Royal Road, Connecting Imperial Capitals of Persia

Persian Journal, Iran
Oct 31, 2004

Royal Road, Connecting Imperial Capitals of Persia

Persian Empire

According to the Greek researcher Herodotus of Halicarnassus (5th
century BCE), the road connected the capital of Lydia, Sardes, and the
capitals of the Achaemenid empire, Susa and Persepolis. From cuneiform
texts, other royal roads are known.

Herodotus describes the road between Sardes and Susa in the following
words [History of Herodotus 5.52-53].

As regards this road the truth is as follows. Everywhere there are
royal stations with excellent resting places, and the whole road runs
through country which is inhabited and safe.

1. Through Lydia and Phrygia there extend twenty stages, amounting to
520 kilometers.
2. After Phrygia succeeds the river Halys, at which there is a gate
which one must needs pass through in order to cross the river, and a
strong guard-post is established there.
3. Then after crossing over into Cappadocia it is by this way
twenty-eight stages, being 572 kilometers, to the borders of Cilicia.
4. On the borders of the Cilicians you will pass through two sets of
gates and guard-posts: then after passing through these it is three
stages, amounting to 85 kilometers, to journey through Cilicia.
5. The boundary of Cilicia and Armenia is a navigable river called
Euphrates. In Armenia the number of stages with resting-places is
fifteen, and 310 kilometers, and there is a guard-post on the way.
6. Then from Armenia, when one enters the land of Matiene, there are
thirty-four stages, amounting to 753 kilometers. Through this land flow
four navigable rivers, which can not be crossed but by ferries, first
the Tigris, then a second and third called both by the same name,
Zabatus, though they are not the same river and do not flow from the
same region (for the first-mentioned of them flows from the Armenian
land and the other from that of the Matienians), and the fourth of the
rivers is called Gyndes […].
7. Passing thence into the Cissian land, there are eleven stages, 234
kilometers, to the river Choaspes, which is also a navigable stream;
and upon this is built the city of Susa. The number of these stages
amounts in all to one hundred and eleven.

This is the number of stages with resting-places, as one goes up from
Sardes to Susa. If the royal road has been rightly measured […] the
number of kilometers from Sardes to the palace of [king Artaxerxes I]
Mnemon is 2500. So if one travels 30 kilometers each day, some ninety
days are spent on the journey.

This road must be very old. If the Persians had built this road and had
taken the shortest route, they would have chosen another track: from
Susa to Babylon, along the Euphrates to the capital of Cilicia, Tarsus,
and from there to Lydia. This was not only shorter, but had the
additional advantage of passing along the sea, where it was possible to
trade goods. The route along the Tigris, however, lead through the
heartland of the ancient Assyrian kingdom. It is likely, therefore,
that the road was planned and organized by the Assyrian kings to
connect their capital Nineveh with Susa. Important towns like Arbela
and Opis were situated on the road.

It is certain that the Assyrians traded with Kanesh in modern Turkey in
the first half of the second millennium BCE. The names of several
trading centers and stations are known and suggest that the route from
Assyria to the west was already well-organized. This road was still in
existence in the Persian age.

A traveler who went from Nineveh (which was destroyed by the Medes and
Babylonians in 612) to the west, crossed the Tigris near a town that
was known as Amida in the Roman age (and today as Diyarbekir). This was
the capital of a country called Sophene. Further to the west, he
crossed the Euphrates near Melitene, the capital of a small state with
the same name, which may have been part of the Persian satrapy Cilicia.
It is probable that the ruins of the guardhouse mentioned by Herodotus
are to be found near Eski Malatya.

The border between Cilicia and Cappadocia was in the Antitaurus
mountain range. The last town in Cilicia, and probably the place of the
‘two sets of gates and guard-posts’ mentioned by Herodotus, was at
Comana, a holy place that was dedicated to Ma-Enyo, a warrior goddess
that the Greeks identified with Artemis.

The route continued across the central plains of modern Turkey, a
country that was called Cappadocia. The exact course of the road is not
known, but it is likely that it passed along the capital of the former
Hethite empire, Hattuas.

The Halys was crossed near modern Ankara -which may well have been a
guard-post- and the next stop was Gordium, the capital of another
kingdom that had disappeared in the Persian age, Phrygia. Passing
though Pessinus, a famous sanctuary dedicated to the goddess Cybele,
and Docimium, famous for its pavonazetto marble, the Royal road reached

At Persepolis, many tablets were found that refer to the system of
horse changing on the Royal road; it was called pirradazi. From these
tablets, we know a lot about the continuation of the road from Susa to
Persepolis -23 stages and a distance of 552 kilometers- and about other
main roads in the Achaemenid empire. No less important was, for
example, the road that connected Babylon and Egbatana, which crossed
the Royal road near Opis, and continued to the holy city of
Zoroastrianism, Rhagae. This road continued to the far east and was
later known as Silk road.
Herodotus describes the pirradazi -for which he uses another name- in
very laudatory words: There is nothing mortal which accomplishes a
journey with more speed than these messengers, so skillfully has this
been invented by the Persians. For they say that according to the
number of days of which the entire journey consists, so many horses and
men are set at intervals, each man and horse appointed for a day’s
journey. Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness of night prevents
them from accomplishing the task proposed to them with the very utmost
speed. The first one rides and delivers the message with which he is
charged to the second, and the second to the third; and after that it
goes through them handed from one to the other, as in the torch race
among the Greeks, which they perform for Hephaestus. This kind of
running of their horses the Persians call angareion.
[History of Herodotus 8.98]

To the Greeks, this was most impressive. There is a story by Diodorus
of Sicily that between Susa and Persepolis, even greater communication
speeds were reached:
Although some of the Persians were distant a thirty days’ journey, they
all received the order on that very day, thanks to the skilful
arrangement of the posts of the guard, a matter that it is not well to
pass over in silence. Persia is cut by many narrow valleys and has many
lookout posts that are high and close together, on which those of the
inhabitants who had the loudest voices had been stationed. Since these
posts were separated from each other by the distance at which a man’s
voice can be heard, those who received the order passed it on in the
same way to the next, and then these in turn to others until the
message had been delivered at the border of the satrapy.
[World history 19.17.5-6]

We can not establish whether this is true. If it is, it is the ultimate
tribute to the Persian talent to organize this; if it is a mere
fantasy, it is a beautiful compliment.

The road, although without the pirradazi? system, was still in use in
Roman times. The bridge at Amida (modern Diyarbakir in Turkey) is an