Pliny the Elder
Pliny the Elder c. 23-79
(Born Gaius Plinius Secundus) Roman historian and scientist.
Pliny the Elder was a prominent Roman writer who lived in the first century A.D. He is best known for his Historia Naturalis (Natural History)—a 37-volume encyclopedia covering such topics as art, religion, science, and history. Pliny believed that as a scientist he had a responsibility to instruct his fellow humans and to urge them to develop an interest in and devotion to science so that Romans would not have to rely on the findings of others. Scientists throughout the ages have tested and challenged the scientific content of Natural History. Pliny's encyclopedia remains an important history of the life and society of Rome and the art of both Rome and Greece.
Much is known about Pliny's life, both through his own writings and those of his nephew and adopted son, Pliny the Younger. The Elder Pliny was born in Northern Italy around 23 A.D., and his youth was spent in the presence of court circles. He had three known military tours, the last being in Lower Germany with the future emperor Titus in 57-58 A.D. This led to Pliny's first written work, On Throwing the Javelin from Horseback. His service in Germany also benefited his 22-volume History of Rome's German Wars. Throughout his life, Pliny held several military and governmental positions, including an administrator of Equestrian Rank and Procurator of Africa. During the reign of the emperor Nero (54-68), whom he did not support, Pliny spent much of his time in retirement but became active in stately affairs again under emperor Vespasian (69-79). Natural History, the only one of Pliny's works to have survived, was dedicated to Vespasian's son and Pliny's former military colleague, Titus.
The work habits of the elder Pliny were diligently recorded by the younger Pliny, who listed his uncle's oeuvre as seven books totaling 102 volumes. The Elder Pliny rarely slept and had materials read to him or dictations taken from him almost every waking moment, including during meals and bath times. While Pliny's birth is hard to pinpoint, his death in August of 79 A.D. is well known to scholars, as Pliny had gone to Mt. Vesuvius to make observations on the eruptions at Pompeii. Pliny's death is generally attributed to noxious fume inhalation.
Natural History, which is dedicated to the emperor Titus (79-81), is the only one of Pliny's works to have survived through the ages. This 37-volume encyclopedia contains numerous topics Pliny thought important enough to be recorded; he wanted Natural History to give a complete picture of natural science. There is no sharp division between the science and rhetoric of Natural History, as would be expected of a similar work today. Pliny used this mixture of science and rhetoric to direct humankind on how to use nature, basing his ideas on the belief that nature exists for humankind.
Pliny also saw Natural History as necessary for the reformation of Rome. He disliked Greeks as well as the poetic and personal lyric style that came from them, believing that Greeks were the cause of societal downfall and the root of moral decay. Pliny argued that Romans had to take an interest in science and nature—learn it, study it, and record it—so that they did not have to rely on traditional Greek science. Pliny viewed the scientist as an instructor to contemporaries but also believed that scientists would only discover what nature allowed to be found.
Pliny used his encyclopedia to comment not only on science but also on religion, art, and society. It was a weakness, he maintained, for humans to view God as having form, and he further believed that "nature" was what humans meant by "God." He believed that mass luxury upset the social structure of his civilization and so condemned it by contending that what is luxurious (such as ice to cool beverages and the color purple to dye clothes) is not natural. He recorded the creators and prices of numerous works of art but was hostile toward imaginative literature. Even his admiration for the Latin poet Virgil was strained, as Pliny believed Virgil's work to be an emulation of the Greek poet Homer.
Natural History also records anecdotes that Pliny collected from colleagues, some of which Pliny did not completely believe himself. Critics suggest that many of these stories were included because they had been told to Pliny by high-ranking officials or because Pliny did not have evidence enough to oppose phenomena in which he did not believe. Some commentators argue that although Pliny included accounts of fantastic tales, it is to his credit that he evaluated them and sometimes questioned them in his writing.
In his preface to Natural History, Pliny states that it is not intended for the general reader and was designed for utility, not entertainment. The first printed edition appeared in 1469; since then, editions vary widely in what is omitted and how the Latin is translated. Prior to 1895, scholars examined Natural History primarily to identify and examine Pliny's sources. In 1896, a book by Eugenie Sellers prompted commentators to explore other aspects of Pliny's encyclopedia. Munzer's Quellenkritik in 1897 studied Natural History not only for sources but also for methods, comparing Pliny to Cato and other predecessors. Interpretations of Pliny became broader and more focused on meaning and on the effects of the work on later writers. Most critiques still focused on Pliny's sources, however, and at the turn of the century there was a flurry of Pliny-related publications which explored questions of Pliny's reliance on previous encyclopedias and Greek writings.
Critics in the twentieth century have challenged Pliny's medical remedies and descriptions of scientific procedures, but scholars continue to be interested in Pliny's sources. Critic Grundy Steiner (1955) wrote that Pliny was a "compiler" of secondary sources rather than an original thinker. The 1980s saw a revival of scholarly interest in Pliny. Andrew Wallace-Hadrill (1990) called Pliny the primary source of Roman cultural history, and Pliny continues to be cited in numerous books on both Greek and Roman art. Commentators generally agree that Natural History is a valuable anthropological source.
