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Alexander’s Mules

The annual book on Alexander the Great has become a laughing-stock among scholars, though authors and publishers apparently continue to find it profitable. Engels shows that serious and important work on Alexander is possible, and that it need not be confined to the obscurity of professional journals. This book by a young scholar is, with all its technical faults (for which the publisher is as much to blame as the author), the most important work on Alexander the Great to appear in a long time. Neither scholarship nor semi-fictional biography will ever be the same again.

I don’t know on what authority Napoleon is reported to have said that an army marches on its stomach. He must certainly have known it. And he must have been equally aware of the fact, known until quite recently to all who had any experience of warfare, that it marched on the stomachs of thousands of animals. In the aggregate, Napoleon’s mules were more important than his marshals. Even in the Second World War, well into the age when far more efficient engines of transport, “living” on fuels not competitive with human consumption, were taken for granted, it is clear that the long age of the army mule had not passed: one of the truly immortal characters to emerge from the war was that fine American product of the melting pot showing his true worth—Francis the Mule.

Whatever Napoleon’s reflections on this matter of logistics may have been, there is no doubt of the authenticity of an equally famous remark of his: “Bon Dieu, que les hommes de lettres sont betes!” In the century and a half since modern scholarship on Alexander the Great began, with the work of J.G. Droysen, there has never been a systematic attempt to study the organization of his supplies, as he led an army almost constantly increasing in size through lands very largely unknown to him and to his Greek contemporaries—lands the mere exploration of which was to bring fame, centuries later, to men like Carsten Niebuhr, Aurel Stein, and Sven Hedin.

The dismal record of standard modern scholarship in this respect is not difficult to illustrate. W.W. Tarn devoted the whole of the second volume of his Alexander the Great (1948) to special studies: a long discussion of source problems, followed by twenty-five appendices, a total of 450 pages. “The Main Problems,” of course, are such issues as Alexander’s deification and Tarn’s strange idea that Alexander invented the concept of the “Brotherhood of Man.” Six appendices devoted to military matters contain nine pages headed “Alexander’s Communications.” (The subject is described as “rather neglected.”) They contain nothing but speculation (most of it misconceived) about the duties of certain commanders, and Tarn’s real point is to combat the view that the Greek cities of Asia Minor had a governor imposed on them. J. Seibert’s long survey of (in principle) the whole of Alexander scholarship, Alexander der Grosse (1972), in 300 pages, has a section on detailed topography, but not one page on logistic problems. Even K.J. Beloch, reacting against traditional scholarship and reducing the importance of individuals while stressing economic factors, has special surveys of the economic background of fourth-century Greece and of population problems, but again totally ignores the practical problems of logistic organization.

To some extent this is due to a tradition going back to Alexander’s contemporaries and beyond. Arrian (our principal source, writing in the second century AD) tells us that he took up his task because Alexander had never been adequately celebrated before: he wanted to be his Homer. Other motives appear in other authors: from Ptolemy’s vicarious defense of his own legitimacy to Plutarch’s elaboration of the ethical problems of the great man confronted with success—and most often, as in our own day, the simple aim of astonishing and entertaining a public that wanted its heroes to be truly heroic. It was this skill that made Clitarchus one of the most successful and most influential biographers of all time, and it has kept the Alexander industry going at a time when authors and film directors are deliberately starving the public of true heroes.

Homer kept the heroic tradition ever present, for the Greek aristocrat to regard (however distantly) as a model and for the ordinary Greek to admire and demand. Alexander only carried to extremes what everyone understood. It was his non-heroic aspects, his unscrupulous political realism in particular, that aroused opposition. Mules and fodder were not an appropriate subject for Alexander historians: that would negate a heroic concept that they shared with their public and with their hero. Thucydides, for reasons perhaps not so different as we are sometimes led to believe, also ignores them. They are mentioned in passing, for the historian cannot keep the ordinary world out of his picture; but they were never the proper topic of history or biography, except (fortunately for us) for the unique account that Xenophon wrote of the march of the Ten Thousand. One result of this is that we have little precise evidence. We do not know how many mules or camels were used in any given campaign. We never hear what weights military pack animals would be expected to carry—nor (for much the same reason) how much the Macedonian soldier, or his cavalry horse, normally would be.

