The Sillidar System

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.


The unsung hero of ancient conquest

I love these books. When I find one on (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!”

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  1. Tina on September 19, 2011 at 4:17 am

    After my fiance retired from the army he worked for Northrop Grumman training soldier in the woods somewhere in North Carolina. Part of the training was using mules and slaughtering livestock for food. The mules they rented from a local and the livestock and other food they bought from farms in the area. He said the soldiers were so dependent on modern conveniences that they did not do well…but that is another story.

  2. Man of la Book on September 19, 2011 at 5:09 am

    I sometimes find the stories of the logistics of moving an army far more interesting than the actual fighting.

    From my reading I came to discover that the main contributions of many generals (Alexander, Hannibal, Napoleon, Washington, Eisenhower, etc.) were in the logistics of keeping an army together and on the move rather than winning in decisive battles.

  3. tolladay on September 19, 2011 at 6:57 am

    Such a wonderful topic. My inner geek loves the arcane “inner” info and Alexander’s traveling mule city has got to be one of them.

    I’ve been working on a sci-fi short story that had me researching St. Ambrose, and eventually reading his treatise on the Goodness of Death called “De bono mortis”. I do not know a single soul who would be the least bit interested in the writings of a famous Bishop from the 3rd century church, but I couldn’t put it down.

    • Steven Pressfield on September 19, 2011 at 3:54 pm

      St. Ambrose, I love it. Never heard of him or of “Do bono mortis” but it sounds fantastic. Can you give us the Reader’s Digest version of what St. A has to say?

      • MarkVG on September 22, 2011 at 10:52 am

        Dear Steven,

        St. Ambrose was by all rights a pretty remarkable fellow and well renowned in his time. His exceptional intellect and wonderful oratory are said to have directly influenced Augustine of Hippo to embrace Christianity. Both became “doctors” (leading theologians) and later saints of the Roman Catholic Church. (The same St Augustine who gave us “Just War” and wrote “City of God”). Jerome was a theologian and historian; a scholar writing both translations and commentaries. Jerome is the second most voluminous writer (after St. Augustine) in early Latin Christianity. Jerome’s seminal work remains the Latin Vulgate version of the complete Christian bible; noteworthy because he translated the Old Testament directly from Hebrew to Latin and for correcting the then existing Latin language versions of the New Testament. He produced the common man’s version of the whole bible in the common (“vulgar”) tongue at the time when only the upper crust could comprehend literature written in Greek.

        As the patron saint of translators, librarians, and encyclopedists, Jerome himself was an ascetic geek!

        All the best.

        • MarkVG on September 22, 2011 at 1:25 pm

          Dear Steven,

          Mea culpa, I screwed that up! Apologies for confusing Ambrose with Jerome. Ambrose was a bishop of Milan who became one of the most influential ecclesiastical figures of the 4th century. He was one of the four original doctors of the Church. Augustine of Hippo is alleged to have embraced Christianity because of Ambrose’s (not Jerome’s) learned oratory.

          Moderns know Ambrose for saying, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Musicologists know Ambrose for “Ambrosian” chant which pre-dated and was later supplanted by medieval Gregorian chant.

          “Death as a Good” is a written sermon and one of his Ethical Works. It describes death as the rightful transition from a natural to a supernatural state; an intended human destiny in accordance with the Divine Plan. It directly counters the sentiment, “If life is good, then death is evil”.

          Pardon me for mixing things up. The geek in me got carried away.

          All the best,

      • tolladay on September 23, 2011 at 9:40 am

        It appears MarkVG has done an excellent job of summarizing St. Ambrose.

        The basic premise is that death is a benefit to the believer, and as Mark stated, was partially written to counteract the notion that is life is good, death must be the opposite.

