Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus)

views updated Jun 08 2018


(b. Como, Italy, 23/24 CE; d. near Pompeii, Italy, 79 CE)

natural history. For the original article on Pliny see DSB, see vol. 11.

Pliny’s Natural History is an extraordinarily important document in the history of Western science. From antiquity through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, Pliny’s massive compilation of knowledge remained a valued source of practical information on medicine and on the natural world. Pliny’s reputation as a scholar plummeted, however, as his science was overtaken and new mistakes were revealed in his use of his sources. Most nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholarship on the Natural History emphasized Pliny’s errors and his pedantry in compiling an encyclopedia based on his reading of the original research of earlier authors. Since the original DSB article, however, Pliny’s standing has risen again, as a result of new approaches to the text.

Although a great deal of useful work is still being done on specific subjects within the Natural History, work on the text in the original DSB entry has been animated by the desire to examine the broader strategies of the work, dealing with it as a cohesive narrative rather than focusing solely on its information. Two important strands of Pliny’s thought have been isolated for exploration: the underlying concept of nature that runs through the Natural History, and the central importance of the Roman Empire and Roman traditional morality to the rationale of the text. The insights produced by these approaches will be discussed below.

Pliny’s influence in postclassical periods has also come under renewed scrutiny: the Natural History is important not just for the information it provides on Roman scientific and cultural knowledge, but also for its influence on later European thinkers in a range of fields. Work on the Natural History has begun to explore the text’s place in later scientific discourse, and also in the development of the disciplines of philology and art history, and the genre of encyclopedia. Some key aspects of Pliny’s diffusion in later periods will be discussed in the final section.

Concept of Natural History In the preface to the Natural History, Pliny explained that his subject matter would be “nature, that is life.” Despite this, the Natural History presents very little overt theorizing about nature. Unlike his fellow Romans, Seneca and Lucretius, Pliny rarely presented sustained philosophical arguments in the Natural History. However, the work as a whole is informed by Stoic natural philosophy, as Mary Beagon demonstrated in her groundbreaking book, Roman Nature: The Thought of Pliny the Elder (1992). For Pliny, “Natura is the world, both as a whole and as its separate components; she is both the creator and the creation” (Beagon, 2005, p. 26). Pliny drew on the Stoic conception of a divine power permeating the universe, a directing force or spirit present in the world and in everything in the world. The whole of nature is animated by a providential presence that directs it, and this divine power can be identified both with nature and with the world itself. Of particular importance to Pliny was the Stoic idea of Nature the Creator/Artist (Natura artifex), which makes nature a conscious, creative power, who deliberately organizes the world with the needs of humanity in mind. Nature, then, can be the natural world itself, the intrinsic nature of an object, or a personified, divine Nature who designed the world with human beings at its center: all three concepts are in play within the Natural History. But although Pliny made use of such concepts, he offered his readers little in the way of original philosophical speculation, and was often contradictory and eclectic in his adoption of elements from different philosophical systems to suit his needs. As Beagon argues, Stoic cosmology was the well-assimilated underpinning of Pliny’s thought, rather than an object of inquiry in its own right within the Natural History.

This absence of an explicit and overarching philosophical agenda is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Pliny’s account of the natural world in the context of surviving work from antiquity. It brings with it what appears to be a new approach to what knowing about nature entails. In the Natural History, nature is broken down into series of discrete places, animals, plants, medicines, and minerals, each discussed in its proper place in the comprehensive catalogs that Pliny assembled. For Pliny it was possible not just to know all of nature, but to itemize and count that knowledge: in the preface, Pliny advertises the twenty thousand facts he has assembled, a symbolically colossal number, and goes on to quantify the number of “remedies, researches and observations” for each book in the list of contents he provided in Book 1. It is this radical segmentation of knowledge and drive for comprehensiveness, along with the absence of a strong theoretical framework, which makes the Natural History’s treatment of nature unique among other ancient accounts. For Pliny, discussing nature did not mean propounding the merits of a Stoic or Epicurean worldview, it meant: knowing that six European trees produce pitch, that there are three kinds of lettuce, that the best kind of emeralds come from Scythia, and that rocket is an excellent aphrodisiac (Pitch trees: bk. 16, sec. 38; lettuce: bk. 19, sec. 125; emeralds: bk. 37, sec. 65; rocket: bk. 19, sec. 154, bk. 20, sec. 19). In this version of natural history, nature becomes very much the sum of its parts and knowing these detailed elements has become an end in itself.