In the circumstances, the labors of scholars trying to puzzle out the strategy of Greek wars approach futility. It is rather as though we tried to analyze the strategy of more recent wars without knowing anything about the number and size of supply vehicles (or cargo planes) available—in fact, worse still: it is as though some future historian had to do this under the additional handicap of being almost totally ignorant about the actual performance to be expected of such vehicles or planes. As a result, much of the discussion of Greek wars, even apart from questions about the reliability of what the sources do tell us, has been, in the worst sense, “academic.” Of course, it is impossible to recover all of these vital facts. But proper awareness of their importance will at least focus skill and patience on the scraps of useful evidence scattered about the ancient sources and on ways of supplementing them with arguments from more recent experience.

Mr. Engels’s book on the logistics of Alexander’s army addresses these matters. Precision is unattainable, as he keeps reminding us, and facts are hard to come by. Diocletian’s Edict on wage and price controls provides a few, but their use is beset with methodological difficulties. Like all such documents, it combines realistic figures with attempts at economic incentives, in ways unfortunately impenetrable to us. (What future historian could gather the average number of hours actually worked in American industry and offices from the study of union contracts?) In chapter 17 the Edict gives a camel-load as 600 Roman pounds (about 430 of ours) and a wagon-load as 1200; in chapter 14, a wagon-load of wood is still 1200, but a camel-load is now given as 400 and a mule-load as 300 (the only ancient figure for a mule-load in any source, I think), and the prices fixed do not correspond to those proportions. Egyptian papyri provide some bona fide commercial figures: 300-350 pounds for camels, about half that for donkeys. (Mules do not seem to appear.) They are surprisingly low: one must suspect that Egyptian animals, like Egyptian human beings (who had the lowest life expectancy known in the ancient world), were not typical.

Strangely enough Engels, though his degree is in ancient history, does not discuss the ancient evidence. Perhaps he knew how little it comes to. He works out his figures from modern sources, such as army manuals. Even there, he largely limits himself to a (highly reputable) official British source, with the odd result that his figures all appear in Imperial measure. He might have found the long series of US Army Regulations and the War Department’s Manual of Transportation 1 useful: every movement, every piece of equipment is discussed in lucid detail.

The general tables are particularly instructive. They give much higher figures for performance than Engels even considers. Thus pack mules can carry a load of 250 lbs. twenty to twenty-five miles a day (ten to fifteen miles in mountainous country) with “occasional days of rest.” On forced marches, carrying not over 200 lbs., they can cover seventy-five to 100 miles in twenty-four hours, and the mule “has the horse at his mercy.” (Unusual feats, going well beyond that, are cited.) A table giving the relation of weight carried to miles covered and speed shows that (e.g.) a mule carrying 200 lbs. can cover twenty-five miles a day at five miles per hour without any rest days at all; and with a load of 400 lbs., fifteen miles a day at four miles per hour is considered practicable for thirty days.

These tables are based on the skillfully developed aparejo saddle, and on healthy mules “not less than 14.1 and not over 15.1 hands high” (i.e., 56 1/2 to 60 1/2 inches), and weighing 950-1100 lbs. Ancient saddles (which Engels fails to discuss) were more primitive, and even though these US army animals are not the biggest of the American “mammoth jacks” (which grow to sixteen hands), they are probably bigger than the average mule at Alexander’s disposal. Still, the figures must be taken very seriously, and they show that considerable distances can be covered under heavy loads. With all allowances made, it seems likely that far more than the 200 lbs. Engels allowed could be carried at an average daily march rate worked out by Engels as fifteen miles per day.

Engels’s failure to investigate the size of ancient mules (he briefly refers to horses) and the nature of Greek saddles is his most serious deficiency. It derives from a strange misapprehension often repeated: from the known fact that the proportion of an animal’s body weight, food intake, and work output tends to remain constant, he argues that it does not really matter what size Alexander’s mules were! Xenophon and his men knew better: when they had to leave most of their baggage train behind, they took the biggest animals with them. The reason, of course, is that animals need men to pack and drive them, and these men may need more animals to ride on, in order to keep the train moving. Daly allows one man to every five mules in a pack train of fifty, plus four with general duties; and he allots them fourteen riding-mules. The difference between animals weighing (say) 600 lbs. and 900 lbs, this formula, can easily be worked out: the difference between 1000 and 1500 mules resulting from it would entail a difference between 280 and 420 men, with the same number of riding-animals—all of them drawing on supplies without carrying any. Even if Alexander’s mules were not so lavishly catered for, a considerable difference has been ignored.

