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The First Ever Cross-Country Express Courier

Updated: Oct 18, 2023

There is a famous creed shared amongst postal services and couriers alike that states that snow, heat, rain or the pitch-black darkness of night will not stop couriers from delivering their goods as briskly as they are able.

It is most famously used as the informal creed of the United States Postal Service but originated from the Histories of Herodotus circa 5th century BC to describe the Angarium, one of the first express courier systems ever implemented in the world.

Up until the likes of the Pony Express, it was also by some considerable margin the fastest, carrying letters, messages and small packages from western Iran to western Turkey in just nine days at a time when the journey took three months on foot.

The Royal Road

Key to the effectiveness of the Angarium was the Royal Road of Persia, which ran from Susa, the capital of the Achaemenid Persian Empire to Sardis near the Aegean Sea part of the Mediterranean.

Early parts of the road were believed to have been constructed by the kings of Assyria, which in part explains why the western part of the road does not follow the easiest route between the Persian Empire’s major cities.

Other parts of it coincide with what would become the Silk Road, but it would not be until the reign of Darius I that improvements to the road were made that would enable the creation of an express relay post system.

Similar to what would later be accomplished by the Pony Express in the United States, riders would travel between 111 posting stations known as “pirradazis”, each of which would allow riders to swap their horses and travel much greater distances at full speed than would otherwise be plausible if horse and rider needed to rest.

Larger roadside inns known as “caravanserai” were also established along the Royal Road, becoming useful not only for the pirradazis but the slower caravans of merchants and travellers across the Persian Empire.

The relay system, however, allowed them to traverse over 1,500 significantly quicker than the caravans would. Whilst it would take roughly 90 days on foot, the Angarium took just nine days.

However, much like the Pony Express, the expense of the service and having to supply over a hundred relay stations with food, horses and supplies meant that the Angarium was only used by the office of King Darius the Great.

The road was of such excellent construction at the time that it continued to be used for centuries afterwards.

Ironically, this service and the road built on top of it would lead to the downfall of the Persian Empire, as it was used by Alexander The Great over a century after its construction to quickly travel across the Persian Empire and conquer it, making it part of the Macedonian Empire.

It was later improved when the Romans conquered Macedonia and upgraded the roadbed with gravel and stone curbing, but the Royal Road continued to be used largely as Darius the Great had constructed it.

The Angarium, unfortunately, did not survive the shifts of power, and it would take centuries for such an express courier system to develop again, and another century after that before it developed into a form of logistics we recognise today.

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