In 334 BC the Macedonian king Alexander the Great set forth for Asia to campaign against the Persians. He had inherited a powerful army with an incredibly effective logistics system, thanks to the reforms of his father and predecessor Philip II. Yet fighting in Asia would prove very different from fighting in the Balkans and Greece. Alexander realised this and soon adapted the logistics system he had inherited from his father to suit his new theatres of war.
One area that gradually experienced improvement and alteration was the baggage train. Traversing the Persian Empire meant that Alexander needed to ensure his baggage train was well-organised. He therefore placed in overall charge of the baggage train a transport officer, a skoidos. The skoidos would look after the baggage train’s defences, marching order, the welfare of the pack animals and distributing supplies. It is believed Parmenion, Alexander’s ill-fated second-in-command, filled such a role until his execution in 330 BC.
Beasts of burden
One of the most critical factors for a successful baggage train was the welfare of the pack animals and it is no surprise that this was one of the skoidos’ main priorities. Although many items in Alexander’s army were carried either by the troops or the servants, they were unable to carry other critical equipment such as hammocks, tents, firewood, loot, medical supplies and perhaps each man’s sarissa when they did not expect to be fighting. This was why his beasts of burden were essential.
Just as for his father, horses and mules remained the predominant pack animals within Alexander’s army. Yet he would also incorporate another animal to carry supplies.
Introduced into Alexander’s army in either Syria or Egypt, the camel played a critical role in Alexander’s conquests. It could carry more than either a mule or horse, able to transport 300 lb (136 kg) of supplies over a long distance. A horse or mule in comparison could carry only 200 lb (91 kg).
Camels were also well-suited for traversing arid terrain, having barely any limitations on what they could eat and drink if necessary. They were thus ideal baggage animals for Alexander’s marches into the Persian heartlands and beyond – lands where the need for speed across harsh deserts was critical.
Throughout his campaigns, horses, mules and camels remained the engine of Alexander’s Macedonian baggage train. Their speed and endurance were much greater than oxen and this suited his desire for light, fast marches across harsh terrain.
Continuously, he would recruit these animals throughout his campaign; they were then spread throughout his army to supply the men – animals being attached to every dekas units.
Yet Alexander could not maintain this highly-mobile baggage train during the entirety of his campaign. At times, we hear of Alexander temporarily reintroducing carts into Alexander’s army, most notably in Iran. However, just as Xenophon had before him, he soon had most of them burned to avoid them hindering his army in harsh terrain. A few carts inevitably remained and were tasked with transporting certain heavier, essential items: siege machinery and the wounded.
Just as with the temporary reintroduction of wagons and the use of camels, Alexander would make one other critical change to the Macedonian baggage train as he advanced deeper into Asia.
As he and his army marched further and further away from the Mediterranean, it became clear to Alexander’s soldiers that it would be many years before they could see their wives and children again in Macedonia. Alexander therefore reversed one of Philip’s keystone logistical decisions and permitted women once more to travel with the baggage train. Gradually their number increased. Soon afterwards Alexander even allowed his soldiers to marry captive women. Children soon followed, and the baggage train swelled in size.
Although a radical change from his father’s logistics system and one that undoubtedly slowed down Alexander’s army, it was deemed necessary. Philip’s ban had worked because he had fought in Europe: his men had been able to return home after each campaigning season to see their loved ones. Alexander’s men could not. Nevertheless, even with this change, Alexander always prioritised travelling as light as possible. For him, speed and mobility was key.
Although Alexander’s baggage train experienced alteration during his conquest, the primary tasks of the skoidos remained the same. Given the sparsity of replacements available in Asia, ensuring the welfare of the pack animals never lost its importance. But another equally-important task was distributing rations to the troops.
Grain products were the major staples of a Macedonian soldier’s diet. Wheat, barley and millet – all were available throughout Asia and India. Not only were they easily portable, but once these products were dried, they could be stored indefinitely. From their ration, each soldier would use the grinding mills carried by the servants to create flour and, after that, make bread. It is also possible the Macedonians consumed grains in the form of biscuits and porridge.
Yet the Macedonian soldiery did not live solely off grain products. Whenever possible, they would also eat dried meat, salted fish and shellfish to supplement their diet. Meat however, was rare and more often the soldiers turned to various kinds of dried fruit such as figs and dates – both readily available throughout much of Asia.
Each Macedonian soldier would carry his food rations. While he was on campaign, these rations would usually be enough for ten days. If Alexander wanted his troops to conduct a swift, march, then the food each soldier would take with him was usually pre-cooked –mostly biscuits, fruit and if possible, salted meat. This lightened the soldier’s pack as they did not require cooking utensils.