The treatment of camels is similarly inadequate. Not only are the ancient figures (which are hard to interpret) ignored, but Engels had not read Richard W. Bulliet, The Camel and the Wheel.2 It seems clear that hybridization between one-humped and two-humped camels has been known since antiquity and, where practiced (as it must above all have been in Iran and Central Asia), produces much stronger animals. This may even explain the different figures we have in ancient sources—including an astonishing 850 lbs. (in a context suggesting hybridization) in Diodorus. Engels is also vague about the camel’s water requirements and sometimes seems to suggest that in crossing a desert it made little difference whether you had camels or mules!

While most biographers of Alexander copy from one another, Engels at last uses all the archaeological work done in Asia in the past generation and makes it accessible. His immense and careful labor over this should prevent the repetition of some untenable theories on Alexander’s route, based on inadequate ancient evidence, that characterize even recent work by eminent scholars. Since there will probably now be a halt in major archaeological exploration in Iran, this book comes as a timely mise au point. Engels’s topographical discussions of southeastern Anatolia and northern Syria, of northeastern Iran and adjacent Soviet Central Asia, and of Alexander’s route through the Makran desert (where Sir Aurel Stein is vindicated against modern critics) are particularly important. The identification of the Kalat-i-Nadiri, “the ‘Gibraltar’ of Persia,” as the fortress where Alexander heard of the outbreak of the serious rebellion against him in northeastern Iran is new, and (once propounded) so obvious that it is surprising no one has ever thought of it before. It leads to a new interpretation of Alexander’s movements in the invasion of Bacteria and a new and exciting suggestion for the site of “Artacoana,” which traditional guesses have long put somewhere near Herat: it can now be put much further north, perhaps even in Soviet Turkmenistan, where (as Engels says) it may well be discovered in the intensive work going on in that area.

Careful analyses of terrain, climate, and supply requirements are throughout combined in a masterly fashion to help account for Alexander’s strategic decisions in the light of the options genuinely open to him, as distinct from the academic vacuum of the hommes de lettres. Of course, here as elsewhere, discussion should not be regarded as closed—merely as significantly advanced. Geography and the problem of supplies must never again be ignored, for instance, in explaining the puzzle of Alexander’s four-month stay at Persepolis. (We have all to some extent been guilty of that.) On the other hand, Engels should not have naïvely combined Curtius’s fairy-tale account of the land of eternal snows that Alexander found in the pass above Deh Bid (8000 feet high) and of its fairy-tale inhabitants with early travelers’ reports, to produce a picture of a country not to be attempted before June.

Here Engels’s underestimate of the actual distance supplies can be carried for a relatively small army, especially if camels were available, is seen to matter: the crucial time is only about fourteen days, and there is no reason to think that supplies could not be carried by a well-organized pack train for longer than that. Just as economic considerations, though they must not be ignored, should not be enthusiastically described as the sole determinants of policy, so supply considerations (which we cannot even analyze with anything approaching accuracy) should not be allowed to become the sole key to strategic and even political decisions taken in the field.

The location of the battle of Issus in the spring of 333, in what is now southeastern Turkey, offers an interesting puzzle. Precise consideration of topography and possible march rates leads Engels to decide firmly for the Payas Valley, as against the traditional alternative of the Deli Chai: “It is easy for those unfamiliar with the time problem of an army marching through a pass to believe that the army could have deployed from a column to a line and then have marched 16 miles, all in one day.” He works out that, starting at sunrise, the army could not have reached the Deli Chai until well after sunset. “One can conclude that [the site] was the Deli Chai only by having the battle of Issus fought in the dark and by ignoring the laws of physics and the topographical information provided by the sources.”