This conceptualization of natural knowledge as a comprehensive series of facts led to a curious openness in the structure of Pliny’s text. Individual facts, whether quirky or useful, were the building blocks of Pliny’s narrative, taken from his one hundred authorities and arranged into hierarchical lists. The overarching structure moves from the heavens (Book 2), to the earth and terrestrial geography (Books 3–6), to animals (starting with humans in Book 7 and proceeding through land animals in 8, sea creatures in 9, birds in 10, and insects in Book 11), to plants (Books 12–19), to medicines from plants (Books 20–27), to medicines from animals (Books 28–32), and finally metals and minerals (Books 33–37). The neat top-down structure is disturbed a little by the fact that a third of the work is devoted to materia medica. Within the books, the organizing principle changes frequently: it may be size (the elephant begins the account of land animals in Book 8 because it is the biggest and closest to humans in intelligence). It may be degree of usefulness (as with the vine in Book 14). It may be price (as with gemstones at the start of Book 37). The list is an essentially open structure. In the absence of a strong overarching argument, it allows facts to be easily excerpted from the Natural History. But within the text, facts are linked and held in place by the hierarchies that Pliny created with them. Pliny’s lists are not just practical, however: they are also entertaining. Quite apart from the pleasure of learning that the text offers, the frequent changes in mode of hierarchy, the discursive openings to most of the books, the bizarre or miraculous stories that stud the drier lists of facts, all attest to Pliny’s desire to entertain as well as instruct his reader.

Pliny’s organizational strategy, his dependence on earlier sources, and his drive for comprehensiveness led later scholars to recognize his work as one of the first encyclopedias. Attempts have been made to create an ancient genre of encyclopedia by drawing parallels between Pliny’s Natural History and the works of Cato, Varro, and Celsus;

but very little of these works survives, not enough to do more than surmise that these authors attempted to cover all the liberal arts. This is a very different project from Pliny’s discussion of nature, but the authors have been linked because of their comprehensive ambitions and, more importantly, because of an etymological link between the Greek name for liberal arts or comprehensive education, encyclios paideia, and the modern term encyclopedia. Pliny’s Natural History is the only “encyclopedia” of its kind that survives from antiquity, and its recognition as an encyclopedia depends on knowledge of a modern category of text which would have been unfamiliar to Pliny and to his first audience. Nevertheless, this modern identification of Pliny’s work as an encyclopedia has had important implications for how scholars approached the work. It provides an implicit intellectual justification for the practice of extracting decontextualized facts from the text, or treating it in segments rather than as a coherent whole; more dynamically, Pliny’s encyclopedism has become an important factor in unraveling the politics of his text.

Empire and the Encyclopedia Pliny’s underlying Stoic beliefs have implications not just for his view of nature, but also for his attitudes toward humans. Andrew Wallace-Hadrill (1990) and Roger French (1994) joined with Beagon in exploring nature and humanity’s place in it as the central theme of the Natural History, discussing the role of luxury as a key element in Pliny’s prescriptions about what is and what is not natural. Pliny’s universe is organized with the concerns of humanity at its center, and although Nature can at times appear more wicked stepmother than loving parent (bk. 7, sec. 1), the Natural History ultimately presents an image of a world thoughtfully designed for humans to use. Pliny’s descriptions of natural objects emphasize their human context: their availability at Rome, how much they cost, and, especially, their uses in medicine. It is also possible for humans to misuse nature, however, by perverting her providential purpose by wasteful indulgence in luxurious living. Pliny’s view of nature as a providential divinity goes hand in hand with a particular moral worldview that both privileges humanity’s place in nature and criticizes what he sees as Abūse of that position. As Sandra Citroni Marchetti discussed (1991), the Natural History’s rhetoric can be read in the context of a wider Roman tradition of moral writing that compares a decadent, urban present with the self-sufficient simplicity of a rural past. In this view of history, Rome’s empire holds an ambiguous position. Pliny was proud of Rome’s greatness, and generally viewed the empire as a civilizing enterprise, but lamented the luxurious consumerism that it had made possible, and the decline in respect for learning that attended this (most notably, perhaps, in the opening of Book 14).

In the Natural History, the humans for whom nature has obligingly designed the natural world are not just any humans: they are Romans. As Gian Biagio Conte pointed out (1994), Pliny put the interests and needs of his Roman reader at the heart of his text, and chose which information to include or exclude based on the desires and competencies of his envisaged audience. Sorcha Carey, Trevor Murphy (2004), and Valérie Naas (2002) further politicized the Roman worldview at the heart of the Natural History: Pliny’s information was gathered as a result of Roman imperial expansion and as a tool for further expansion, laying bare the contents of the empire and its usefulness for Rome. This codependency of knowledge and empire is perhaps most evident in the geographical sections of the Natural History, Books 3–6. Throughout these books, towns within the empire are generally described in terms of their tax-paying status and ordered by administrative district, and towns’ major exports or links to Rome are emphasized. But one also finds more overt traces of Roman military power over conquered populations: an inscription from a triumphal arch was used as the source for the conquered peoples of the Alps (bk. 3, secs. 136–137); places with barbarian place names were explicitly excluded because of their unpleasantness to a Roman ear and their lack of importance (bk. 3, secs. 7, 28, 139); knowledge of Southern Cyrene comes from the military expedition of Cornelius Balbus, or, more exactly, from the triumphal procession following his victories there (bk. 5, secs. 36–37). Knowledge about the world was derived from Rome’s military dominance and this knowledge is placed at the service of continuing that dominance.

