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The speed of the Roman Imperial post

  • A. M. Ramsay


In attempting to estimate the rate of the Imperial Post in the first two centuries, two points must be borne in mind. The first of these is that the object chiefly aimed at was not speed, but the certainty of arrival within a reasonable and calculable time. It was as an instrument of government, and a means of centralising the administration of the Empire, that Augustus instituted the Imperial Post. This is clear enough from the whole scheme of his administrative system, and is accepted by ancient writers generally, though expressed most clearly by Procopius, in the period when the Byzantine government had demonstrated the full use which might be made of the institution. ‘The earlier Emperors, in order to obtain information as quickly as possible regarding the movements of the enemy in any quarter, sedition or unforeseen accidents in individual cities, and the actions of the governors or other persons in all parts of the Empire, and also in order that the annual tributes might be sent up without danger or delay, had established a rapid service of public couriers throughout their dominions according to the following system. As a day's journey for an active man they fixed eight ‘stages,’ or sometimes fewer, but as a general rule not less than five. In every stage there were forty horses and a number of grooms in proportion. The couriers appointed for the work, by making use of relays of excellent horses, when engaged in the duties I have mentioned, often covered in a single day, by this means, as great a distance as they would otherwise have covered in ten.’



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page 60 note 1 Procopius, Anecdota, c. 30.

page 60 note 2 See an article by the present writer, J.R.S. x (1920), 79 ff.

page 62 note 1 Suet. Augustus, c. 49. ‘Et quo celerius ac sub manum adnuntiari cognoscique posset quid in provincia quaque gereretur, iuvenes primo modicis intervallis per militares vias, dehinc vehicula disposuit. Commodius id visum est, ut qui a loco perferunt litteras, interrogari quoque, si quid res exigant, possint.’ The relief from Belgrad shown in fig. 58, was published originally by Professor Rostovtseff, in Mitteil des k. d. arch. Instituts, Röm. Abt., 1911, Bd. xxvi, 267 ff, and will appear again in his work on the social and economic history of the ancient world to be published by the Oxford Press, to whom we are indebted for the use of the block. It depicts one of these couriers travelling in his vehiculum.

page 62 note 2 De Magistratibus Flaviorum, pp. 8–9.

page 62 note 3 Westdeutsche Zeitschrift, 1887, p. 240, n. 17.

page 62 note 4 ‘Das Verkehrsleben im Alterthum,’ in Raumer's, Historisches Taschenbuch, 4te Folge, ix, p. 125, note.

page 63 note 1 Distances roughly as follows: Rome—Brundisium, 360 (Strabo vi, 3, 7); Dyrrhachium—Byzantium, 754 (Itin. pp. 318–323); Byzantium—Antioch, 747 (ibid. pp. 139–147); Rome—Milan, 420 (ibid. pp. 123, 617); Milan—Lugudunum over Graian Alps, 330 (ibid. pp. 344–6, 358); Lugundunum—Argentoratum, 315 (ibid. pp. 252, 359); Argentoratum—Colonia, 177 (ibid. pp. 354–5, 253–4); total, 1, 242. By Genava and Vesontio it would be about 1,000 miles.

page 63 note 2 Facta Memorabilia, v, 3. See below, p. 67.

page 63 note 3 Sittengesch. der röm. Kaiserzeit, 8th ed. 1910, ii, p. 22.

page 63 note 4 ibid, p. 24.

page 63 note 5 The view of Riepl, Das Nachrichtenwesen des Altertums, which was brought to my notice by Prof. Stuart Jones after this article was written, is substantially in agreement with that expressed here. He considers that there were two rates of speed in customary use: (a) the ordinary rate, at which the ordinary regular despatches passing between the Emperor and his subordinates would travel; (b) an accelerated or express speed, for which a special diploma was required, and which was reserved for despatches of high political importance.

page 63 note 6 Tac. Hist. i, 1218; 55–57.

page 64 note 1 Tac. Hist. i, 56.

page 64 note 2 ibid. i, 12.

page 64 note 3 Strabo, iv, 3, 5, p. 194.

