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Royal Road

The main road of the Persians was the Royal Road. It started at Susa, the capital, in what is now southwestern Iran, and ran to Sardis and Ephesus. Along these roads were numerous stations. The great Royal Road of Darius can still be traced in places over the uplands of Asia Minor by the wheel-ruts of chariots and other vehicles worn in the surface rock. Really good roads are apparently a Roman invention, but the great trunk roads of the Persian Empire, over which the King's posts travelled faster than anything else that was mortal, must have been kept in decent repair. This also contributed to the freedom and activity of commerce.

The Persian empire was founded by Cyrus the Great. He himself tells us who he was. "I am Cyrus," he says on one of the Babylonian cylinders, "king of hosts, great king, mighty king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four regions; son of Cambyses, great king, king of Anshan ; grandson of Cyrus, great king, king of Anshan ; great-grandson of Teispes, great king, king of Anshan." Cyrus was succeeded by his son Cambyses, a man of suspicious and ungovernable temper. His reign is marked by the conquest of Egypt and Libya. Cambyses left no son, and upon his death Darius proclaimed himself king.

When Darius had securely established his authority over all parts of his empire, he set to work on the reorganization of its administration. Before the reign of Darius I the government of the Persian Empire was like that of all the great empires that had preceded it, save the Assyrian in a measure and for a short space of time; that is to say, it consisted of a great number of subject states, which were allowed to retain their own kings and manage their- own affairs, only paying tribute and furnishing contingents, when called upon in time of war, to the Great King. The principle he adopted was that of uniformity of control, a principle as difficult of application as it was necessary in an empire composed of such diverse nationalities. He divided the empire into twenty-three satrapies or provinces. These satrapies were in fact kingdoms. Darius died in 486 BC after a reign of 36 years.

The Persian Empire, which under Darius stretched from east to west for a distance of three thousand miles and comprised no less than two million square miles, with a population of seventy to eighty millions, had with the exception of the Romans, perhaps the best system of roads known to ancient history. Indeed, it is doubtful whether without it such a vast empire, more than half as large as modern Europe, could have been held together. Each satrap, or prefect of province, was obliged to make regular reports to the king, who was also kept informed by spies of what was taking place in every part of the empire. To aid the administration of }he government, postal communication for the exclusive use of the king and his trusted servants connected the capital with the distant provinces. This postal service was four or five centuries later patterned after by the Romans.

The Persian empire was tied together by a system of royal roads that facilitated military control and communication with the provinces on the empire's rim. The roads made it possible for the king to move forces quickly to any point within the empire to suppress civil unrest or meet a threat from outside. These roads were unpaved, packed dirt-tracks wide enough to support the movement of the mobile Persian siege towers drawn by teams of oxen. A system of bridges over streams and other terrain obstacles, more than the road surface itself, greatly increased rates of movement. The most famous of these roads ran from Sardis on the Mediterranean to the Persian capital of Susa, a distance of 1,500 miles. A messenger could travel this distance in 15 days using a series of horse relay stations. Without the road the journey would have taken 3 months.

To facilitate trade and the quick movement of troops, Darius improved existing roads and built new ones throughout the empire. The "Royal Road" ran from Susa to Nineveh, thence west to the Cilician Gates, thence north through Tyana and Mazaca to Pteria, thence west across the Halys by a fortified bridge (the other rivers being crossed by boats) to Ancyra, thence southwest through Pessinus and Ceramon Agora to Sardis and Ephesus. This was called the " Royal Road" because the service of the " Great King " passed over it. Along this road, between Susa and Sardis, Darius established 111 stations, where mounted couriers were kept ready day and night to forward the royal despatches. Orders were transmitted by this simple device, the first postal service of which we have any knowledge, with astonishing rapidity.

The "Royal Road" as reported by Herodotos must have been only one part of a network af roads serving the needs of the Persian Government, and was doubtless in existence before the time of Darius. The Persian " Royal Road" from Ephesus to Susa, described by Herodotus (v. 49), crossed Mt. Tmolus to Sardis, and thence went on to the Halys over the very country where Phrygian legend has its special home. This route is very much longer than the Lycus route to Miletus, besides being infinitely more difficult. How comes it that the Persians, with the direct and easy route already known to commerce perhaps as early as the time of Xerxes' march, preferred the longer and more difficult one ? The historical circumstances of the fifth and sixth centuries afford no answer to this question ; it can be answered only by going back to an older time when different centers of power made this route the necessary one.

The " Royal Road " dates from the time when Sardis and Pteria were the two chief cities of Asia Minor, and when they were in regular communication with one another. The civilization and merchandize of the east were brought from Pteria to Phrygia and Sardis across the Halys. The road could hardly be used except for peaceful communication. An army could scarcely traverse the gorges of the Hermus, and both Xerxes and Cyrus the Younger were obliged to take the Lycus route. Can it be believed that Darius would have chosen this way for his Royal Road unless he had found it ready made to his hand ?

Herodotus asserts that before 500 B.c. this road existed, and was known by Aristagoras. But if it existed before 500 B.c., it was probably made before the Persian rule. Darius had not as yet bad time to consolidate his empire and form the lines of communication on such a vast scale as this road implies. The earlier years of his reign were spent in continuous wars.

If the Royal Road was originally the road between Sardis and Pteria, the capitals of the West and East, its formation cannot be later than the accession of the Mermnad dynasty, 687 B.c., when the attention of the Lydians was diverted from the East and turned towards the Greeks. On the other hand, it is well known that the Heracleid kings did not trouble themselves about the coast-line, but looked towards the East. A consideration of the early history of Lydia makes it probable that the beginning of the power of Sardis is contemporaneous with the formation of a permanent road. It is a most important and wide-reaching fact that intercourse between Cappadocia and Lydia existed sufficient to form for itself a regular road at least as early as the ninth B.c. ; this fact, if it be admitted, is the key to the whole history of the country in early time.

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Page last modified: 20-11-2011 19:25:24 ZULU