On a symbolic level too, the Natural History’s encyclopedism can be seen as an imperial enterprise: just as empire represents the pursuit of power, so encyclopedism represents a desire to annex and organize knowledge. On this model, Pliny’s encyclopedism became easily assimilated to the nationalistic encyclopedias of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As Murphy explained in the introduction to his important book on this aspect of the text,

I shall argue for a reading of Pliny’s encyclopedia as a political document, a cultural artifact of the Roman empire just as much as the Encyclopedia Britannica was an artifact of the British Empire. I shall demonstrate how the structure and content of the Natural History entwined with Roman political imperium in a relationship of mutual benefit, in that one of the functions of an encyclopedia is to embody how much is known and to demarcate it all from the perspective of central authority. (2004, p. 2. Cf. Carey p. 17)

Although the imperial perspective and comprehensive ambitions provide a clear parallel with these later works, it is important to bear in mind that the encyclopedia is a modern, not an ancient category, and encyclopedias have taken many forms, both in terms of their ideologies and their physical appearance over the years. The centralizing rhetoric of Pliny’s opening table of contents is unlikely to have been lived up to by all copies of his text in an age of manuscripts. Tailor-made copies that included only the books on a particular set of subjects, for example, medicine or astronomy, must have been common right from the start of the text’s long history of use. Although the rhetoric of the Natural History claims to cover everything, and links backward and forward with cross-references to other parts of the text, its massive bulk was always ripe for deconstruction, facts always easily removed for redeployment elsewhere. If the text provided an image of the empire, it was of an empire always open to expansion, but always, perhaps, on the verge of disintegration.

Pliny after Antiquity Although Pliny’s text may have been modeled on the interests of a Roman reader and deeply imbued with Roman imperialism, its importance did not end with the collapse of the Roman Empire. Pliny’s information was widely disseminated throughout Europe in late antiquity and the Middle Ages. Arno Borst (1995) traced the range of approaches that could be pplied to the Natural History by prominent scholars from antiquity to the fifteenth century, including St. Jerome, St. Augustine, John Scotus Eriugena, Hugh de Saint Victor, Albertus Magnus, and Petrarch. As Borst demonstrated, the text was used as a vital source of useful scientific knowledge, but it was also read for pleasure, and as a source of knowledge from ancient past that could be used to address contemporary problems. The entirety of the Natural History continued to be copied, but information was also excerpted and reused by other authors, notably Isidore of Seville and Vincent de Beauvais, in their own compendia of useful knowledge. Individual stories, recipes, and facts from the Natural History entered into the repertoire of scholarly knowledge so that it is often difficult to determine whether a later writer has gathered the information from reading Pliny directly or found the fact in a bestiary or recipe book or medical compilation that had long since naturalized the information as its own.

Specialist handbooks were also created by selectively editing the Natural History to meet the needs of new markets. As Bruce S. Eastwood has shown (1986), an influential series of astronomical excerpts, some with purpose-made figures, circulated separately for use in computus (determining the date of Easter). The medical sections of the Natural History were edited to produce the Medic-ina Plinii (Pliny’s medicine), perhaps the most significant of these specialist collections of extracts. It seems to have first appeared in the fourth century CE, at a time when the institutions that had upheld complex theoretical medicine were beginning to collapse in the western half of the Roman Empire. It offered a selection of medical recipes, mostly culled from Pliny; but where Pliny had largely organized his medical information according to the type of substance rather than the type of illness, the Medicina Plinii organized its remedies by ailment, following a commonly used top-down structure, so that afflictions of the head were dealt with first. This compilation continued to grow and mutate with the addition of more information. A separate recension that substantially expanded the Medicina from other sources, known as the Physica Plinii, is also adduced for the sixth century. The collection was still in use in the early sixteenth century, when three separate editions were published, the most authoritative of which was edited by Alban Thorer, professor of medicine at the University of Basel from 1537 to 1545.

The Natural History continued to be used as a practical source of medical and scientific knowledge right into the sixteenth century. Despite its usefulness, or perhaps because of it, Pliny’s text posed particular problems for readers: generations of copyists misunderstood and amended Pliny’s technical and often obscure Latin. Others made additions or altered the text to suit their particular purposes. In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the task of producing an accurate text of Pliny’s Natural History engaged the cream of humanist scholarship in competition and disputation, as figures such as Angelo Poliziano, Ermolao Barbaro, Beatus Rhenanus, and Desiderius Erasmus commented on the text. Before 1500, in the first fifty years of printing alone, there were fifteen editions of six separate recensions of the text published, as well as two Italian translations. One particular scholarly controversy has been singled out for its importance in signaling the gradual decline of Pliny’s importance as a practical source of scientific information: a debate over the accuracy of Pliny’s medicine, initiated by the professor of medicine at Ferrara, Niccolò Leoniceno in 1492 with the publication of his De Plinii et plurium aliorum in medicina erroribus (On the mistakes in medicine made by Pliny and several others). By comparing Pliny’s text with that of Pedanius Dioscorides and Theophrastus, Leoniceno uncovered mistakes that Pliny made in his understanding of his Greek sources—mistakes that, he pointed out, could have disastrous consequences for those who followed his prescriptions. Pandolfo Colennuccio, a protégé of Poliziano, leapt to Pliny’s defense, and the debate continued in pamphlet form for several years. As Charles Nauert (1979), among others, has discussed, although neither Leoniceno nor Colennuccio made much use of empirical evidence in their attempts to prove their point, this apparent attack on Pliny marked an important moment in the movement away from scholasticism toward early modern scientific inquiry and the eventual end of Pliny’s importance as a practical guide to “nature, that is life.”


