1902 Encyclopedia > Pliny the Elder (Pliny the Naturalist)

Pliny the Elder
(Pliny the Naturalist)
Roman official, author and naturalist
(23-79 AD)




PLINY, THE NATURALIST (23-79 A.D.). Caius Plinius Secundus, commonly distinguished as the elder Pliny, the author of the Natural History, is believed to have been born (23 A.D.) at Novum Comum (Como). In the first sentence of his preface he calls Catullus, born at Verona, " conterraneum meum," meaning, perhaps, a native of Gallia Cisalpina, though it may be that Verona was the actual birthplace of both. At Comum, however, was the family estate which the younger Pliny inherited from his uncle. Like his nephew, the elder Pliny had seen military service, having joined the campaign in Germany under L. Pomponius Secundus; like him also, he had been a pleader in the law-courts, and a diligent student of Greek and Roman literature. Much of his literary work was done, he tells us himself, in the hours stolen from sleep. Of his many works the Naturalis Historia in thirty-seven books has alone been preserved, and in a nearly complete state. This voluminous treatise professes to be an encyclo-paedia of Roman knowledge, mainly based on the researches and speculations of the Greeks. What A. von Humboldt accomplished in our own times, in his great work Cosmos, Pliny had essayed to carry out on similar principles,—but, of course, without the scientific knowledge, and also with-out the comprehensive view of the universe which is the inheritance of the present age. Pliny, we must admit, was an industrious compiler, but he was not, like Aristotle, a man of original research.

In his first book, which contains a summary of the whole work, he names the authors, both Greek and Latin, from which the matter of each book was derived. The list indeed is a surprising one, and of comparatively few have we any remains. Among Roman authors he most frequently cites Cato the censor, M. Varro, Celsus, Cor-nelius Nepos, Pomponius Mela, Columella; among the Greeks, Aristotle, Theophrastus, Democritus, more than one Apollodorus, Apollonius of Pergamum, and Hippocrates. The Latin writers he calls simply "auctores;" the Greeks, of whom the list is considerably longer, are "externL"





The preface, written in a rather inflated and by no means clear style, very inferior to the Latinity of the younger Pliny, is a dedication of the work in a strain of extravagant adulation to Titus, who was then, as Caesar, joint emperor with his father Vespasian. Pliny apologizes for dedicating to such a man a work of such commonplace and hackneyed subject-matter, but he pleads the novelty of the undertaking, and boasts of being the first who had attempted so comprehensive a theme.

The work itself commences with a pantheistic definition of the universe, Mundus, i.e., world and sky, and the sun and stars in space. This, he says, is reasonably regarded as a divinity—eternal, boundless, uncreated, and indestructible. Nature, he adds, and Nature's work are one, and to suppose there is more than one universe is to believe there can be more than one Nature,—which he calls "furor." His theology is "agnostic," or Epicurean; if there is any God, he says, it is vain to inquire His form and shape ; He is entirely a Being of feeling and sentiment and intelligence, not of tangible existence. He believes in the " religion of humanity," according to a rather recent definition of the idea. God is what Nature is; God cannot do what Nature cannot do ; He cannot kill Himself, nor make mortals immortal, nor raise the dead to life, nor cause one who has lived never to have lived at all, or make twice ten anything else than twenty. The last sentence of his work is remarkable, and is characteristic of a pagan piety which takes Nature alone for its God:— " Salve, parens rerum omnium Natura, teque nobis Quiri-tium solis celebratum esse numeris omnibus tuis fave" (xxxvii. 205).

But, although he regarded nature as one whole, of the great doctrine of the unity of nature and the tendency of all its operations to one definite end Pliny had no correct idea. He had a great store of ill-digested knowledge, not only imperfect in itself, but put together on no consistent plan. His style too is forced and somewhat pedantic, so that to read through and understand even a single book is by no means a light task.

