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Postal Service, History of

Paul Arblaster

Subject History
Communication and Media Studies » Communication Studies
Media System » Media History

DOI: 10.1111/b.9781405131995.2008.x


The use of couriers to bear written messages is presumably as old as the art of writing itself. The entrusting of messages to those traveling on other business (trade, pilgrimage, etc.) is attested from ancient times. States in many parts of the world and in many periods have instituted some sort of cadre of official messengers, sometimes maintaining an infrastructure of roads, inns, and relays to provide for the needs of those traveling on official business. Ancient Persia, Egypt, China, and the Roman Empire all had sophisticated communications infrastructures of this nature. The oldest descriptions of such a postal service in operation come from ancient Greek commentators on Persian affairs. The official transport system of the Roman Empire, the cursus publicus , was a relatively late development but in many ways typical of these ancient postal systems. It relied on a network of well-maintained roads and bridges, and a system of inns and relay stables, to facilitate the movement of imperial messengers and officials. The use of the posts as an instrument of state intelligence meant that there was little distinction between couriers, scouts, spies, and the secret police. The supplies, beasts of burden, and ancillary staff that relay stations required were exacted from local communities, which in return enjoyed exemptions from certain other taxes. Private messages and travelers ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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