Whatever we may all feel about the postal service is very important to our daily way of life. We get all manner of communication through the mail. In America, we get postal service six days a week, and considering the amount of mail that is processed, the whole thing works amazingly well.
Such has not always been the case in world history, of course. Mail service had to wait to develop adequate roads and security for an effective postal service.
Mail service likely started with the Egyptians as early as 2000 BC, but the Persians are credited as the first true mail carriers. The ancient Persian kings needed a way to communicate with the distant reaches of their kingdom, so a postal system was developed. These systems allowed King Cyrus to have contact with the distant parts of his kingdom around 550 BC. The development of a network of roads in Persia made the whole mail system much more practical.
The Greek historian Herodotus reported that the Persians used riders stationed at a day’s ride along the Royal Road. The letters would then be handed off from one rider to the next, allowing messages to travel as fast as a horse could.
China also developed a mail system during the Zhou dynasty (1122 – 221 BC), but this system was used primarily by the government to deliver official mail. Greece also developed a mail system but had to rely on private couriers as its road system was very primitive.
Rome would provide the innovation needed for much better mail service, partially due to its advanced and relatively secure road system.
Roman Postal Service
Augustus Caesar developed a courier service called the cursus publicus from about 30 – 25 BC. It was the most advanced mail system at the time of its creation, allowing communication throughout the Empire.
Earlier postal services primarily just delivered messages from government officials to each other. The Roman system was much more versatile as it transported tax revenues throughout the Empire to Rome. This mail system was made possible by the ever-increasing complexity and extent of its road system. The Romans also secured the roads with soldiers at periodic intervals, which would be especially important when moving revenues. Forts were built along the roads at intervals of about a day’s trip for additional security.
The Roman postal service allowed mail delivery for commerce and governmental purposes and limited communications among citizens. The Roman postal service was likely quite expensive and accessible only to government or military officials under normal circumstances.
The ordinary person could not use the system without getting a special permit called a diploma. This diploma was issued by the Emporer and would contain the name of the person awarded the privilege of mail delivery, the time frame it was valid, the means of travel, the course, and the lodgings.
Researchers have shown the average speed of the Roman postal system to be about 50 kilometers per day.
The Roman postal service was limited primarily to government officials, although private citizens could use it. This allowed communication across the width and breadth of the Roman Empire at a speed of about 50 km/day.
Such a system would not have been possible without the excellent Roman road system that crisscrossed throughout the Empire.
This mail system undoubtedly helped the circulation of the Christian message. While it was certainly very primitive by today’s standards and required special permission for regular citizens to use, it enable rapid communication of important information.
The spread of the Christian message was helped by the general tolerance of the Roman Empire to religious beliefs other than their own. This will be explored on the next blog.