SOURCE: Harold L. Axtell, "Some Human Traits of the Scholar Pliny," in Classical Journal, Vol. 22, No. 2, November, 1926, pp. 104-13.
[In the following essay, Axtell attempts to illuminate the passages in Pliny's writings that offer insight to his personality, calling Pliny earnest, skeptical, and conceited.]
Sad is the present fate of Gaius Plinius Secundus. After all his tireless efforts to acquaint mankind with the wonders of the world, ungrateful posterity in the twentieth century, even the lovers of the veteres, has all but forgotten him. Nobody cares to contribute a volume on "Pliny and His Influence," or to annotate his work, or even to constitute a reliable text for it. No university offers a course in it and no classical reading circle includes it in its program. Except as an old worked-over mine to dig in at odd times for the extraction of curious information with which to complete the treatment of some special topic, the Naturalis Historia is not glanced at. And after students take a look at the man himself through the eyes of his nephew, they do not look again, despite the old scholar's heroism revealed at the eruption of Vesuvius. Pliny to us is no longer a man, but a dust-covered tome.
The causes of this oblivion are not far to seek, of course. The portrait of this paragon of learning, this forerunner of the modern clipping bureau, whose motto seems to have...
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SOURCE: H. N. Wethered, "Of Magic and Religion," in The Mind of the Ancient World: A Consideration of Pliny's Natural History, Longmans Green and Co., 1937, pp. 156-72.
[In the following excerpt, Wethered uses extensive quotes from Natural History to highlight Pliny's contempt for what he considered superstition and to examine his beliefs regarding the "philosophical aspect of religion."]
Pliny was no atheist. He believed in a power that dealt justly with evil-doers, and followed Aristotle in visualising Nature as a spirit of divine energy operating in the world—natura naturans, a principle of Nature creating nature. Therefore the history, which he undertook, in his estimation expressed the highest achievement open to the human understanding. Pliny's beliefs as a Stoic led him not so much to explain how creation came about as to describe the results attained. There was also the strong ethical position of Stoicism which impelled him to speak of God as a Principle, since he regarded it as an admission of man's weakness to assign to Him a form or image. He sums up his creed in these words: "Whoever He be and in what part soever resident, is all sense, all sight, all hearing, all life, all soul, all within Himself."
Thus it was only to be expected that the mass of superstition of the ancient world left him cold and often contemptuous. Frail and crazy men, he urged, had...
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SOURCE: Grundy Steiner, "The Skepticism of the Elder Pliny," in The Classical Weekly, Vol. 48, No. 10, March, 1955, pp. 137-43.
[In the following essay, Steiner considers the ways in which Pliny recorded information that he did not believe was completely accurate and the ways these reports contributed to Pliny's reputation as a skeptic.]
To speak at all of the Elder Pliny as a 'skeptic,' i.e. as a skeptical person, is to fly in the face of a strong tradition. Even a cursory examination of most histories of literature and of science brings out a wealth of epithets like "indiscriminate," "uncritical," and, above all, "credulous." There is no need to extend the list. Everyone has heard the accusation and has heard it from many directions.1
The purpose of this paper is, even while granting the charge "in principle," to suggest a qualified case for the defense. This will bring out a side of Pliny which receives comparatively little attention (perhaps because it is less picturesque than his gullibility), but it is, nonetheless, significant and when it is considered along with the points usually stressed it serves as a reminder both about his methods of working and about the problem he faced. Both need to be considered when his work is evaluated.
The verbal reality of the skeptical element can be demonstrated by excerpts like these: "It is...
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SOURCE: Richard T. Bruere, "Pliny The Elder and Virgil," in Classical Philology, Vol. 51, No. 4, October, 1956, pp. 228-46.
[In the essay that follows, Bruere attempts to define Pliny's attitude toward the Roman poet Virgil by examining his references to Virgil's writings.]
In the Introduction to his edition of the Georgics (Paris, 1914), P. Lejay incidentally remarks "Pline a, dans plusieurs endroits de son Histoire naturelle, une attitude de sourde hostilite a l'egard de Virgile" (p. xxxvii). The suggestion that a covert malignancy accompanies the high esteem for the Roman national poet that Pliny, patriot and imperial functionary, more than once expresses in his encyclopedia is a paradoxical one, and warrants investigation. This paper will assemble and discuss the passages of the Natural History in which Pliny makes explicit or implicit reference to Virgil, with the purpose of defining and explaining his attitude toward the poet.
The Natural History contains many Virgilian references and allusions. Most of these are technical, and have to do with matters treated in the Georgics, although some concern statements found in the Bucolics and the Aeneid, but a number are literary echoes and reminiscences which attest much familiarity with the poet's works.1 In addition, Virgil's name occurs in three passages of a nontechnical...
