The Royal Road of Persia

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The Royal Road of Persia


In about 3500 b.c., a 1,500-mi (2,414-km) long road running from the Persian capital of Susa to the Aegean Sea came into use. Not necessarily a road as understood by modern usage, this was more a track worn into the soil that was used in a routine, if not an organized, way for over 2,000 years. Eventually organized by the Assyrians, it served the Persian kings for centuries, and was later used by Alexander the Great (356-323 b.c.) to convey his troops, ironically helping Alexander to conquer the Persian Empire. At the time, the Persian Royal Road was not unlike other roads built in Egypt, Greece, and Babylon, all of which were, though somewhat limited in scope, served to link parts of an empire. However, it was not until the Roman Empire that roads were brought to their logical conclusion in a system of integrated, well-engineered and well-constructed highways that linked all parts of the empire. In this, the Persians prefigured and inspired the Romans, who built on the success of their predecessors.


The world's first roads were scarcely roads as we would recognize them. Primarily trails that, over centuries of use, became worn into the ground, early roads were largely used because they happened to be the shortest or fastest routes between two cities.

The first long-distance road was what later became the Persian Royal Road, running about 1,500 miles (2,414 km) from Susa (the ancient Persian capital) through Anatolia (now Turkey) to the Aegean Sea. At about the same time, the Indus civilization built paved streets in many of their cities, although these were not long-distance roads of the same scope. Other civilizations also seem to have built roads but, again, they were of a lesser scale, running mostly within or between nearby cities.

By about 1500 b.c., the Persian Royal Road had been organized and placed into regular use by the Persian kings. It was put in use for mail, trade, and for the military, uses that were later mirrored by the Roman Empire in its extensive road network. It is said that, with a system of relay stations and fresh horses, a messenger could travel the 1,500 miles (2,414 km) length of this road in just nine days, although normal travel time was closer to three months. Like the Roman roads, the Royal Road helped to link the ends of a large empire. Unlike Rome, most of the Persian Empire was lightly populated and the network of roads was not nearly as extensive as those that were to follow. In addition, being built in a dryer climate, there was little need for the extensive engineering that characterized the Roman roads.


The primary function of the Royal Road was to facilitate communication from the emperor to his distant subjects. In this, the impact was clearly to make it possible to administer an empire that, at that time, was geographically among the largest in the world. The Royal Road helped make the Persian Empire possible. In addition, the Royal Road demonstrated to contemporary civilizations the utility and value of such a road, and in so doing, it helped to inspire similar projects in other empires. This process culminated in the Roman roads. Finally, and ironically, the Royal Road proved the undoing of the Persian Empire, giving Alexander the Great and his armies rapid access to critical parts of ancient Persia and making his conquest all the easier.

The Persian Empire was one of the Middle East's first large empires. Ruled by the King of Kings in his capitals of Susa, Persepolis, and Ecbatana, Persia was divided into at least 20 provinces called satrapies. These satrapies were ruled by satraps, and all were in constant communication with the king. The empire was protected by a standing imperial army of at least 10,000 troops, augmented by local troops from each province. Some of these troops were permanently stationed on the frontier, and they were reinforced by others as necessary.

All of the Persian civil and military administration depended on the Royal Road. As with the later Roman Empire, the king and his government utilized a postal system to carry orders and information to the provinces and the frontier while ferrying information and requests for assistance back to the capital.

Unlike the earliest version of the road, the Persian kings made improvements, turning it into an all-weather byway that was usable in all seasons, including the relatively short rainy season. In fact, in a phrase often attributed to Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), Herodotus (484?-420? b.c.) noted that the Persian royal messengers were stopped by "neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night." The road, the dedication of the messengers, and the construction of relay stations located about a day's travel apart let messengers travel at a rapid pace, and gave the Persians somewhat of a diplomatic and military advantage over their neighbors, whose orders and armies responded much more slowly.

As with the Roman Empire of later centuries, the Royal Road was essential to the creation of what was, in its time, the largest empire on Earth. As noted above, the ability to communicate and move troops rapidly as needed gave the Persians a decided advantage over their rivals. In addition, this road made it possible for the emperor to hear the grievances of his subjects quickly, and let him move to resolve disputes in the provinces before they could fester and become disruptive. This, combined with a remarkably tolerant attitude towards the religions and practices of subject people helped the Persian Empire to grow and contributed to its remarkable stability for many hundreds of years.

The value of the Royal Road did not go unnoticed, and in the centuries following its construction, others tried to imitate it. The Greeks built some roads, although not as extensive because their empires were usually smaller than that of Persia. The Egyptians also built roads, though these were at first used primarily for moving building materials for the pyramids and other monuments. Some of the Egyptian roads predated those of Persia and cannot, of course, have been inspired by the Royal Road, but others seem to have been constructed following the Persian model, and are more likely to have been influenced by the Persian's success. Other civilizations building roads that may have been influenced in whole or in part by Persia included imperial China, India, and possibly Crete (although there is evidence that the Cretan roads may have been developed independently).

In spite of these minor influences, however, it is possible that the most significant culture inspired by the Royal Road was Rome. The Romans had, of course heard of the Royal Road and realized early on that a road system was essential for carrying out the business of the empire. However, the Romans also realized their needs differed from those of Persia, driven by geographic and climate differences. So, instead of simply copying the Persian system, the Romans took from the Persians the basic concept of an improved roadway, melded it with the civil engineering and skilled construction practices of the Cretans, Egyptians, and Babylonians, and added to it their concept of a network of roads connecting all parts of a sprawling empire. The result was, until the construction of the American interstate highway system, the greatest network of highways in history. In a very real sense, the Royal Road not only made the Persian Empire possible, it also made the Roman Empire possible.

Finally, in one of history's ironies, the Royal Road also made possible Persia's fall from power. Alexander the Great, in his wars of expansion, stumbled across the Royal Road with his armies. In this case, he had already defeated the Persian border armies, and he then used the Royal Road to rapidly move his troops into the heart of the Persian Empire. Quickly reaching Persepolis, Alexander's army sacked and burned the Persian capital and then moved on to defeat more Persian armies until receiving the surrender of the Persian emperor. This completed, Alexander went on to more conquests before finally stopping in India, having conquered virtually all of the world known to the Greeks of that era.

Alexander's use of the Royal Road demonstrated that virtually any strategic advantage can be used as a weapon for either side, if only an attacking enemy can put it to their use. In this case, by seizing the Royal Road, Alexander was able to turn the Persian's strategic road to his advantage because he could now move a superior army very rapidly, reaching Persian cities before they could establish an adequate defense. In this manner, the same road that helped the older empires expand and defend their nation then turned into an instrument that, in the hands of their enemy, helped to dismantle everything that had been built so laboriously over the course of centuries.

This lesson, apparently, was not fully appreciated by the Romans. A thousand years later, under attack by the barbarians from outside the empire, Roman border troops were defeated. The victorious barbarian armies were then able to proceed quickly through the Roman Empire along Roman military roads, attacking Roman garrisons and cities before they could establish their defenses. This culminated in the sack of Rome, the eventual fall of the Roman Empire, and ushered in the "Dark Age" of medieval Europe.


Further Reading

Curtis, John. Ancient Persia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.

Green, Peter. The Greco-Persian Wars. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Olmstead, Arthur T. History of the Persian Empire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959.