In addition to the editions listed by David E. Eichholz in the original DSB article, the Latin text of Karl Mayhoff’s 1909 Teubner edition (on which the Loeb edition is based) is available online from the Perseus Project,, together with an English translation by John Bostock and H.T. Riley (1855). There are also new Italian, German, and Spanish editions.


Naturkunde. Naturalis historiae libri XXXVII. Edited by Gerhard Winkler, Barchiesi Roderich König, Karl Bayer, et al. Munich, Germany: Heimeran Verlag, 1973.

Storia naturale/Gaio Plinio Secondo. Edited by Gian B. Conte, Alessandro Barchiesi, Chiara Frugoni, et al. Turin, Italy: Einaudi, 1982.

Historia natural/Plinio el Viejo, Biblioteca clasica Gredos; 206, 308, etc. Edited by Guy Serbat, Antonio Fontán, and Ana María Moure Casas. Madrid: Gredos, 1995.


Barkan, Leonard. Unearthing the Past: Archaeology and Aesthetics in the Making of Renaissance Culture. New Haven, CT; London: Yale University Press, 1999. Discusses the use of Pliny in Renaissance art criticism and archaeology.

Beagon, Mary. Roman Nature: The Thought of Pliny the Elder. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

———. The Elder Pliny on the Human Animal: Natural History, Book 7, Clarendon Ancient History Series. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005.

Bona, Isabella. Natura terrestrium: (Plin. nat. hist. VIII). Pubblicazioni del D.Ar.Fi.Cl.eT.; nuova serie, 138. Genoa, Italy: Universita di Genova, Facolta di lettere, Dipartimento di archeologia, filologia classica e loro tradizioni, 1991.

Borst, Arno. Das Buch der Naturgeschichte. Plinius und seine Leser im Zeitalter des Pergaments. Heidelberg, Germany: C. Winter, 1995.

Capponi, Filippo. Natura aquatilium (Plin. nat. hist. IX). Pubblicazioni del D.AR.FI.CL.ET; nuova serie, 131. Genoa, Italy: Universita di Genova, Facolta di lettere, Dipartimento di archeologia, filologia classica e loro tradizioni, 1990.

———. Entomologia pliniana (N.H. XI, 1-120). Pubblicazioni del D.AR.FI.CL.ET; nuova ser., n. 154. Genoa, Italy: Universita di Genova, Facolta di lettere, Dipartimento di archeologia, filologia classica e loro tradizioni, 1994.

———. L’anatomia e la fisiologia di Plinio. Pubblicazioni del D.AR.FI.CL.ET; n.s., n. 158. Genoa, Italy: Universita di Genova, Facolta di lettere, Dipartimento di archeologia, filologia classica e loro tradizioni, 1995.

Chibnall, Marjorie. “Pliny’s Natural History and the Middle Ages.” In Empire and Aftermath, edited by Thomas A. Dorey, 57–78. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975.

Citroni Marchetti, Sandra. Plinio il Vecchio e la tradizione del moralismo romano. Pisa, Italy: Giardini, 1991.

Conte, Gian Biagio. “The Inventory of the World: Form of Nature and the Encyclopedic Project in the Work of Pliny the Elder.” In Genres and Readers, edited by Gian Biagio Conte. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. English translation of Conte’s introduction to the Einaudi Pliny.

Eastwood, Bruce S. “Plinian Astronomy in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.” In Science in the Early Roman Empire: Pliny the Elder, His Sources and Influence, edited by Frank Greenaway and Roger K. French, 197–251. London: Croom Helm, 1986.

French, Roger K. “Pliny and Renaissance Medicine.” In Science in the Early Roman Empire: Pliny the Elder, His Sources and Influence, edited by Roger K. French and Frank Greenaway, 252–281. London: Croom Helm, 1986.

———, and Frank Greenaway, eds. Science in the Early Roman Empire: Pliny the Elder, His Sources and Influence. London: Croom Helm, 1986. Important collection of papers that isolate particular subjects within the Natural History: for example, botany, pharmacology, zoology.

———. Ancient Natural History: Histories of Nature. London: Routledge, 1994.

Healy, John F. Pliny the Elder on Science and Technology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Murphy, Trevor. Pliny the Elder’s Natural History: The Empire in the Encyclopaedia. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Naas, Valérie. Le projet encyclopédique de Pline l’Ancien. Rome: École française de Rome, 2002.

Nauert, Charles G. “Humanists, Scientists and Pliny: Changing Approaches to a Classical Author.” American Historical Revue 84 (1979): 72–85.

