Ancient Pony Express

Some four thousand years ago, Middle Eastern monarchs established the first postal systems, which were designed to transport official government communications. Herodotus famously praised the ambitious 1,600-mile-long system of the Persian emperor Darius I (r. 522-486 BCE), which used “post riders,” or mounted couriers, to carry communiques etched on clay tablets: “It is said that as many days as there are in the whole journey, so many are the men and horses that stand along the road, each horse and man at the interval of a day’s journey; and these are stayed neither by snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness from accomplishing their appointed course with all speed [italics added].” Centuries later, the network established by the Roman emperor Augustus (27 BCE-14 CE) was similarly reserved for officials, who often traveled in carts along with the mail on the post roads that also helped to spread imperial hegemony and civilization. Indeed, Rome’s post was called the cursus publicus, or “public road.”