Pliny the Elder Introduction - Essay

Gaius Plinius Secundus


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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.