Postal History: Ancient Greece

Postal History: Ancient Greece

We already discussed how the Persian Empire used the Royal Road in order to deliver messages fast and on time, over long distances. Today we’ll see how one of their most important rival in history – the Greeks – did it.


What we “owe” to ancient Greece?



In short, a lot, really a lot. Ancient Greece is one of the few most important centers of development of the whole civilization. This is not a place to go into details, so I’ll mention only the most important achievements that were invented/created/produced/popularized by ancient Greeks:


  •  The Greek Alphabet (is a parent alphabet for Cyrillic script, Latin alphabet, and few others as well)
  • Democracy (from demokratia = “rule of the people”; demos = “people of the state”
  • Philosophy
  • Many improvements and inventions in mathematics, especially in geometry
  • Many improvements in astronomy
  • Numerous important pieces of literature and poetry (e.g. Iliad and Odyssey, Antigone)
  • Tragedies and comedies performed in outdoor theatres
  • Improvements in architecture and sculpture
  • Some of the first history and science literature pieces ever produced
  • Olympic games – If you ever saw a picture of naked people running around and throwing spears or disc, yup, that’s how it all started.
  • Mythology (gods: Aphrodite, Apollo, Ares, Artemis, Athena, Demeter, Dionysus, Hades, Hephaestus, Hera, Hermes, Hestia, Poseidon, Zeus; Chaos, Eros, Gaia, Nemesis, Uranus, Pontus & others; titans: Atlas, Cronus, Helios, Hyperion, Oceanus, Perses, Prometheus, & others; giants; creatures: centaur, Cyclopes, Gorgons – three sisters Euryale, Medusa and Stheno, griffin, harpy, Hydra (of Lerna), Manticore, Minotaur, Pegasus, Phoenix, satyr, Sirens, sphinx, Typhon, unicorns & others). I bet that after reading these names you’ll find that most of them are still very popular today in their original role as well used as names for many different things.




I will list famous ancient Greeks, in alphabetic, separately from improvements simply because many of them worked interdisciplinary:


  • Archimedes of Syracuse
  • Aristotle
  • Demosthenes
  • Draco
  • Eratosthenes of Cyrene
  • Euclid of Alexandria
  • Herodotus
  • Hippocrates of Kos
  • Homer
  • Pericles
  • Plato
  • Ptolemy
  • Pythagoras of Samos
  • Sappho
  • Socrates
  • Solon
  • Thales of Miletus
  • Thucydides.


If there was any doubt so far, I think there is none now. Ancient Greeks were an extremely advanced civilization and as such, they should have had a way or two how to share their information efficiently and how to spread their knowledge.


Sending messages

Similarly to the most other developed ancient civilizations, the Greeks also used few ways to exchange messages.


Maybe one of the first ever used were smoke signals. We all know them well from western movies, but yes, they were used for centuries before all over the world. They were very efficient in sending messages on long distances, but of course very sensitive to weather conditions. Of course, the sender and receiver should know the meaning of the signal when it was sent/received.

Polybius defined a cryptography system that could be used to transmit textual messages using smoke signals or even better, a pair of torches to represent one letter with a combination of signals/torches.


Polybius square


We could look at this as on the first step in the development of steganography and cryptography methods and algorithms that are still in use today.


Smoke signals were cool, but they had their limitations like distance and weather conditions. So, we went back to the roots. We could simply send a messenger (courier) on foot to deliver a voice message or the written one. One of the most popular examples of such message delivery happened in 490 BCE, when Pheidippides ran for 26 miles (~ 40 kilometers) from the plain of Marathon to Athens to deliver a message. The message was sent to Athens to describe the outcome of the battle between the Persian Empire and the Greek army composed of citizens of Athens and Plataea. The message was simple: “Nenikikamen” (“We have won”).

He was exhausted after that run and died shortly after delivering a message. The marathon is today one of the well-known running disciplines and also an Olympic sport/discipline.



There were also other ways to send messages and most of them included animals, e.g. mounted couriers and homing pigeons. Some of these were in use until recently (hint – homing pigeons in world wars) or still are.


Even gods delivered their messages, but they had more advanced messaging systems. Morpheus, the god of dreams, would use his special messaging skills, to deliver messages to the important mortals, of course, in a dream. Do you notice any similarity to “Matrix”!? 😊


Of course, postage stamps were not used in ancient Greece. Still, I find it very informative and important in order to understand the development of modern postal systems.


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