Pliny the Elder was the ultimate Roman polymath. He was a naturalist, philosopher, writer, and high-ranking military commander, as well as a close friend of Emperor Vespasian. His most famous work was the Natural History, a vast encyclopedia on the natural world. This ancient encyclopedia is also the longest single text that survives from the Roman world. Its enduring popularity, particularly during the Middle Ages, allowed it to be passed down through the centuries largely intact. The Natural History is a vast work, it is therefore impossible to explore each aspect of the work in depth here. This guide aims to give an overview of the main topics covered, alongside some fascinating examples from the text, in the hope that it will inspire further reading.
Who Was Pliny the Elder, Author of the Natural History?
“The fortunate man, in my opinion, is he to whom the gods have granted the power either to do something which is worth recording or to write what is worth reading, and most fortunate of all is the man who can do both. Such a man was my uncle…”
Pliny the Younger, Letter 6.16
Pliny the Elder was born into a wealthy family of equestrian rank in Comum, northern Italy, around 23 CE. The young Pliny started his career as a lawyer during the reign of Emperor Nero. Emperor Vespasian later promoted him to a high-ranking government post. Pliny served under both Vespasian and Titus in the late 70s CE, and he gained a notable reputation for integrity during this time. His final post was as commander of the naval fleet stationed at Misenum on the Bay of Naples. It was a prestigious military position and one that Pliny took very seriously.
Pliny the Elder died during the devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius on the 24th of August 79 CE. His nephew, Pliny the Younger, also a famous writer and government official, wrote a detailed account of the day of his death in his Letters. He narrates how his uncle’s natural curiosity about meteorological events, coupled with his desire to help others, brought him into danger. Sadly, he never returned home, and he was later found lying on a beach, having died from suffocation.
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The Natural History was Pliny’s most famous work, but he was a prolific writer and wrote about a diverse range of topics, including everything from the uses of the throwing-spear by cavalrymen to analogy and anomaly in Latin diction. The Natural History is a vast work, split into thirty-seven books. Pliny shows a keen awareness of his literary task in the introduction: “No Roman author has attempted the same project, nor has any Greek treated all these matters single-handed.” It was indeed an impressive undertaking, one that has stood the test of time.
Pliny the Elder on Astronomy and Geography
In Book 2 of the Natural History, Pliny the Elder adheres largely to earlier Greek ideas about astronomy. He believed that the earth was spherical, and he shows how this relates to the daily rotation, sunrises, and sunsets. Pliny lists the planets as they were known in Classical times: Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the sun, Venus, Mercury, and the moon.
Among Pliny’s most detailed descriptions are those concerning the sun and the moon. Both are personified since the ancient Greeks and Romans assigned gods and goddesses to the sun and moon. His account of the sun is notably reverential: “[the Sun] lends his light … to the rest of the stars, is splendid, supreme and sees and hears everything.”
Weather is also a popular topic with Pliny. However, his level of understanding appears to be mixed. He acknowledges that rainbows are created as a result of refraction. But he also speaks of milk and blood raining from the sky and clouds that have been set on fire!
Books 3–6 discuss geography. Pliny the Elder’s geographical knowledge was acquired mainly through secondary sources. This results in a lack of new information. Much of what he relates had been common knowledge since the time of Pythagoras and Plato. However, his descriptions of exotic lands and their people are entertaining and show genuine interest on his part. There are also clear literary parallels with Herodotus’ Histories.
One particularly charming section is that relating to the island of Taprobane, modern-day Sri Lanka. Pliny describes Taprobane as “long considered to be another world.” It was a land rich in gold, silver, and precious stones, where the people commonly lived for 100 years. There were apparently neither slaves nor law courts on the island. Unusually, kings were elected by the people and could not have heirs. The people of Taprobane also liked fishing, especially for turtles “the shells of which are large and used to roof their homes.”
Pliny the Elder on Zoology and Botany
In Books 8–11, Pliny the Elder covers the vast topic of zoology. He uses a simple classification system of size, starting with the large mammals, such as elephants, and ending with tiny insects. One of Pliny’s main literary models for his section on zoology was the work of Aristotle.
Pliny dedicates Book 7 of his encyclopedia to human beings. While he includes information on man’s physical and reproductive attributes, he also spends a lot of time discussing unusual and atypical features. One example concerns the Hirpi, an ancient Italian tribe based close to Rome. Members of the Hirpi could apparently walk on fire without being burned during annual sacrifices to Apollo.
Exotic tribes in distant lands interested Pliny greatly. He seems particularly delighted by the people of Mount Nulus in India. Here apparently some men had reversed feet with eight toes, and there were also mountain dwellers with dogs’ heads who barked instead of speaking.
