LOGISTICS IN ANCIENT GREEK WARFARE, by Professor (ret.) David Charters


“Amateurs talk strategy; professionals talk logistics”

Logistics is the process of sustaining military forces on operations. Simply put, it’s all about supplies. Armies, navies and (today) air forces need certain things in order to fight wars: food and water, equipment, ammunition, transportation, and spare parts (and some ability to repair and replace). Logistics is probably the least exciting of military activities (and among the least studied). It’s all about “beans, boots, and bullets”; in short, it’s boring. But if the soldier and his/her weapons are the sinews of war, logistics is their lifeblood. Without it the limbs of the force will wither and die. This has not changed since the dawn of warfare.

Warfare and its logistical component in ancient Greece confronted – and was shaped by – several challenges: topography, climate, and the nature(s) of Greek political cultures. Consider the topography we have seen and experienced; it is rugged and mountainous. Open, relatively flat areas like those at Marathon and Plataea were the exception, not the rule. So the landscape did not favour ‘maneuver warfare’. Unless troops moved by sea (more on that below) or along the coast where possible, they moved by land on foot through very difficult terrain like the valleys and mountainsides that we drove through to Delphi. The arid climate of Greece dictated a short fighting season, and it was a hot one. Although the Hoplites were supposed to bring some foodstuffs and wine with them, they could carry only so much along with their shields and spears. So, to feed themselves and their animals, armies had to live off the land, timing their campaigns when the grain was ripe and pastures full. Access to water supplies was also essential. These factors often determined the location and duration of military operations, limiting the fighting season to optimal times of the year (spring/summer).

The logistical practices of the Greek armies did not follow a universal pattern, but were largely shaped by the different socio-political structures of their communities. As we know, Athenian hoplites were amateur citizen-soldiers, drawn mostly (though out of necessity, not exclusively) from the wealthy leisure class men. There was no central arsenal; hoplites were supposed to provide their own shields, armour and weapons, which would have been made by local builders. The wealthy could afford this; the poorer hoplites had to scramble to equip themselves with second-hand weapons when mustered for service. Nor did the Athenians have a formal supply chain to support themselves in the field. Wealthy hoplites would have had a slave or two to help carry food and wine, bedroll, and other necessities – at least enough until the troops could live off land near where they were going to fight. But the hoplites were followed into war by a rag-tag ‘market mob’ of civilian vendors and other hangers-on who would provide services and necessities, for a price, of course – a sort of informal ‘commissariat’. Anything they brought would have been back-packed or loaded on horses or mules. So, the impressive Athenian hoplite phalanx was sustained in war by a long, loosely structured, equally amateur logistical tail.

By contrast, Sparta had a professional, trained army, and as such had a more organized logistical system. The state provided weapons and other equipment, and the means to sustain their troops in the field – up to a point. Like the Athenians, the Spartans would have lived off the land, too. Likewise, Philip of Macedon had created a full-time, professional, trained army, but of a different character from that of Sparta, reflecting the rural nature of Macedonian society. Relying on its horsemen, and supporting it with gold from the mines under his control, Philip created a cavalry-based army. Being a force that relied on mobility, it was supported on campaign by an equally mobile, organized horse- and wagon-mounted baggage-train. Yet, even his forces would have depended on local resources on the ground they occupied (forage for horses, for example).

When moving by sea to fight in other parts of Greece or in its distant expeditionary campaigns, Triremes were the ‘point of the spear’, but their typical complement was not suited to amphibious operations (projecting troops ashore). Normally, they carried only about 10 hoplites, serving as marines to fight aboard their vessels – hardly sufficient for an invading force. During the Peloponnesian War and other major conflicts, however, triremes could be modified and manned with a smaller number of rowers in order to double as troop transports for invading enemy territory.

The creation of a navy, especially the triremes, re-shaped Athenian society in particular. They were expensive to build and operate. Private shipowners couldn’t afford them so, to match the other navies using them (the Persian empire, Egypt, and Carthage) the Greek city-states were forced to build and run them at public expense. This was a radical step, because it entailed not only building the ships, but creating dockyards to do so, fortifications to protect them, setting up a central organization to supervise construction and maintenance, and raising the funds to do all this. In short, a huge growth in the role and power of the state. In early 5th C., Athens started work on a fortified harbor at Piraeus then a few years later bought 20 triremes from Corinth. It then started its own shipbuilding program, using revenue from silver mines. This put enormous strain on Athens, because the ship-building materials were scarce and costly, and a new branch of government had to be created to manage it, but primarily because it was hard to find and pay for the large number of men required to operate the ships. When the first Athenian-built triremes replaced its old, smaller ships, Athens needed 24,000 men to staff the fleet – the most that could be raised from its own population. Eventually, Athens resorted to a general levy of every available man, relying mostly on poorer citizens and including, in cases of extreme need, foreigners and slaves. Raising the money to pay for crews was equally hard, because silver mining revenues could not cover it. The result was that Classical Athenian warships had rich captains and poor crews. (See my essay on Greek Warfare for more details on the navy).

Although I asserted at the outset that the performance of military forces depends on adequate logistical support, none of the battles we have examined so far was lost because of logistical shortcomings. But this does not invalidate the point. Logistics determined what could and could not be done, when, where, for how long, and at what cost. None of these battles or campaigns would have been possible without some degree of logistical support, however it was organized.

Sources: Van Wees, Greek Warfare; Julian Thompson, The Lifeblood of War: Logistics in Armed Conflict (1991)

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