What Can Pliny the Elder Teach Us About Classical Art & Architecture?

Roman polymath Pliny the Elder wrote a fascinating account of art and architecture in his diverse encyclopedia Natural History.

Jan 1, 2023By Laura Hayward, MA Classics, PGCE Classics, BA Latin with Greek
leopards tomb sphinx egpyt venus cinus statue


The artistic and architectural endeavors of the Classical world have had an enduring impact on western cultural consciousness. Classical art has inspired artists and craftsmen across the centuries, and its surviving examples adorn the finest museums throughout the world. Similarly, Classical and neo-Classical architecture still permeates the infrastructure of many of Europe’s greatest cities.


In 77 CE, Roman polymath Pliny the Elder wrote one of the most comprehensive ancient reviews of Classical art and architecture in his vast encyclopedia the Natural History. This extremely valuable ancient source provides vital information about architectural landmarks and works of art that now no longer exist. It also gives us detailed information about some of the techniques used by ancient artists and craftsmen. The Natural History provides a fascinating perspective on Classical art and architecture from one of ancient Rome’s most diverse authors.


Who Was Pliny the Elder?

pliny the elder print engraving
A print engraving of Pliny the Elder, circa 1584, via the British Museum


Pliny the Elder was born around 23/24 CE in Comum, northern Italy. As a member of a wealthy equestrian family, he followed a traditional route through formal education into a career as a lawyer. During the early years of the Flavian dynasty, he gained the favor of both Emperor Vespasian and Emperor Titus. He was promoted to prestigious positions of government and was later given command of the Roman naval fleet at Misenum.


On 24th August 79 CE, Pliny the Elder met his death during the devastating volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius that destroyed the towns of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Oplontis. Living only 50 kilometers (31 miles) away from Vesuvius, Pliny’s natural curiosity and desire to help others brought him face to face with a perilous situation, from which he never returned. His nephew, the famous writer and politician Pliny the Younger wrote a detailed account of the day his uncle died in a letter to the historian Tacitus.


turner vesuvius in eruption pliny the elder
Vesuvius in Eruption, by J. M. W. Turner, circa 1817-1820, via Yale Center for British Art

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Pliny the Elder was also a prolific writer. He wrote about an array of topics, but his most famous and enduring work is known as Pliny’s Encyclopedias on Natural History. This vast ancient encyclopedia is the longest surviving single text from the Roman world. Pliny’s magnum opus became a model for informative reference works not just in the Roman era but well into the Middle Ages.


Pliny shows a keen awareness of his literary task. In his introduction to the Natural History, he declares that “no Roman author has attempted the same project, nor has any Greek treated all these matters single-handed.” It was indeed an impressive undertaking and one that stood the test of time.


The Natural History is split into 37 books, covering everything from astrology to botany. Pliny states that the book is about “all things Nature.” It is therefore interesting that he also chose to include the subjects of art and architecture in such a work. As we shall see, it is clear that he believed such creative endeavors were inherently linked to both the worlds of Nature and Science.


Pliny the Elder on Painting

tomb of the leopards
The Tomb of the Leopards in the Etruscan necropolis at Tarquinia, Italy, 480–450 BCE, via Necropoli di Tarquinia


Pliny the Elder begins his discussion on painting with a brief history. He claims that it was the Greeks who invented painting and not the Egyptians, as was commonly believed. Pliny also says that the Etruscans produced some of the best early work. Fine examples include the paintings of Atalanta and Helen at Lanuvium, which sadly do not exist today. Apparently, Emperor Caligula was so aroused by the paintings that he tried to have them removed, but without success due to the plaster that they were painted on.


Pliny proceeds to consider artistic trends through the centuries. He states that foreign paintings gained recognition in Rome during the second century BCE. This coincided with the expansion of the empire, when the looted art of foreign enemies started to filter into Rome. As an example, Pliny says that a painting of Bacchus, belonging to King Attalus of Pergamum (159—138 BCE), fetched a vast sum of 600,000 denarii (approximately 1.5 million US dollars) when it was put up for sale.


sappho writing pompeii mosaic
Pompeian fresco of a lady writing on a wax tablet, often identified as Sappho, c. 55—79 CE, The National Archaeological Museum of Naples


Pliny also discusses the field of portraiture. He laments the fact that decorating one’s home with family portraits had fallen out of fashion. Instead, people preferred expensive portraits of famous athletes. As a result of this, he says “no one’s likeness lives on — men leave portraits that represent not themselves, but their money.” In the past, family portraits were revered. It was a Roman tradition to have portrait masks made for each family member, which created a visual family tree. These masks were then paraded publicly during family funerals to celebrate the ancestral line.