Yet on his own calculation, the army would reach the Payas Valley only half an hour before sunset—not nearly enough time for the complex tactical maneuvers that preceded the battle, let alone the actual fighting. There is obviously something wrong with the sources, or with our interpretation of them. And those who have opted for the Deli Chai have not all been unfamiliar with armies. They include, most prominently, Oberst A. Janke, accompanied by Oberleutnant W. von Marées and two other Prussian officers, who visited, mapped, and photographed the site (among others) in 1902, by special commission from Count Schlieffen, then Chief of the General Staff of the German Empire.3 Janke decisively rejected the Payas Valley as tactically impossible. The question remains open.

The chief merit of this splendid book is perhaps the way in which it brings an ancient army to life, as it really was and moved: the hours it took for simple operations of washing and cooking and feeding animals; the train of noncombatants moving with the army. Each Greek hoplite (we are reminded—even the best of scholarly commentators often forget it!) normally had a servant, and perhaps the greatest strictly military advantage Alexander owed to his father Philip II was that Philip had trained his Macedonians to march long distances carrying their arms and back-packs: we are told that he allowed his infantry only one servant for every ten men (though this is no doubt slightly exaggerated). That true soldier Gaius Marius was to introduce similar discipline into the Roman legions (they called his New Model Army “Marius’ Mules”), thus paving the way for the conquests of Pompey and Caesar.

By the time a flash flood killed “most of the women and children following the army” (Arrian 6,25,5) in the Makran desert, that discipline had been greatly relaxed. By the time the army was reunited at Susa, a few months later, more than 10,000 Macedonian soldiers were found to have married Asian women (ibid., 7,4,8). All this, of course, vastly increased supply problems as the army plunged into Iran. The Persian Empire may be regarded as a vast desert punctuated by oases of varying sizes. Supplies could not easily be moved by land, since (as Engels reminds us) the animals moving them had to eat and drink on the way. Unless something was found by the wayside (and often enough there was little to be found), they would end by consuming all they carried. The passage of an army was like a plague of locusts. Even fertile areas could barely support it. When Alexander decided to go down the Indus Valley instead of returning the way he had come, after a mutiny on the Beas River prevented him from proceeding to the Ganges, that was (once more) in part for reasons of politics and prestige; but in part it was simply because a vast army and its camp-followers could not return the way it had come.

Xenophon’s Anabasis is the only work that throws light on the facts of military life. Cyrus (unlike Alexander) had not been very competent at providing supplies for his army. After his death in battle, not far from Babylon, the Greeks were left to fend for themselves. For the moment, they could kill baggage animals and use scattered enemy arrows for firewood. But how were they to get back? A Persian noble and friend of Cyrus’s offered to lead them back. He is made to speak as follows: “If we were to return the way we came, we should starve to death. For we have no provisions now, and on our way here we were already unable to get anything out of the country during the last seventeen days’ march—and where there was anything, we consumed it all on our way through.”

The trail of destruction and starvation left in its wake by an ancient army is difficult for the modern reader, used to easy communications, to envisage. The peasant must have dreaded the day when even a “friendly” army appeared on the horizon. (If it was a hostile army, he could only take his family and run as fast as possible—to be rounded up, much of the time, and sold into slavery or massacred.) For a “friendly” army, he was expected to provide a market: to sell to one of the traders traveling with the army all the food that—living near subsistence level, like most ancient populations in the country-side—he had managed to coax out of the earth. How he was to get more was his own worry. Even if he was paid a fair price, he would find the money of little use, unless he was fortunate enough to live on a fertile plain or near the sea. (Few on Alexander’s route did.) Even then, what supplies had been saved were probably in the local landlord’s storehouse, and the “fair price” paid would be meaningless. Far more often, there would be nothing to be had at any price.

The ancient heroic conception of aristocratic life does not worry about that, any more than does the heroic conception of history which students of antiquity have traditionally taken over from it. Only scattered allusions permit the attentive reader a glimpse of the nonheroic price paid for heroic ambition. Engels, who is concerned with a realistic view of the army itself, quite properly does not dwell on its effect on the population at large. But this is a book that will set the reader thinking. There are not many books on Alexander the Great that do.


How High the Hand? March 6, 1980

  1. 1

    I cite from the edition by H.W. Daly (Washington, DC, 1916).

  2. 2

    Harvard University Press, 1975.

  3. 3

    A. Janke, Auf Alexanders des Grossen Pfaden (Berlin, 1904). The relevant discussion is on pp. 53-71, summarized pp. 71-73.

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