Category Archives: culture

appian way

Civilization and Highways

Arguably the greatest road builders in the history of civilization were the Romans. Their highways were constructed mainly for military purposes and extended across much of Europe and into North Africa. Over 50,000 miles of hard surfaced roads were built using their greatest invention, concrete. Construction of the highway system began with the Appian Way in the third century BCE. Segments of this and other Roman highways exist to this day.



Another grand highway system of yore was constructed by the Incas across the highlands of the Andes. The Inca Trail ran for some 14,000 miles across rugged mountainous areas. The system was built for both commerce and especially for messengers who carried information throughout the Inca Empire. The roadway extended from Quito, Ecuador to Santiago, Chile. Along its course it occasionally exceeded 16,000 feet in elevation. Parts of this 600 year old roadway are currently used by hikers to access Machu Picchu.

inca trail

inca trail

More recent but still historic is the German Autobahn. This was the first controlled access highway. Begun across Germany, mainly in the 1920s-30s, it allowed for rapid transit and at the same time provided an important public works project which helped Germany climb out of the disastrous depression following their defeat in the first world war. Although endorsed and expanded by Hitler, the autobahn had little purpose for the Nazi war machine during world war II. Rail transport was more important in fuel poor Germany. The autobahn became important at the end of second world war as it greatly impressed General Eisenhower who traveled much of it after the war.



Colonel Eisenhower had experience with highways before the second world war. After WW I, he participated in an experiment to transport military equipment across America. They used the Lincoln Highway which stretched from New York to San Francisco. The 3000 mile trip took 62 days. The partially paved highway caused much damage to the vehicles in the form of flat tires, busted axles, and general damage to the drive trains of most of the vehicles.

In 1956 President Eisenhower pressed congress for the construction of a highway system similar to the autobahn. “The old convoy had started me thinking about good, two-lane highways, but Germany had made me see the wisdom of broader ribbons across the land…” he wrote in his book At Ease.

Societies benefit greatly by large scale transportation projects. They provide not only for important commercial and military transport but also are important for the jobs created in their development, construction, and maintenance.

It appears we have lost sight of this vision. Several dozen highway projects in here in Arkansas have recently been canceled because of the lack of funds in the federal highway trust fund. Even worse, a bill has been introduced in the 2015 state legislature, HB 1781, which would allow the state highway department to simply walk away from several thousand miles of state highways. We’re abandoning our highways because we don’t want to pay for them. Because we don’t want to pay the taxes, we simply give up on an important part of civilization.

“I like to pay taxes. With them, I buy civilization.” Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

Winter Solstice

The winter solstice can occur anywhere from December 20 to 23. This year it will be Sunday, December 21. This demarks the point when the axis of the earth’s rotation is tilted farthest from the sun in the northern hemisphere. This produces the shortest day and longest night of the year.

The change in the angle of the earth’s axis is what generates the seasons. It gets cold in the wintertime in the northern hemisphere because the tilted axis mean the suns rays are less effective at warming the surface of the earth. This is caused by two effects. Shorter days simply mean less sunlit time, and the sunlight we do get in the winter is weaker because the sun’s rays strike earth at a shallower angle.

We can mark time by observing the sun’s angle. Between the winter solstice and the summer solstice the sun gradually rises higher in the sky every day. The word solstice is from latin and means sun stand. It’s the point when the northerly or southerly movement stops and reverses.

The changing seasons have obvious effects which are important to all life on earth. The need for light, shelter and food all vary with the seasons. Ancient societies, even stone age societies monitored the sun’s angle to keep track of passing seasons.

Stonehenge, in southern England, was built around 2,000 BCE. It’s massive stones are arrayed such that on the equinoxes and the solstices, the sun rising over the horizon appears to be aligned between the gaps. This is doubtless not an accident. Similarly the citadel of Machu Picchu, built high in the Peruvian Andes, was dedicated to the sun god.

Winter soltice, Machu Picchu

Winter soltice, Machu Picchu

Within the temple is a semicircular room with a window aligned for observance of their winter solstice in June.

The winter solstice was always a time of celebration as the sun starts its northerly climb, and the days begin again to get longer, not shorter. The Feast of Juul was a pre-Christian festival observed in Scandinavia around the time of the winter solstice. Fires were lit to symbolize the heat, light and life-giving properties of the returning sun. A Yule or Juul log was brought in and burned on the hearth in honor of the Scandinavian god Thor. yule log

In ancient Rome the winter solstice was celebrated with Saturnalia, a seven day event meant to honor Saturn, the god of seed and sowing. A novel feature of the celebration was the suspension of normal social order. Government offices closed, legal restrictions on things like gambling were suspended, and masters served slaves. Gifts were exchanged among family and friends, especially candles which signified the return of light.

Saturnalia, later called Brumalia, from bruma, the “shortest day,” was celebrated for centuries. By about the 4 century CE as Rome came under christian rule, the festival morphed into Christmas celebrations. It is thought that the tradition of gift giving at Christmas is relic of the winter solstice.