"An Army Marches On It's Stomach": An Analysis of the Ancient Soldier's Diet
The historical uncertainty that envelopes the orator of the universally well known phrase, “An army marches on its stomach,” attributes the statement’s origins either to Frederick the Great or Napoleon Bonaparte. While the originator of the aforementioned words may never correctly be identified and thereby revered for his –perhaps unintentional- brainchild, the intention and implication of this simple thought has nevertheless caused a watershed in the approach to warfare. Where training, skill, planning, and luck had previously accounted for victory in a military conflict, this blatant statement suggests that success is purely an outcome of logistics; basically, how an army is supplied and fed at the correct place and time. Napoleon certainly felt the reality of those words as his starved and disease stricken army perished across the Russian landscape in June of 1812. But he was not the only one aware of this fact. The ancient cultures of Greece, Rome, Egypt, Persia, and Macedon shared the same strain of logistical thought of the future centuries’ great generals: an army could only survive on available food, which, more importantly, had to provide the nutritional value to maintain the soldier through battle. It is this latter statement which gives credence to the fact that an army, no matter how well equipped or skilled, will be of no use without adequate nutrition; food which in this case would be supplied by whatever means necessary, and eaten without contention.
Cross Cultural Dietary Considerations
When viewed cross-culturally, it is the best assessment that ancient soldiers required an ideal minimum of 3,000 calories per day to function properly in battle. Different breads, biscuits, and porridge provided the soldier with grains, which comprised for 2/3 of his caloric requirements. If meat was available, it took the form of pork, beef, or mutton and provided between 200-400 calories. Vegetables such as beans, lentils, herbs, and others, supplied the soldier with an adequate amount of vitamins while dairy products including milk and cheese offered 90-160 more calories. Finally, wine and beer, which were frequently the only source of liquids, supplied the remaining 350 calories (Gabriel, 34).
While in garrison, the soldier perhaps ingested far more than the suggested amount, allowing for the average 5”7, 145 lbs. soldier to gain weight and have proper resources to sustain tissues, create body fluids, and maintain liquids (Gabriel, 34). On the march, however, food was not always as readily available and had to be acquired either by eating the stores that the soldier personally carried, relying on pre-established storage facilities along the battle route, and resorting to stealing, buying, and plundering. It was these scenarios that not only caused the soldiers health to dangerously diminish, but also put at risk the survival of the army in conflict.
It is the active states of the army that highlight the fact that nutrition was, in fact, a major problem. The modern 160 lbs. soldier who carried a moderate load while marching eight hours requires almost 3,500 calories, including 70 grams of protein, a day (Gabriel, 105). It is not unjust to attempt to transmit these contemporary nutritional requirements to the ancient world in order to gain an idea of how precarious the soldier’s dependence on food actually was.
When the caloric intake of the modern soldier is applied to the ancients, it is quite evident that the diet of these historic troops was far from sufficient. Stress and physical exertion in combat field conditions naturally increased caloric need, while desert and other arid regions required an intake of around 9 qt. of water; an unrealistic amount at best. Also, the fact that most civilizations relied mainly on grain further jeopardized the condition of the army. The standard ration, which went up to 3 lbs. per day for each soldier, was already meager. Furthermore, the cooking and digestive processes eradicated much of the caloric and protein levels, causing the nutritional value to plummet even more precipitously.
Some of the earliest full-scale military skirmishes that were faced with the harsh reality of poor nutrition and its effects were naturally fought by one of the first major historic civilization: Egypt. Great armies that amassed in the tens of thousands were not only a considerable demographic to outfit with armor weapons, but feed as well. How could the narrow strip of the fertile Nile Valley possibly supply such an active division of society? This seemed to have indeed been of concern to the early Egyptian armies who, according to the Anastasi Papyri, claimed to have had “meager and unpleasant rations”, with water having been available only every three days (Gabriel, 86). Other texts stated that soldiers were made to carry their own food and water, but truly did not expound on any descriptions of what was carted or eaten.
As warfare within Egypt began to progress although, so did the attention given to the nutritional needs of its soldiers. Chicken eggs, which became available after the introduction of domesticated chickens, became a cheap and accessible staple of the Egyptian military. These eggs were often paired with things such as smoked gooseflesh, fish, and a variety of fruits. Onions, beans, figs, dates, and meats were also easily stored and transported (Gabriel, 34).
The nutritional requirements of the army, which were often fulfilled by the plundering and razing of neighboring crops, also aided in war strategy. Along with the eventual strategic placing of food storage facilities along an ordained campaign path, the Egyptian army also began the practice of looting crops, which would not only feed their military, but deprive and cause hardships upon an enemy army that was attempting to subsist off of the same area of land (Gabriel, XLIV). As evidence in the Annals of Thutmose III and biblical records, these strategies allowed for food to be seen not only as a necessity of life, but as a logistical tool and moreover an effective weapon in war.
