I'm writing a novel set in the third century. A general is marching his army through the middle of the Syrian Desert. How did Roman armies with tens of thousands of soldiers survive in the arid wasteland. How did they get food and water?

I've tried to research on this specific topic, but I couldn't find much, only anecdotes about Antony, Crassus, or Trajan. But nothing about how they specifically survived in the desert, only that it was hard and that they somehow got through it.

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    Welcome to History:SE. What has your research shown you so far? Where have you already searched? What did you find? Please help us to help you. You might find it helpful to review the site tour and Help Centre and, in particular, How to Ask. Sep 18, 2019 at 2:03
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    That's odd. When I did a Google search for roman army desert, the fourth result on the first page was the paper Just Deserts: Roman Military Operations in Arid Environments. Maybe it's a regional difference with Google? Sep 18, 2019 at 2:14
  • That's funny I tried opening the page just before I came here but for some reason it wouldn't load but it will now. Thanks I'll check it out.
    – Lgndry
    Sep 18, 2019 at 2:18
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    It should be noted that Syria and the rest of the Middle East was a lot less desert-y back in the 3rd century. The Tigris/Euphrates valley was known as the "Fertile Crescent" for a while. Sep 18, 2019 at 15:29
  • Didn't an entire Roman legion just mysteriously disappear in the desert once? I think I remember watching a documentary about some archaeologists trying to track down what happened to them.
    – nick012000
    Sep 18, 2019 at 17:13

2 Answers 2


It's not specifically Roman, but the time frame is similar: I recommend Donald W. Engels, Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army, University of California Press, 1978.

The short version: Alexander and his generals had an extremely keen grasp of the logistical requirements of his army. He would send out advance detachments that negotiated the surrender of towns, oases and enemy supply depots and secured the provisions there. Most towns bowed to the inevitable extremely quickly. (After all, the alternative was to resist and be slaughtered, because the next Persian army would be far away, and busy not getting slaughtered itself.)

The book is also good in its discussion and calculation of how well ox carts can actually supply an army on the march. The answer is: not much, once you note that the oxen have to pull their own fodder as well.


I suggest you read Part III of Just Deserts: Roman Military Operations in Arid Environments (108 BC–AD 400) (Melissa Beattie, 2011, MPhil thesis from Cardiff University). It has a lot of good points about Roman and overall desert logistics and might be exactly what you need. I'll link to a pdf or you can search for yourself on google.

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    Instead of linking to an off-site PDF, could you perhaps add some of the points to your post? This is close to a "link only" answer. ...Also, for what it's worth, my Firefox gave me a notice when I tried to access that PDF: "Warning: Potential Security Risk Ahead"
    – BruceWayne
    Sep 18, 2019 at 15:13
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    @BruceWayne: Apparently the HTTPS certificate used by that site is issued by a provider that some browser / OS versions don't recognize as trusted. It should still be safe to view (as in, at least as safe as downloading it over normal unencrypted HTTP). Just don't enter your credit card details or your bank account password if the site asks your for them. :) Sep 18, 2019 at 16:16
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    IMHO this answer is informative enough after the latest edit, but I'd still like to see the author expand on it at least a little further.
    – T.E.D.
    Sep 18, 2019 at 19:33
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    @BruceWayne: While I agree the answer would be much better with a summary or some relevant excerpts included, it’s got enough information now to be robust against link rot: a distinctive title for an academic paper archived by an established university, so even if the link dies, the paper should still be easily findable. Sep 18, 2019 at 20:27
  • @PeterLeFanuLumsdaine - Thank you. I've removed the word "barely" from my comment. If the author could supply a little more, it would be my pleasure to remove the mod message too.
    – T.E.D.
    Sep 20, 2019 at 14:26

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