Roncoroni, Angelo, ed. Plinio e la natura: Atti del ciclo di conferenze sugli aspetti naturalistici dell’ opera pliniana, Como 1979. Como: Camera di commercio, industria, artigianato e agricoltura di Como, 1982.

Wallace-Hadrill, Andrew. “Pliny the Elder and Man’s Unnatural History.” Greece and Rome 1 (1990): 80–96.

Aude Doody

Pliny (Gaius Plinius Secundus)

views updated May 14 2018


(b. Como, Italy, ca. a.d. 23; d. near Pompeii, Italy, 25 August a.d. 79)

natural history.

Pliny’s parents are not known to have been distinguished, but his father had means and was no doubt a respected member of the community. By the age of twelve Pliny was in Rome, where he must have received a thorough education in literature, oratory, and law, as well as some military training. His attitude to religion was a typically Roman blend of credulity and skepticism. There is no evidence that he married. He adopted as his son and heir, perhaps in his will, his nephew Pliny the Younger. Even in later life, when he suffered from respiratory trouble, his mental stamina was exceptional. He never needed much sleep, his motto being “To live is to be awake” (Natural History, preface, sec. 18).

Promotion to the senatorial order and the highest offices was achieved by Pliny’s heir; but thanks to his father’s position and his own education, Pliny himself was able at the age of about twenty-three to begin the official career open to members of the second great Roman order, the equestrian. The early stages of such a career were military. While in command of a cavalry squadron stationed on the Rhine frontier, Pliny began his career as a writer with a monograph concerning the use of javelins by cavalry. It was soon followed by a history of the Roman campaigns in Germany and by a biography of Pomponius Secundus, who may have been his superior officer in Germany and who had become his close friend. Pomponius was a poet and dramatist as well as an administrator and a general. This range of activities foreshadowed and perhaps encouraged Pliny’s own versatility.

By a.d. 57 or 58 Pliny had completed his military duties and had returned to Italy, where for the next ten years he wrote works on oratory and grammar, and possibly practiced as a lawyer. One reason for this change of course may have been his dislike of Nero’s regime; another may have been Nero’s disfavor or Pliny’s fear of it. When Vespasian became emperor in a.d. 69, Pliny was able to resume his official career. He had probably served with Vespasian’s son Titus in Germany, and this connection may have helped to bring about the series of appointments as financial overseer of a province that he is said to have held with the utmost integrity. One of these posts took him to a Spanish province, another perhaps to the province of Africa, which is now Tunisia and Tripolitania. Rather than impede Pliny’s literary activities, these duties seem to have spurred him to almost feverish efforts. At this time he was working on a history, published posthumously, of the period covering roughly a.d. 44–71.

Roman historians were usually men of affairs, and in this respect Pliny was exceptional only because he was not a senator. While working on his history, he was drafting his only extant work, the thirty-seven books of the Natural History, although the collecting of notes for it must have started earlier. The work was dedicated to Titus in 77, but the final redaction may have been carried out after Pliny’s death by his nephew. Toward the end of his life Pliny became a recognized counselor or “friend” of Vespasian and then of Titus. His last official post was that of commander of the fleet based at Misenum, at the northwest extremity of the Bay of Naples; and it was from Misenum that he started on the voyage that led him to his death near Pompeii, where he was overcome by the fumes from the eruption of Vesuvius.

Pliny was a savant who was also a man of affairs, and the latter must not be overlooked at the expense of the former. It is misleading to approach the Natural History as if it were self-contained. Pliny’s preoccupation with his public status is evident in the digression on the history of the equestrian order in book 33 (secs. 29–36) and in frequent references to members of the order. His campaigns in Germany bear fruit at the beginning of book 16 in his vivid description of North Sea fisherfolk living precariously on their artificial mounds, as well as in other eyewitness reports. Pliny’s interest in history, not least the history of the period that was the subject of his own historical writing, is reflected throughout the work. Oratory too reverberates through it, notably in numerous denunciations of greed, extravagance, and moral decadence, and in glowing panegyrics of nature, the Roman Empire and Italy, and of such statesmen as Pompey, Cicero, and Titus. Although much of the Natural History consists of dry facts, both style and observations continually reveal the personality of the man who wrote it.

In his preface to the Natural History, Pliny claims—rightly—that the enterprise is a novel one. There had been other encyclopedias—for example, of the liberal arts—but, as he says (preface, sec. 14), no Greek by himself had compiled an encyclopedia of the whole of nature; and no Roman had done so by himself or with others. The novelty of the task was one of its attractions. Among others were Pliny’s inexhaustible curiosity, his conviction that he must be of service—“It is godlike,” he writes (bk. 2, sec. 18), “for man to help man”—his anxiety to save the science of past ages from the forgetful indifference of the present, and his desire to make his reputation secure. The result was aptly described by Pliny the Younger as “a diffuse and learned work, no less rich in variety than nature itself” (III.5.6).