Pliny also relates an innovative use for portraits that was popular in his own time. Portraits rendered in bronze, gold, or silver were apparently placed in libraries so that their “immortal spirits might speak to us in such places.” He gives the Greek poet Homer as a notable example of one whose likeness might inspire literary success.


Pliny the Elder on Eminent Artists

battle of issus after apelles pliny the elder
A mosaic depicting the Battle of Issus, supposedly based on a painting by Apelles, found at the House of the Faun in Pompeii, 1st century CE, via National Archaeological Museum of Naples


Pliny the Elder seems to have been just as interested in those who created art as he was in the art itself. His discussion of eminent artists from the Classical world highlights artists who are still known to us today, as well as those who have now fallen into obscurity. Starting with the early Greek painters, he describes Apollodorus as the first artist who achieved fame for his work. He was followed by Zeuxis in the late 5th century BCE. Pliny says that Zeuxis once painted such a realistic painting of some grapes that birds kept flying up to the building on which it was hung to try to eat them.


Next up is the famous 4th-century painter Apelles, who, in Pliny’s opinion, “contributed more to painting than all other painters combined.” Famed for the gracefulness that he brought to his paintings, Apelles worked using preparatory fine lines, which we might describe as sketches. He also displayed his unfinished sketches so that he could get constructive criticism from the public.


alexander the great marble portrait bust
Marble portrait head of Alexander the Great, 2nd–3rd century BCE, via the British Museum


So great was Apelles’ skill that Alexander the Great issued an edict stating that only Apelles could paint his portrait. Apparently, Alexander had such great respect for him that he even allowed the painter to admonish him for speaking about art without any knowledge of it. Alexander gave his most prized mistress, Pancaste, to Apelles after he fell in love with her while painting her for a nude portrait.


Pliny the Elder also gives a rare summary of female artists, who were few and far between in the Classical world. He lists some Greek women who were well-known painters of their time: Timarete, Irene, and Aristarete. He also gives some interesting information on a famous female artist of the second century BCE, Iaia of Cyzicus. Iaia was based in Rome and specialized in female portraits and ivory carving. Pliny says that her work fetched some of the highest prices of the time, on a par with her acclaimed male counterparts.


Pliny the Elder on the Use of Clay in Art

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A Greek terracotta relief plaque depicting the Gorgon Medusa, 2nd century BCE, via the Met Museum


Pliny the Elder claims that Butades, a potter from Sicyon, was the first to use clay to model the likeness of people, as opposed to using it for making pots and vases. The story goes that his daughter inspired this creative advance. She was madly in love with a man who had to travel abroad for a long period of time. On the night he left, she drew an outline of his face using the shadow he cast on the wall. Her father Butades pressed clay into the outline and made a relief of the man’s face. This relief was then fired in the same way as pottery vessels. Hence, the first clay portrait relief was born. This discovery started the tradition for artists and sculptors to use clay models before working in bronze.


roman terracotta glazed inkwell
A Roman terracotta inkwell with a green glaze, 1st century CE, via the Met Museum


Pliny viewed clay as a sacred material since it is part of Mother Earth. He claims that this is why simple terracotta vessels were used to pour libations (liquid offerings) during religious ceremonies instead of vessels made from precious metals. He also tells us that some Romans preferred to be buried in a coffin made from terracotta. He gives the great Roman scholar Marcus Varro as an example, since terracotta was apparently in keeping with his Pythagorean philosophical beliefs.


Pliny also discusses finely made pottery, some of which was so highly prized as to be on an artistic level with great paintings and statues. Emperor Vitellius apparently commissioned a dish that cost one million sesterces (approximately two million US dollars). A special kiln had to be made to accommodate its enormous size and it was placed in a field. Vitellius was later condemned for his love of luxury and excess; this dish was often cited as an example of his extravagance.


Pliny the Elder on Marble Statues and Sculptors

alma tadema phidias parthenon frieze painting
Phidias and the Frieze of the Parthenon, by Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema, 1868–1869, via Birmingham Museums


Pliny the Elder declares that the first famous sculptors of marble were Dipoenus and Scyllis, both from Crete. They were based in Sicyon, in the northern Peloponnese, which was apparently well-known for its artists’ studios. Dipoenus and Scyllis worked primarily on statues of the gods. But these sculptors were later mistreated by the Sicyonians and left the city. Shortly after, Sicyon was struck by famine, thought to be sent by the gods as revenge.


