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A friend of mine who majored in Classical History at Berkeley mentioned that we focus too much on Alexander's battles which are interesting studies in set pieces but not enough on how skilled he was in logistics management. How integral was operational management during his campaigns and can someone provide examples over the course of his Persian campaign?

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    There are entire books on the subject. Perhaps the question needs some previous research to narrow it down to something that can be answered with less than a book. – justCal Sep 13 '17 at 13:45
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    Arguably all great conquest was based on excellent logistics, as this is the bottleneck to move and maintain large armies on field – Greg Sep 15 '17 at 8:54
  • @user2448131 That's exactly the book my buddy Ryan mentioned and I'm just looking for some of the more interesting points from that book. Its on my to read list but always curious to hear from members who have already read it and have particular examples they want to highlight. – J Young Sep 29 '17 at 0:26
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The Macedonian army was indeed relying on a well-established logistics organization.

The following book, as already mentioned in the comments, is probably the most well-known one about the subject and quite possibly the best too.

Engels, Donald W. Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army. Univ of California Press, 1980.

According to the author your friend was quite correct in his statement that the Macedonian logistics were quite formidable, but often overlooked.

To prove this point, he points to the fact that while Alexander the Great is foremost remembered as a great military commander during battle, he was also wise to the necessity of having a reliable supply line and the intelligence services needed to keep it secure. He points to a story from Alexander’s childhood for this.

Plutarch’s Life of Alexander 5.1.

He once entertained the envoys from the Persian king who came during Philip's absence, and associated with them freely. He won upon them by his friendliness, and by asking no childish or trivial questions, but by enquiring about the length of the roads and the character of the journey into the interior, about the king himself, what sort of a warrior he was, and what the prowess and might of the Persians. The envoys were therefore astonished and regarded the much-talked-of ability of Philip as nothing compared with his son's eager disposition to do great things.

Translation from Plutarch. Plutarch's Lives. with an English Translation by. Bernadotte Perrin. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press. London. William Heinemann Ltd. 1919. 7.

The story of Plutarch might very well be somewhat embellished, but Alexander’s later attention to his logistics during the campaign in Persia suggests that there was a core of truth to it.

Let me paraphrase some examples from the rest of the book

From p12 onwards:

In general Alexander kept his armies' numbers at a minimum.

The army inherited by Alexander had been transformed by Philip into the most effective fighting force in Europe or Asia, and Alexander not only retained many of Philip's veterans but also the disciplinary measures and logistical organization he imposed on the army.

1) Soldiers had to carry their own weapons and there was one servant for every 4 soldiers. This lower number of servants decreased the size of the army significantly.

For this also see Polyaenus Strat. 4.2.10 (Translation from http://www.attalus.org/translate/polyaenus4A.html)

Philippus accustomed the Macedonians to constant exercise, before they went to war: so that he would frequently make them march three hundred stades, carrying with them their helmets, shields, greaves, and spears; and, besides those arms, their provisions likewise, and utensils for common use.

2) The number of women was kept to a minimum. In earlier times wives and children were often taken on campaign. With the Macedonian army this was no longer allowed as to make the army more manageable. Alexander’s soldiers could visit their family in Macedonia from time to time to make the separation more doable. This made the army as light as possible and capable of surprisingly fast marches.

3) Alexander also kept into account the beasts of burden and the slower vehicles. Carts were generally forbidden. Even those pulled by oxes. Their top speed was too low for keeping up with the rest of the army.

This measures made the Macedonian army far more efficient than before, but the army still required several tonnes of food and water each day.

Alexander took several precautions to ensure a secure food source.

For a better look at this see: Ashley, James R. The Macedonian empire: the era of warfare under Philip II and Alexander the Great, 359-323 BC. McFarland, 2004.

Even with fewer extra carriers and camp followers to maintain food was an issue. The Macedonian army was still several ten thousands strong with a great deal of warhorses.

Ashley calculates that this would consume at least 750 tonnes of dry provisions. He mentions that Alexander took the following precautions.

1) He tried to spend as much time as possible next to a river or the sea during winter. This made perfect sense as this would make close access to water possible. There was also the Macedonian navy which could deliver food if needed. Alexander's navy was not large by any means, but it still existed.

2) He split up the army when a river or the sea was not accessible. A smaller group of soldiers is more vulnerable, but it is also more nimble and can gather food more easily.

3) He stayed close to populated centers. Populated centers needed a decent food supply, Alexander could also benefit from this.

4) The soldier’s rations consisted of wheat, barley or millet which are not going bad in hot weather and are easy to transport. All these products can be moved without harming them and stayed eatable for far longer than items like fruit would.

Note by Ashley: During a march through harder terrain, like a desert or the Hindu Kush, the demand for food would become much higher often resulting in temporary starvation like during the march in the desert of Gedrosia.

In general, logistics were well taken care of. According to Ashley the techniques of Alexander made his army twice as fast as the Persian one.

My recommendation

For further reading I would really suggest Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army. The answer I written down here is but a pale shadow of its depth.

I would expect most universities that have a department for Ancient History to carry a copy.

You could also check Lonsdale, David J. Alexander the Great: lessons in strategy. Routledge, 2007.

It makes quite a lot of good points about the importance of a decent cashflow, a reliable navy and the importance of weather conditions. I mostly left those out in my answer to keep the answer contained.

Short anwer: Alexander understood that taking care of logistics was of the greatest importance and took great precautions to make sure they were reliable.

  • A splendid answer. – Mark C. Wallace Mar 14 '18 at 12:05
  • Exactly what I was looking for! Thanks @TheSardaukarKnight. I'll make sure to check out the Lonsdale text that you mentioned too. – J Young Mar 14 '18 at 21:01
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Simply; no.

In war one must do a multitude of things well to win: logistics, command, morale, training, and battle tactics just for a start. Getting any one of these things seriously wrong is sufficient to ensure likely defeat.

That Alexander was able to string together victory after victory virtually guarantees that he was performing all of these skills well. To claim that any one of them was sufficient, of itself, for his string of victories is naive in the extreme.

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    I agree with your point PG. Question doesn't purport that logistics were all that mattered......it asks did the operational organization of the Macedonians have a bearing on Alexander's success or failures. Think the Sardaukar (Dune baddies? haha) answered how the Macedonians and Alexander in particular's proficiency and recognition of the importance of logistics played a role in his stellar campaigns. – mallin24 Mar 14 '18 at 12:19
  • @mallin24: Yes, I caught the reference - I probably first read Dune before you got long pants. ;-) Just look at Douglas MacArthur, who was severely embarrassed twice for massive logistical failures (Bataan and then Korea at the Yalu River) . The only time MacArthur actually looks good in independent command is when Nimitz provides logistics for him gratis. – Pieter Geerkens Mar 14 '18 at 12:24
  • Check out all the preparations Davout was making in Bavaria, March and early April 1809, for an example of how the Napoleon's Grande Armee really managed logistics. Saski's Campagne de 1809 en Allemagne et en Autriche is the best source I expect. – Pieter Geerkens Mar 14 '18 at 12:28

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