ancient army logistics

Can anyone suggest a book, or even give me a reader’s digest version of ancient army logistics?

You hear accounts of armies in the ancient world numbering in the tens or hundreds of thousands. To me this always sounds like fact being elevated to the level of myth. IANALG (I am not a logistics guy) but how in the hell do you feed 100,000 soldiers on the move in the Bronze Age.

As far as book recommendations, either nonfiction or one of those historical fiction books would interest me equally well.

Thanks in advance.


Read Thucydides The Peloponnesian War or Julius Caesar’
s The Gallic Wars. Nothing like getting it straighht from the horse’s mouth. Caesar teels you what actions he took and why, although I don’t recall him giving details of the battles themselves.

Osprey Publishing has lots of really excellent books on this topic. Here is the web site for Osprey. You can get their books on amazon also.

I got into the same discussion with my mother re: Samson killing a thousand Phillistines with the jawbone of an ass. Maybe the thousand had just eaten said ass?

Actually, I’m with you on this one. I think that many (if not most) ancient accounts have been highly inflated for nationalistic purposes. especially when the “history” is part of a religious mythology.

This is a problem for modern battles as well. It always looks like you’re fighting a million and one enemy. Also, the bragging factor almost obligates historians to multiply the feats of their own heros and leaders by multiplying the number of foes they vanquished.

As for feeding all those guys, for ages it’s been a matter of everyone fending for themselves or their own personal troops. The crusaders ravaged the land they passed through just by eating everything in sight. Napoleons Republican army supplimented their provisions with victuals acquired from the surrounding countryside.

One of the things an ancient army commander could do to ease food problems was to spread his army out over a wide area as it advanced. This reduced the ravaging that the land had to endure. Important if it was your own countryside that you were marching over. Many armies would split their forces in order that each of the sub-units could take a different route to the destination. There would be more food for each soldier, the routes would be less crowded, and the spread of disease could be reduced.

Another measure would be to create advanced bases of provisions along the route of march. This kept the men from having to transport their food along the way, but it was risky to have all that stuff sitting around if there was any chance of the enemy getting it or destroying it. A feature that marked a well-organized army was a group of officers whose jobs was to ride ahead of the army to organize provisions for the following forces. Once again, this was difficult to do when advancing across enemy territory. The Romans could do this for legions leaving Rome for the frontier because the roads allowed the army to cross their own territory quickly without trampling everything in sight and they had a network of towns where provisions could be acquired and secured before the arrival of a legion.

A good commander could play the food card against his opponent. The barbarous franks northwest of the post-Roman Gothic territories were formidable fighters and could amass a huge army. But a smart gothic general could cut their forces in half just by delaying battle. The Franks would get hungry (and bored) and melt away home to find food.

IIRC, ancient armies often kept near water so as to be supplied by ship; that’s why Athen’s naval victory against the Persians was so important.

An ox can carry enough food to feed itself for a week (no cite; can’t recall which book it was in). So carrying food wasn’t a great option and running out of food was a big problem. The Roman strategy in the Second Punic War when Fabius was in charge was to harass the Carthaginians (sp?) just enough to keep their troops from being able to scavange the countryside; i.e., the army would spread out and get food from the local population, from crops, etc., but Fabius kept them from spreading out by staying just close enough to force Hannibal’s army to stay together.

Thanks for the suggested reading, Calmeacham and ratatoskK.

I will definitely check those out.

I will be really interested to see if there is any evidence to support these vast numbers of troops.


During the battle of Watling Street, the Celtic armies (about a querter million) attempted to retreat from the Romans and got hemmed in by their own wagon train and were subsequently beat down. So ancient armies do in fact bring large amounts of provisions with them as they go.

Keep in mind that an ancient army needs much less in the way of provisions compared to a modern mechanized force. Food, tents, some extra uniforms, armor and weapons. That’s about it. They don’t need massive amounts of trucks, planes and helicopters to carry all the fuel and spare parts for all the tanks, APCs, artillery, trucks, planes and helicopters. An ancient battery could find catapault rocks anywhere. They didn’t have to bring several tons of specialized amunition.

