Life is an (Ancient) Highway

By: The Scribe on Monday, June 17, 2013

The next time you’re stuck in gridlock on the highway, spending hours in traffic to get to your destination, remember… the ancient Persians had it better than you. Despite the enormity of the Persian Empire in 5th-century BC, the Persian Royal Road was built for speed and efficiency. And it actually worked!

The Persian Royal Road was a reconstruction and rebuilding of an existing ancient highway by Darius I (also known as “Darius the Great”), king of the Achaemenid Empire from 522 BC to 486 BC. The intent behind constructing the road was so that rapid communication between corners of the vast empire—from Susa to Sardis—could be facilitated as effectively as possible.

top road is Persian highway

Moving along the road, couriers on horseback were able to travel 2699 kilometers in just seven days (1677 miles)! Even the famous Greek historian Herodotus was impressed by this feat, writing that “there is nothing in the world that travels faster than these Persian couriers.”

Through archaeological research, historical records, and Herodotus’ writings, most of the ancient highway’s route has been reconstructed, and it’s thought that there would have been many outposts—also known as caravanserai—along the route, where travelers could rest and refresh during their journey.

And the couriers definitely needed places to rest, because the road didn’t always follow the easiest route between cities! Rather, there were sections of road that Darius I reconstructed which likely had been built by Assyrian kings, since it heads through the heart of their empire—and like today’s road construction projects, it’s often easier to just fix a road than try to build a brand new one.

darius_the_greatThat said, Darius I’s reconstruction efforts were so good that the road continued to be in use until the Roman period, whereupon the Romans made some improvements of their own. The Romans used improved paving technology—ie. a hard-packed gravel surface held within stone cubing—and new posting stations to ensure travelers had access to fresh horses, particularly when messengers had to travel with an urgent message from one side of the empire to the other.

The most famous feature about the Persian Royal Road actually comes from Herodotus’ writings… a quotation about the Persian messengers and their travel speed along the reconstructed highway:


“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

And you thought he was talking about your mailman! Come on… 2699 kilometers in seven days? Next time your mail arrives late, tell that mailman he has no excuse!


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