Books 12–27 on botany make up the largest section of the encyclopedia. Pliny focuses on the qualities of plants that are beneficial to man. Therefore, he covers medicinal plants, plants grown in agricultural contexts, and plants that provided physical products, such as clothes. Little of Pliny’s discussion of plants is based on personal scientific research. Instead, he is largely inspired by the work of others, most importantly Aristotle’s De Plantis and Theophrastus’ various works.
Pliny also discusses the importance of plants to various people around the known world. This includes an interesting section on the use of mistletoe by the Druids of Gaul and Britain. He says that it was a plant most sacred to the Druids, who also used it as a fertility drug and an antidote to poison. He concludes with a quasi-philosophical statement: “So great is the power of superstition among most peoples in regard to relatively unimportant matters.”
Pliny the Elder on Medicine and Magic
Much of Pliny the Elder’s discourse on medicine (Books 28 and 29) is tied in with his views on doctors, the practitioners of medicine. His opinion of doctors is at best skeptical and at worst contemptuous. Doctors in Pliny’s time were not regulated professionals, and many did not undergo years of necessary training. They were often Greeks, and sometimes ex-slaves, who set themselves up as people that could help the sick. In a superstitious society like ancient Rome, these men could find ample work.
Pliny is particularly scornful of the huge salaries that some doctors enjoyed. He says that one doctor, named Charmis, charged an introduction fee of 200,000 sesterces, approximately 100,000 US dollars. Another criticism concerns the type of treatments that they prescribed for their patients. These included cold baths, poisonous concoctions, and dangerous levels of fasting. Pliny ends this section with the following statement: “There is no greater reason for the decay of morals than medicine.”
It is interesting that Pliny’s section on magic (Book 30) is next to that on medicine. To him, the topics were very similar. The focus of his section on magic is the Magi. As with the doctors of medicine, he is scathing about these purveyors of magic: “I have often shown the lies of the Magi for what they are.”
The Magi originated from Persia and used magic, astrology, and philosophy in their teachings. Pliny is deeply suspicious of the Magi. He tells of the Magus Tiridates who once visited Emperor Nero. Tiridates apparently refused to travel to Rome by sea, since “the Magi consider it sinful to spit into the sea or defile its nature by any other human function.” Tiridates apparently initiated Nero into the magic banquets of the Magi, but he was ultimately unable to teach him the art of magic. Pliny diplomatically refrains from speculating as to why this was.
Pliny the Elder on Gemstones and Art
In Book 37, Pliny the Elder gives a lovely description of the beauty of gemstones: “for very many people a single precious stone can provide a matchless and perfect view of Nature.” He also gives some examples of the levels of extravagance attached to gemstones. The great general Pompey apparently celebrated one of his many military triumphs by commissioning a chess board. The board was four feet long and one foot wide, with all its pieces made from engraved precious stones.
Pliny’s understanding of the formation of some gemstones is dubious. For example, rock crystal is described as being “hardened by intense cold.” His description of the beautiful tourmaline stone, pink and green in color, is its first recorded mention in history. When it comes to diamonds, Pliny says that they were known only to kings. He mentions six different varieties of diamonds, including the Indian octahedral diamond, which could be as large as a hazelnut.
It is interesting that Pliny includes a survey of art (Book 35) in the Natural History. He seems to view it as a type of science rather than solely as a creative pursuit. Pliny’s discourse on art provides us with a fascinating insight into the trends of the time. Self-portraiture is described as unfashionable. Apparently, people preferred to decorate their houses with old portraits, sometimes of family but also of complete strangers, such as famous athletes.
Pliny praises early Roman wall painting, and he tells of the ancient Fabius Pictor family, who were famous painters. Emperor Augustus was apparently a great admirer of wall paintings. He commissioned a painting of the gods of war and triumph for the Forum, and one of Nemea seated on a lion for the Senate. These historical details are invaluable. Augustus’ wall paintings are long gone, but thanks to Pliny the Elder, we know of their existence and where they were displayed over 2,000 years ago.
The Legacy of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History
Pliny the Elder’s Natural History holds an important place in western literary history. As a vehicle for the dissemination of large amounts of varied information, it served as a model for encyclopedic works in the centuries that followed. The Natural History also includes one of the earliest surviving examples of a table of contents. This navigational tool would have been extremely beneficial to a Classical scholar searching through a work that stretched across numerous scrolls, as opposed to numbered pages.
Bede, the 8th-century-CE monk and scholar, saw great merit in Pliny the Elder’s work. He edited and copied the texts that he had access to, and his work led to the Natural History becoming very popular throughout the Middle Ages. It was also one of the earliest books to be printed in the 15th century CE at the dawn of the printing press. Today, the Natural History remains an invaluable ancient source of information, particularly concerning the details of artifacts, artwork, and architecture that no longer exist.