Achaemenid Structures > Royal Road

Royal Road

Background

The Royal Road was an ancient highway that was built by Darius I of the Achaemenid Empire during the 5th century BCE. A brilliant military commander and the leader of the Persian Immortals, Darius I understand the necessity of having an efficient means to move troops throughout the empire quickly and efficiently. This would allow him to quell rebellions quickly and also helped facilitate trade and cultural diffusion.

The road itself was constructed from the Persian administrative capital at Susa to Sardis and stretched over 2,699 km or 1,677 mi. Couriers and messengers on mounts could travel from one point to the other in around seven days and someone on foot could do it within ninety. In fact, the Persian messengers were so famous throughout the ancient world for their speed that the Greek historian Herodotus remarked;

"There is nothing in the world that travels faster than these Persian couriers. Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds"

Herodotus - Histories

In fact, this would eventually become synonmous with the creed of the United States Postal Office after it was inscribed on the James Farley Post Office in New York. It is through the writings of Herodotus that we can accurately reconstruct the path of the Royal Road along with archaeological and historical records.The course of the road has been reconstructed from the writings of Herodotus,[3] archeological research, and other historical records. It began in Asia Minor (on the Aegean coast of Lydia, about 60 miles east of İzmir in present-day Turkey), traveled east through what is now the middle northern section of Turkey, (crossing the Halys according to Herodotus) and passed through the Cilician Gates to the old Assyrian capital Nineveh (present-day Mosul, Iraq), then turned south to Babylon (near present-day Baghdad, Iraq). From near Babylon, it is believed to have split into two routes, one traveling northeast then east through Ecbatana and on along the Silk Road, the other continuing east through the future Persian capital Susa (in present-day Iran) and then southeast to Persepolis. Of course, such long routes for travellers and tradesmen would often take months on end, and during the reign of Darius the Great numerous royal outposts (Caravanserai) were built.

Origins

In reconstructing the Royal Road historians and archaeologists noted that it did not follow the shortest or easiest path between all of the various points of the empire. In fact, archaeologists believe that the foundation of western portion of the Royal Road was in fact laid previously under the Assyrians. Despite this the Royal Road was vastly improved and constructed to what it is known today by Darius I.

The road itself stretched over 2,699 km or 1,677 mi and had 111 garrisons that held a steady supply of horses so the messengers could move quickly unimpeded. While travelers and merchants did use the road the main function was to easy facilitate communication between the disparate parts of the Persian Empire and be able to quickly move troops to quell any rebellion. After the collapse of the Achaemenid Empire the Royal Road would see much more use for trade and cultural diffusion in the Hellenistic Era.

Caravanserai

Doted all along the Persian Royal Road were structures known as Caravanserai which helped support commerce, messages and travel by providing a rest stop spaced approximately a days travel from each other. Here there was stocked fresh horses, food, beds and often a garrison of Persian soldiers. Messengers could quickly replace their mount here and continue on their way if a message was urgent and needed to get somewhere fast.

Without the Caravanserai the Royal Road would not have been as effective in facilitated trade, cultural diffusion, commerce and the travel of people as these inns and rest stops provided an important infrastructure. They also allowed Persian forces to exercise control over a larger area and contributed to a vibrant and lucrative trade network that spanned through Mesopotamia and Asia Minor.

Legacy

Due to the quality of its construction the Royal Road would continue to be used even throughout the Roman Empire. The Romans were known to have added their improvement of hard-pack gravel with stone curbing and a width of 6.25 m at a section of road near Gordium.

However, Darius I made the Royal Road as it is recognized today. A later improvement by the Romans of a road bed with a hard-packed gravelled surface of 6.25 m width held within a stone curbing was found in a stretch near Gordium[5] and connecting the parts together in a unified whole stretching some 1677 miles, primarily as a post road, with a hundred and eleven posting stations maintained with a supply of fresh horses, a quick mode of communication using relays of swift mounted messengers, the kingdom's pirradazis.The construction of the road as improved by Darius was of such quality that the road continued to be used until Roman times. A bridge at Diyarbakır, Turkey, still stands from this period of the road's use. The road also helped Persia increase long-distance trade, which reached its peak during the time of Alexander the Great (Alexander III of Macedon).

Archaeology

In 1961, under a grant from the American Philosophical Society, S. F. Starr traced the stretch of road from Gordium to Sardis, identifying river crossings by ancient bridge abutments.[6]

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