Nowadays it’s just a part of life. You can easily go down to the town centre, letter in hand, step into the post office, and send off a letter to anywhere you want -- provided the area has service and you can afford it. For as long as there has been writing, it is believed that there was probably something akin to a mail service. Its long and vaunted history has seen that information and communication between individuals and nations went on uninterrupted for millennia. But what exactly is the history of the post? Just how did the mail services of the world grow and develop alongside human civilisation?
The first mail service
The first mail service, such as it was, probably took the form of individual couriers, most usually slaves or retainers, who would ferry messages between individuals. Literacy in the ancient world was not as universal as it is today, as such most correspondences would have been between respective rules, their vassals and officials in government. For example the Persians and Ancient Egypt both had well developed infrastructures that were used for gathering intelligence and dispersing royal edicts.
China claims to have had a post service going back as far as the legendary Xia dynasty some three thousand years ago, with the first confirmed postal service existing under the Han dynasty (206BC - 220 AD). According to historical records, they had a relay station every 30 li, or about every 12.50 miles. Ancient India under the prosperous Mauryan Empire (322- 185BC) also had an extensive public post system, as well as communal wells, inns and rest houses. The Roman Empire likewise had a postal system called the cursus publicus, which was reserved for government correspondences. It is possible it would also have been used by private individuals.
During the Middle Ages, monastic orders also had private mail services that exchanged correspondences between abbots and individual monks throughout Christendom. Universities, still being church-operated institutions at the time, also had their own postal services. The best organised was maintained by the Knights Templar, who had a mail system connecting each of their chapter houses from England to Jerusalem. Incidentally they also operated one of Europe’s first major banking institutions.
It is known that individuals sent letters to each other on a fairly common basis -- there are many letter fragments written by Roman citizens, for example. However such letters were likely delivered by slaves or hired couriers. Established mail services, as we recognise, them probably did not exist until the beginning of the modern period, after literacy one again became more common amongst the population.
...Part two coming soon!
To read more about mailing services, visit the Orbital Mailing Website here.