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Through the Lens of History – Vision 9: “Message for you, Sir!” – Part I Mail and Messengers from the Ancient World to the Early Middle Ages

15 March, 2010

Tis the ides of March (of which Caesar failed to beware) and time for more history:

Through the Lens of History: Using History for Better Gaming
Vision 9: “Message for you, Sir!” – Part I
Mail and Messengers from the Ancient World to the Early Middle Ages

Hand in hand with the development of writing was the use of writing for long distance communication.  Written messages did not need to be memorized by the messenger and they were almost guaranteed to be delivered without being accidentally changed. As literacy spread, so did letter writing and the demand for messengers.

Various courier systems appeared, both private and official, to deliver messages throughout the ages. This month we will look at messengers from the Ancient World through to the early Middle Ages with next month covering the late Middle Ages to the early Modern World.

Part I – The History

The earliest known private letters date back to the 19th century BCE and the early Assyrian Empire. They were on clay tablets almost three inches (7.5 cm) square and enclosed in clay envelopes bearing an address. They were used by the merchants to exchange information and organize purchases and sales. At least some of the messages were carried by official couriers and the system was highly reliable.

The Assyrian and Persian Empires that followed both maintained a royal post system to communicate the Emperor’s wishes to his subjects. The Persian network was maintained from the city of Susa, the administrative capital of the Empire. Messages were dispatched and received from messengers from all over the Empire, using a multitude of way stations where one messenger would hand off messages to the next rider allowing for great distances to be rapidly covered. Unfortunately, there is little information about how private messages and letters were transported in the Persian Empire.

The Egyptian Kingdom relied on a network of trained priest-scribes to record government and commercial records. The Kingdom used both waterborne (along the Nile) and mounted messengers, while private citizens relied on slaves or hired messengers to deliver their correspondence.

While official decries were usually sent on clay tablets, the Egyptians primarily used papyrus as their writing medium. Papyrus is made from the pith of the papyrus plant cut into strips, soaked, pressed together and then dried. The papyrus was written upon with reed pens and sealed with wax. Papyrus was exported and circulated widely as the primary writing material of the ancient world.

The Greeks of the city-states relied upon runners who carried verbal messages within a city-state for local communication. These runners, both official and private, were capable of traveling and delivering messages easily within the confines of the city-state. Alexander and his successors co-opted the Persian courier system for official messages. The chaos of the Successor kingdoms destroyed that system but ushered in an era where the Greek language unified a large area, a boon to private messengers.

The Romans were inveterate letter writers; some of their correspondence has even come down to us in the present day. The Romans used a wax writing pad marked with a stylus to take notes and compose letters and other writings, but actual letters were sent on papyrus and, later, on parchment. Parchment was developed in the city of Pergamum (in modern Turkey) around 100 BCE from whence it gets it name. Parchment is made from finely cured skin, usually from a calf or kid, of which both sides were usable for writing. Parchment became very popular in Western Europe especially after 400 CE.

The Roman upper classes made extensive use of personal messengers, often slaves, for delivery of local messages. For more distant locales, private messengers were employed. Couriers for hire could be found at the gates of any large city. These couriers used the excellent Roman network of roads to travel quickly, covering as much as 30 to 50 miles (48 to 80 km) in a day. Sea travel was faster but more problematic though required for some messages. The Roman government maintained a postal system (cursus publicus) for official communication and the transport of officials that stretched across the entire Empire. Courier stations were located between 5 and 12 miles (8 and 21 km) apart. When speed was required it could be obtained, a journey by post from Rheims to Rome (about 1,400 miles/2,250 km) in 9 days was recorded. The courier stations and roads were maintained for the Empire by the local government, which meant that they occasionally fell into disrepair due to negligence or corruption.

The Chinese Dynasties maintained an Imperial courier system from the earliest dynasties (circa 900 BCE) on. Homing pigeons were also used to deliver official messages. During the Tang dynasty, the Chinese state maintained a courier network of 1,297 land stages with stations every 10 miles (16 km), 360 stages by water routes and 86 stages connecting both land and water routes. The conquering Mongols had their own system of horse messengers and foot messengers which they imposed over China following their conquest. The Mongol horse messengers could cover 200-250 miles (320-400 km) a day riding both during the day and at night guided by torchlight. Marco Polo believed that the Mongol messenger system used 300,000 horses and 10,000 courier stations.

Only Imperial messages were carried by the Chinese system until the Ming Emperors opened it to private letters in 1402 CE. The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) saw private mail companies (min-chii) proliferate. They were extremely reliable and reimbursed the sender if valuables were lost. Originally created to serve the needs of banks and merchants, the min-chii expanded to deal with the private letters of anyone willing to pay a suitable fee. Express delivery was offered, at greater expense, and was indicated by allowing the tip of a feather to protrude from the envelope.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, it would take centuries before communication networks were re-established in Europe. This was partly due to the low level of literacy that prevailed across the West. The Byzantine (or Eastern Roman) Empire maintained the Roman roads and postal system as long as it survived.

The expansion of the monastic institutions, cathedrals and universities throughout Europe meant that by the eleventh century correspondence networks were coming into being once more. Many groups maintained their own courier services; the University of Paris had its own messengers to carry correspondence and money between parents and students. Most of these messengers traveled by foot, they were called Parvi Nuncii (“petty messenger”).

Part II- Breaking it apart and putting it back together

Messengers and couriers have been an important part of the world for nearly as long as there has been writing. Instructions from kings and emperors, business transactions, reports and rumors, all were carried by messengers. The delivery of an important message is a classic scenario. As there are always those who do not want to see the message delivered, requiring the messengers to be alert and clever to overcome the obstacles put in their way.

One way to start such an adventure is to have the character encounter a messenger who has been mortally injured in an accident and who charges the characters to complete his mission. This request has more weight if the messenger is an official messenger and the characters should be impressed that lives will be lost if they fail to deliver the message. What is in the message? warning of an attack on the kingdom; information about a plot on the ruler’s life or anything else of dire importance. In any case, bad things should happen if the characters choose not to try to deliver the message.

Acting as messengers is also a way a group of travelling adventurers can supplement their income, especially if they have ways to travel quickly and a reputation for reliability.

Supplemental d20 Material:
New Feats

City Messenger [General]

You know the city like the back of your hand and can remember complex messages word for word.

Prerequisites: Int 10, Wis 10, Knowledge (local) 1 rank.

Benefit: You receive a +2 bonus on your Knowledge (local) checks and a +1 bonus on Perception checks and Disguise checks when the imitation of voices is involved.  If you have 10 or more ranks in one of these skills, the bonus increases to +4 for that skill.  You further receive a +2 bonus to any check involving remembering something you heard (or overheard).

For movement within any city with which you know, your movement is treated as being 5 greater for the purpose of getting from one place to another (but not for combat).

Endurance Rider [General]

You, and your mount, can ride forever.

Prerequisites: Con 10, Ride 2 ranks.

Benefit: You and your mount both gain a +3 bonus on the following checks and saves: Constitution checks made to continue running, Constitution checks made to avoid nonlethal damage from a forced march, Constitution checks made to avoid nonlethal damage from starvation or thirst and Fortitude saves made to avoid nonlethal damage from hot or cold environments.

Additionally, any mount you personally care for, train and maintain for at least a month gains a minimum of 3 hit points per hit die.

You may sleep in the saddle without becoming fatigued.

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