The principle of the Royal Mail is far older than our youthful version, which was founded in 1516 by Henry VIII’s ‘Master of the Posts’ and made publicly available in 1635. When Xerxes, king of the Persians, realised the extent of the disaster he had suffered at the battle of Salamis (481 bc), Herodotus tells us that the Persian equivalent, the angareion, was put into operation to take the news back home. Nothing human is faster, he said, and ‘neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds’ [rather, ‘course, race’] — words running along the frieze that fronts New York’s General Post Office (1914).
This observation is typical of Herodotus, who loved to inform his countrymen of the wonders he had heard about. He likened the Persian angareion to a relay race: horses and riders posted along the route, a fresh pair for every day of travel, each handing the message on to the next. The soldier-essayist Xenophon, writing c.390 bc, implied that a later king, Cyrus, re-set the staging posts by first checking the maximum distance a horse and rider could travel in a day without breaking down.
The Romans knew a good thing when they saw one and spread the system across the empire. Eventually, there were changing stations for horses every 8 to 12 miles, and overnight rest-houses every 20 to 30 (about 5,000 stations in all, each with at least 40 horses, as well as pack animals and oxen). By the 4th century ad the system covered over 53,000 miles of roads. It provided priority transport for all urgent military and government needs: mail, personnel, imperial freight, the military (e.g. weapons, payment for troops, sick soldiers), etc. But there was no personal mail delivery. Long distance letters could be delivered only by friends going that way. Local deliveries were made by slaves, who waited to take back the reply.
In 2016, we shall celebrate 500 years of the Royal Mail, and probably literally too, because only the royal family will be able to afford it. They’ve got the horses, you see?