Before the digital age: Sending a message in ancient Rome

Sending a letter in ancient Rome was certainly a more complex and time-consuming process compared to our times. However, the Romans did have a system of mail delivery that was fairly efficient given the limitations of the technology at the time. And they much cared about it.

“Letters should be handled like sacred things. They are the voice of absent friends and the bond of goodwill between people separated by distance.”

Roman carriage relief

Letters have survived, at least as copies, from Trajan, Pliny, and Cicero. Additionally, some originals have made it to our times, such as letters found in Herculaneum or the Vindolanda tablets. The latter is a collection of wooden tablets discovered in 1973 at the Vindolanda fort near Hadrian’s Wall in northern England. The tablets date back to the early second century CE and contain a wide range of information, including military orders, personal letters, and even a birthday invitation.

The Roman postal system was known as the “cursus publicus” and was primarily used for official government business, such as sending dispatches between military commanders or government officials. However, private individuals could also use the system, even though this was less common.

So how would you do it?

To send a letter through the cursus publicus, a person would need to write their message on a thin sheet of papyrus or parchment and roll it up into a scroll. The scroll would then be sealed with wax or a tie, and an address label would be attached to the outside.

The sender would then need to take the letter to a designated post office or “station,” where it would be weighed, and the appropriate postage fee would be charged. The letter would then be sent on its way, usually carried by a team of fast-moving horses or mules.

The historian Suetonius, who lived in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, wrote in his biography of Augustus, that the Emperor “set up posts throughout Italy and the provinces” and established “couriers and messengers for both private and public business” (Suetonius, Life of Augustus, 49).

Despite efforts to make the system as efficient as possible, there were many limitations to sending messages in ancient Rome. The cost of postage was high, which meant that many people could not afford to use the system. The Roman poet Ovid thus complained in a poem, written after he was exiled from Rome, that “the posts bear my messages, for which I pay” (Ovid, Tristia, 1.10.37).

Additionally, there were sometimes delays and interruptions in service due to political upheavals, natural disasters, or other unforeseen events. Pliny the Younger, who lived in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, wrote several letters that provide insights into the workings of the Roman postal system. In one letter to a friend, Pliny describes how he received a letter from another friend in Rome just three days after it was sent, even though Pliny was living in a distant province. Pliny praises the efficiency of the postal system, writing that “nothing can be quicker than the speed with which letters are conveyed” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 1.13).

Pigeons flying home

But not always a letter would do. Ships were not yet able to sail against the wind and not in every case a secure land connection was available. The ancient Romans did thus also use pigeons and smoke signals for messaging in addition to their postal system.

Pigeons were often used as a form of rapid communication for military and other urgent messages. Indeed, their use is known from 3000 BCE onwards.

These messenger pigeons, also known as “homing pigeons”, were trained to fly back to their home base after being released from a distant location, carrying a small message attached to their leg. This allowed for messages to be delivered quickly and efficiently, even over long distances. However, the use of messenger pigeons was mainly limited to military and government purposes, as training and maintaining the birds was costly and time-consuming.

The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder, who lived in the 1st century AD, wrote about the use of pigeons as messenger birds in his encyclopedia “Naturalis Historia”. He describes how pigeons were used to send messages during wartime, writing that “when a city is besieged, or when an army is on the march, pigeons are employed to carry messages” (Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 10.44).

The Roman poet Martial also mentions in the 1st century AD the use of pigeons in his epigrams. In one poem, he writes about a pigeon that was used to carry a love letter, saying that “the bird that bore this message of love hastened with happy wing” (Martial, Epigrams, 12.57).

Dio Cassius mentions a century later the use of pigeons in his “Roman History”. He describes how the Roman general Julius Caesar used pigeons to send messages during his conquest of Gaul, writing that “he was the first to make use of pigeons as messengers, which he sent out in all directions” (Dio Cassius, Roman History, 40.31).

Most probably it were also pigeons that alerted Pliny the Elder of the danger posed to Herculaneum and Pompeii by the eruption of the Vesuvius in 79 AD.

Egyptian Columbarium for pigeon breeding, a mosaic from Palestrina, first century BCE.

Smokey messages

Smoke signals were another method of communication used by the ancient Romans. This involved creating a visible plume of smoke by burning a fire in a specific way. Different patterns of smoke could be used to convey different messages, such as warning of an impending attack or signaling the approach of an important person. Smoke signals were often used by military units to communicate over long distances, but were less common for civilian communication, which is certainly understandable as the details were often missing.

The Roman historian Livy, who lived in the 1st century BC and 1st century AD, wrote about the use of smoke signals during the Second Punic War (218-201 BC) between Rome and Carthage. He describes how the Roman general Flaminius used smoke signals to communicate with his troops during a battle in central Italy. According to Livy, “Flaminius had arranged beforehand that if he gave the signal by smoke, they should all retire at once” (Livy, History of Rome, 22.9).

The Roman poet Virgil, who lived in the 1st century BC, also mentions smoke signals in his epic poem “The Aeneid”. In one passage, he describes how the Trojans use smoke signals to communicate with their allies during a battle against the Rutulians. Virgil writes that “they raised great clouds of smoke to heaven with signal-fires, and the hills gleamed afar with the blaze” (Virgil, The Aeneid, 9.503-504).

Vegetius, who lived in the 4th century AD, discusses the use of smoke signals in his book “Epitoma rei militaris”. He writes that “smoke signals are the most reliable means of communication between two points in the open field” and that they can be used to “announce the arrival of an army, the approach of an enemy, or any other emergency” (Vegetius, Epitoma rei militaris, 3.10).

Both pigeon messaging and smoke signals were less reliable and less widely used than the postal system in ancient Rome, but they were important alternatives in situations where speed and secrecy were crucial.

Relief showing smoke signals in ancient Rome

Hiding the message

Clearly, with such limited communication methods like smoke signals, messenger pigeons, and riders, encryption was crucial.

One commonly used encryption method was a simple substitution cipher, where letters were replaced with other letters or symbols based on a predetermined key. For instance, the Roman historian Suetonius mentioned that Julius Caesar employed a substitution cipher to encode his private correspondence. In this cipher, each letter was replaced with the letter three places down in the alphabet. This method is still known today as the Caesar cipher (Suetonius, The Life of Julius Caesar, 56).

Another encryption method was steganography, which involved hiding the message within another text or image. In his book “Ars Amatoria” (The Art of Love), the Roman poet Ovid advised lovers to write secret messages on the surface of a wax tablet and then cover them with a layer of unimportant writing to conceal them (Ovid, Ars Amatoria, 1.739-748).

Some messages were also encrypted through the use of codes, where words or phrases were replaced with other words or phrases that had a different meaning. In his book “Epistles”, the Roman poet Horace described the use of codes and wrote about a message sent from Rome to Greece using a code that only the sender and receiver knew (Horace, Epistles, 1.11.27-34).

While these encryption methods were not entirely foolproof, they were effective ways of protecting sensitive information and ensuring that messages were only read by their intended recipients. However, skilled cryptographers or enemies with access to the same key or code could still intercept and decode messages.

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