.

The truth is that the Rohirrim were a composite people: Tolkien borrowed the language and many of the customs of the Anglo-Saxons, and the history of another Germanic people – the Goths.

Kings doing homage to Theodoric

As Tolkien scholar Michael Martinez points out, there are important parallels between the history of the Goths and the story of the Rohirrim. Historians theorize that the Goths came from Scandinavia, to the far north of Rome; similarly, the Rohirrim once roamed the lands north of Gondor, and claimed ties of kinship to Middle-Earth’s Northmen. The Goths were invited to settle within the fertile lands of the Roman Empire, just as the Rohirrim were invited by Gondor to live in Calenardhon. Finally, the Goths moved into the Western Roman Empire due to the onset of eastern invaders, the Huns, while the Rohirrim moved west into Gondor due to an invasion of Easterlings.

As always, there remain some key differences. The relationship between the Goths and the Romans was considerably more acrimonious – to put it mildly – than the Gondor-Rohan alliance. Moreover, the Goths fought primarily as infantry – they had some horsemen, but nothing like the massed cavalry formations of Rohan. We will have to accept these as fictional additions on Tolkien’s part (after all, it’s an imaginary universe we’re discussing here), and continue with the Goths as our point of comparison.


We know little of England during the Dark Ages, or of Constantinople around its fall. We know even less of the Goths, a once-nomadic people who only invented an alphabet around 350 AD. They kept few records, and what few they may have kept are lost. We must thus rely on the inaccurate (and probably exaggerated) estimates of outsiders to inform our sketch of Rohan.

Herwig Wolfram’s the History of the Goths estimates that “one hundred to two hundred thousand” Goths settled in Aquitaine (a western region of France) around 429. Wolfram supports this figure with an anecdote from Gaiseric, king of a competing “barbarian”* group, the Vandals, who claimed that his people numbered 80,000. History tells us that the Vandals fled from the Goths, and logic tells us that a larger force rarely flees from a smaller one. Thus several hundred thousand seems to be the ballpark figure for migrant “barbarian” groups.


Aquitania, of the Roman Empire; inset: modern Aquitaine

In her Atlas of Middle-Earth, the indispensable Karen Wynn Fonstad estimates that Rohan’s land area was 52,763 square miles. The modern-day province of Aquitaine is roughly 16,000 square miles; the Roman province of Aquitania (for lack of more precise measurements) appears to be over three times the size of its modern namesake. Taking advantage of this similarity in land area**, we arrive at a figure of a hundred thousand to two hundred thousand for Rohan’s population – an reasonable guess, in my estimation.

We can also turn to military statistics, which we possess in abundance for both of these warlike peoples, to support this guess. Theoden rode to Minas Tirith with 6000 men, but claimed that he had the ability to send “ten thousand spears” had Denethor’s summons given him more time. At the climactic battle of Adrianople, the Goths fielded anywhere from 12,000 to 20,000 men. Although the Battle of Adrianople was separated from Aquitaine in both time (fifty years before the Goths settled in Aquitaine) and place (Adrianople is in modern Turkey), it still informs us that our figure is in the ballpark – an army of ten thousand men is a force proportional to a population of several hundred thousand men, women, and children.

Admittedly, the result of “several hundred thousand, give or take a hundred thousand” is less exciting than my estimate of 3 to 4 million for Gondor. Unfortunately, that is the reality of analyzing Rohan – Tolkien simply didn’t elaborate very much on the society of the mysterious Horse-Lords. I will admit a certain bias in this study: my initial goal was to refute the image of Peter Jackson’s Rohan – a land of endless plains largely devoid of people. A population of 100,000 (admittedly, on the lower bound of expectations) gives Rohan a population density less than half that of modern-day Mongolia. The contrarian in me must admit defeat – Jackson’s depiction of a sparse, largely underpopulated Rohan is mostly accurate.


* Barbarian being the term the Romans used for pretty much anyone who didn’t meet their urbane standards of cultural sophistication

** Aside from their similarities in area, landlocked Rohan is generally quite unlike coastal Aquitaine, save for one crucial similarity: they both border a large mountain range (the Pyrenees for Aquitaine, and the White Mountains for Rohan) which separate them from their southerly neighbors.