Cursus Publicus

Scientists deliberated for many months about what they would say to ambassadors of other intelligent species, and in the end, cobbled together clips of orangutans screaming in the jungle.

How come you haven’t answered my last letter if you received the loaves of bread I sent you? First I sent you 15 loaves with Popillius and Dutoporis, then I sent you another 15, as well as a vase with the carter Draco. Do you realise how much wheat that used up?” – Rustius Barbarus to his brother Pompeius

The Roman postal service is fun to imagine. More like a courier system, it sported a web of outposts furnished with horses, mules, carts, food and fodder. If you wanted to use the cursus, you had to supply the courier who would transport your message along the outposts. The government played little operational role aside from granting permission to individuals who were allowed to use the service. Still, the cursus seemed mainly designated for official use: the honchos were the beneficiaries of this business. If you weren’t exceedingly well connected, or unusually capable of lamb-greasing palms, you probably just sent correspondence through slaves or traveling associates.

The cursus publicus was adapted from a similar Persian service that dated back to the 6th century BC. The well organized Persian system also had couriers who were stationed at regular intervals. The Persian couriers dropped off correspondence at each outpost for other couriers to pick up and deliver to the next outpost, like a relay race, putting a premium on speed and efficiency. The Romans, on the other hand, tapped one courier to travel with the parcel for its entire journey, using the outposts to stock up and rest rather than to transfer possession of parcels to different couriers. Although this method choked efficiency, it did allow Roman couriers to convey oral messages to their destinations in addition to written messages and other parcels.

All of this underscores how strange and wonderful our communication is today. The process has been democratized by the internet. Our couriers are no longer even human. When I sit back and think about this massive shift—this total realization of our basic need to communicate—I get the heebie-jeebies.

At the same time, how much of this communication gets read? Our ambient ramblings can be like prayers addressed to no one in particular. It almost reminds me of NASA’s golden record inside Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, beaming out sounds and stories to animals or things we alternately hope, alternately dread, are out there in space.

I bear you, aliens of earth, no ill will.


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