        I found the work to read a lot like the new testament, with the exception that St. Ambrose happily quotes everybody from Jesus to other extemporaneous religious and philosophical texts of the day. I have to admit, however, I was only quote-mining the work for my own purposes; a distant monastery set in a post apocalyptic future which has a bizarre “death cult” hidden within its walls. I knew I wanted the monastery named after St. Ambrose, and only by happy accident discovered his work when starting to research the man.

        My favorite quote from the book. This is part of his longer proof of the immortality of the soul:

        “The Soul therefore is life. How then can it admit death, when it is the opposite of death? Snow does not suffer heat–for it melts at once; light does not suffer darkness–it dissipates it at once, for with the introduction of light the dread of darkness is removed, just as the chill of snow ceases when fire is employed. Just so the soul, which creates life, does not suffer death, does not die. Therefore the soul does not suffer death; it does not die.”

        There are seven works of St. Ambrose’s available on googlebooks. Curiously enough, in a book titled “Seven Exegetical Works”.

        My apologies for taking so long to reply. I love to write, but also need to feed the beast (the day job). The beast was very hungry this week, leaving me with little free time, but more money in the bank. As you know, the entertainment industry seems to eschew such trifles as the 8 hour work day.

  4. Jason on September 19, 2011 at 5:10 pm

    Xerxes had troops move through Greece, leaving vast stores of food for the approaching army. There was said to be piles of dried meat so high they looked like mountains.

  5. Jason on September 19, 2011 at 5:19 pm

    The logistics were part of Genghis Khan’s success in furthering his empire. Mongolia was covered with grass for his horses. His men would cut a small hole in their horses neck, drink blood out to nourish themselves, and then paste some mud over the hole. As long as grass was on the field, they could keep traveling.

  6. Rick Matz on September 19, 2011 at 5:32 pm

    Milo Minderbinder from Catch-22 may not have been so far fetched after all.

  7. kazari on September 19, 2011 at 6:51 pm

    If you like stories like that, I can give you a more modern example.
    In WWII, my grandfather was stationed in East Timor when the Japanese invaded. They lived off the land, but every so often they got a shipment of supplies from Australia. It was super dangerous being on the beach, so they had to be massively organised.
    They didn’t use mules, they used Timorese ponies (which are about the same size)… which had to be hired, bought or commandeered from the locals.

    They were the first force in asia that didn’t fall to the japanese. There’s only one book about the campaign that I’m aware of – The Men who came out of the Ground, by Paul Cleary.

  8. Jeremy on September 20, 2011 at 5:32 am

    I find this stuff fascinating in general, and when it pertains to a book I’m working on it’s like crack. I’m finding out stuff like today’s security contractors can usually tell another contractor’s military training from the watch and sunglasses he wears.

    And Steven, you’re right about people (and problems) never changing. This story was on NPR the other day: U.S. Now Relies On Alternate Afghan Supply Routes

    Napoleon declared that “an army marches on its stomach.” Gen. Omar Bradley said, “Amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics.” Successful military commanders have long recognized that few requirements rank higher in wartime than the need to maintain reliable supply lines.

  9. Hussar on September 21, 2011 at 7:50 pm

    The sillidar (silahdar) system did have its downside. The silahdar was not too keen on advancing into battle when the odds were against him. The loss of his horse meant loss of livelihood for him.

    Opposed to this was the bargir system where the mount would be provided by the king. This had the advantage of getting cavalrymen who were a lot more adventurous in battle. At the cost of the king having to maintain ready for battle horses.

  10. Rob Ord on September 24, 2011 at 9:28 pm

    Couldn’t agree more with your sentiments regarding movies that depict something like a military campaign as a simple hike to the battlefield. In defense of the silver screen, though, I suppose that due to some limiting factors some may argue that it is necessary to compromise on the truth (with a small t) to relate the Truth (with a big T).

    Bottom line, in my opinion, is that a movie can never truly tell the Hero’s Journey the way a well written and detailed book can. This is why, when I reflect on my favorite movies, I remember them as “inspiring”, and my favorite books as “life changing”.

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