Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


It was not until lately that the modern nations of Europe began to render roads practicable and convenient, and to bestow on them some beauty. To superintend and keep in order the road is one of the most important cares of both the Mogul and Chinese emperors. But these princes never attained such eminence in this department as the Romans. The Appian, the Aurelian, the Flaminian, the Æmilian, and the Trajan ways exist even at the present day. The Romans alone were capable of constructing such roads, and they alone were capable of repairing them.

Bergier, who has written an otherwise valuable book, insists much on Solomon’s employing thirty thousand Jews in cutting wood on Mount Lebanon, eighty thousand in building the temple, seventy thousand on carriages, and three thousand six hundred in superintending the labors of others. We will for a moment admit it all to be true; yet still there is nothing said about his making or repairing highways.

Pliny informs us that three hundred thousand men were employed for twenty years in building one of the pyramids of Egypt; I am not disposed to doubt it; but surely three hundred thousand men might have been much better employed. Those who worked on the canals in Egypt; or on the great wall, the canals, or highways of China; or those who constructed the celebrated ways of the Roman Empire were much more usefully occupied than the three hundred thousand miserable slaves in building a pyramidal sepulchre for the corpse of a bigoted Egyptian.

We are well acquainted with the prodigious works accomplished by the Romans, their immense excavations for lakes of water, or the beds of lakes formed by nature, filled up, hills levelled, and a passage bored through a mountain by Vespasian, in the Flaminian way, for more than a thousand feet in length, the inscription on which remains at present. Pausilippo is not to be compared with it.

The foundations of the greater part of our present houses are far from being so solid as were the highways in the neighborhood of Rome; and these public ways were extended throughout the empire, although not upon the same scale of duration and solidity. To effect that would have required more men and money than could possibly have been obtained.

Almost all the highways of Italy were erected on a foundation four feet deep; when a space of marshy ground or bog was on the track of the road, it was filled up; and when any part of it was mountainous, its precipitousness was reduced to a gentle and trifling inclination from the general line of the road. In many parts, the roads were supported by solid walls.

Upon the four feet of masonry, were placed large hewn stones of marble, nearly one foot in thickness, and frequently ten feet wide; they were indented by the chisel to prevent the slipping of the horses. It was difficult to say which most attracted admiration — the utility or the magnificence of these astonishing works.

Nearly all of these wonderful constructions were raised at the public expense. Cæsar repaired and extended the Appian way out of his own private funds; those funds, however, consisted of the money of the republic.

Who were the persons employed upon these works? Slaves, captives taken in war, and provincials that were not admitted to the distinction of Roman citizens. They worked by “corvée,” as they do in France and elsewhere; but some trifling remuneration was allowed them.

Augustus was the first who joined the legions with the people in labors upon the highways of the Gauls, and in Spain and Asia. He penetrated the Alps by the valley which bore his name, and which the Piedmontese and the French corruptly called the “Valley of Aöste.” It was previously necessary to bring under subjection all the savage hordes by which these cantons were inhabited. There is still visible, between Great and Little St. Bernard, the triumphal arch erected by the senate in honor of him after this expedition. He again penetrated the Alps on another side leading to Lyons, and thence into the whole of Gaul. The conquered never effected for themselves so much as was effected for them by their conquerors.

The downfall of the Roman Empire was that of all the public works, as also of all orderly police, art, and industry. The great roads disappeared in the Gauls, except some causeways, “chaussées,” which the unfortunate Queen Brunehilde kept for a little time in repair. A man could scarcely move on horseback with safety on the ancient celebrated ways, which were now becoming dreadfully broken up, and impeded by masses of stone and mud. It was found necessary to pass over the cultivated fields; the ploughs scarcely effected in a month what they now easily accomplish in a week. The little commerce that remained was limited to a few woollen and linen cloths, and some wretchedly wrought hardwares, which were carried on the backs of mules to the fortifications or prisons called “châteaux,” situated in the midst of marshes, or on the tops of mountains covered with snow.

Whatever travelling was accomplished — and it could be but little — during the severe seasons of the year, so long and so tedious in northern climates, could be effected only by wading through mud or climbing over rocks. Such was the state of the whole of France and Germany down to the middle of the seventeenth century. Every individual wore boots; and in many of the cities of Germany the inhabitants went into the streets on stilts.

At length, under Louis XIV., were begun those great roads which other nations have imitated. Their width was limited to sixty feet in the year 1720. They are bordered by trees in many places to the extent of thirty leagues from the capital, which has a most interesting and delightful effect. The Roman military ways were only sixteen feet wide, but were infinitely more solid. It was necessary to repair them every year, as is the practice with us. They were embellished by monuments, by military columns, and even by magnificent tombs; for it was not permitted, either in Greece or Italy, to bury the dead within the walls of cities, and still less within those of temples; to do so would have been no less an offence than sacrilege. It was not then as it is at present in our churches, in which, for a sum of money, ostentatious and barbarous vanity is allowed to deposit the dead bodies of wealthy citizens, infecting the very place where men assemble to adore their God in purity, and where incense seems to be burned solely to counteract the stench of carcasses; while the poorer classes are deposited in the adjoining cemetery; and both unite their fatal influence to spread contagion among survivors.

The emperors were almost the only persons whose ashes were permitted to repose in the monuments erected at Rome.

Highways, sixty feet in width, occupy too much land; it is about forty feet more than necessary. France measures two hundred leagues, or thereabouts, from the mouth of the Rhone to the extremity of Brittany, and about the same from Perpignan to Dunkirk; reckoning the league at two thousand five hundred toises. This calculation requires, merely for two great roads, a hundred and twenty millions of square feet of land, all which must of course be lost to agriculture. This loss is very considerable in a country where the harvests are by no means always abundant.

An attempt was made to pave the high road from Orleans, which was not of the width above mentioned; but it was seen, in no long time, that nothing could be worse contrived for a road constantly covered with heavy carriages. Of these hewn paving stones laid on the ground, some will be constantly sinking, and others rising above the correct level, and the road becomes rugged, broken, and impracticable; it was therefore found necessary that the plan should be abandoned.

Roads covered with gravel and sand require a renewal of labor every year; this labor interferes with the cultivation of land, and is ruinous to agriculture.

M. Turgot, son of the mayor of Paris — whose name is never mentioned in that city but with blessings, and who was one of the most enlightened, patriotic, and zealous of magistrates — and the humane and beneficent M. de Fontette have done all in their power, in the provinces of Limousin and Normandy, to correct this most serious inconvenience.

It has been contended that we should follow the example of Augustus and Trajan, and employ our troops in the construction of highways. But in that case the soldier must necessarily have an increase of pay; and a kingdom, which was nothing but a province of the Roman Empire, and which is often involved in debt, can rarely engage in such undertakings as the Roman Empire accomplished without difficulty.

It is a very commendable practice in the Low Countries, to require the payment of a moderate toll from all carriages, in order to keep the public roads in proper repair. The burden is a very light one. The peasant is relieved from the old system of vexation and oppression, and the roads are in such fine preservation as to form even an agreeable continued promenade.

Canals are much more useful still. The Chinese surpass all other people in these works, which require continual attention and repair. Louis XIV., Colbert, and Riquet, have immortalized themselves by the canal which joins the two seas. They have never been as yet imitated. It is no difficult matter to travel through a great part of France by canals. Nothing could be more easy in Germany than to join the Rhine to the Danube; but men appear to prefer ruining one another’s fortunes, and cutting each other’s throats about a few paltry villages, to extending the grand means of human happiness.

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25