The Royal Road of the Achaemenids

International Highway of Darius the Great

Gold Model Chariot from the Oxus Treasure, Achaemenid Dynasty Persia
The model chariot is pulled by four horses or ponies. In it are two figures wearing Median dress. The Medes were from Iran, the centre of the Achaemenid empire. Ann Ronan Pictures / Print Collector / Getty Images

The Royal Road of the Achaemenids was a major intercontinental thoroughfare built by the Persian Achaemenid dynasty king Darius the Great (521–485 BCE). The road network allowed Darius a way to access and maintain control over his conquered cities throughout the Persian empire. It is also, ironically enough, the same road that Alexander the Great used to conquer the Achaemenid dynasty a century and a half later.

The Royal Road led from the Aegean Sea to Iran, a length of some 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers). A major branch connected the cities of Susa, Kirkuk, Nineveh, Edessa, Hattusa, and Sardis. The journey from Susa to Sardis was reported to have taken 90 days on foot, and three more to get to the Mediterranean coast at Ephesus. The journey would have been faster on horseback, and carefully placed way stations helped speed the communication network.

From Susa the road connected to Persepolis and India and intersected with other road systems leading to the ancient allied and competing kingdoms of Media, Bactria, and Sogdiana. A branch from Fars to Sardis crossed the foothills of the Zagros mountains and east of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, through Kilikia and Cappadocia before reaching Sardis. Another branch led into Phyrgia.

Not Just a Road Network

The network might have been called the Royal "Road," but it also included rivers, canals, and trails, as well as ports and anchorages for seaborne travel.

One canal built for Darius I connected the Nile to the Red Sea.

An idea of the amount of traffic that the roads saw has been gleaned by ethnographer Nancy J. Malville, who examined ethnographic records of Nepali porters. She found that human porters can move loads of 60–100 kilograms (132–220 pounds) a distance of 10–15 kilometers (6–9 miles) per day without the benefit of roads.

Mules can carry loads of 150–180 kg (330–396 lbs) up to 24 km (14 mi) per day; and camels can carry much heavier loads up to 300 kg (661 lbs), some 30 km (18 mi) per day.

Pirradazish: Express Postal Service

According to the Greek historian Herodotus, a postal relay system called pirradazish ("express runner" or "fast runner") in Old Iranian and angareion in Greek, served to connect up the major cities in an ancient form of high-speed communication. Herodotus is known to have been prone to exaggeration, but he was definitely impressed with what he saw and heard.

There is nothing mortal that is faster than the system that the Persians have devised for sending messages. Apparently, they have horses and men posted at intervals along the route, the same number in total as the overall length in days of the journey, with a fresh horse and rider for every day of travel. Whatever the conditions—it may be snowing, raining, blazing hot, or dark—they never fail to complete their assigned journey in the fastest possible time. The first man passes his instructions on to the second, the second to the third, and so on. Herodotus, "The Histories" Book 8, chapter 98, cited in Colburn and translated by R. Waterfield.

Historic Records of the Road

As you might have guessed, there are multiple historical records of the road, including such as Herotodus who mentioned the "royal" waystations along one of the best-known segments. Extensive information also comes from the Persepolis Fortification Archive (PFA), tens of thousands of clay tablets and fragments incised in cuneiform writing, and excavated from the ruins of Darius' capital at Persepolis.

Much information about the Royal Road comes from the PFA's "Q" texts, tablets which record the disbursement of specific traveler's rations along the way, describing their destinations and/or points of origin. Those endpoints are often far beyond the local area of Persepolis and Susa.

One travel document was carried by the individual named Nehtihor, who was authorized to draw rations in a string of cities through northern Mesopotamia from Susa to Damascus.

Demotic and hieroglyphic graffiti dated to Darius I's 18th regnal year (~503 BCE) has identified another important segment of the Royal Road known as Darb Rayayna, which ran in North Africa between Armant in the Qena Bend in Upper Egypt and the Kharga Oasis in the Western Desert.

Architectural Features

Determining Darius' construction methods of the road is somewhat difficult since the Achmaenid road was built following older roadways. Probably most of the routes were unpaved but there are some exceptions. A few intact sections of the road which date to Darius's time, such as that at Gordion and Sardis, were constructed with cobblestone pavements atop a low embankment from 5–7 meters (16–23 feet) in width and, in places, faced with a curbing of dressed stone.