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SOURCE: Nicholas Phillies Howe, "In Defense of the Encyclopedic Mode: On Pliny's Preface to the Natural History," in Latomus: Revue d'etudes Latines, Vol. 44, No. 3, July-September, 1985, pp. 561-76.
[In the following essay, Howe analyzes Pliny's vision of his own work as found in the Preface to Natural History, concluding that Pliny's defensive explanations of his historical recordings illustrate his lack of faith in the future.]
The study of Pliny's Natural History has been confined for the most part to assessing the accuracy of its contents and to tracing its sources. As if taking their cue from its shapelessness, most scholars of the Natural History seem more concerned with selected passages than with the work as a whole. The narrow focus of most Pliny scholarship is understandable, but it has led to certain regrettable omissions. For rarely are the larger questions asked: to what end did Pliny collect all of his facts? And more important, in what way did he envision the nature of his work? Although the answers to these questions may seem obvious, they were not equally so to Pliny, for he devotes considerable attention to them in his Preface1.
Pliny deserves to be studied with a greater intellectual seriousness, one which responds more directly to his ethical and moral concerns. No doubt he was a compiler of extracts driven by a...
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SOURCE: Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, "Pliny the Elder and Man's Unnatural History," in Greece and Rome, Vol. XXXVII, No. 1, April, 1990, pp. 80-96.
[In the essay that follows, Wallace-Hadrill defends Pliny against his detractors by arguing that his words must be read within the context of Roman civilization and that his writings offer valuable insight into the role of science and social status in imperial Rome.]
Not everybody shares my enthusiasm for the elder Pliny. We all have a nodding acquaintance with the Natural History, but few wish to pursue the relationship to the level of intimacy. Critics who care for the purity of Latin prose take a particularly dim view of him. Eduard Norden's verdict in Die antike Kunstprosa (i. 314) is much cited: 'His work belongs, from the stylistic point of view, to the very worst which we have.' This negative judgement was firmly endorsed by Frank Goodyear in the Cambridge History of Latin Literature:
Pliny is one of the prodigies of Latin literature, boundlessly energetic and catastrophically indiscriminate, wide-ranging and narrow-minded, a pedant who wanted to be a popularizer, a sceptic infected by traditional sentiment, and an aspirant to style who can hardly frame a coherent sentence.
Not that Goodyear would have us ignore him. On the contrary, he serves as a deterrent...
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SOURCE: Mary Beagon, "Divina Natura: The Roots of Pliny's Thoughts," in Roman Nature: The Thought of Pliny the Elder, Clarendon Press, 1992, pp. 26-54.
[In the following excerpt, Beagon offers a study of Pliny's religious skepticism, examining his belief in the importance of the human relationship with nature and his conclusion that "Nature is what we mean by God."]
1. Natura as Divinity
The world … is fitly believed to be a deity, eternal and immeasurable, a being that was never born and will never perish. What lies outside it does not concern men to explore and is beyond the capability of the human mind to guess. It is sacred, eternal, immeasurable, wholly within the whole, or rather itself the whole, finite and resembling the infinite, certain of all things and resembling the uncertain, holding in its embrace all things that are within and without, at once the work of nature and nature herself (HN [Historia Naturalis] 2.1).
Pliny starts the first book proper of the HN in grand style. The scale of his chosen subject could not have been more emphatically described. Natura is the world, both as a whole and as its separate components; she is both the creator and the creation. The comprehensiveness of Pliny's analysis defies further elaboration: Natura is everything. Notwithstanding,...
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Caspar, Jacob William. Roman Religion as Seen in Pliny's Natural History. Chicago: University of Chicago Libraries, 1934, 40 p.
Examines Pliny's writings for references to religious conditions and customs of Rome in the first century A.D.
Chibnall, Marjorie. "Pliny's Natural History and the Middle Ages." In Empire and Aftermath, edited by T. A. Dorey, pp. 57-78. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975.
Surveys the impact of Natural History on other scientific and encyclopedic works through the Middle Ages.
Gudger, E. W. "Pliny's Historia Naturalis: The Most Popular Natural History Ever Published." Isis VI-3, No. 18 (October 1923): 269-81.
Chronicles the world-wide printing of Natural History, which Gudger calls "the greatest authority" of natural history, beginning with the first printed edition in 1469.
Isager, Jacob. Pliny on Art and Society. Translated by Henrik Rosenmeier. Routledge, 1991, 255 p.
Comments on Pliny's view of the human relationship with nature, concentrating on the themes of discovery and art.
Jones, W. H. "Ancient Documents and Contemporary Life, with Special References to the Hippocratic Corpus, Celsus, and Pliny." In Science Medicine and History: Essays on the Evolution of Scientific Thought and Medical Practice, edited by...
(The entire section is 333 words.)