Dedicated to the military history and civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (330 to 1453)

"Time in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things and drowns them in the depths of obscurity."

- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Logistics in the Eastern Roman Empire Military

Roman supply cart drawn by two mules with a handler.


"An army marches on its stomach."

Napoleon Bonaparte

To a large degree military historians live in a fantasy world of "Great Men and Great Armies" doing battle and do books and movies accordingly. 

What is often forgotten or ignored is the boring matter of logistics . . . of how those troops were able to get there, of how they were fed and supplied. The fact of the matter is without a strong logistical support system any army would soon be boiling their leather shoes or killing dogs for food.

Strategy and tactics are easy to understand. But the science of equipping and feeding armed forces on campaign is extremely technical, its mysteries understood by only a few initiates. Still more than anything else logistical constraints limit the activities of any army during a war.

For example, in the 19th century the British military had a Land Transportation Corp that at one point had 14,000 men and 28,000 beasts.

The maintenance of Eastern Roman armies and the recruitment and equipping of its military expeditions constituted one of the heaviest burdens on the finances of the Empire. From the 7th to the 12th centuries there is virtually no contemporary evidence of how armies were raised and supplied even though there were numerous campaigns into the Balkans or against the caliphate on the Eastern Front.

The Empire's system of building an extensive and well-maintained road network, as well as its absolute command of the Mediterranean for much of its history allowed the navy to supply troops in widely scattered parts areas and then move men and supplies overland. Forces were routinely supplied via fixed supply chains, and although Roman armies in enemy territory would often supplement or replace this by foraging for food or purchasing food locally.

One historian estimated that a single legion would have required 13.5 tonnes of food per month, and that it would have proved impossible to source this locally.

The methods adopted for equipping and supplying armies crucially affect their fighting ability and potential, as well as the planning and execution of campaign strategy.

By the ninth century, it is clear that the system of recruiting and maintaining soldiers in what had been the field armies of the late Roman state had undergone a radical transformation, producing the pattern of provincially-based and recruited forces referred to as themata.

Themata, is a term for military forces based in the provinces.

At the height of the process of provincialized recruitment and maintenance of troops during the eighth and first half of the ninth centuries, there is plenty of evidence to show that voluntary recruitment to both elite and provincial forces, compulsory levies in the provinces, and the attraction of non-Byzantine mercenaries co-existed, and were invoked according to the requirements of the moment.

According to the treatise on military expeditions compiled by the magistros Leo Katakylas, and referring almost certainly to the campaign practice of the emperor Basil I, it is noted that the prôtonotarios of each thema through which the imperial force passes must provide certain supplies in kind.  

If this is not sufficient, then the prôtonotarios should obtain the necessary produce from the eidikon - - - which fulfilled the dual function of imperial treasury and storehouse. As a treasury, it stored various precious materials such as silk or gold, and was responsible for the payment of the annual salaries (rogai) of officials of senatorial rank. As a storehouse, the eidikon controlled the state factories producing military equipment (the late Roman fabricae) and was responsible for supplying the necessary matériel for expeditions, ranging from weapons to "sails, ropes, hides, axes, wax, tin, lead, casks" for the fleet or even Arab clothing for the imperial spies.

According to these sixth-century regulations, the provincial officials are to be given advance notice of the army’s requirements in foodstuffs and other goods, which are to be deposited at named sites along the route of march.  

The materials, food supplies and other requirements demanded by the provincial authorities on behalf of the central government were referred to as embolê, and meant simply that part of the regular tax assessment owed by each tax-payer (whether an estate, an individual peasant freeholder, or whatever) not paid in coin.     

Exact records of the produce supplied by the tax-payers as embolê, were to be kept and reckoned up against the annual tax owed in this form; if more supplies were provided than were due in tax, then the extra was to be supplied by the tax-payers, but this was then to be paid for, at a fixed rate established by the appropriate state officials, out of the cash revenues already collected in the regular yearly assessment of that particular province.  

If the provincial treasuries in question had insufficient local cash revenues left over to pay for these extra supplies, then they were to be paid for instead either from the general bank of the praetorian prefecture, in other words, the coemptio was still applied; or they were to be collected anyway and then their value (at the prices fixed by the state) deducted from the following year’s assessment in kind.

An example of the Roman Navy bringing in troops 
and setting up a supply chain to support inland operations.

In the ninth and tenth centuries, is similar: the thematic prôtonotarios is to be informed in advance as to the army’s requirements, which are to be provided from the land-tax in kind and the cash revenues of the thema and stored at appropriate points along the route of march. An exact account of the supplies is to be kept, so that (where the thematic tax-payers provided more than their yearly assessment demands) the amount can be deducted (from the assessment for the following year).