Over time, the center of worldly conflicts began to shift, and by the time of the 5th and 4th centuries, warfare was concentrated mainly in Greece. Here, in the midst of constant battling, there were two distinct extremes to the soldiers diet. For a normal hoplite soldier, found within the armies of mainland Greece, major nutrients were taken in through a variety of fruits and vegetables, while other rations, especially fish, were supplemented whenever possible. Non-perishable foodstuffs such as salt, onions, and thyme enhanced the soldier’s bounty, while any meat that was ordained edible could be cooked on the iron spits of a portable grill, which the hoplite himself carried (Sekunda, 2).
But that was not all of which the Greek soldier was supplied with. Three days worth of rations were also carried by the hoplite while on march, a practice which would be maintained until the battle of Plataea, where in 479 B.C., the Greek army suffered considerably due to insufficient sources of nutrition, including both food and water. While in this case, the army was able to make it to momentary safety and was furthermore able to allow a contingent to escort food bearers to the exhausted and famished soldiers (Lendon, 70). What could have become a tragic instance of loss in battle due to logistical failure led to the instillation of supply trains and monetary allowances that substituted the personal responsibility of maintaining stores that the soldier had previously been face with (Alcock, ?).
The opposite end of the spectrum, which manifested itself in the Spartan society, did not allow for as much variety. The soldiers diet relied perhaps solely on a single concoction known as “black broth”; a conglomeration which included nothing more than pork, blood and vinegar. The prominent historical figure of Plutarch commented on this specific nutrient supplier in his Ancient Customs of the Spartans, stating that the older men ate the black broth with approval and, “…did not require a bit of meat, but gave up all of it to the young men.” This although never implied that the mixture, which allowed the Spartan soldier to continue in the creation of his incredible legacy, was enjoyable to eat. Plutarch brought this assertion to light in the same work by noting a visitor, who upon entering the Spartan mess, openly stated that he was no longer surprised as to why these soldiers were not afraid to face death.
While on march, the Spartan men resorted to pillaging and stealing whatever resources they could locate. It was not thought of as a last resort, but was simply the execution of a practice which had been instilled in the soldier since birth, when he was purposefully underfed in an effort to promote him to acquire food by whatever means necessary. There were truly no large-scale logistics when it came to supplying Spartan soldiers with sustenance, and this face is retrospect overly unsurprising, considering how independent and self-sufficient Sparta itself was.
This Spartan independence was often threatened throughout the 4th century B.C., especially during the period shaped by the Peloponnesian War, in which the shining Persian Empire cast a shadow across the Mediterranean World. Troops led by infamous rulers such as Xerxes and Darius II were eagerly conquering what there was of the known world, all the while priding themselves not only for their tactics and skill, but great level of logistics that extended to food supply. Herodotus notes in one of his writings that Xerxes was able to establish a number of food “dumps” along the northern Greek mainland before even the beginnings of his campaign. Here, provisions were brought from many different parts of Asia, transported by large ships and ferries, allowing food for soldiers to be readily available once they were able to reach the pre-ordained location.
The sustenance that the Persian Army was then able to ingest was one more preferential to their culture, and included a variety of foods such as cereals, millet, peas, beans, lentils, and other prominent Asian foods. Grain was the biggest nutritional supplier to the Persian soldiers, who in a 400-ship war fleet, could consume 120 tons of this resource a day (Anson, 45). For the incredibly long operations which these troops embarked upon, it is truly unsurprising that they were said, again by Herodotus, to have drank entire rivers dry and bankrupt any locale that attempted to provide them with provisions. It is therefore understandable that the major element of the Persian diet was something that could be abundantly obtainable, like grain, and not meat, which one would although think necessary for survival during their strenuous and elongated physical hardships in battle.
These Persian logistics were most put under trial while in conflict with Alexander of Macedon. This individual not only posed a threat as one of the most intellectual strategic minds but also boasted an incredible talent for organization and execution in all areas of a military campaign including, of course, the methods of providing his soldiers with food. Alexander’s Macedonian army was thought to have needed between two to three pounds of food per individual, and unless this army was incredibly well disciplined, the “individuals” would also account for camp followers (Masterson, 19). The soldiers, in turn including their entourage, were only capable of toting a few days worth of food, and were therefore dependent on their surroundings for any supplementary nutrition. A problem was clearly presenting itself.
Alexander, just as his father, although saw a different solution to the apparent situation. Instead of his massive convoy raping the land of all its resources, he firstly limited the camp followers, who sometimes numbered ten times as many as troops. He then went on to establish various intelligence and diplomatic services to seek out paths that would lead his soldiers to areas where they could freely, and not imposingly, take and purchase food as deemed necessary from the locals. Just as the Persians, Alexander also managed to transport food by ships to pre-arranged points (Masterson, 19).
