Dedicated to the military history and civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (330 to 1453)

"Time in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things and drowns them in the depths of obscurity."

- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Monday, July 9, 2018

Military and Government Couriers in the Roman Empire

Roman wagon that could have been part of the
state-run courier and transportation service.

The Cursus Publicus
The challenge of sending and receiving
information in the Roman Empire

The cursus publicus (Latin: "the public way") was the state-run courier and transportation service of the Roman Empire, later inherited by the Byzantine Empire

For an Empire that spread over Africa, the Middle East and Europe it was vital for both Rome and Constantinople to get news of enemy attacks as rapidly as possible so troops could respond.

The Emperor Augustus created it to transport messages, officials, and tax revenues between the provinces and Italy. The service was still fully functioning in the first half of the sixth century in the Byzantine Empire, when the historian Procopius accuses Emperor Justinian of dismantling most of its sections, except for the route leading to the Persian border. 

The extent of the cursus publicus is shown in the Tabula Peutingeriana, a map of the Roman road network dating from around AD 400.

A series of forts and stations was spread out along the major road systems connecting the regions of the Roman world. The relay points (stationes) provided horses to dispatch riders and (usually) soldiers as well as vehicles for magistrates or officers of the court. The vehicles were called clabulae, but little is known of them. 

Union Army Mail Wagon
No doubt the Roman system was not too different than those that came later.

Cursus Publicus
Rome used wagons as well as horsemen to deliver information and some packages to the Legions and local governments.

diploma, or certificate, issued by the emperor himself was necessary to use the services supplied by the cursus publicus. Abuses of the system existed, for governors and minor appointees used the diplomata to give themselves and their families free transport. Forgeries and stolen diplomata were also used. Pliny the Elder and Trajan write about the necessity of those who wish to send things via the imperial post to keep up-to-date licences.

There is evidence that inspectors oversaw the functioning of the system in the provinces, and it may be conjectured that they reported to the 'Praefectus' in Rome. However, the office does not seem to have been considered a full-time position.

As Altay Coskun notes in a review of Anne Kolb's work done in German, the system "simply provided an infrastructure for magistrates and messengers who traveled through the empire. It consisted of thousands of stations placed along the main roads; these had to supply fresh horses, mules, donkeys, and oxen, as well as carts, food, fodder, and accommodation." 

Thus, there was no “department of postal service” with employees paid by the emperor. The one who was sending a missive would have to supply the courier, and the stations had to be supplied out of the resources of the local areas through which the roads passed.

Following the reforms of Diocletian and Constantine I, the service was divided in two sections: the fast and the regular. The fast section provided horses, divided into veredi ("saddle-horses") and parhippi ("pack-horses", and mules, and the slow section provided only oxen. The existence of the 'cursus clabularis' service shows that it was used to move heavy goods as well as to facilitate the travel of high officials and the carriage of government messages.

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, 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. 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. 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.

Frank E. Webner, pony express rider, ca. 1861.  (Department of Commerce)

Persian Influence

The Romans adapted their state post from the ancient Persian network of the royal mounted couriers, the angarium. As Herodotus reports, the Persians had a remarkably efficient means of transmitting messages important to the functioning of the kingdom, called the Royal Road
The riders would be stationed at a day's ride along the road, and the letters would be handed from one courier to another as they made a journey of a day’s length, which allowed messages to travel fast. Augustus, at first, followed the Persian method of having mail handed from one courier to the next, but he soon switched to a system by which one man made the entire journey with the parcel. 
Although it is possible that a courier service existed for a time under the Roman Republic, the clearest reference by Suetonius suggests that Augustus created the system:

To enable what was going on in each of the provinces to be reported and known more speedily and promptly, he at first stationed young men at short intervals along the military roads, and afterwards post-chaises. The latter has seemed the more convenient arrangement, since the same men who bring the dispatches from any place can, if occasion demands, be questioned as well.

Tacitus says that couriers from Judea and Syria brought news to Vitellius that the legions of the East had sworn allegiance to him, and this also shows that the relay system was displaced by a system in which the original messenger made the entire journey. Augustus modified the Persian system, as Suetonius notes, because a courier who travels the whole distance could be interrogated by the emperor, upon arrival, to receive additional information orally.
The cursus operated in Italy and the more advanced provinces. There was only one in Egypt and one in Asia Minor, as Pliny's letters to Trajan attest. It was common for a village to exist every 12 miles (19 km) or so, and there a courier might rest at large, privately owned mansiones

Operated by a manceps, or a business man, the mansiones provided food and lodging, and care and a blacksmith for the horses. The cursus also used communities located along the imperial highways. These towns very often provided food and horses to messengers of the Legions, theoretically receiving reimbursement, and were responsible for the care of their section of the Roman roads.

Roman road of Tall Aqibrin in Syria

The Eastern Empire

The Imperial Post gave the legions the capacity to summon reinforcements and provide status reports before any situation deteriorated too badly. The average citizen sent letters and messages to friends across the sea with slaves and travelling associates. Most news reached its destination eventually.

The highest-ranking generals and frontier generals were issued passes, especially those at danger points like Mesopotamia.

Notwithstanding its enormous costs, in the Eastern Roman Empire the service was still fully functioning in the first half of the sixth century, when the historian Procopius charges Emperor Justinian with the dismantlement of most of its sections, with the exception of the route leading to the Persian border.
Procopius provides one of the few direct descriptions of the Roman post that allows an estimation the average rate of travel overland. In the 6th century, he described earlier times:
If the distance between stages was known, the distance five stages or eight stages and the average rate at which correspondence moved along the cursus publicus would both be known.
The dromos continued to exist throughout the Byzantine period, supervised for much of it by the logothetēs tou dromou, although this post is not attested before the mid-eighth century and a revival of the service may then have occurred after a substantial gap. It was by then a much reduced service.
Being able to pay for the system was the major problem.

The Eastern Empire was under endless military attack from just about every direction possible. Tax paying provinces were lost to enemies or were burned over by invading armies cutting tax income.

Supporting the troops on the front lines had first call on treasury funds. A standing courier service became more and more a luxury item.

So the cursus publicus faded as a full time organized unit within government. What took its place would have been ad hoc couriers chosen by Constantinople or local provincial governors to pass on military and administrative news.

The system of major and minor Roman Roads allowed both information and troops to move rapidly around the the Empire.

A portion of the well-preserved Roman Road that
leads, 31 mi., from Troas to Assos in Anatolia.

(www.scribd.com)      (Master of offices)      (Egypt in the Byzantine world)

(Cursus publicus)      (Roman Syria)      (Roman roads)      (Imperial Rome)