Pliny the Elder

(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

0111200344-Pliny_E.jpg Pliny the Elder (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.


Born into the municipal aristocracy of Comum, Pliny (PLIHN-ee) the Elder followed an equestrian career. He served as cavalry officer in Germany and governor (procurator) in Spain, and at the time of his death, he was admiral (prefect) of the Roman fleet in the Bay of Naples. He perished in an attempt to save people living near Mount Vesuvius when it erupted in late August of 79 c.e.

Pliny is best known as a writer. Author of a military treatise as well as works on grammar, rhetoric, biography, and history (none extant), he is best known for his encyclopedia of natural history, Naturalis historia (77 c.e.; Natural History, 1938-1963), in thirty-seven books, dedicated to the emperor Titus. Although largely uncritical, loosely organized, and replete with fanciful minutiae, the work is an invaluable treasure trove of information on Roman arts and sciences as they existed in the early first century c.e. Among the subjects he covered are agriculture, astronomy, earth sciences, chemistry, medicine, zoology, botany, and art.


Pliny’s encyclopedia dominated the study of science and technology well into the Middle Ages and is frequently consulted by modern scientists interested in the history of their fields.

Further Reading:

Beagon, Mary. Roman Nature: The Thought of Pliny the Elder. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1992. Examines Pliny’s portrayal of the relationship between nature and humankind. Also places both the author and his work in their wider literary and historical contexts.

Chibnall, Marjorie. “Pliny’s Natural History and the Middle Ages.” In Empire and Aftermath: Silver Latin II, edited by T. A. Dorey. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975. Careful and clear study of the influence of the Natural History from late antiquity through the Middle Ages.

French, Roger, and Frank Greenway, eds. Science in the Early Roman Empire: Pliny the Elder, His Sources and Influence. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble Books, 1986. Twelve essays occasioned by a Pliny symposium, with a brief life and studies centering on such subjects as medicine, pharmacy, botany, zoology, metallurgy, and astronomy.

Healy, John F. Pliny the Elder on Science and Technology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Reexamines Pliny’s work in the light of modern experiments, simulating Pliny’s techniques.

Pliny the Younger. Letters and Panegyricus. Translated by Betty Radice. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972-1975. Letters 3.5, 6.16, and 6.20 are vivid, firsthand accounts of the elder Pliny, his writings, lifestyle, and death.