By Steven Pressfield | Published: September 19, 2011
One of the nutty joys of research is that you get to read the most obscure, nerdy books in existence. I’m talking about tomes so arcane that not even the author’s mother could get past Page Six.
I love these books. When I find one on alibris.com (or in the deep stacks of the research library), I whisk it home like an addict packing a gram of the latest black-tar smack. I can never in good conscience recommend these books to friends because who in their right mind, besides me, would be interested in this geeky stuff? And yet the subjects are absolutely fascinating. The styles of hose worn by male courtiers during the era of Louis XIV; the protocol of walking in front of or behind the campfire among the Lakota Sioux; how the Brits funded irregular cavalry in the Punjab in the first two decades of the nineteenth century. I love it all.
What’s fascinating about such obscurantae is human nature. People never change. In Persian script, 500 B.C., we find this: “That mendacious blackguard Ashur still owes me 70 darics. God grant my hands purchase to wring his duplicitous neck!”
How in fact did the Brits finance cavalry in India? They outsourced the job to local princes. A hale young trooper could get X shillings a month for renting out himself and his horse. Plus he got to wear the snappy duds and impress all the pretty girls. Then there was the “sillidar” system. A rajah or potentate could lease to the British not just one young buck, but an entire mob, along with horses, gear and feed. This impresario was called a sillidar. The deal was a win-win. The Brits got cavalry with which to suppress rebellions—and the rajah got out of his hair his many trouble-making nephews, while making a few pounds Sterling in the bargain.
I ripped this concept off in The Profession, projecting it to the year 2032 and applying it to helicopters instead of horses:
Individual aircraft and crews were brought onboard [to the mercenary army] in one of three ways–as O.O.’s, or owner-operators (in which the pilot himself or a syndicate of investors supplied its own plane or helicopter and hired it directly to the company); straight-hire (where the company itself owned or leased the plane and contracted with the pilots and crew to fly it); or the “sillidar” system, in which a single firm or investor supplied a number of planes and leased them to the contracting company as units–with or without pilots and flight crews.
Researching the campaigns of Alexander, I came upon this trove of arcana: Donald W. Engels’ Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army. How, one wonders, did Alexander get an army of 50,000 men with all their equipment—not to mention wives, children and camp followers—across Iraq, across Iran, across Afghanistan? Even the mighty U.S. today with ships, planes and trucks can barely sustain its forces. How did Alexander do it 2300 years ago?
To find the number of [pack] animals necessary, we divide 343,000 pounds (the weight of the grain requirement for the men and animals plus the latter’s requirement of fodder for one day) by 230 pounds (the carrying capacity of one mule). Thus 1492 animals would be needed to carry the army’s requirement of grain and fodder for one day.
Alexander’s army, says Engels (and this would apply to any pre-petrol force right up through Napoleon, Robert E. Lee and Black Jack Pershing), “was in a real sense a moving city, larger than almost any in the ancient world … and its requirements of food and water were corresponding high.” The historian Quintus Curtius notes that Alexander’s columns could rarely retreat along their route of advance because they had already devoured every scrap of grub in the country.
Theoretically it would be possible for the army to carry 12 ½ days’ supply of grain and fodder since by this time the pack animals would have consumed all the supplies they were carrying. But in practice, no more than a seven-day supply could be carried because the numbers of animals would have been prohibitive.
I love this stuff because it really brings the past to life for me. I hate movies where Roman legions trek across the wilds of Parthia and all you see are guys with spears, wearing sandals. Where are the horses? Where are the mules? Where are the women and kids?
There’s a story of Philip of Macedonia, Alexander’s father. After a long march, the army had found a pleasant slope in the shade where they could rest. Until Philip’s route master interrupted the idyll to inform the king that the column had to move. The site did not provide enough forage and water for the pack animals. “What kind of life are we living?” declared Philip. “To sit and stay at the pleasure of an ass!”
Why did Alexander approach Babylon along the Tigris instead of by the royal road down the Euphrates? Because he needed the harvest to feed his army, and the grain was held behind fortified walls in cities along the Euphrates, but in garners in easy-to-pillage villages across lower Armenia.
Which brings us back to mules and human nature. How did ancient armies acquire these beasts of burden thousands of miles from home? They rented them. Their quartermasters hired mules one by one or in numbers (the sillidar system) from local herdsmen and contractors and paid them in coin or in promissory notes.
Thus we find in Cappadocia this recently-excavated clay tablet: “That spawn-of-hell Cleon still owes me forty drachmas. Zeus grant my fingers purchase to wring his greedy neck!”