The preface addressed to Titus is followed by a novelty, in that book 1 consists of an index of topics and authorities for each of the succeeding thirty-six books. The general plan of the treatise itself is conventional, proceeding from the world to the earth, and from the earth to its products—animal, vegetable, and mineral. But this simple outline is blurred. Book 2 duly surveys the universe, ending with the earth conceived as its center and with terrestrial phenomena. It is followed by books 3–6 (geography), 7 (man), 8–11 (other animals), 12–19 (botany), and 20–27 (materia medica from botanical sources). These last eight books are complemented by 28–32 (materia medica from animal sources); books 33–37 concern metals and stones, including their uses in medicine, architecture, and especially art.

Pliny states in the preface (sec. 17) that 100 principal authors have provided him with 20,000 important facts for his work. The incomplete figures in his index (book 1), however, add up to far more authors and “remedies, researches and observations”—473 and 34,707, respectively. These statistics indicate the predominantly practical aim and factual character of the treatise. Book 2 necessarily contains the most theory, and in it Pliny generally adopts Stoic doctrines, directly or indirectly derived from Posidonius, a distinguished philosopher with special scientific interests. Otherwise theorizing is spasmodic—for example, in book 37 there are scattered traces of a theory concerning the formation of stones that also may have originated with Posidonius.

Yet merely as a compilation of facts the Natural History is unique. Comprehensiveness is all: “Things must be recorded because they have been recorded,” remarks Pliny (bk 2, sec. 85); and criticism will not deter him. In book 37 (secs. 30–46), through his own knowledge and observation Pliny gives an almost entirely correct account of the nature and provenance of amber, but not before he has related all the myths and speculations about it that have come to his notice. Still, this uncritical and all-inclusive method has its advantages. A nonsensical reference to Indian amber may be an indication that shellac was known. Pliny would have felt that knowledge preserved even in this way justified the means. Although such diffuseness interfered with the practical aims of the work, Pliny’s influence in the succeeding centuries was nevertheless great and abridgments were made, especially of his medical and geographical material.

Less apparent in antiquity was Pliny’s lack of reliability in quoting or using his sources, a result of the speed with which he worked. This fault, coupled with his eccentric style, has tended to lower his standing with modern classical scholars, although he might at least have been credited with an eye for landscape and a bizarre imagination that are by no means to be expected in a classical author. The phrase “Mountains and ridges soaring away into the clouds” (bk. 27, sec. 3) illustrates the former. The latter is exemplified by a strange vision of the city of Rome: “If the whole were massed together and thrown on to one great heap, the grandeur that would tower above us would be as if some other world were being described, all concentrated in one single place” (bk. 36, sec. 101).

Students in other fields are rather more appreciative. One of Pliny’s happiest thoughts—the series of digressions on painting (bk. 35, secs. 50–148), sculpture in bronze (bk. 34, secs. 15–93), and sculpture in marble (bk. 36, secs. 9–43)—has provided art historians with what amounts to the earliest surviving history of art. Historians of science find that his descriptions often make the identification of species uncertain, if not impossible, but gratefully acknowledge that he is indispensable. Without him their material would be much depleted; and even when he is grossly inaccurate, he can be illuminating. As a purveyor of information both scientific and nonscientific, Pliny holds a place of exceptional importance in the tradition and diffusion of Western culture.


The Natural History is available in Latin text with English trans. by H. Rackham et al. in the Loeb Classical Library, 10 vols. (London-Cambridge, Mass., 1942–1963), and as Histoire naturelle, Latin text with French trans, and commentary by A. Ernout et al., in the series Belles Lettres (Paris, 1947–). The modern numbering by short sections is now generally used in references.

Biographical sources include two letters of Pliny the Younger, III 1.5 (listing and describing his uncle’s writings, with details of his habits and references to his career) and VI.16 (describing the eruption of Vesuvius and his death), in Pliny, Letters, Latin text with English trans., rev. by W. M. L. Hutchinson, in Loeb Classical Library, 2 vols. (London-Cambridge, Mass., 1927). For discussions and commentaries see A. N. Sherwin-White, The Letters of Pliny, a Historical and Social Commentary (Oxford, 1966), 215–225, 371–375.

Pliny as historian is presented in R. Syme, Tacitus, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1958); and B. H. Warmington, Nero: Reality and Legend (London, 1969). Special commentaries are K. C. Bailey, The Elder Pliny’s Chapters on Chemical Subjects, 2 vols. (London, 1929–1932); D. J. Campbell, C. Plini Secundi Naturalis historiae liber secundus(Aberdeen, 1936), on the cosmology of bk. 2; K. Jex-Blake and E. Sellers, The Elder Pliny’s Chapters on the History of Art(London, 1896); and L. Urlichs, Chrestomathia Pliniana (Berlin, 1857). A general reference is W. Kroll et al., “Plinius (5),’ in Pauly-Wissowa, Real-Encyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, XXI, pt. 1 (Stuttgart, 1951), 271–439.

David E. Eichholz

Pliny the Elder (23 A.D.–79 A.D.)

views updated May 11 2018

Pliny the Elder (23 a.d.79 a.d.)

Roman naval commander and naturalist whose works were regarded as the authority on the natural world during the Renaissance. Born Gaius Plinius Secundus in the town of Como, in northern Italy, he was schooled in Rome by the poet Publius Secundus. He trained to become a lawyer but remained devoted to the study of philosophy and the natural sciences.

