The story of Alexander the Great is popular and well-known. In his lifetime this Macedonian changed the whole nature of the ancient world, forming one of the greatest empires yet seen. Yet none of this would have been possible if Alexander had not skilfully organised his forces throughout the campaign.
Once again, as so often with Alexander, this important organisation has its origins with his father, Philip II. It was Philip’s reforms to the logistics situation that provided his son with the most efficient supply system of its time.
Designed for short-term warfare
Logistics planning for Greek armies of the Classical Period had been suited to support slow movement and short-term warfare. When fighting fellow city-states, the armies usually followed certain conventions.
They would leave their home city and travel to an agreed battleground suitable for phalanx warfare. They would then engage their enemy in one determining battle, before returning home. The armies were not intended to stay out in the field for long durations at a time.
Thousands of non-combatants – including attendants, women and slaves – therefore travelled with the Greek armies, sometimes even outnumbering the soldiers. Not only did they dramatically reduce the speed and mobility of these armies, but every follower meant an extra mouth to feed.
Greek armies used oxcarts and wagons in their logistics system and this inevitably impeded an army’s speed and mobility further. Not only was the throat and girth harness, used by the Ancient Greeks for horses and mules pulling these wagons, severely damaging for the animals, but carts could easily be hindered in rough terrain. Truly they were more of a nuisance than an aid.
The logistics system of the Greek armies was therefore one designed for short distances and slow movement. It proved incapable for anything else.
Philip brings in reforms
Philip soon realised things needed to change. Among his reforms, he therefore made sweeping alterations to the Macedonian logistics system. He aimed to create a system that prioritised his army’s sustainability, mobility and speed in the field.
Fortunately for him, Philip had a suitable precedent in the Greek commander Xenophon. During his intrepid march of the 10,000 out of Asia some 50 years before, Xenophon had decided to burn his wagons to lighten the load of his army. This greatly increased the speed and mobility of his force and was no doubt critical to the success of his march to the sea.
Likely influenced by Xenophon’s success, Philip forbade the use of ox-carts and wagons in his army. Instead, he used horses as the prominent pack animal – the first time a western commander had done this. It soon provided dividends as it gave his army more mobility.
To reduce his army’s reliance on animals, Philip also increased the amount of supplies carried by his men on the march. This included arms and armour – possibly even the sarissa, which could be detached into two sections to ease its portability.
Each soldier would also have to carry rations, utensils, blankets, road-building tools, medical supplies, a thirty-day supply of flour and any personal possessions in a backpack. All-together this would have weighed around eighty pounds.
Later, with the Marian Reforms at the beginning of the first century BC, the Romans would adopt a similar system in their own army, gaining the nickname Marius’ mules. It is even possible Philip’s reforms were the inspiration for Marius.
Philip’s changes did not stop there. To further lighten his baggage train, the Macedonian king drastically reduced the number of non-combatants accompanying the army. Women were forbidden while the number of servants was drastically reduced.
Each cavalryman would have one servant, while for the infantry there would be one servant for every ten Macedonians. These attendants would carry hand mills that were used for grinding grain as well as guy ropes for both bridge building and rock climbing and their own bedding and rations.
All this significantly increased the efficiency of Philip’s Macedonian army. Not only was his army now able to move quicker and inflict ‘lightening strikes’ on opposing forces, but he could sustain his army in the field for significantly longer periods of time than his mainland Greek counterparts.
And so, just as with his infantry, cavalry and siege craft, Alexander inherited a logistics system that his father had radically transformed into the most efficient of its time. He was not slow to take advantage of this.
Having heard news of a Theban revolt, for instance, Alexander marched his army south from Lake Lynchitis to Boeotia – some 500 miles – in thirteen days. The rapid arrival of Alexander caught the rebels completely off-guard – all thanks to Philip’s reforms to the logistics system.