At Gordion, the road was 6.25 m (20.5 ft) wide, with a packed gravel surface and curbstones and a ridge down the middle dividing it into two lanes. There's also a rock-cut road segment at Madakeh which has been associated with the Persepolis–Susa road, 5 m (16.5 ft) wide. These paved sections were likely limited to the vicinities of cities or the most important arteries.

Way Stations

Even ordinary travelers had to stop on such long journeys. A hundred and eleven way-posting stations were reported to have existed on the main branch between Susa and Sardis, where fresh horses were kept for travelers. They are recognized by their similarities to caravanserais, stops on the Silk Road for camel traders. These are square or rectangular stone buildings with multiple rooms around a broad market area, and an enormous gate allowing parcel- and human-laden camels to pass under it.

The Greek philosopher Xenophon called them hippon, "of horses" in Greek, which means they probably also included stables.

A handful of way stations have been tentatively identified archaeologically. One possible way station is a large (40x30 m, 131x98 ft) five-room stone building near the site of Kuh-e Qale (or Qaleh Kali), on or very close to the Persepolis–Susa road, known to have been a major artery for royal and court traffic. It is somewhat more elaborate than would have been expected for a simple traveler's inn, with fancy columns and porticoes. Expensive luxury items in delicate glass and imported stone have been found at Qaleh Kali, all of which leads scholars to surmise that the site was an exclusive way station for wealthier travelers.

Traveler's Comfort Inns

Another possible but less fancy way station has been identified at the site of JinJan (Tappeh Survan), in Iran. There are two known near Germabad and Madakeh on the Pesrpolis–Susa road, one at Tangi-Bulaghi near Pasargadae, and one at Deh Bozan between Susa and Ecbatana. Tang-i Bulaghi is a courtyard surrounded by thick walls, with several smaller ancient buildings, which fits other types of ancient buildings but also caravanserais. The one near Madakeh is of similar construction.

Various historic documents suggest that there were likely maps, itineraries, and milestones to aid travelers in their journeys. According to documents in the PFA, there were also road maintenance crews. References exist of gangs of workmen known as "road counters" or "people who count the road," who made sure that the road was in good repair.

There is also a mention in the Roman writer Claudius Aelianus' "De natura animalium" indicating that Darius asked at one point that the road from Susa to Media be cleared of scorpions.

Archaeology of the Royal Road

Much of what is known about the Royal Road comes not from archaeology, but from the Greek historian Herodotus, who described the Achaemenid imperial postal system. Archaeological evidence suggests that there were several precursors to the Royal Road: that portion which connects Gordion to the coast was likely used by Cyrus the Great during his conquest of Anatolia. It is possible that the first roads were established in the 10th century BCE under the Hittites. These roads would have been used as trade routes by the Assyrians and Hittites at Boghakzoy.

Historian David French has argued that the much later Roman roads would have been constructed along the ancient Persian roads as well; some of the Roman roads are used today, meaning that parts of the Royal Road have been used continually for some 3,000 years. French argues that a southern route across the Euphrates at Zeugma and across Cappodocia, ending at Sardis, was the main Royal Road. This was the route taken by Cyrus the Younger in 401 BCE; and it is possible that Alexander the Great traveled this same route while conquering much of Eurasia in the 4th century BCE.

The northern route proposed by other scholars as the main thoroughfare has three possible routes: through Ankara in Turkey and into Armenia, crossing the Euphrates in the hills near the Keban dam, or crossing the Euphrates at Zeugma. All of these segments were used both before and after the Achaemenids.

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Hirst, K. Kris. "The Royal Road of the Achaemenids." ThoughtCo, Mar. 24, 2018, thoughtco.com/royal-road-of-the-achaemenids-172590. Hirst, K. Kris. (2018, March 24). The Royal Road of the Achaemenids. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/royal-road-of-the-achaemenids-172590 Hirst, K. Kris. "The Royal Road of the Achaemenids." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/royal-road-of-the-achaemenids-172590 (accessed May 26, 2018).