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The Royal Road

The Royal Road of the Achaemenid Dynasty

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Persian Empire at 490 BC

Map of the Persian Empire at its height, in 490 BC

US Military Academy, Department of History

The Royal Road of the Achaemenids was a major intercontinental thoroughfare built by the Achaemenid king Darius the Great (521-485 BC), to allow access to the 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 1500 miles (2400 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, Baktria 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.

Architectural Features of the Royal Road

Determining architecture of the road is somewhat difficult, since the Achmaenid road was built following older roads. Intact sections of the road which date to Darius's time, such as that at Gordion and Sardis, were constructed with cobble pavements atop a low embankment from 5-7 meters in width and, in places, faced with a curbing of dressed stone.

A hundred and eleven way-posting stations were reported to existing on the main branch between Susa and Sardis, where fresh horses were kept for travelers. A handful of way stations have been tentatively identified archaeologically. One possible waystation is a large (40x30 meters) five-room stone building near the site of Kuh-e Qale; another is at the site of JinJan (Tappeh Survan), in Iran.

Archaeology of the Royal Road

Much of what is known about the Royal Road comes not from archaeology, but from Herodotos the Greek historian, 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 during his conquest of Anatolia. It is possible that the first roads were established in the 10th century BC under the Hittites. These roads would have been used as trade routes by the Assyrians and Hittites at Boghakzoy.

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. He 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 BC; and it is possible that Alexander the Great traveled this same route while conquering much of Eurasia in the 4th century.

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.

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com Guide to the Persian Empire, Ancient Roads, and part of the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Livius quotes Herodotos on the Royal Road, and provides a possible map.

Dusinberre ERM. 2003. Aspects of Empire in Achaemenid Sardis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

French D. 1998. Pre- and Early-Roman Roads of Asia Minor. The Persian Royal Road. Iran 36:15-43.

Sumner WM. 1986. Achaemenid Settlement in the Persepolis Plain. American Journal of Archaeology 90(1):3-31.

Young RS. 1963. Gordion on the Royal Road. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 107(4):348-364.

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