Wednesday 5 December 2012

Sending a postcard from the edge

So we know Claudia Severa was able to post her postcards, but just how did she do it? The Romans probably didn't have formalised post offices as we do today, but they almost certainly had some form of mail delivery available to the wider populace. To post a letter or a parcel, a Roman probably did one of three things. As Claudia proves, private letters to a military address were moved with the daily/weekly/monthly dispatches. Hers was probably fairly simple - she lived in the Ninth Legion's headquarters at Isurium Brigantum, from where regular dispatches probably went straight to outlying forts like Vindolanda. We know from the Vindolanda letters that these dispatches also included 'care parcels' for soldiers from their families so the term 'army dispatches' probably covered almost anything addressed to a soldier. Presumably if you lived in or near one fort you could send mail to your Legionary headquarters, which then sent the mail to the addressee's Legionary headquarters and ultimately to their fort.
In less militarised parts of the Roman world, a similar government system almost certainly existed too. Most large towns had a Basilica - not the churches as we know them today - but what the Romans called their government buildings. Here there was a civilian version of dispatches moving between outer provincial towns to the provincial capital, and then on to other provincial capitals for eventual delivery. It may have functioned separately to the army system or the two may have blended into each other in the outer provinces.

And then lastly, there would have been private couriers. Like the modern day FedEx, DHL or TNT there was almost certainly someone in your town or city you could pay to move your mail. Just like today's modern couriers, they probably hubbed and spoked their deliveries around the major cities and shipping routes. And they were fairly fast too - ships sailing from Rome to Alexandria could do so in less than two days, to Massilia in less than a week and to Spain or the Middle East in a fortnight...depending on the prevailing winds. 

But once the mail arrived in your town, how was it delivered? Perhaps it was quite similar to how ours is. Most Roman streets were named and there's ample evidence that most houses had the resident's name written beside the front door - some towns may also have used street numbers. Whether the resident paid for the delivery is pure speculation, but you could imagine the public slave or privateer who arrived at your door probably wanted a coin or two for their trouble.

However there is one thing I can say with some certainty on this speculative topic...there weren't too many stamp collectors in ancient Rome.

Find out what Calvus lost in the mail    

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