page 64 note 4 Mogontiacum—Treveri, 88 mil. pass., C.I.L. xiii, pt. 2, p. 301; Treveri—Durocortorum, 147m.p. (Itin.) or recta regione, which the edd. think was the Roman road, 130½m.p., C.I.L. xiii, pt. 1, p. 586. Chambalu, op cit., followed by Friedlaender, makes it 251 miles.

page 64 note 5 Durocortorum—Vienna, 330 or 354 (ibid. p. 356 and note); Vienna—Mediolanum, per Alpes Graias, 308 (ibid. pp. 344–6); Mediolanum—Rome, 416 or 423 (ibid. pp. 617 and 123).

page 64 note 6 Vienna—Mediolanum per Alpes Cottias, 409 (ibid. p. 356).

page 65 note 1 Tac. Hist. i, 61 ff.

page 65 note 2 Chambalu, op. cit., p. 8, ‘Mogontiacum—Bingium m.p. 18, inde Treveros 83, inde Durocortorum 150, inde trans Viennam Mediolanum 766, inde Romam 423.’

page 65 note 3 The going was better in mid-winter than it was later when the snow was melting; cf. Ammianus, xv, 10, 4, 5, where the difficulties of the Mont Genèvre road when the troops of Constantius and Julian crossed it in 355 are described.

page 65 note 4 Tac. Hist. i, 56 and 59.

page 65 note 5 One of Vitellius's first actions was to put him to death; ibid. i, 58.

page 65 note 6 ibid. i, 12.

page 65 note 7 ibid. i, 57.

page 66 note 1 Tac. Hist. i, 50.

page 66 note 2 Sat. iv, 147–149.

page 66 note 3 Silvae, v, 1, 92.

page 66 note 4 Plut. Galba, c. 7. ἦν δὲ θέρος ἤδη καὶ βραχὺ πρὸ δείλης ἦκεν ἀπὸ Ῥώμης Ἴκελο ἀνὴρ ἀπελεύθερος ἑβδομαῖος.

page 66 note 5 Pliny, N.H. xix, 4, speaks of a four days' voyage to Hither Spain (probably Ostia-Tarraco) as extraordinarily quick.

page 66 note 6 Itin. p. 301.

page 66 note 7 Tarraco—Caesaraugusta 163 (Itin. pp. 451–2); Caesaraugusta—Clunia 169 (ibid. pp. 441–3).

page 67 note 1 On April 3; see Clinton, , Fasti Romani, i, 50.

page 67 note 2 Suet. Galba, c. 10.

page 67 note 3 Tac. Hist. i, 13.

page 67 note 4 Hist. Aug. Max. ii, c. 25.

page 67 note 5 op. cit. ii, p. 24.

page 67 note 6 Suet. Julius, c. 57; Plut. Julius, c. 17.

page 67 note 7 Pliny, N.H. vii, 84, says he drove (longissimum iter vehiculis emensum), but this seems improbable.

page 67 note 8 Statius, , Silvae, iv, 3, 111 ff.

page 67 note 9 Cato Mai. c. 35.

page 68 note 1 Livy, xxxvi, 21.

page 68 note 2 Aem. Paul. c. 35.

page 68 note 3 Henderson, , Civil War and Rebellion in the Roman Empire, pp. 224–5.

page 68 note 4 op. cit. ii. p. 19.

page 68 note 5 See Ramsay, , ‘Roads and Travel in the New Testament.’ in Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible, iv, 386. He considers on various grounds that the ‘stage’ was 8⅓ miles, the rate of an ordinary traveller on foot about 17 Roman miles per day, when driving about 25, and the rate of the couriers normally 50.

page 69 note 1 Griechische Ostraka, i, 799 ff.

page 69 note 2 O.G.I. 669.

page 69 note 3 This was the case from Nov. 10 to March 10. From March 11 to May 26, and again from Sept. 15 to Nov. 9, navigation was possible but ‘incerta et discrimim propior’; ‘secura navigatio’ was only between May 25 and Sept. 14. See Vegetius, , De re militari, iv, 39.