Keep in mind that an ancient army needs much less in the way of provisions compared to a modern mechanized force.QUOTE]

Undoubtably so, the food alone is what was bugging me. Modern troops have the advantage of freeze dried foods, vacuum packaged meals, etc. in the way of light weight provisions. But I would suppose that ancient soldiers, especially if they were foraging as they went, were eating fresh foods (fruits picked from the tree, hunted meat) which wouldn’t travel well, or lightly.

And if the area was arid and you had to keep them supplied with water – yikes! And according to the story/myth of the trojan war, the greeks were encamped on Troy’s beach for TEN YEARS. Think about how much firewood was needed for a military encampment for ten years.

For some, there is good evidence that the numbers are roughly accurate. For others, less so. It was certainly possible to raise large numbers of troops in ancient times.

Many armies have tended to spontaneously form things like raiders and “appropriations oficers” now and then to take whateveres not nailed down.

Modern troops, in general, also do not help themselves to the agricultural bounty of farms as they go by. In pre-modern times, a far greater percentage of the population existed as farmers, and passing armies had fewer compunctions about slaughtering cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens, children, et cetera, and eating their way to the destination like a swarm of locusts. A farmer will put up just as much fight as a fruit tree when there’s an army on his doorstop demanding his foodstocks, and you can generally get more than a bushel of apples from one.

“Requisitioning” of this type still goes on, of course, but we like to think our modern armies are a little nicer about it.

Yeah, but I thought that was because agriculture was barely above subsistance level in pre-modern times. Admittedly the passing armies aren’t going to worry about how the farmers will survive after they pass through, particularily in enemy territory, but if the farmers where just making enough to keep themselves fed (and that’s over the course of their whole year) how much surplus could possibly be there for the taking when the armies passed through?

From the farmer’s point of view, there’s no surplus - he needs to store X amount to feed his family until the next harvest, or until the cow calves, or the piglets are weaned, whathaveyou. From the army’s point of view, it’s all surplus and it’s all theirs.

Actually there had to be quite a bit of agricultural surplus - once you started to have villages and cities. Once societies started separating into classes that did non involve growing food (artisans, merchants, priests, soldiers, nobility) somenone had to supply the food stuff.

They may not have been modern, but they weren’t stupid.

Hence the “scorched earth” tactic, where you deliberately make the land un-usable after you leave.

I think you’d have to county 1861-1865 as “modern times” in many ways, and it was VERY common for armies on both sides of the Civil War to simply take whatever they wanted or needed when on the move. My mother grew up living beside a woman who was a child during the Civil War and remembers that both sides pretty much left the family with no hogs, no corn, and no firewood. Virginia was pretty much decimated during the war, so much so that people left in droves and it is only within the last 50 years that the population has rebounded. There were more people living in my home county in 1750 than there were in 1950.

A side note to the scorched earth theme is the intoduction of the potato from South America. While it was relatively easy to burn a field of wheat, it took more time and manpower to dig up and dispose of potatoes. Europeans were reluctant to grow potatoes (with some justifications, since if potatoes grow exposed to sunlight, the green spots are poisonous), but Frederick the Great used to eat them on public display to show they were safe.

One aspect of milititary logistics that’s always baffled me is the fancy uniforms of pre-industrial armies. Besides the human costs, imagining the acres of bodies on the battlefield at Waterloo, with the millions of embroidered stitches and coiled bullion and tooled leather, all done by hand is mind-boggling.

Wasn’t it Wellington who first mastered Logistics?

Oh, no. He certainly made damned good use of logistics, but, for example, The Byzantine Emperor Maurice wrote a detailed treatment of logistics in his Strategikon, in the late sixth/early seventh century. Maurice was heir to a long Roman tradition of excellent logistics. Certainly the Mongols understood logistics, as they pertained to their forms of warfare (though one should expect nomads and semi-nomads to have great practical experience with mobile logistics).

When Henry V invaded France, he sent agents out weeks in advance to collect the neccessary supplies and resources. These agents not only collected those supplies, they arranged for transportation of those goods to the port of embarkation in good time for loading prior to the appointed time of departure. They also kept extremely detailed records of their transactions.

Wellington was a military prodigy, but he was far from the first to discover logistics in a practical and organized manner.

Ah, I didn’t ask if he was the first to discover logistics, I asked if he was the first to master logistics.