In Mark 5:13 the number of pigs grazing on the hillside in the "region of the Gerasenes" is cited as 2000:

3He gave them permission, and the unclean spirits came out and went into the pigs, and the herd of about two thousand rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the water.

While Porphyry makes several objections to the account, one stands out as a historical and cultural detail rather than a theological one: the number.

But Mark did not shrink from making up an enormous number of swine, for he puts it thus: "He said unto him, Go forth, thou unclean spirit, from the man. And he asked him, What is thy name? And he answered, Many. And he besought him that he would not cast him out of the country. And there was there a herd of swine feeding. And the demons besought him that he would suffer them to depart into the swine. And when they had departed into the swine, they rushed down the steep into the sea, about two thousand, and were choked; and they that fed them fled !" (Mark v. 8, etc.). What a myth ! What humbug ! What flat mockery ! A herd of two thousand swine ran into the sea, and were choked and perished! (Macarius, Apocriticus III: 4).

Porphyry seems to be taking issue with the number drowned and later on the meaning of the act, but here I seek to focus on the presence of the swine themselves. Two-thousand pigs, even today, is a large herd. Is there archaeological or literary evidence that would corroborate such numbers in this region? Are they raised for consumption for the Decapolis cities, Hellenistic locals, or even the Roman Army?

  • I have found some references to the Roman Army supply systems which are rather vague when it comes to meat supplies, while grain seems abundant in their diet. Did such large scale herding for military supply exist?
    – r m
    Dec 20, 2016 at 14:56

1 Answer 1


Roman soldiers were sufficiently well fed to remain an efficient fighting unit. The Roman Military Research Society reports:

Calculations show that each soldiers basic peace time diet would be a grain ration of about 1-1½kg per day (2-3lb) added to which would be Oil or Lard, Bacon or some other meat, Vinum (Vintage wine) or Acetum (Sour wine), Salt, Cheese, Vegetables etc. Contrary to popular opinion the meat part of the ration seems to have been regular and may have been substantial. Naturally no-one knows what the ration was but the most usually found remains are Beef, Sheep, Venison & Pig with Wild Boar, Goat & Hare. Elk, Bear, Wild Ox & Horse are also recorded at some sites. Of course having all that spare cash burning a hole in his scrotum (purse) a legionary could buy himself some additional food at the local vicus or canabae.

Most of the food rations seem to have been grown by the soldiers themselves, supplemented by hunting and foraging, since constant purchase of grain and meat would have been a drain on the public purse. Benjamin Hollis reports:

When on station, the soldiers ... always maintained a herd of cattle, sometimes herding other animals such as sheep and goats, grew grain and other crops, including vegetables, and foraged for variety.

This suggests that whoever was the customer for the swineherder in the "region of the Gerasenes", it was not the Roman army to any significant extent. Nor was it the Jewish population of Galilee. Although it is likely that the larger towns of Galilee were predominantly Gentile, as was the Decapolis, the first-century civilian diet did not include a great deal of meat. Unless our swineherder had a monopoly on the commercial supply of pigs throughout the region, it is hard to explain such a substantial herd of swine.

When we look for literary evidence, the first thing to note is the apparent geographic error in Mark's Gospel. The "region of the Gerasenes" was not at all close to the Sea of Galilee. Luke 8:26 solves this by changing the name of the region to the more credible 'Gadarenes' (The KJV Bible also changes Mark to 'Gadarenes'). If Mark's account is somewhat unreliable, then it is possible that the entire account was anecdotal or otherwise unreliable.

Dennis R. MacDonald examines this account in The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark, pages 16-18 and notes close parallels to the Homeric account of Circe turning Odysseus' legion of sailors into swine. At one point in the Homeric epic, Odysseus is asked his name and he replies "Nobody". In Mark's Gospel, the demoniac is asked his name and he replies "Legion", a direct reversal of Odysseus' response.

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