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Cursus Publĭcus

The postal-service of the Roman Empire.

Persia under Darius, son of Hystaspes, affords the earliest instance of a national postal-service. Mention is indeed made (Liberat. Brev. 23) of a class called symmaci as existing in the most ancient times among the Egyptians for the conveyance of letters by land, but we have no grounds for thinking that a postal-system was established in Egypt as a branch of the administration. In the Persian dominions, however, as we learn from Herodotus (iii. 28; vi. 105; viii. 98), horsemen, stationed at intervals and relieving one another, conveyed the imperial will in all directions from Susa, Ecbatana, or Babylon. The service was called ἀγγαρήϊον, and the couriers, ἄγγαροι. Messages of lesser urgency were carried by ἡμεροδρόμοι. In Greece there are no evidences of any such service, at least upon a similar scale, for the hemerodromi mentioned by Corn. Nepos ( Milt. iv. 3) can scarcely have been a permanent institution. This was probably due to the geographical smallness of Greece; still more, however, to the utter absence of political unity among the Greeks, and the want of facilities for land traffic, in contrast with the easy communications by sea. But the vast extent of the Roman dominions, and the centralization of imperial functions in a single hand, again furnished the conditions of a postal-service, which accordingly arose and became a most important instrument of State administration. The practical wisdom of the Romans had from the beginning of their conquests taught them to make roads throughout the territories which they subdued, whence resulted a system of highways connecting the remotest parts of the Empire with Rome. These not only facilitated the marching of troops, but served the general purposes of transport and the conveyance of intelligence, forming, as they did, the material condicio sine qua non of the future cursus publicus. Within the last century of the Republic, also, certain practices had already been established, by which the development of the postal-service was largely conditioned. We now proceed to give some account of these.

Under the Republic, after the conquest of Italy, government officials despatched from Rome on public business were empowered to impose arbitrary requisitions on the subject Italians (dediticii) to supply them with necessaries for travelling. Among the Italian allies such functionaries usually obtained food, lodging, and means of transport from their guest-friends or from the principal personages in the friendly States which they visited. But when the Roman dominions included extra-Italian provinces, the fine distinction made in Italy between subjects and allies (socii) was in the provinces neglected, and the provincial allies were as summarily requisitioned by a legatus as were the provincial subjects. Senators or citizens employed on a public mission abroad received from the Senate a mandate (diploma) requiring subjects and allies alike to supply them with means of transport and other necessaries at all the successive stages of their journey. This in the natural course of things led to grave hardships, and complaints frequently arose. Restrictive enactments became necessary; and we read that Cato the Elder, when praetor in Sardinia, diminished or removed the expenses entailed upon the people of that island by the entertainment of the praetors officiating among them (Liv.xxxii. 27). It is doubtful, however, whether Cato issued a formal edict, or whether his good example alone operated towards the relief of the sufferers.

Among the various embassies which thus became grounds of hardship to the provincials there was one which deserves especial notice. This was called libera legatio, being a sort of mission from which all State employment was absent, granted as a favour sometimes to distinguished men, lasting for several years, and carrying with it all the previously mentioned liabilities on the part of the provincials. The libera legatio, owing to the indefiniteness of the privileges it conveyed, became a fearful cause of oppression. A law was carried in B.C. 63 by Cicero (De Leg. iii. 8, 18) restricting abuses of the libera legatio and limiting its duration to one year; but the reform thus effected was short-lived, for Iulius Caesar (Ad Att. xv. 11) again extended the term of a libera legatio to a possible five years.

During the last period of the Republic the Senate had frequent occasions for communicating in despatches with their generals or provincial governors, as well as with allied kings and States. For the conveyance of such despatches the authorities employed freedmen, slaves, or a certain class of couriers called stratores (sternere, “to saddle”). A class of messengers also existed called tabellarii. For pressing messages a general usually employed mounted men detached from his own staff. The publicani, as especially interested in transmitting and receiving intelligence to and from Rome, had a special class of tabellarii, whose services, however, were often borrowed by the magistrates, or by the negotiatores, speculators in corn or money, who were in constant relations with the provincial governors and with the publicani. The ships of the allies also were employed for the use of magistrates engaged abroad on public business. Thus for the purposes of transport and the conveyance of intelligence the dealings of the home government with the provincials were regulated mainly by the principle that the incidental labour and expenses should be borne as far as possible by the latter, while the interests to be served were those of the government alone.

