Military logistics in the ancient world

My son is an officer in the Royal Logistic Corps, so dinnertime conversation has been known to turn to military logistics. This means that I can now tell you much more than most people about how to ship military equipment from England to Afghanistan, but this doesn’t help that much when writing about the movement of men and supplies in historical campaigns.

I thought it might be interesting to look at how logistics operated in the days before the AN-124 Ruslan, the world’s biggest military transport aircraft. As you don’t want an enormously long essay (and I don’t have time to write one) I’ll touch briefly on the ancient Persians and Alexander the Great, before talking about the logistics of the Roman Empire.


There must have been a time when wars were simply skirmishes between different tribes fighting over land on the boundaries of their territories. Logistics then would not have been an issue. As soon, though, as we have states moving against other states some distance from their borders, the whole question of supplies becomes crucial.

Herodotus recounts how, in the sixth century BCE, Cambyses, the second Persian King of Kings, moved to attack Ethiopia without making proper provision for supplies.

“Angered … he at once began his march against Ethiopia, without any orders for the provision of supplies, and without for a moment considering the fact that he was to take his men to the ends of the earth. He lost his wits completely… They had not, however, covered a fifth of the distance [to Ethiopia], when everything in the nature of provisions gave out, and the men were forced to eat the pack animals until they, too, were all gone. If Cambyses, when he saw what the situation was, had changed his mind and returned to his base, he would, in spite of his original error, have shown some sense; but as it was, he paid not least attention to what was happening and continued his advance. She troops kept themselves alight by eating green-stuff so long as there was any to be had in the country, but once they had reached the desert, some of them were reduced to the dreadful expedient of cannibalism. One man in ten was chosen by lot to be the victim. This was too much even for Cambyses; when it was reported to him, he abandoned the expedition, marched back, and arrived at Thebes with greatly reduced numbers.”

It’s probably significant that Herodotus says that “he lost his wits completely”. The Persian (Achaemenid) Empire was huge and Herodotus must have understood that proper arrangements for supplies was absolutely crucial to military operations on the scale that Cambyses would have undertaken.

Alexander the Great

The Persian Empire collapsed eventually, and, in time, we had Alexander the Great (356 BCE – 323 BCE). He inherited the logistical reforms of his father, Philip, who had been the first general to use horses, rather than oxen, for carrying supplies, which allowed supplies to be moved much faster, easing mobility problems. Philip had also improved the mobility and flexibility of his armies by increasing the supplies carried by individual troops themselves.  

Alexander the Great
(British Museum)

Alexander developed the organisation of the baggage train, appointing an officer – the Skoidos – to be responsible for everything from the defence of the train to the distribution of supplies. As he moved further east, he also supplemented the horses and mules of his baggage train with camels, which could carry substantially heavier loads as well as being able to cope better with arid terrain. There’s a fair bit of speculation in our understanding of Alexander’s logistics, though.

But then the Romans arrived on the scene and, being Roman, left quite a bit in the way of accounts.


The Roman army was huge. Some people attribute the fall of Rome to the costs of maintaining it. And while in the early days soldiers were expected to supply their own kit, as time passed, the Roman military became almost entirely funded by the state. They needed arms and armour, building materials and medical supplies, but most of all they needed feeding. A legion is estimated to have required, for example, 18,000 pounds (8200 kg) of grain every day.

Rome could be required to supply the armies’ needs, even though they might be based thousands of miles away. To give just one recorded example, in 215 CE, the commanders of the army in Spain informed the Senate of a shortage of money, clothing and corn. They said they would try to get money themselves, presumably from local taxation, but clothing and corn had to be delivered from Italy. The Senate agreed that these demands were justified and enough corn to feed the army had to be shipped from Italy to Spain. This sort of thing happens all the time. Sometimes shipping was arranged by private contractors and other times the Roman Navy was used. Corn would be shipped from provinces all over the Empire to provision the armies. (Obviously the grain was not always shipped via Rome.)

It’s important to note that the army had to request the Senate for approval for this corn to be bought. The Senate jealously guarded its right to control military appropriations and hence ensure that the army was controlled by the legislature and not the other way round.

The Romans had a substantial logistical capability within each army, which would have a large detachment of mules together with drivers and sometimes wagons. A legion should have 600 – 1,200 mules. If there was a shortage of pack animals, carriages or manpower, the military could requisition from the local population. (Hence Christ saying in the Sermon on the Mount: ‘And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain’ – a reference to the idea that a Roman soldier could demand a civilian in an occupied country should carry his pack for a distance.)

Each Roman soldier was supposed to set off with a week of food on his person and the baggage train would carry a further 3 – 4 weeks’ worth of supplies. If Roman rule had been established in an area, the army would have built (or requisitioned) granaries to hold supplies of grain with supply depots linked along a system of military roads to provide for all the units in the country.

The ability of Rome to maintain lines of supply across the Empire, not only enabling the legions to campaign effectively in hostile countries but also to maintain standing armies in pacified provinces, was essential to the success of the Empire. When the cost of such a vast military network meant that the system collapsed under its own weight, it was centuries before logistical supply on a similar scale was be contemplated again.


Herodotus The Histories Penguin Classics

Kings and Generals. Alexander the Great: Logistics

Erdkamp (1995) The Corn Supply of the Roman Armies during the Third and Second Centuries B.C. Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte

King James Bible: Matthew 5:41

Invicta History. Roman Army Supply Lines and Logistics


Next week I will be revealing the new cover for Burke in the Land of Silver, which is being republished ahead of the release of two new Burke books later this year.

It’s a lovely image and I’m really looking forward to sharing it with you.