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500BC - Roman Postal System

Circus Publicus

Throughout it's extensive network a relay service was maintained with horses and carriages stationed along the roads.

Couriers travelled about 50 miles a day, and much faster in an emergency. Only the emperor, his officials and friends could use this postal service. The penalty for anyone else caught using the system was death. Private letters were usually carried by servants or traders.

The idea of relays appears to have originated in the Persian Empire in the 6th Century BC, though it may have been copied from the Assyrians.

Parts of the well organised Persian systems outlived the Persian Empire and continued to operate in Egypt, where it was seen and copied by Augustus, the first Emperor of Rome (30 BC- 14 AD). The carving shown here is of a light two wheeled chariot used in the reign of the Emperor Augustus 30 BC – 14 AD

Communication was so important to the Romans, that wealthy young romans were taught reading and writing skills.

Towards the end of the 1st century AD a famous Roman writer called Pliny was one of the Emperor Trajan's officers who issued the valuable permits which allowed people to use the Imperial post. Some of the letters which he sent to the Emperor and which the Emperor wrote back to him have survived.


The large empire of the ancient world depended on organised permanent, far reaching posts to circulate laws and gather intelligence. Classical Greece on the other hand could conduct much of its government by word of mouth because it consisted of small fairly self contained city states. Highly trained corps of messengers were maintained to carry urgent official mail.

Roman letters relating to the Roman postal service

Pliny to the Emperor Trajan,

I beg, my Lord that you write and free me from the worry about how to deal with permits to use the imperial post when they have expired. Do you wish me to allow their holders to carry on using the post and if so, for how long? I am worried that I might make a mistake through ignorance, either I might allow people to use illegal post permits or I might stop people using legal post permits.

The Emperor replied:

The Emperor Trajan to Pliny,

Postal permits that have expired must not be used. So I make it a special rule to make sure that I send out new permits to those who need them all over the Empire in good time.

In this letter Pliny has to confess to the Emperor that he has done something illegal, he has to grovel rather a lot!

Pliny to the Emperor Trajan,

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 and when someone has died you need to travel by the quickest way and I knew that you would approve of someone going to visit their old aunt at a time like this. I am writing to tell you this because it would seem ungrateful that after all the other benefits I have received through working for you, the Emperor, I have also received this favour, because I relied on your kindness and acted as though I had already received the favour 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.

A Roman soldier's brother sent this letter. It was written in the mid-second century AD at the site of a fort where soldiers were guarding a gold mine near the Red Sea.

Rustius Barbarus to his brother Pompeius, greetings!

How come you haven't answered my last letter if you received the loaves of bread I sent you? First I sent you 15 loaves with Popillius and Dutoporis, then I sent you another 15 as well as a vase with the carter Draco. Do you realise how much wheat that used up! I even sent another 6 loaves with the cavalryman Thiadices, who said he could deliver them to you himself. Please have me some decorated knives made by the fort blacksmith, for my personal use and make them as beautiful as possible. Write to me so that I can send you some more bread in payment or even some money, whichever you wish. I want you to know that I am getting married. Once I am married I will let you know so that you can come and visit us.


Regards to Julius.

(Roman letters adapted from: "Roman Civilisation, source book II: the empire" eds. N Lewis and M. Reinhold, pub. Harper Torchbooks 1966)