Imperial Rome, with its 80,000 100,000 km[i] network of well-built and maintained roads, had a unique opportunity to provide its citizens and the imperial government with reliable routes for trade, travel, and most importantly communication. Be it the Emperor looking for news of his distant provinces or a mother checking in on the welfare of her traveling son, Romans had a lot to say to a lot of people all across the empire. So, how did these messages, both important and mundane, get from place to place?
The Cursus Publicus
The closest thing to a modern postal system in Rome was known as the cursus publicus. Although it was not mentioned by name until around the fourth century CE,[ii] evidence shows that the cursus publicus was established under Augustus. Perhaps inspired by a similar system that wowed Herodotus in Persia with its speed[iii], the cursus publicus was established to keep both the Italian and far flung provinces of the empire in constant contact with the capital. It was used for all manner of messages including reports on troop movements, rebellions, taxes, and food supply. The cursus publicus was an important piece of infrastructure and was essential in carrying out the business of a huge and geographically wide spread empire.
Initially, a single runner, usually a young man from the local area, would take a message from one relay station on the military road, either on foot or horseback, to the next where the message would be passed by hand to another runner and so on until it reached its final destination. Although it was very fast, this was not a particularly practical way to get word from one military or town post to the next. Most of the time the runner had no knowledge of the message he was carrying so he could not answer any questions about the message itself or conditions in the place the message came from. So, soon after the cursus was established single runners were replaced by a series of carriages (vehiculari) driven by the same courier. This way a single courier could take a message the whole way and if necessary answer any questions the recipeient may have.[iv]
Spread out at regular distances along the way, there were two types of way stations; large private homes, known as mansiones[v], where a courier would receive food and lodging as well as blacksmith and stable services for the horses and smaller relay stations known as mutations[vi], where messengers would switch out horses. All services had to be provided by the inhabitants of the town and the operation and cost of maintaining these stations was left up to the public. It was seen as a public service to provide for the men conducting essential imperial business.
The cursus publicus was not a public postal or delivery service. It was strictly a tool of the government. As such, travel on the cursus publicus was highly regulated. Warrants to travel, known as diplomata, were issued by the Emperor on a case by case basis and had to be very important. Details such as, how many animals were to be used, which routes to take, and how long the warrant was valid were all set by the Emperor, or more commonly someone on his staff.[vii]
All this regulation did not stop officials from taking advantage of the system in time of personal emergency though. As can be seen in a letter from Pliny the Younger, who was serving as governor in Bithynia, to the emperor Trajan,
“I have hitherto never, Sir, granted an order for post-chaises to any person, or upon any occasion, but in affairs that relate to your administration. I find myself, however, at present under a sort of necessity of breaking through this fixed rule. My wife having received an account of her grandfather’s death, and being desirous to wait upon her aunt with all possible expedition, I thought it would be unkind to deny her the use of this privilege.”[viii]
So, what if you weren’t a high Roman official sending taxes or news of military movements to the capital? What if you just wanted to send a letter to your cousin in Greece to ask how he’s been? The cursus publicus was for government use only, and there was no postal system in place for private citizens in the Roman Empire. For private citizens, getting messages to each other was not as simple and reliable as handing a letter to a government courier.
For rich Romans, as with almost everything in life, sending and receiving mail was relatively easy. Most rich families had slaves, known as “tablet men”, whose only job was to serve as couriers. Often times, rich families in an area would pool their tablet men together to increase the opportunities of sending or receiving a letter, effectively establishing their own private post offices.
Even with private couriers, the mail was still not perfect. There were often not enough couriers to handle every correspondence so delays were fairly common, as Cicero complains in a letter to his brother, “For many days I have had a letter on my hands waiting for a courier”.[ix] If all else failed, and a Roman was rich or important enough, they could often bribe a government courier to carry a letter in his pouch on the cursus publicus and guarantee its speedy delivery.
Most Romans could not afford their own slave post office or a bribe, so sending letters was not quite so easy. For the most part, getting a letter to someone in another part of the empire involved finding a traveler who happened to be heading that way. In a letter to his secretary Cicero encourages her to, “Have Acastus [a servant] go to the water front daily because there will be lots of people to whom you can entrust letters and who will be glad to bring them to me”.[x] Travelers were apparently happy to serve as courier because as they knew, this was the only way they could get letters home themselves.
Speed of Delivery
How soon a letter got to its destination is something that varied widely for Roman Letter writers. On the reliable cursus publicus it is estimated that a courier could travel on average around fifty Roman miles a day[xi], which was extremely fast for antiquity. But again, the cursus publicus was only open for the government.
For everyone else there was nowhere near that level of reliability. Over short distances messages moved rather quickly. It was common for a letter sent by a courier to get from Rome to Naples in five days[xii]. But, over long distances, especially when crossing water was involved, delivery times fluctuated wildly. Sometimes a letter to Athens would take only three weeks to reach Rome, while other times it could take as much as seventeen weeks to cover the same distance[xiii]. There were many causes for delay, but one of the most common was simply that there were no ships heading to the letters destination. Couriers would sometimes wait weeks checking the harbors daily for the right ship.
Bekker-Nielsen, Tonnes. “Roman Roads.” The Encyclopedia of Ancient History. Oxford: 2012. Accessed April 3, 2013. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.hal.weber.edu:2200/doi/10.1002/9781444338386.wbeah18111/full
Bunson, Matthew, ed. “Cursus Publicus.” Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. New York: Facts on File Inc. 2002.
Casson, Lionel. Travel in the Ancient World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. Print.
Kolb, Anne. “The Cursus Publicus.” Ancientworlds.net. Accessed April 1, 2013. http://ancientworlds.net/aw/Places/Property/881679.
MacKay, Camilla. “Postal Services.” The Encyclopedia of Ancient History. Oxford: 2012. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.hal.weber.edu:2200/doi/10.1002/9781444338386.wbeah06255/full
Ramsay, A.M. “The Speed of the Roman Imperial Post.” The Journal of Roman Studies 15 (1925): 60-74. Accessed March 31, 2013. http://www.jstor.org/stable/295601
Remijsen, Sofie. “The Postal Service and the Hour as a Unit of Time in Antiquity.” Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 56, no. 2 (2007): 127-140. Accessed March 31, 2013. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25598384
Wettingfeld, Joan Brown. “Sophisticated Postal Service Existed in Ancient Rome.” Times Ledger (Queens, NY), July 20, 2012. Web. Accessed April 1, 2013.
[i] Bekker-Nielsen, Tonnes. “Roman Roads”
[ii] Kolb, Anne. “The Cursus Publicus.”
[iv] Ramsey, A.M. “Speed of the Roman Imperial Post”. 61
[v]MacKay, Camilla. “Postal Services.”
[vii] Kolb, Anne. “The Cursus Publicus”
[viii] Pliny letter to Trajan CXXI, Fordham Internet History Sourcebook.
[ix] Quoted in Casson, 220
[x] Ibid, 221
[xi] Ramsey, A.M. “Speed of the Roman Imperial Post”. 73
[xii] Casson, 222