Pliny served in the Roman army as a cavalry commander in western Germany, along an important frontier between Roman territory and the lands of the unconquered German barbarians. He also traveled in Gaul (modern France) and Spain. After serving for about ten years, he returned to the capital and the practice of law. During the reign of the emperor Nero, he wrote a history of Rome's German wars in twenty books, a work that Roman historians considered the best authority on the subject but which was eventually lost. In the year a.d. 70, under the emperor Vespasian, he served in southern Gaul and later in Spain as a procurator. He visited northern Africa and made a close study of human and natural environment in the Roman domains. On his return to Rome Pliny began work simultaneously on a history of Rome as well as Naturalis Historia, or Natural History, a collection of books covering the sum of human knowledge of the natural world. He dedicated the work to his patron and ally, the emperor Titus, and completed it in 77. To return the honor Titus appointed him commander of a naval squadron at Misenum, on the Bay of Naples. On August 24 of the year 79, Pliny witnessed the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which destroyed the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. He set out to rescue a company of people trapped on a shore near the eruption, but on touching land he was either asphyxiated by poisonous fumes or suffered a stroke or heart attack (the true cause of Pliny's death has been the subject of speculation by historians for centuries).

Pliny was devoted to study and a prolific author, who wrote dozens of books on a great variety of subjects: military affairs, education, grammar and rhetoric, music, art, and Roman history. Natural History, however, remains the only work of his to have survived into modern times. The book contains sections on the structure of the universe; on the societies of Europe and Asia, and Africa; on animals; on botany; and on medicine. The final books of the work cover geology, the properties of various minerals, and the history of Roman artthe only ancient book to treat this particular subject. The collection was copied extensively in the Middle Ages and was an essential volume in the few libraries of ancient manuscripts that then existed. Rather than undertake scientific investigations of his own, Pliny simply reported on the writings of authorities of his own time and of the past473 authorities in all. Although it served for centuries as an authoritative collection of scientific knowledge, it also contains many errors of fact and misinterpretations of the author's sources. Pliny's works began to go out of style during the later Renaissance, as new philosophies and scientific theories came into vogue and a new age of scientific investigation began in the experiments of Sir Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei, and others.

Pliny the Elder

views updated May 21 2018

Pliny the Elder

Pliny the Elder (23-79) was a Roman encyclopedist. His greatest and only surviving work, the Natural History, has been called one of the most influential books ever written in Latin.

Pliny whose full name was Gaius Plinius Secundus, was born at Comum in the region north of the Po River and was educated in Rome. After the military career normal for his social rank, during which he served as a cavalry officer in Germany (47-57), he practiced law. During Nero's reign (54-68), Pliny found it prudent to concentrate on literature. He performed official tasks in various provinces for the emperor Vespasian (69-79), whom he knew well.

Pliny's true occupations, however, which he practiced constantly, were reading and writing. He had a voracious hunger for knowledge of all kinds and was diligent in collecting it. Some of his 102 volumes, which were described by his nephew, Pliny the Younger, were On the Use of the Javelin in the Cavalry; a biography in 2 books of his friend Pomponius Secundus; On the German Wars, a complete history in 20 books of all Roman wars with Germans up to his own times; The Student, in 3 books, on the education from childhood of an orator; Doubtful Speech, 8 books on grammar; and a continuation in 31 books of the history by Aufidius Bassus.

Natural History

Book 1 of the Natural History contains a long preface to the emperor Titus, in whose reign the work was completed, and a table of contents for the remaining books together with the authors consulted. Books 2-6 describe the universe and the surface of the earth; book 7 treats man; books 8-11 treat animals; books 12-19, plants; books 20-27, the use of plants in medicines; books 28-32 deal with medicines derived from animals; and books 33-37, with minerals and their use in the arts.

Pliny's work is by no means scientific in the modern sense. It contains many errors, some the result of his mistranslating Greek, most due to the haste with which he worked and his uncritical acceptance of his sources. Nevertheless, it remains the chief source of information on topics ranging from lost works of art to popular magic and includes much on history, literature, and Roman ritual and customs.

Pliny was admiral of the fleet at Misenum in 79, when the great eruption of Vesuvius occurred on August 24. According to his nephew, Pliny the Younger, his scientific curiosity impelled him to approach the volcano more closely in order to inspect its smoke cloud. He was informed that a lady of his acquaintance, whose house was at the base of the volcano, was in danger and unable to escape by land. He rescued his friend by ship and, noting that many others were in a like situation, ordered the ships of the fleet to be used to evacuate them from the danger area. He continued on to Stabiae (4 miles north of Pompeii), from which all the occupants were fleeing, continually describing each new phase of the eruption and ordering that a slave note down his observations exactly as he made them. When the earthquakes and fire grew more intense, he was unable to escape. His body was discovered 2 days later on the beach at Stabiae, where he had died, apparently of asphyxiation.