To give an outline sketch of the Natural History, it may be said that book ii. treats of earth, stars, meteorics, and terrestrial pheno-mena, such as earthquakes, elevation of islands, &c. Books iii. to vi. inclusive are devoted to a geographical account of the known world, in giving which, the author makes no mention of Strabo. Book vii. contains a physical treatise on man, his form, the laws of his birth, age, mental qualities, &c. Book viii. treats of the larger beasts, as elephants, lions, tigers, camels, descending to snakes, crocodiles, and the smaller and domesticated animals. Book ix. includes marine animals of all kinds, fishes, shells, crustaceans, sponges, &c. Book x. is on birds, xi. on insects,—the latter half being devoted to an anatomical description of animals generally. Bookxii. is on trees; xiii. on their products, fruit, gums, perfumes, &c. ; xiv. on the grape and the making of wine ; xv. on the olive, fig, apple, and other luscious fruits ; xvi. on forest trees, canes, and reeds, kinds of timber, and different ages of trees. Book xvii. treats chiefly of the culture of trees, their diseases, and the arts of pruning, manuring, training, &c. Book xviii. is on farming and cereal crops ; xix. on other kinds of produce, including horticulture; xx. on the medicinal properties of plants ; xxi. on flowers, bees, honey, and on botanical distinctions as to leaves, thorns, and times of flowering. Book xxii. treats of all kinds of herbs used in medicine and in cookery ; xxiii. the medicinal properties of cultivated trees ; xxiv. the same of forest trees, and their useful products generally. (These two books are chiefly derived from Greek authorities, and include the names and properties of a vast number of species.) Books xxv. to xxvii. inclusive treat of the properties of plants, and these books also are chiefly from Greek sources,—Cornelius Celsus being the principal Roman authority. Books xxviii. to xxx. discuss the medicinal properties residing in animals; xxxi. and xxxii. those in fishes. These books are full of the most extraordinary and_ nonsensical superstitions, including discussions on magic in book xxx. Book xxxiii. is on the nature and use of the precious metals ; xxxiv. on the different kinds of bronze, on lead, iron, and the oxides generally. Book xxxv. is on the origin and practice of painting ; xxxvi. on the different kinds of stone and marble, includ-ing lime, sand, and gypsum ; xxxvii. on precious stones.

It will be observed that, though there is no scientific classifica-tion in this long work, a kind of sequence, not altogether unphilo-sophical, is observed. The amount of matter and the number of subjects treated of in each book are always recorded at the end of _ the epitome (book i.), just before the list of authors, in the i formula, " Summa : res et historise et ohservationes MDOVI. " &c.; , but in the medical books, in place of res, " subjects," medicinal, "prescriptions," is used. By historial he means "inquiries," or "the results of inquiries," as distinguished from ohservationes, " remarks."

With all its faults, inevitable to the infant state of science, Pliny's work is an astounding monument of industry. It is believed to have been published about two years before his death. He wrote, besides several other treatises, a history of the wars from the first in Germany, in twenty books, and a continuation of the history of Aufidius Bassus down to his own times, in thirty-one books —all now lost.





He is said to have been a great student, an early riser, abstemious and temperate in his meals. In his later days he appears to have grown somewhat unwieldy and asth-matic, for Pliny the younger, in describing his uncle's death by suffocation from the fumes in the eruption of Vesuvius, 79 A.D., says that his breathing "propter ampli-tudinem corporis gravior et sonantior erat." Pliny's intimate friendship with Vespasian may be inferred from his custom of attending the morning levée; he seems to have first known him in the German wars in the time of Claudius.

Besides his published works, the elder Pliny left, as his nephew tells us, one hundred and sixty note-books of extracts (electorum commentaries clx.), written in a very small hand on both sides of the page. So valuable were these volumes considered that Pliny assured his nephew he could have sold them in Spain for £3500, even before the full number had been made up. He acted as procu-rator in Spain in 71, and was recalled to Rome by the death of his brother-in-law Caius Caecilius, who by will appointed him guardian of the younger Pliny. At the time of his death, the elder Pliny had the command of the Roman fleet at Misenum. He fell a victim to his imprudent curiosity in advancing within the range of the thickly-falling ashes during the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D.

Pliny's influence on the nomenclature and the popular ideas about common objects long continued to be very extensive, and survived till the dawn of the age of more exact science. The knowledge he gives us of the writings and opinions of so large a number of lost authors opens a view of the whole cycle of the science of the period.

The best editions of the Natural History are those by Julius Sillig (Leipsic, 1831-36, in 5 vols. 12mo), and by Louis Janus (Teubner, Leipsic, 1854-59, in 6 vols.), which is virtually a revised reprint of it, the whole of the last volume being occupied with copious and accurate indices of authors and subjects. These may be called critical editions ; two French editions with scientific commentaries had preceded,—by Hardouin (1685 and 1723), and by Panckoucke (1829-33), in twenty volumes with a French translation. (F. A. P.)



The above article was written by: F.A. Paley, LL.D.


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Pliny the Younger



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