Brutus and the Siege of Modena

With the popularity of cell phones and e-mail, it's already hard to imagine how people got along without them. Harder still is picturing life before the telegraph -- or even a sophisticated postal system. However, one of the most amazing early methods of communication endured from ancient times until well into the 20th century: the carrier pigeon.

For thousands of years, humans have recognized the remarkable homing mechanism of pigeons. If you release a homing pigeon hundreds of miles from its nest, it will invariably return home. It's as if they have a built-in GPS. In fact, we still don't know exactly how their homing mechanism works. Most researchers believe pigeons use a "map and compass method" by determining both direction from the sun and the earth's magnetic field.

Whatever the method they use, pigeons have served as invaluable to people who need to send important messages over long distances. In the process, some special pigeons have saved hundreds of lives and were even decorated by governments. We'll go over some of these remarkable stories in the following pages.

Ancient Greeks and Romans used homing pigeons to send all types of messages. As early as the 8th century B.C., Greeks used homing pigeons to send news of the Olympic champions. We also know of a Roman magistrate in the 4th century who sent a pigeon to merely say that he'd be late coming home from the theater.

But perhaps the greatest ancient use of carrier pigeons was in 44 B.C., during Marc Antony's siege of Modena (a city in Northern Italy, then known as Mutina). Marcus Junius Brutus successfully defended the city, thanks in part to his use of pigeons to send messages to his allies, Decimus and Hirtius.