Pliny describes the sculptor Phidias as “undoubtedly the most celebrated of all sculptors.” In Pliny’s day, the Olympian Jupiter was Phidias’ most lauded work. However, Pliny believed another work to be better — the shield of the statue of Minerva, goddess of war, in Athens. This shield was an excellent example of Phidias’ attention to detail. One side depicts a battle involving the Amazons, the other a battle between the gods and giants. Even her sandals were decorated with a battle between the Centaurs and Lapiths.


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The Ludovisi Venus of Cnidus, a Roman copy of the original by Praxiteles, 1st—2nd century CE, via the National Museum of Rome (Palazzo Altemps)


Another great sculptor listed by Pliny is Praxiteles, an Athenian of the 4th century BCE. The Venus of Cnidus by Praxiteles is one of the most famous statues from antiquity. Sadly, the original does not survive today, but there are some excellent Roman copies in existence that give us a good idea of what Praxiteles’ statue looked like. Pliny gives us some fascinating information about the original statue. Praxiteles apparently made two: one clothed and one nude. The people of Cos bought the clothed version because they believed the nude to be indecent. The nude version was bought by the Cnidians, and their purchase made them famous throughout the Greek world. Apparently, one citizen of Cnidus fell madly in love with the statue and used to visit it at night. Pliny discreetly says that “a stain bears witness to his lust.”


Pliny the Elder on Architecture

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The Great Sphinx of Giza, Old Kingdom (circa 2558—2532 BCE), via Forbes


In his section on architecture, Pliny the Elder focuses on the architectural achievements of Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Interestingly, Pliny is dismissive of the pyramids of Egypt and describes them as “a pointless and absurd display of royal wealth.” As is still the case today, Pliny admits that no one really knows how the Egyptians were able to build such tall structures. He presents some theories from his own time. These include the bizarre suggestion that blocks of soda and salt were stacked up, as the pyramid rose, to allow access to its highest point. These blocks then apparently dissolved when the River Nile flooded the area surrounding the completed pyramid.


Pliny next turns his attention to the mysterious Sphinx of Giza, the mythical creature with a human head and a body of a lion. Pliny provides the interesting detail that the face of the Sphinx was colored red in his time. This is particularly interesting to archaeologists today, as this color no longer remains.


mouth cloaca maxima sewer pliny the elder
The mouth of the Cloaca Maxima sewer in Rome, 6th century BCE, via Wikimedia Commons


Closer to home, Pliny viewed the sewers of Rome as one of the city’s greatest achievements. The power of the seven rivers of Rome was harnessed to produce an effective system of urban sanitation beneath the streets of Rome. The Romans were one of the first civilizations to embrace urban sewerage systems, and the sewers of Rome were a great feat of engineering. In fact, they were built so well that they withstood a number of fires and earthquakes.


Pliny claims that they were first built 700 years before his time, during the reign of King Tarquinius Priscus. Pliny tells a deeply unsettling story about those who built the sewers under Tarquinius. Apparently, the project was so vast and so exhausting for the construction workers that suicide rates rose steeply among their number. Tarquinius intervened, not out of mercy, but because he was angry at losing members of his workforce. He apparently publicly crucified the bodies of those who had committed suicide, as a warning to others.


What Can We Learn from Pliny the Elder’s Discourse on Classical Art and Architecture?

roman letter writing tools pliny the elder
A Roman writing kit, including a wax writing tablet, bronze and ivory pens (styluses), and inkwells, circa 1st-4th century CE, via the British Museum


Pliny the Elder’s discussion of art and architecture highlights some of the greatest artistic achievements of the ancient world. It also provides a snapshot of Pliny’s authorial objectives. There are many examples in which he appears to be less interested in artistic objects or structures themselves, and more interested in the stories and people behind them. His discourse on art and architecture is an exercise in investigative writing, with his objective seemingly being to consider the motivations behind man’s desire to create items of beauty. Pliny also makes it clear throughout that Nature is the overwhelming force at the heart of each artistic endeavor, from fine pottery to urban sewer systems. This perhaps provides an answer as to why he chose to include the topic of art and architecture in his account of the natural world.

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By Laura HaywardMA Classics, PGCE Classics, BA Latin with GreekLaura Hayward is a contributing writer and researcher from London, UK. She is a specialist in the field of Classics, in which she has either studied or worked for over twenty years. She holds a B.A. and M.A. in Classics from University College London. She has also worked as a teacher of Classics in a leading independent school in London. Her particular areas of interest are Latin language and literature as well as Roman art and epigraphy.