Pliny the Elder Essay - Critical Essays

Gaius Plinius Secundus

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.

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.


Harold L. Axtell (essay date 1926)

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 been that of Life, "aut scissors aut nullus," who slept like Edison, who had books read to him while dressing from the bath, whose stenographer wore gloves in winter to take down his notes, who was impatient at losing ten lines when his reader was interrupted, may have been attractive in the cloisters of the Middle Ages, but not to moderns. We may be overwhelmed with awe by unparalleled erudition and industry, but we are not charmed.

Then, too, the historians of Latin literature have not urged any inquisitive soul to try him out. Confronted by their dicta that only the antiquarian is interested in him,1 that his work is at times dry and bald, at others enswathed in rhetoric to conceal the dryness of its subject,2 that it contains the wildest sentence in Latin literature,3 that the most famous phrase in the whole work is the remark that Greek sculpture ceased one year and was suddenly revived thirty-five Olympiads later,4 who would be so hardy as to open the book? And if one did so, the abrupt, apparently careless brevity in which he sometimes seems to challenge the reader to find his meaning, would be too forbidding to encourage a venturer to read much without an overpowering desire to collect the information therein contained. Indeed, through his own style, so typical of Silver Latinity, Pliny is the worst enemy of his own popularity—a popularity, to be sure, for which he would disclaim any desire.

Yet this writer does not deserve the absolute neglect he now receives. His book is not, and was not when he wrote, a "thriller" or a "best seller," but neither was it a scrap-basket, nor merely an encyclopaedia, though he calls it such; and he himself was far from an impersonal, machine-like compiler. One would never get the impression from his work of a board of contributors, nor of a mere general editor. His personality is conspicuous. Submerged it may be for pages in a bare catalog of names, a recitation of genera and species, of stars, winds, metals, lands, and peoples, yet it crops out here and there most unexpectedly. At times it seems lugged in to give variety and relief to the subject matter; at others it appears in a spontaneous outburst of interest in the special matter under discussion. Especially notable is it whenever there is an opportunity to express his pet predilections or aversions. Sometimes it talks to us in long continuous passages; sometimes it flashes in a cryptic or sly remark and at once vanishes behind the subject matter.

In short, the author of the Naturalis Historia is a real man and not merely a book-worm, and the sole raison d'etre of this brief paper is to instance some examples of his human qualities, likable and not likable, in order to set them in relief against the encyclopaedic dry-as-dustness of that work.

The first quality I wish to note in Pliny is his earnestness, a very human trait, although possibly not so common nowadays as in other generations. Yet even in these days of universal jest and badinage the life-is-real, life-is-earnest man is to be seen and heard. When a certain citizen saw in a barber-shop the members of a basket-ball team who had come from afar to play the final games for the championship of the Pacific Coast, he said to his barber, "Think of grown men traveling around to play games like children!" Pliny is serious-minded and knows it. It makes him so thorough, on the one hand, that he must set down every detail in order that those who wish it may find it ready for use!5 It makes him so practical, on the other hand, that he won't repeat long-established and unimportant facts6 nor will he speculate on useless questions.7 "Let now someone ask," he suddenly bursts out, "if there was but one Hercules or how many Father Tibers! … Behold in the case of an object which is tiny and close to our farmhouses, of which a constant supply is available, authorities are not agreed whether the king bee is armed merely by his majestic appearance or whether nature has given him a sting but denied him its use."

His capacity for serious work lies at the base of his contempt for credulous or careless writers and his hatred of falsifiers, whom he calls too lazy to hunt down the truth, but not too lazy to lie through shame of their ignorance. "There is no quicker loss of faith than when a distinguished man stands responsible for a falsehood."8 To him the veteres were reliable, but even Xenophon incurred his anger by saying a barbarian king lived 600 years and "to make a real good lie" his son lived 800.9 The romancing Greek writers especially provoke him. One of them, Euanthes, relates a story of a man's changing into a wer-wolf and becoming human again after nine years, on which Pliny comments:10 "And he even adds that the man received the same clothing he had laid aside. It's marvelous how far Greek credulity will go. No falsehood so brazen but it has its witness." Neither does he spare his own compatriots. He takes Cornelius Nepos to task for believing fairy tales about a little African colony, as, for example, that once it was larger than great Carthage.11

No foolish credulity for him! He's a sceptic. He disbelieves in werwolves, in pegasi, griffins, Sirens,12 in inhabitants of the nether regions,13 in prodigies from the motions of the stars.14 He is astonished that Aristotle taught that scattered teeth, very long fingers, a leaden complexion, and numerous wrinkles in the hand were signs of a short life.15 And as to immortality, he works himself into a page of excited denunciation of the vanity and folly of that childish belief. "Confound it, what madness to think that life is repeated in death! What rest would creatures ever have if the sensation of the soul remains above, and that of the shade remains among the lower regions. Surely such beguiling belief destroys the special boon of nature, which is death.16

Another truly human quality is nonchalant inconsistency, and in this...

(The entire section is 3104 words.)

H. N. Wethered (essay date 1937)

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...

(The entire section is 6433 words.)

Grundy Steiner (essay date 1955)

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....

(The entire section is 4358 words.)

Richard T. Bruere (essay date 1956)

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...

(The entire section is 10758 words.)

Nicholas Phillies Howe (essay date 1985)

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...

(The entire section is 6871 words.)

Andrew Wallace-Hadrill (essay date 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 7864 words.)

Mary Beagon (essay date 1992)

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...

(The entire section is 12053 words.)

Further Reading

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....

(The entire section is 333 words.)