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Post office in ancient Rome

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Cursus publicus - post office of ancient Rome
Cursus publicus - post office of ancient Rome


The development of postal services in Rome is inextricably linked with the expansion of the Empire’s borders. The need to maintain communication between the Senate and the provincial authorities meant that in the third century BCE introduced legationes liberare for officials going to the provinces. They were authorized to seize carts, animals, use accommodation, etc. Of course, needless to say, it was very onerous for the inhabitants.

The Roman postal system (cursus publicus) was introduced by Emperor Octavian Augustus. As Lidia Winniczuk writes in “Ludzie, zwyczaje, obyczaje starożytnej Grecji i Rzymu”, the first stage of the postal organization was designating stops – stations near larger roads on more important communication routes. At these stations there was a staff composed of young and strong slaves, whose task was to walk – at a quick pace or perhaps run – to the nearest station and forward the correspondence to the “changed” postmen who delivered the letters to the next stations. Soon the messengers were replaced with horses, and the stations were reorganized at the same time. There were two types of stations: one – staging (mutationes, meaning “shifts”) where horses or dies were changed. Such a station had stables and a supply of animal feed. Second – messengers, there could spend the night before the onward journey (mansiones). Between the mansiones stations there were six to eight mutationes.

If the parcel was to be delivered outside the territory of the post office, then on the basis of an appropriate document the clerk obtained supplies from the local population – this one could not refuse. The case was different with private letters. These were sent by friends, merchants (of course for a fee) or private slaves. The latter option, apart from advantages (an answer will come), had disadvantages – financial. A slave had to be kept for the duration of the journey (even a few months) and there was always a danger of losing him. Moreover, there was no secrecy of the correspondence and you could never be sure that the letter would reach the addressee.


The Romans used this form of communication quite often. Letters were written on wooden tablets covered with wax. The sharp end of a special stylus (stilus) was used for writing. Its other, flat end was used to smooth the wax, e.g. when you made a mistake and wanted to correct it. The address was on the outside of the letter. At the very beginning, the writer (whose name was given in Nominativa – our denominator) mentioned the name of the addressee (his name was given in Dativa) and greeted him. Here, the usual formula was often used – Hiritius (sender) Postumo (recipient) suo s.d. (short for salutem dicit – “greets”, “says greeting”). Sometimes it was also written after the greeting STVBEEV (Si tu valeas bene est ego valeo) – “If you are healthy then good, I am healthy”. This introduction was followed by the actual wording of the letter. At the end the words were usually written Vale (“goodbye”, “be healthy”) or benevolent Cura ut valeas (“Take care of your health”). At the very end of the letter, the date and place of the writer were usually written (the name was written in ablative).

The schema of the letter:

Sebastianus Postumo (ablativ from Postumus) suo s.d. (salutem dicit)

Content of the letter
Vale! (or alternatively Cura ut Valeas)
Pr. K. Dec. Baiis. (Pr. K. Dec. – Pridie Kalendas Decembres – on the eve of the December calends, that is on the last day of November); (Baiis – in Baja – a famous resort and spa town).

Letters were usually sent by slaves. If a letter had to be sent far away, there was an opportunity waiting for someone to go to that area. The speed of sending a letter, for those times, was enormous, a horse messenger a day covered 40-50 Roman miles (64-80 km). The most important monument in this area is the correspondence of Cicero.

  • Winniczuk Lidia, Ludzie, zwyczaje, obyczaje starożytnej Grecji i Rzymu

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