Sophisticated postal service existed in ancient Rome

By Joan Brown Wettingfeld

The Romans had a postal service in the second century that might be called “letter perfect.” Nothing, or almost nothing, could keep their postal carriers from completing their rounds.

Known for the well-engineered roads that covered the empire, it was an easy task for their horse-drawn mail carts to travel in the second century at least 50 miles a day.

Relay teams, which could travel 50 miles a day and beyond, could easily deliver messages of urgency and were able to cover 170 miles a day.

The emperor Augustus, who reigned from 27 B.C. to A.D. 14, established Rome’s first official postal service to communicate reliably as well as rapidly with the help of his numerous governors and military officials.

Augustus and his successors used the so-called “cursus publicus” (fast course) mail course, which were reserved for government officials though private letters were usually carried by merchants and/or servants.

Augustus and those who succeeded him built about 47,000 miles of roads as well as many relay stations, each usually having a station master, accountants, grooms and mail carriers.

A fast course was divided into two branches to expedite communication throughout the empire. Oxen were used to transport heavy loads. Service was often allowed to be used for personal reasons.

Pliny the Younger, who lived from 62-114, was one such person who sent an apologetic letter to the emperor Trajan.

Pliny’s apology to Trojan is as follows:

“Up to now, my Lord, I have only issued permits for people and letters to use the imperial post on your business. I have broken my own rules because of an emergency. My wife heard that her grandfather had died and was so upset that she wanted to rush off and visit her aunt, and I found it very hard to refuse to give her a permit to travel by the imperial post, as it is the quickest way …. I relied on your kindness and acted as though I had already received the favor even though I had not yet asked you for it. I did not wait until I had asked you because if I had waited, it would have been too late.”

Joan Brown Wettingfeld is a historian and freelance writer.