09 January 2013

Posting the empire as the royal word

I was recently reminded of my 2007 visit to the United States National Postal Museum in Washington DC, when I borrowed a book from the library on the history of the US Postal Service. As it happens, the book turned out to be rather dry and institutional (who would've thought it?). But it did have the endearing feature of being a book about an American institution that commenced formally with the Continental Congress' appointment of Benjamin Franklin as the first Postmaster General in July 1775 (i.e. even before the Declaration of Independence), that starts off with an erudite 40-odd page introduction to the postal services of the Old World, kicking off with a section on mail services in ancient Mesopotamia, Assyria and Persia. I could picture US college students in the 1970s wading through the ancient history in the hope of finding American postal anecdotes for their civics classes. Personally, I enjoy a diversion into classics territory. From the book, here's an account of the postal service of the Persian empire of the 5th century BC, quoted from Herodotus' Histories:

Herodotus, in telling of how Xerxes (486-464 BC) used the posts in sending news of his defeat at Salamis (480 BC), described the Persian system in considerable detail: 
Nothing mortal travels so fast as these Persian messengers. The entire plan is a Persian invention; and this is the method of it. Along the whole line of road there are men (they say) stationed with horse, in number equal to the number of days which the journey takes, allowing a man and horse to each day; and these men will not be hindered from accomplishing at their best speed the distance which they have to go, either by snow, or rain, or heat, or by darkness of night. The first rider delivers his dispatch to the second, and the second passes it to the third; and so it is borne from hand to hand along the whole line, like the light in the torch-race, which the Greeks celebrate to Hephaestus. The Persians give the riding post in this manner, the name of angareion
- Carl H. Scheele, A Short History of the Mail Service, Smithsonian Institution, 1970, p.9-10.  
The success of the Persian messenger network also spurred the technological development of superior writing materials and more flexible alphabets. These in turn advanced the cause of literacy, albeit only for the privileged few who were entitled to use the service:

...a postal system that used clay tablets to carry information was a medium with a very limited rate and speed of transmission. The angareion of the Achamenidian Empire, which according to Xenophon was founded by Cyrus in the 6th century BC (the first known postal relay system), thus probably contributed to the shift from cuneiform to Aramaic in the writing of Persian by scribes under Darius, a transition that allowed the introduction of light papyrus or parchment. This light and easy possibility of letter writing served exclusively as a medium of control and command between the king and his satraps. Control had to be exercised not only over the peoples who had been subjugated by the Persians and were prone to rebellion, but over the satraps themselves, as well. The angareion posted the empire as the royal word, which transcended the regional living space of ethnic groups. 
- Bernard Siegert, Relays: Literature as an Epoch of the Postal System, Stanford University Press, 1999. 
Papyrus or parchment messages were certainly more convenient than clay tablets, but naturally clay stands a greater chance of surviving the centuries. The British Museum has an excellent example of a Persian message in its collections - the famous Cyrus Cylinder, which records Cyrus' conquest of Babylon in 539 BC and the capturing of the last Babylonian king, Nabonidus. The cylinder is 22.5cm long, and contains the wonderfully boastful announcement of Cyrus' view of his own place in the great scheme of things:

I am Cyrus, king of the universe, the great king, the powerful king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters of the world, son of Cambyses, the great king, king of the city of Anshan, grandson of Cyrus, the great king, ki[ng of the ci]ty of Anshan, descendant of Teispes, the great king, king of Anshan, the perpetual seed of kingship, whose reign Bel and Nabu love, and with whose kingship, to their joy, they concern themselves. 
- Cyrus of Persia, c. 539-530 BC, as translated by Piotr Michalowski, 2006
Not a bad way to introduce yourself the next time you're writing a letter.

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