page 69 note 4 This holds good as a general rule, although exceptions are found. Philo made the voyage from Alexandria to Italy in mid-winter; Leg. 29, 190 M, 573, χειμῶνος μέσου διελεύσαμεν the numerous voluntary messengers who carried to Vespasian news of the death of Vitellius, 21 Dec., 69, apparently went by sea from Italy to Egypt, Tac. Hist. iv, 51, ‘Vespasiano … cecidisse Vitellium multi cuiusque ordinis, pari audacia fortunaque hibernum mare adgressi, nuntiavere.’ The hope of a substantial reward for the first bearers of such news would of cours be a powerful incentive to undertake the risks of the sea voyage at that time of year. For other instances see Riepl, op, cit. p. 225.

page 69 note 5 Contrast this fact with Chambalu's estimate, op. cit. p. 9, that couriers could go by land from Rome to Alexandria in 22 to 23 days.

page 70 note 1 Distances roughly as follows: Rome—Dyrrhachium, 360 miles and 2 days Dyrrhachium—Lampsacus, 630 miles and 2 hours (Itin. pp. 318–322, 333); Lampsacus—Antioch by Philadelphia, 940 (ibid, pp. 334–66); Antioch—Caesarea, 365 (ibid. pp. 147–150); Caesarea—Alexandria, 435 (ibid. pp. 150–154); total, 2730 miles and 2 days.

page 70 note 2 Rome—Aquileia, 511 (Itin. pp. 126, 281); Aquileia—Sirmium, 400 (ibid. p. 124); Sirmium—Byzantium, 717 (ibid. pp. 131–135); Byzantium—Antioch, 747 (ibid. pp. 139–147); Antioch—Alexandria, 802 (ibid. p. 124); total, 3, 177 miles.

page 70 note 3 Bell. Jud. ii, 10, 5.

page 71 note 1 As Prof. Stuart Jones points out to me. Cf. Drumann-Groebe, v, pp. 14 ff.

page 71 note 2 Cf. Horace, Carm. iii, 7.

page 71 note 3 Tac. Ann. ii, 6467 (A.D. 19); in, 38 (A.D. 20); iv, 46–51 (A D. 26).

page 71 note 4 See Marquardt, , Organisation de l' empire romain, vol. ii, p. 199, and Liebenam, , Die Legaten in den röm. Provinzen, p. 389.

page 72 note 1 Cf. Pliny, Epp. x, 77, and Hardy's note.

page 72 note 2 Orelli, Inscr. Lat. Sel. no. 643 = Dessau 140.

page 72 note 3 Laodicea—Lampsacus, 353 (Itin. pp. 334–7); Lampsacus—Rome, see above, p. 63, n. 1. To go by sea from Neapolis to Troas, instead of by Lampsacus, would shorten the journey in miles but not in time.

page 72 note 4 Orat., ed. Dindorf, i, p. 481.

page 73 note 1 Pro Rosc. Amer. vii, 19. ‘Decem horis nocturnis sex et quinquaginta milia passuum cisiis pervolavit. non modo ut exoptatum inimico nuntium primus adferret, sed etiam cruorem inimici quam recentissimum … ostenderet.’ Cicero's point is that the journey was made with the utmost speed. Moreover it was made (unless Cicero is speaking inaccurately) in a two-wheeled carriage, which could go a good deal faster than the four-wheeled one used by the couriers, depicted in the three representations we possess—one from Vaison in Avignon (Espérandieu, Recueil, i, no. 293), a second from Langres (ibid. iv, 3245) and the third in Belgrad (see above, p. 61, fig. 58). In the Vaison and Langres reliefs the carriages are clearly four-wheeled; in that from Belgrad the carriage looks at first glance as if it had two wheels only, but Rostovtseff. op. cit., regards it as four-wheeled.

page 74 note 1 Cf. e.g. Cic., ad Fam. ii. 14, ‘iam diu propter hiemis magnitudinem nihil novi ad nos adferebatur.’

page 74 note 2 In 171 B.C. Livy, xliii. 1.

The speed of the Roman Imperial post

  • A. M. Ramsay


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