It is clear from these texts that the basic fiscal mechanisms in the sixth and the ninth centuries were almost identical:  the terminology had changed, and the administrative relationships between the different departments responsible for the procedure was slightly different, but in essentials the later system was very obviously derived from the earlier.  The process by which the evolution of the later process out of the earlier occurred nicely illustrates the degree of systemic continuity between late Roman and middle Byzantine practices.

Armies were usually accompanied by a supply-train;  the late tenth-century treatise on campaign organization stipulates a basic supply of 24 days’ rations of barley for the horses, which according to other sources was similarly to be put aside by the thematic prôtonotarios for collection by the army en route; and historians’ accounts of campaigns frequently mention the baggage-train or the supplies and fodder it carried. 

Smaller units clearly foraged for their own fodder and supplies, whether in enemy territory or on Roman soil, which must have caused some hardship to the communities affected; while once on hostile terrain the commander must either have arranged to keep his supply-lines open by detaching small units to hold key passes and roads, or let the army forage for all its requirements once the supplies had run out.

Leo VI advised generals to carry sufficient supplies with the army and to forage on enemy territory rather than prey upon the citizens of the Empire;  the need to avoid harming the provincials by permitting the army to forage and extract supplies without proper administrative controls is often repeated.

The average length of a day’s march for infantry or combined forces was probably rarely more than twelve – fourteen miles. The distances at which supply dumps could be established or stops made to feed and water men and animals was also directly related to the distance covered in a day’s march.

American Civil War. A military supply wagon train entering Petersburg VA. Getting food and supplies to the front-line troops was just as important as leadership. 

In the fifth century, it was recommended that soldiers be trained to carry a load of up to sixty Roman pounds (about 42.3 lbs./19.6 kilos). In the late sixth century Stratêgikon, which also recommends that cavalry soldiers carry three to four days’ supply with them in their saddle bags.

Rations were consumed on a three-day rotation in the late Roman period: bucellatum (hard tack) for 2 days in 3, bread for 1 day in 3, salt pork for 1 day in 3, mutton for 2 days in 3, wine and sour wine on alternate days; as well as a number of additional substances such as fish, cheese and oil, depending on context and availability. The amount (weight) of such rations varied, but the figure of 1 lb. (11.28 oz/327 g) of meat and/or 2 – 3 lbs (1.41 lbs/654 g – 2.1 lbs/981 g) of bread per diem per man given in one document for stationary troops seems to have been standard into the seventh century in Egypt

This campaign ration would give the maximum sixty-(Roman) pound load per man for about twenty days; although under normal marching conditions much of the individuals’ supplies would be transported by pack-animal or wagon, as noted above.   

A fifteen-thousand man army would thus require a minimum of some 900,000 (Roman) lbs. (i.e. 634,500 lbs or 288,400 kilos) of provisions, excluding drinking water/wine and necessary ‘extras’, such as lard and/or oil, cheese or fish, and so on, and not including fodder for the horses and the pack-animals, for a period of between two and, in exceptional cases, three weeks.       

Assuming an average rate of march for infantry and cavalry together of between twelve and fourteen miles per day in good conditions (an optimistically high figure compared with the majority of known military marches from pre-industrial contexts), such a force could thus travel some 240-280 miles in a three-week march, which provides a very crude guide to the distances at which supply dumps would have had to be established in advance.   

This figure is confirmed by the tenth-century treatise on campaign organization, which notes that ‘it is not feasible, in turn, for an army to transport more than a twenty-four days’ supply of barley from its own country for its horses’, which suggests the recognized maximum period for a cavalry force

We may conclude that major supply dumps were needed at stages of approximately 200 – 250 miles, although under very good conditions and with smaller numbers imperial forces may have moved more rapidly than this and needed re-supplying less frequently; fast-moving cavalry forces will have been even less demanding, although ample fodder and water will have been essential.

The Roman Navy was of major importance in the endless campaigns against the Arab Muslims, the Normans and Slavs. Roman troops and supplies often needed to be moved over huge distances to Africa, the Balkans or Italy. 

Travelling across Anatolia presented a number of difficulties, even before entering hostile territory.   From Constantinople as far as Dorylaion, which at 792 m above sea-level is situated near the northern limit of the Anatolian plateau, fodder will have been relatively easily obtained.  Thereafter, as Crusader accounts make clear, armies will have had to carry much of their provisions and fodder with them until they reached the more fertile region around Ikonion.

Horses and mules were raised from a variety of different sources.   If the imperial household was involved, then all the main state departments, the leading civil and military officers, the metropolitanates and the monastic houses of the empire had to provide a certain number of mules or other pack-animals to transport the household and its requirements.   For regular non-imperial campaigns the main sources for the army were imperial stud-farms in Asia Minor requisitions from the estates of the Church,  requisitions from secular landholders; and the soldiers themselves, who either brought their own animals or were required to purchase their requirements on the market using their salaries and campaign payments.