The Macedonian troops, similar to others of that time, depended on grain. It is estimated that they received around 1.5 lbs. of grain a day. Realistically, this portion was far too meager to support human life and was therefore supplemented by different other foods, although it is hard to guess exactly what that may have been. About 2 qt. of water were taken in on a daily basis as well. If environmental conditions allowed, the food portions became restricted although the water intake could never, without dire consequences, be diminished below the suggested 2 qt. (Engels, 125).
Centuries of continuous warfare and inadequate nutrition repeatedly permitted the physical and mental demoralization of the soldier up until the time of the Roman legions. The rise of one of the greatest recorded empires was paralleled by steady progressions in areas of not only politics, but warfare as well. The Roman Army would in fact become known for having the best commissariat and feeding arrangements in the ancient world, with such organized logistics that they would be able to transport the quality and quantity of food that soldiers would otherwise only be taking in at garrisons (Alcock, 29).
The standard military fare of the Roman soldier included meats such as salted pork, sausage, ham, and bacon. Baked bread, peas, lentils, beans, olive oil and wine also accompanied the troops’ meal. If wine was although not available, a drink known as posca, which consisted of water and vinegar, made –if not a tasteful- an efficient substitute. Even with these seeming improvements, grain continued to supply the majority of the diet, although more high quality protein could be elicited from this food source (Davies, 209).
Dietary restrictions were also at times place upon the soldier, which greatly contradicted the past traditions of eating whenever and whatever the army could acquire. The infamous Roman general, Scipio, enforced quite stringent rules upon his troops. He limited their mess kit to nothing more but a spit along with both a copper and drinking cup. For lunch, soldiers would have to endure the eating of raw meat, while at dinner, they could indulge themselves on either roasted or boiled meat (Flandrin, 107).
Napoleon and the Ancient Soldier's Legacy
And so endured the ancient soldier. He fought not only in the most physically torturous and exhausting battles, from that of Kadesh in Egypt to Gaugamela in northern Iraq, but subsisted off of hardly anything more than wheat and other insufficient nutrient suppliers. When meat –the main provider of the macronutrient protein- was available, it was rarely in proper condition or was ingested rare; not many benefits could be drawn from it. Vegetables and other products such as wine and water were readily available under the circumstances of being viable from the surrounding environment or simply being transported and stored properly from the commencement of any campaign.
Since conditions were hardly ever favorable and logistics concerning the transport and storage of foods did not fully develop until the time of Persia and Macedon, it can easily be inferred that soldiers, perhaps the most tried and vigilant in human history, suffered constantly from malnutrition. Not only would this inhibit their physical performance, but also take a toll on their mental psyche as well. Internal fractioning was perhaps also a constant threat due to competition in resources, therefore causing additional burden the weighted-down soldier.
Sources from this era of warfare are not very clear on the fatalities that occurred due to poor nutrition and its consequences. Estimates can be gleamed from field journeys, oral traditions, and other historic sources on the overall average of deaths resulting from a battle, but to dissect those numbers and correctly associate them to poor supply logistics is fairly impossible. Still, an idea can possibly be had when looking again towards the assertion that “an army marches on its stomach” and the individual thought to have spoken it: Napoleon.
In the great general’s Russian campaign, waged during the winter of 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte braved the cold season with 600,000 men and an estimated 10,000 horses. While supply trains had been in common usage since the time of Alexander –albeit much more logistically sound- Napoleon decided to abandon the burdensome attachment and encouraged his men to live off the surroundings for the next several weeks of their campaign.
It is that well recorded event and its consequences that offer some hint at the casualties of poor nutrition during warfare. Just as in ancient times, Napoleon’s soldiers were now faced with the task of marching steadily through inhospitable environments that offered nothing more than meager food options and sporadically located farm fields. The detriments of these conditions were evident after only several days, which was the amount of rations bestowed upon the ancient soldier at the beginning of his campaign.
The progression of three to four days with insufficient rations led to a rapid decline in health for Napoleon’s troops, regardless of the fact that until that point, the army had been readily equipped by the supply train. Quickly, the men succumbed to a number of diseases, along with mental and physical exhaustion, ending with an estimated 500,000 meeting their end in the desolate abyss known as the Russian landscape.
It will most likely remain impossible to guess at how ancient troops managed to experience far worse situations, only to stand and fight to their death in battle and not on the green-mile march preceding it. Taking Napoleon’s example and alluding it to the Ancient-era highlights the necessity of proper nutrition and logistics in warfare, ideas which took centuries –from the sparse Egyptian deserts to the fortified Roman cities- to formulate and make effective. The fact that an army marches on its stomach is undeniable and a shame to not have been realized by the soldiers who was perhaps most deserving of a good meal before a brutal death.
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1 Estimates given by Robert Burnham on the site http://www.napoleon-series.org/faq/c_russia.html. His sources listed in ending bibliography.
Copyright Lilith Eden 2011. All Rights Reserved.