Regardless of a pack’s weight, marching through Asia was undoubtedly hard work for a Macedonian soldier. Some even argue that the Persian Empire’s terrain was Darius’ greatest weapon. Its consistently hot climate, countless deserts and extensive barren lands would have been extremely taxing for any Macedonian burdened with arms, armour and a heavy pack.
Indeed, it appears armour was sometimes even discarded to avoid discomfort during these marches. The requirement for sufficient calories and water was critical. Scholars assume that each Macedonian would need a minimum of 3 lb of grain products – the equivalent of nearly 1 ½ kilograms of bread – as well as half a gallon of water to supply the troops in these conditions daily – some 3,600 calories.
For the animals too, scholars have calculated the daily ration of food and water to be considerable. Horses and mules needed eight gallons (30 litres) of water and ten pounds (4.5 kg) of both grain and straw a day if they were to be kept in good condition. As for a camel, although the animal could survive multiple days with barely any water, the animal was most efficient if the Macedonians gave it ten gallons (38 litres) of water a day. It would also require ten pounds (4.5 kg) of grain and twenty-five pounds (11.3 kg) of straw.
Alexander found himself tasked with ensuring his army maintained sufficient supplies. The fate of his conquest depended on it. Yet acquiring supplies was anything but easy.
For most of his campaigning life, Alexander and his army traversed the various terrains of inland Asia, far away from seas and navigable rivers. Yet transporting supplies overland was difficult: there were few carts and pack-animals available in many of these regions and there was also the constant threat of banditry. Furthermore, most agricultural societies did not have a readily available surplus of food.
Alexander did find a solution. A study by Donald Engels assessed how this was likely achieved. Having crushed the Persian king Darius in two major battles in Mesopotamia, Alexander’s power and military prestige appeared irresistible. Many of the remaining Persian officials soon surrendered to Alexander. Alexander realised he could use this to solve his supply problem. He sent messengers to meet the officials to secure arrangements for the army’s supply through their territory – on some occasions taking hostages to ensure the officials stuck to their side of the bargain. In this way Alexander secured supply lines far in advance.
Local officials did not always surrender to Alexander. In these cases, he took a different approach. He would not advance into the region with all his forces. Instead, he would acquire intelligence about the region – information such as its topography, routes, climate and resources – before deciding his next move. He would then either launch a campaign against the region with a small elite force, while the rest of his army remained behind in a resourced base; or he would split his forces into smaller units that would gain supplies by either sacking settlements or foraging.
During the winter months, when Alexander’s army was stationary, Alexander ensured his forces remained in a heavily settled, fertile area – usually adjacent to either navigable rivers or ports from where they could more easily obtain supplies. Thanks to his forward planning and charisma, Alexander was able to find solutions to the lingering threat of supply problems throughout his conquests.
There was, however, one occasion when this forward planning of provisions failed the Macedonian king. In 325 BC Alexander headed back from India, across the Gedrosian desert. It proved the greatest logistical error of his life, costing thousands of lives. Some argue this devastating crossing occurred because of the man’s pothos, his desire to outdo all before him or out of revenge for his troops’ earlier mutiny in India. Others believe Alexander simply made a mistake.
Alexander had expected his army to be supplied by the navy, commanded by Nearchus, as it made its way along the coast. Yet monsoon winds delayed the fleet from leaving the harbour in India for months. The result proved devastating. Unsupported by Nearchus’ supplies, Alexander and his army withered as they crossed the desert. By the end, perhaps as many as 75% of his force, mostly those in the baggage train, had perished. This was an exception in a campaign that otherwise epitomised logistical brilliance.
Macedonian roads: uniting the empire
One other area that truly epitomised this brilliance was Alexander’s road building. Among his army were specialised surveyors and teams of road constructors. We hear Alexander tasked these men with clearing obstacles and constructing roads to aid his army through difficult terrain.
Yet Alexander evidently intended these roads to have a much longer lasting impact. Once finished, they not only aided the speed of Alexander’s march but they also greatly increased communication and the feasibility of overland travel throughout his territory. Supply depots were likely also constructed along these new roads.
All this secured lines of supply and communication for the Macedonian army when on campaign. Alexander had intended to build a coastal road with intermittent ports stretching from Egypt to the Straits of Gibraltar to supply his future campaign in the west. Yet his untimely death at Babylon in 323 BC, aged only 32, brought a swift end to these plans. Alexander’s campaigns required precise and advanced logistical planning unlike any previously seen. Its success was crucial and is a factor that is often overlooked.