There is no evidence to suggest that the pattern of administration of expeditionary forces changed very markedly between the later tenth and later eleventh centuries.   We can assume that preparations were made as before, informing thematic officials of the necessary requirements, which had to be prepared in advance ready for the army to collect, and that supplies provided were set against the annual tax demand for the region in question.

The imposition required by local districts of billeting and feeding soldiers and officers, grinding corn and baking bread, and providing extra supplies for units passing through or based in a district, providing craftsmen and artisans for public and military works, burning charcoal, providing labor for the maintenance or construction of roads and bridges, had existed from Roman times and are still found, sometimes under slightly different names, in the eleventh century.   But in addition, from the middle of the seventh century and certainly by the tenth and eleventh centuries a group of new impositions had evolved, including the provision or fabrication of weapons and items of military equipment.

The fiscalised strateia was still collected by state officials as a further source of revenue for the maintenance of the armies; so that it is not correct to suggest that the registers of thematic stratiôtai were entirely neglected – it was from these that the regular tagmata of the themes were recruited, and upon the basis of which the fiscalised strateia was also extracted.   By the time of the Mantzikert campaign, however, and as a result of imperial neglect and reductions in military salaries, the regular or Roman tagmatic forces recruited from each thema were reduced in number and poorly equipped: emperors had not taken to the field themselves for many years, and the revenues from the strateiai had been employed for other than military expenditures.

The basic requirements for the organisation of military expeditions and campaigns in the eleventh century remained the same as in the preceding centuries.  What changed were the conditions under which those requirements had to be met.

A World War I soldier drives an escort wagon through water logged fields and roads. Note the spare wheel carried behind the driver; attrition of vehicles was high.

In the campaign against the Turks conducted by Romanos IV after his accession, the regular entrenched camps, the accompanying supply-train and the supplies carried with the army are all referred to.   Such supplies were raised by the various fiscal and military officials mentioned in the exemptions granted to monastic landlords.   In Byzantine territory, and presumably when the army arrived in a district which was not warned in advance, troops were sent out to purchase corn and other requirements from the local populations.

For the Mantzikert campaign,  Romanos could raise as many as some 60,000 men in all, according to a recent estimate.  He seems also to have been able to rely on the traditional means of raising and distributing supplies for his troops while they were en route to confront the Seljuk forces, although the arrangements did not always work especially well:  Attaleiates notes that the troops, and the foreign mercenary forces in particular, caused considerable damage to the region around Krya Pêgê.   

His supply train was considerable, as the presence of a large number of wagons with siege equipment appears to testify, suggesting that the central armories, the local provincial officials and the commanders of the army were able effectively to co-operate on the traditional pattern for the provisioning and equipping of the imperial troops.   Once in territory which had been in hostile hands, however, he was forced to forage for provisions: the Franks under Roussel de Bailleul based near Chliat were ordered to seize the harvested crops; the troops from Theodosioupolis were ordered to provide two months’ supplies for themselves; and Matthew of Edessa notes that some 12,000 troops were sent towards Abkhazia to find supplies.

The military treatises of the tenth century and the historians’ accounts of many of the campaigns of this period show that foraging for supplies was one of the most risk-laden activities which the commander had to organize – failure to guard against surprise attack, on the one hand, and the failure of the foragers to locate and secure adequate provisions could prove disastrous.

The later tenth- and eleventh-century sources the documents suggest that a wide range of state impositions on the rural population was maintained to ensure the adequate arming, equipping and provisioning of troops.

The synônarioi,strateutaichartoularioi of the themata, and many others such as epoptai, are referred to, officials responsible for raising the supplies needed for the army, for registering or raising the soldiers in each province, and related issues.   Their existence illustrates the continued effectiveness of the central authorities in extracting resources for its troops.    Some of the letters of Theophylact of Ochrid, referred to already, mention these officials and their exactions.   

It was these officials who will have been responsible for the arrangements made by Alexios in the 1090s for the passage and provisioning of the Crusader forces, arrangements whose success demonstrates the continued efficiency of the imperial military and provincial administration in catering for its armies at this time.

There were enormous demands made upon the ordinary population of the empire when a military expedition was undertaken. This required an administrative structure which could deal with all facets of the armies’ needs, whether in terms of raising and equipping new recruits or in respect of supplying the vast number of men, horses, mules and other animals which an army on the march needed. 

What is evident, and important to recognize, is that the basic structures which had evolved by the late Roman period retained their relevance in the early and middle Byzantine period; but it is also apparent that those structures continued to evolve and to develop in response to the changed context.

(deremilitari.org)    (weaponsandwarfare.com)   (Military of ancient Rome)

(brynmawr.edu)    (military-history.fandom.com)