Further Reading

Pliny's Natural History, with Latin text and English translations by H. Rackham and others, is in the Loeb Classical Library (10 vols., 1938-1963). Pliny is examined in detail in H. N. Wethered, The Mind of the Ancient World: A Consideration of Pliny's Natural History (1937), and is discussed in H. J. Rose, A Handbook of Latin Literature (1936; 3d ed. 1966). There is a brief biography in George Schwartz and Phillip W. Bishop, eds., Moments of Discovery: The Origins of Science (1958). Pliny's contribution is covered in Charles Singer and others, eds., A History of Technology, vol. 2 (1956). □

Pliny the Elder

views updated May 18 2018

Pliny the Elder


Roman Scholar

Although only one of his works, Natural History, has survived, Pliny the Elder became famous for that work. Natural History was a 37-volume encyclopedia that covered topics ranging from anthropology, astronomy, and mineralogy to geography, botany, and zoology. Although the encyclopedia mixes fact and fiction, it nonetheless provides a view of the state of science in antiquity.

Pliny the Elder (full name: Gaius Plinius Secundus) was born at Novum Comum, which is now known as Como, Italy, but spent most of his early life in Rome where he received his education. In his early 20s, he served in Germany in the Roman cavalry, a typical choice for a young man who was born to a prosperous family. After a decade in the military, Pliny briefly shifted his focus to law before settling into his career as a scholar.

His roles as writer and scholar suited his personality well. Apparently a perpetually curious man, Pliny spent years collecting information from many sources and on many subjects, and wrote more than 100 volumes describing this wealth of material. Some of these works included such diverse subjects as grammar usage, the fine arts, oration, military and Roman history, and even the use of javelins as weapons.

Although Pliny bequeathed all his manuscripts to his nephew Pliny the Younger, only one remains—Natural History (Historia Naturalis). A monumental effort, Natural History summarized much of the material Pliny collected over his lifetime. In the dedication, he claimed that it contained 20,000 pieces of information that he gathered from reviews of 2,000 works by more than 100 different authors. Of the 37 volumes, Pliny devoted five books to astronomy and geology, five to zoology, eight to botany, 13 to medicine and drugs, and five to mineralogy. The first volume was basically a table of contents and list of references.

Although Natural History contained a great deal of information, critics have found that it also holds many errors of translation, as well as false statements caused by inadequate fact-checking. For example, the zoology books rely heavily on the scientific work of Aristotle (384-322 b.c.), but also include Pliny's descriptions of legendary animals and folklore. In the astronomical and geological books, the mathematical and technical portions are often incorrectly translated or lack critical details. In spite of these mistakes and the merging of fact with fiction, Natural History represented the first truly comprehensive reference work, and its influence continued well into the fifteenth century.

Pliny finished writing Natural History around 77 and published 10 of the 37 volumes before he accepted an official position as commander of a fleet in the Bay of Naples in 79. Although his charge was to employ the fleet in the suppression of piracy, Pliny became sidetracked by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. According to his nephew, Pliny led his fleet ashore to aid in a rescue, but he was soon overcome by the fumes from the erupting volcano. Pliny the Younger supervised the publication of the remaining 27 volumes of Natural History.



views updated Jun 11 2018

Pliny name of two Roman writers.
Pliny the Elder (23–79), Roman statesman and scholar. His Natural History (77) is a vast encyclopedia of the natural and human worlds and is one of the earliest known works of its kind. He died while observing the eruption of Vesuvius.
Pliny the Younger (c.61–c.112), Roman senator and writer, nephew of Pliny the Elder. He is noted for his books of letters which deal with both public and private affairs and which include a description of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 which destroyed the town of Pompeii and in which his uncle died. The letters also contain one of the earliest descriptions of non-Christian attitudes towards Christians.

Pliny the Elder (Galius Plinius Secundus)(ca. 23-79 C.E.)

views updated May 14 2018

Pliny the Elder (Galius Plinius Secundus)(ca. 23-79 C.E.)

Roman historian who studied firsthand, and died during, the eruption of Vesuvius on August 24, 79 C.E. , and was one of the earliest writers to record that animals behaved in an unusual way prior to earthquakes. Many of his writings no longer exist, but one surviving work is Naturalis Historia. It consists of 37 books, with a mathematical and physical description of the world, and covering geography, ethnography, anthropology, human physiology, zoology, botany, agriculture, horticulture, materia medica, mineralogy, painting, modelling, and sculpture. Although Pliny was skeptical about magic and astrology, he described many of the occult beliefs of his time.

(See also earthquake prediction )


views updated May 18 2018

Pliny ( the Younger) (c.62–114) ( Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus) Roman administrator. The nephew and adopted son of Pliny (the Elder), he became a senator and governor of Bythnia in c.112. He is best known for his correspondence with the Emperor Trajan, which provides a unique record of the life of a Roman gentleman.


views updated Jun 11 2018

Pliny ( the Elder) (ad 23–79) ( Gaius Plinius Secundus) Roman author of Historia Naturalis (‘Natural History’). His one major surviving work, it covers a vast range of subjects, although it is an uncritical mixture of fact and fiction.