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Postal history of Ancient Civilisations and the Roman Empire

Updated on May 12, 2012

Messenger services were necessary to most ancient civilisation and were usually organised by the king or merchants. Nearly all the ancient civilisations sent messages by foot or equestrian couriers. They travelled along the routes called ways which were also used for the movement of large armies and transporting military equipment. Most of the postal systems set up by kings in ancient civilisations were used for royal and governmental purposes only. Often wealthy merchants provided there own form of message service.

A form of postal communication existed in Ancient Egypt. Pedestrian and equestrian couriers travelled along the military routes to Libya, Ethiopia and Arabia carrying messengers between the Pharaoh and leading military and administrative officials of Egypt. The messengers were provided with accommodation and food by the local inhabitants. This was a duty the Pharaoh commissioned on the towns along the routes and the local inhabitants had to pay a tax to provide for this service.

There was a regular postal activity in the Assyria empire. Assyria used a cuneiform script that was engraved with a sharp stylus on a wet clay tablet. The tablet was the dried in the sun. If the information on the tablet was important then the tablet was fired in a kiln to preserve it for longer.These tablets were usually put in clay sleeves equivalent to modern envelopes to preserve the privacy of the correspondence. The name of the the addressee was engraved on the clay sleeve.

In ancient Persia the postal services became became even more sophisticated. The Persian king Cyrus the Great who ruled between 559 and 530 BC considered postal communication to be very important because of the size of the Persian Empire. He decreed that Staging posts were to be established established along the so-called “Royal Route” which stretched 2,500 kilometres from Sardis the capital of Cyrus empire to Sus , the winter residence of the Persian Kings. The staging posts were supplied with horses and accommodation for tired messengers. A messenger carrying messages and documents on horseback would be replaced at the staging post with a fresh horse and messenger. There were 111 staging posts on the Royal Route and a message could cover the 2500 km distance in five to seven days. Town and cities not on this royal route were not as well serviced and had a more limited message service.

Rome had advanced and well- organised transport system that provided reliable reliable connections across the Roman empire. The Roman roads were sophisticated for their time , the quality of which can be confirmed by the fact that a number of them have partially survived to the present day. The major roads were ten metres wide and minor roads were four to seven metres wide. The roads stretched across the Roman empire. The postal services of the Roman Empire used the sophisticated network of roads to transport the mail. Postal communication was run by specially appointed officials and servants.

Post was carried by messengers on foot and on horseback. Mail that was not urgent was carried by coach that transported both passengers and goods in addition to carrying letters. They had at their disposal several kinds of coach from a light, two-wheeled coach to a heavy four-wheeled carriage pulled by 8 to 10 horses,mules or donkeys. Staging posts called mansiones were used to replace tired horses, tired carriage drivers and provide food and accommodation for travellers and postal personnel. Between each resting stage were six smaller relay staging-posts were fresh horses could be provided. Urgent post would be carried by single riders on horseback who could swap horses at the staging posts. This provided a form of express post that was often used in times of war to relay messages to the emperor. The transfer of messages and post reached its peak during the Roman empire and was not equalled to about 1,300 years later.


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      Donald E 7 years ago from DFW area, TX.

      A very interesting article.