The King's Messengers

Here's an excerpt from Herodotus, Book 8, section 98. Xerxes, the Great King of Persia has just been beaten at the Battle of Salamis and wants to call home...

"...Xerxes dispatched a courier to Persia with the news of his defeat. No mortal thing travels faster than these Persian couriers. The whole idea is a Persian invention, and works like this: riders are stationed along the road, equal in number to the number of days the journey takes - a man and a horse for each day. Nothing stops these couriers from covering their allotted stage in the quickest possible time - neither snow, rain, heat, nor darkness. The first, at the end of his stage, passes his dispatch to the second, the second to the third, and so on down the line, as in the Greek torch race which is held in honour of Hephaestus. The Persian word for this form of post is aggareion."

Which today we would translate as the King's Messengers. The Great Kings used this system to manage their empire, the largest the world had yet seen. A road system maintained at state expense ensured the couriers could get from one end of the empire to the other very quickly, the most famous route being the Royal Road, which stretched from the capital Susa, in what is now Iran, to Ephesus on the west coast of what is now Turkey. (Actually the Royal Road stopped at Sardis, but Ephesus was only a short extra hop).

If you think of the road system as the backbone, the King's Messengers as the network transport layer, the dispatches as data packets, and the staging posts as routers, then the Persian system is like a very early, very manual version of the internet.

US readers might have noticed something familiar in the quote from Herodotus. The unofficial motto of the US Postal Service is Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds. Compare it to: Nothing stops these couriers from covering their allotted stage in the quickest possible time - neither snow, rain, heat, nor darkness.

That's right. The US postal creed comes direct from this verse of Herodotus.


MattDel said...

It escapes me now, but I remember something from my Ancient History studies about a series of beacons that could speed news across Africa (I think) in a manner of days.

The ways ancient peoples came up with to get news to the people who needed it were varied and interesting.

It doesn't surprise me that the unofficial US Postal Service motto is from Herodotus. Much of western civilization can be traced to the Greeks or Romans to some extent, and in fact I'd be surprised if some government org DIDN'T have something like that.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Matt. Welcome back! So I have to ask, how's married life?

For your series of beacons, you're not thinking of Lord of the Rings, by any chance?

MattDel said...

No, it actually was real. The Greeks had a semaphore system with limited range, and the Romans themselves developed a series of fire signals that could be visible up to six miles away, based on some quick research (I love Google Books).

The Fatimid caliphs managed to do the North Africa string of signal towers in the 10th Century AD -- 2,200 miles of towers stretching from end to end of the continent.

So :-P

Oh, and married life is interesting. Still getting used to having my wife here every day (we didn't live together before the wedding).

MattDel said...

Addendum to above: Kidding with the tongue-sticking out face, of course.

Hadrian's Wall had Roman signal towers every mile along its length, btw. So I'm almost certain Tolkien, with his knowledge of the myths of the Isles, knew about this system and patterned Gondor's beacons after it. That theory could be wrong of course.

Mimzy said...

No, I would assume that you're right Matt. A lot of Tolkien's ideas came from history and mythology which he mined deeply to find some interesting stuff.

I'd also heard that the Celts had the flare system too. Also, the Chinese if Disney's Mulan is to be believed. Ooh! Don't forget the Native Americans with their smoke signals!

Gary Corby said...

I agree with Mimzy, Matt, I'm sure you got it right about Tolkien. Clearly you know more about signal systems than I do! Let me know if you ever want to write a guest post. (Seriously! That goes for all the regular readers.)

I know the tongue poke's a joke of course. But you know, after the book appears there are going to be people who will be more than happy to point out my every mistake, and I'm looking forward to it in a masochistic sort of way. So if a blog friend increases the local knowledge quotient then it's nothing but goodness and I may as well get some practise in coping with corrections before an outraged reader calls to tell me I put the Agora in the wrong place.

I know what you mean about things feeling different after marriage. Do remember about the toilet seat!

I put on almost 15 kilos in our first year because my wife's an excellent cook, and suddenly I was eating her yummy food every day. It took ages to get back to good weight and introduce some self-control.

RWMG said...

CLYTAEMNESTRA Hephaestos, god of fire, sent his bright blaze speeding here from Ida, his messenger, flames racing from one beacon to the next— from Ida to Hermes' rock in Lemnos. From that island the great flames sped to the third fire, on the crest of Athos, sacred to Zeus, and then, arcing high, the beacon light sprang across the sea, exulting in its golden fiery power, rushing on, like another sun, passing the message to the look-out towers at Macistus. The man there was not sleeping, [290] like some fool. Without a moment's pause, he relayed the message, so the blazing news sped on, leaping across Euripus' stream, to pass the signal to the next watchmen, at Messapion. Those men, in their turn, torched a pile of dried-out heather, firing the message onward. The flaming light was not diminished—its strength kept growing. Like a glowing moon, it jumped across the plain of Asopus, up to the ridges on mount Cithaeron, where it set alight the next stage of the relay race of fire. Those watching there did not neglect their work— that light which came to them from far away [300] they passed on with an even greater blaze, which dashed across the shores of Gorgopus, to reach mount Aegiplanctus, with orders for those there to keep the beacon moving. They lit a fire, a huge flaming pillar, with unchecked force, speeding the message on— its light visible even at the headland by the Saronic Gulf. It swooped down, once it reached the crest of Arachnaeus, that look-out near our city—and from there jumped down onto the roof of Atreus' sons, [310] flames directly linked to blazing Troy. I organized these messengers of fire, setting them up in sequence, one by one. In that race the first and last both triumph, the ones who sent the message and received it. That's the evidence I set before you, a message from my husband, dispatched all the way from burning Troy to me.

Aeschylus: Agamemnon translated by Ian Johnston

Gary Corby said...

OMG Robert, you're a genius. I had no idea that passage was there. Now I have something else to toss into the stories, somehow, somewhere. Have I mentioned you're a genius?

This, my friends, is why writers should have a blog: so other people can contribute their own surprises.

Gary Corby said...

Matt, you were dead right on the Greek signal system. I should never have doubted you.