Military Unit Organization And The Ancient World: Organizing Logistics ensures the Roman Way of War

In a previous article we looked at the Civil War and how The Union Army may have stacked the odds a bit in their favor by organizing their Army in a way that took distinct advantage of their superior numbers (both in men and material). This article will look at how the Roman Army kept an ace up their sleeve with their superior organization in supply lines and logistical organization.

While the Romans were disciplined fighters with solid tactics, it is doubtful they could have expanded as quick and far as they did if they were not organized effectively. What set their organization apart from their enemies was their ability to organize the logistical and equipment aspect of warfare, allowing for defeated units and armies to be replaced in the field, and units who won hard-fought victories to continue their campaigns. Plenty of Greek City-States, Barbarian Kingdoms and other rivals had vicious fighters, imposing terrain and huge numbers of tribal warriors; the Roman Republic though not only survived all of these threats but managed to dominate the Mediterranean.

Image result for the frost sometimes it makes the blade stick

The frost, sometimes it makes the blade stick.

The Greek Phalanx dominated the battlefield for centuries. Rome fought multiple wars with Macedon and other Greek City-States over the course of a few centuries. During this time, the Roman Army used different tactics (starting with something similar to the phalanx and finally culminating in the “Manipular”   or “Polybian” Army), but the constant influx of supplies and logistics remained organized and allowed Roman Armies to operate in Greece.

While the tactics and operations of the Roman Army evolved, they always had an organized, influx of supplies they could count on, and camps they would build to ensure quick, secure movement along their interior supply lines. When Rome was defeated by Macedon at the Battle of Callinicus, they simply moved across the river, set up camp and continued with their war. Previously, defeated Armies would leave the field of battle and come back to fight another day. Rome though, with forward logistics, roads and forts could continue to press the envelope and engage their enemy. They may lose battles, but they almost always won the war.

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Roma Victor; Standing at the forefront of a well organized military machine.

The Roman Republic had changed tactics, Army organization and plenty of other things, but they still kept a focus on secure logistics, strong fortifications and speedy internal supply and reinforcement lines. Rome’s tactics, strategy and general success on the battlefield had been noted for centuries before Julius Caesar, Augustus, Diocletian and other Emperors showed up on the scene. These emperors were able to take advantage of a strong and massive Roman Army that had developed thanks to the Marian Reforms.

The Marian Reforms were a series of reforms that allowed the lower class to join the Roman Army as professional soldiers, and transformed the Roman Army from a citizen militia, to a professional army. Not only did this allow the size of the Roman Army to increase dramatically, it also meant that professional soldiers could focus on being military professionals. The lower class who found themselves in the Roman Army were also rewarded with land grants and spoils, settling in newly conquered territory after spending 20 or so years in service. Newly conquered territories were romanized by the influx of retired soldiers claiming new land. This worked out well in turning newly conquered territories culturally and politically into Roman Provinces and in keeping Rome defended from emerging threats. A larger Army though, also means the necessity of constant logistics, coordination and supply lines (among many, many other things).

The larger armies of the Roman Empire still had to supply their men and secure their terrain. Tactics, technology and enemies change, but the need for security and provisions remains. Trajan may not have used the same operational strategy or battlefield tactics as Cincinnatus, but he did have the ability to project logistics and fortifications across his Empire (Cincinnatus had a relatively shorter supply route). This seems to be a constant throughout Roman Military History, but there was no official formalization of Logistics the way we see in modern militaries. Put simply, Rome had fighting troops, and legions of them, that were supplied very well by the state and the officers.

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Horses and men need to eat, how do you supply them?

There was a 200-300 group of men called calones who acted as camp servants and ensured the mule trains, grain shipments and other essentials ran smoothly, but it only took 200-300 for a unit of 5,000 fighting men. On contrast, one modern infantryman has about 10-20 support personnel supporting them (doing the math, that evens out to 5,000 fighting men per 100,000 troops! crazy). Rome used waterways, from the Mediterranean sea, to local rivers to deliver huge amounts of grain (12 tons a day for some campaigns) that were disseminated along the roads the legionnaires had constructed and doled out to different camps via mule trains. It was an effective system that worked, even though it appears to be more ad hoc than the highly organized and disciplined Roman way of organizing legions and other military units.

As a state, whether a Republic or Empire, Rome put an emphasis on supplying their Army and ensuring the survival of their state through military means. This meant an economy predicated on supplying their troops in the field, and a value on engineering, roads and security instead of Philosophy (compared to other Ancient Cultures) or art.

Since Rome’s economy and logistical system allowed for Armies to operate for extended time periods on campaign, it also meant that they could grind their enemy into submission when their usual battle tactics did not work. An army limited by provisions and without a secure fortification like Hadrian’s Wall, or even a simple Roman Army Outpost to fall back to, would have to wage their war one battle at a time, hoping for a crushing victory. When Rome did not have the requisite roads, supply lines and fortifications in place, they were prone to one-off defeats in battle that led to military disasters (like The Battle of Teutoburg Forest).

Having a well supplied Army that can operate out of secure garrisons also meant Roman military tactics could develop locally and over time instead of needing an immediate, expedient answer. As seen above, Rome did not sweep through Greece in one shock and awe campaign, but instead set up shop and stayed for the long haul, adjusting their tactics and methods while they ensured their troops were well supplied and at least somewhat secure.


Where I got my info:

Adrian Goldsworthy’s books

Stephen Dando Collins work Legions of Rome


One thought on “Military Unit Organization And The Ancient World: Organizing Logistics ensures the Roman Way of War

  1. Pingback: Quick Hits: The Senate and People of Rome – Steel and Stylus

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