It only remained for the Empire to organize and develop the system which had been established under the republican régime. The immense advantages of such an organization as a portion of the imperial administration were sufficiently obvious. Augustus accordingly appointed mounted couriers (stratores or speculatores) to be employed along the principal roads (Suet. Aug. 49). This implies the institution of stations (mutationes), at which they should relieve one another. But as this arrangement provided only for the conveyance of intelligence, it required to be supplemented by a transport system for the conveyance of money or other valuables of considerable weight. The necessity of constructing postal-stations ensued. The stations were called mansiones, which, being intended for lodgings, as their name indicates, were furnished not only with a supply for the immediate wants of man and beast, but also with the accommodation suitable for travellers. The mansiones were not so numerous along a road as the mutationes, or changing-stages. In accordance with republican precedent the expenses of the transport and postal system generally continued to fall upon the communities through whose territories the lines of stations lay. They accordingly had to provide conductors, guards, drivers, together with beasts of burden and rolling-stock, on receipt of the emperor's order (diploma), or that of the head of the postal system (a functionary designated in Trajan's time as ab vehiculis), who was generally a freedman of the emperor. Such warrants for the use of the post were issued occasionally by the consul, by the praefect of the praetorians, or by the governor of a province, but in all cases only with the emperor's special authority. While the document entitling to the use of the cursus, by virtue of being stamped with the emperor's seal, was called diploma (and other names which will hereafter be referred to), the right of issuing postal-warrants was, at least until a late period, called evectio. The expenses, moreover, of constructing stations and stocking them with necessaries had to be borne by the neighbouring communities. Along the line of one day's journey there were six or eight sets of stables, each of which had to maintain a total of forty beasts, including horses, mules, asses, etc. The communities also were bound to furnish and maintain the teams and to keep the stables in repair; they had further to secure the services of muleteers (muliones), mule-doctors (mulomedici), wheelwrights (carpentarii), grooms (hippocomi), and conductors or guards (vehicularii). From these heavy burdens Nerva relieved the people of Italy, and to commemorate his act a medal was struck bearing the inscription vehiculatione Italiae remissa (where vehiculatio=cursus publicus). Trajan, however, re-authorized (Plin. Ep. x. 121) the issue of postal-warrants in Italy, but restricted them to cases in which he had been personally consulted. We read (Spart. Hadr. 7) that Hadrian statum cursum fiscalem instituit, ne magistratus hoc onere gravarentur. According to Hirschfeld, in his note to these words, cursus fiscalis is in Spartianus equivalent to cursus vehicularius, and the emphasis lies upon the word statum. According to his view, therefore, the meaning of the whole sentence is that Hadrian made the postal-service throughout the Empire a department of the State administration, and appointed fixed stations, superintended by government officials, in order to relieve the municipal magistrates of all responsibility for them. Despite, however, these and other efforts in this direction, it was not until the time of Septimius Severus (Spart. Sever. 14) that the expenses of the post generally were made chargeable to the imperial treasury. But, even when this had been done, the subjects still continued to suffer, nor did any subsequent legislation materially alleviate the burden with which the cursus pressed upon them. Differences of opinion exist as to the exact nature of the reforms or changes attributed respectively to Nerva , Trajan, and the others above mentioned. Humbert says we must at least suppose, as Hudemann does, that Nerva entirely remitted, though only to Italy, the expenses of the service, so that the salaries of officials engaged in it, as well as the material cost, became alike chargeable to the treasury; that Trajan contented himself with merely checking the abuse of evectio; while Hadrian, besides extending the organization of the post through the whole Empire, must apparently have imposed the charges of it upon the fiscus; that Antoninus Pius again, like Trajan, making a step backwards, confined the contemplated reform to a mere restriction of expenses and of the right of issuing post-warrants; that Septimius Severus completely reorganized the vehicularium munus, and imposed the charges of it, in Italy and the rest of the Empire alike, upon the fiscus alone; but that the last and radical reform was incapable of maintaining itself, owing to the burdens it entailed upon the treasury. Diocletian, Constantine, and their successors all strove to perfect the organization of the post, and to define exactly what the liabilities of the cities in regard to it should be, together with determining the question who should have the evectio, or right of granting postal permits, and under what circumstances they might be justly granted.

In the later times of the Roman Empire the post became an ever-increasing burden to the cities; and as it injured them, in the same degree it prepared the way for its own ruin. Nevertheless a treaty ratified between Rome and Persia in A.D. 565 (Menander, Prot. p. 360, ed. Bonn) assured to the natives of the frontier provinces of the two empires the uses of the postal-service to and fro between them. See A. de Rothschild, Hist. de la Poste aux Lettres depuis ses Origines (Paris, 1873).

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