C. Pli'nius Secundus or the elder Plinius or Plinius the elder
the celebrated author of the Historia Naturalis,
was born A. D. 23, having reached the age of 56 at the time of his death, which took place in A. D. 79. (Plin. Jun. Epist.
The question as to the place of his birth has been the subject of a voluminous and rather angry discussion between the champions of Verona and those of Novum Comum (the modern Como).
That he was born at one or other of these two towns sees pretty certain; Hardouin's notion, that he was born at Rome, has nothing to support it.
The claim of Comum seems to be, on the whole, the better founded of the two.
In the life of Pliny ascribed to Suetonius, and by Eusebius, or his translator Jerome, he is styled Novocomensis. Another anonymous life of Pliny (apparently of late origin and of no authority) calls him a native of Verona; and it has been thought that the claim of Verona to be considered as his birth-place is confirmed by the fact that Pliny himself (Praef. init.
) calls Catullus, who was a native of Verona, his conterraneus.
On the other hand, it has been urged with more discerning criticism, that as the two towns were both situated beyond the Padus in Gallia Cisalpina, and at no very great distance from each other, this somewhat barbarous word is much better adapted to intimate that Catullus was a fellow-countryman
of Pliny, than that he was fellow-townsman.
In a similar manner the younger Pliny, who was undoubtedly born at Novum Comum, speaks of Veronenses nostri
vi. ult.). Of two Veronese inscriptions which have been adduced, one appears to be spurious.
The other, which is admitted to be genuine, is too mutilated for its tenour to be ascertained.
It appears to have been set up by a Plinius Secundus, but whether the author of the Natural History or not, there is nothing to show. Nor would it in any case be decisive as to the birth-place of Pliny.
That the family of the Plinii belonged to Novum Comum is clear from the facts that the estates of the elder Pliny were situated there, and that the younger Pliny was born there, and from several inscriptions found in the neighbourhood relating to various members of the family.
Of the particular events in the life of Pliny we know but little; but for the absence of such materials for biography we are in some degree compensated by the valuable account which his nephew has left us of his habits of life.
He came to Rome while still young, and being descended from a family of wealth and distinction, he had the means at his disposal for availing himself of the instruction of the best teachers to be found in the imperial city.
In one passage of his work (9.58) he speaks of the enormous quantity of jewellery which he had seen worn by Lollia Paulina.
That must have been before A. D. 40, in which year Caligula married Cesonia.
It does not appear necessary to suppose that at that early age Pliny had already been introduced at the court of Caligula.
The strange animals exhibited by the emperors and wealthy Romans in spectacles and combats, seem early to have attracted his attention (comp. H. N.
He was for some time on the coast of Africa, though in what capacity, or at what period, we are not informed (H. N. 7.3).
At the age of about 23 he went to Germany, where he served under L. Pomponius Secundus, of whom he afterwards wrote a memoir (Plin. Jun. Ep.
3.5), and was appointed to the command of a troop of cavalry (praefectus alae
) (Plin. Jun. l.c.
It appears from notices of his own that he travelled over most of the frontier of Germany, having visited the Cauci, the sources of the Danube, &c.
It was probably in Belgium that he became acquainted with Cornelius Tacitus (not the historian of that name, H. N.
It was in the intervals snatched from his military duties that he composed his treatise de Jaculatione equestri.
(Plin. Jun. l.c.
) At the same time he commenced a history of the Germanic wars, being led to do so by a dream in which he fancied himself commissioned to undertake the task by Drusus Nero.
This work he afterwards completed in twenty books.
Pliny returned to Rome with Pomponius (A. D. 52), and applied himself to the study of jurisprudence.
He practised for some time as a pleader, but does not seem to have distinguished himself very greatly in that capacity.
The greater part of the reign of Nero he spent in retirement, chiefly, no doubt, at his native place.
It may have been with a view to the education of his nephew that he composed the work entitled Studiosus,
an extensive treatise in three books, occupying six volumes, in which he marked out the course that should be pursued in the training of a young orator, from the cradle to the completion of his education and his entrance into public life. (Plin. Jun. l.c.
; Quint. Inst. 3.1.21
.) Towards the end of the reign of Nero he wrote a grammatical work in eight books, entitled Dubius Sermo,
confutations of which were promised by various professed grammarians, Stoics, dialecticians, &c.; though ten years afterwards, when the Historia Naturalis was published, they had not appeared. (Plin. H. N.
i. Praef. § 22.)
It was towards the close of the reign of Nero that Pliny was appointed procurator in Spain.
He was here in A. D. 71. when his brother-in-law died, leaving his son, the younger Pliny, to the guardianship of his uncle, who, on account of his absence, was obliged to entrust the care of him to Virginius Rufus. Pliny returned to Rome in the reign of Vespasian, shortly before A. D. 73, when he adopted his nephew.
He had known Vespasian in the Germanic wars, and the emperor received him into the number of his most intimate friends. For the assertion that Pliny served with Titus in Judaea there is no authority.
He was, however, on intimate terms with Titus, to whom he dedicated his great work. Nor is there any evidence that he was ever created senator by Vespasian.
It was doubtless at this period of his life that he wrote a continuation of the history of Aufidius Bassus, in 31 books, carrying the narrative down to his own times (H. N.
praef. § 19). Of his manner of life at this period an interesting account has been preserved by his nephew (Epist.
It was his practice to begin to spend a portion of the night in studying by candle-light, at the festival of the Vulcanalia (towards the end of August), at first at a late hour of the night, in winter at one or two o'clock in the morning.
Before it was light he betook himself to the emperor Vespasian, and after executing such commissions as he might be charged with, returned home and devoted the time which he still had remaining to study.
After a slender meal he would, in the summer time, he in the sunshine while some one read to him, he himself making notes and extracts.
He never read anything without making extracts in this way, for he used to say that there was no book so bad but that some good might be got out of it.
He would then take a cold bath, and, after a slight repast, sleep a very little, and then pursue his studies till the time of the coena. During this meal some book was read to, and commented on by him.
At table, as night be supposed, he spent but a short time. Such was his mode of life when in the midst of the bustle and confusion of the city. When in retirement in the country, the time spent in the bath was nearly the only interval not allotted to study, and that he reduced to the narrowest limits; for during all the process of scraping and rubbing he had some book read to him, or himself dictated. When on a journey he had a secretary by his side with a book and tablets, and in the winter season made him wear gloves that his writing might not be impeded by the cold.
He once found fault with his nephew for walking, as by so doing he lost a good deal of time that might have been employed in study.
By this incessant application, persevered in throughout his lifetime, he amassed an enormous amount of materials, and at his death left to his nephew 160 volumina of notes (electorum comnmentarii
), written extremely small on both sides. While procurator in Spain, when the number of them was considerably less, he had been offered 400,000 sesterces for them, by one Largius Licinius.
With some reason might his nephew say that, when compared with Pliny, those who had spent their whole lives in literary pursuits seemed as if they had spent them in nothing else than sleep and idleness. When we consider the multiplicity of his engagements, both public and private, the time occupied in military services, in the discharge of the duties of the offices which he held, in his forensic studies and practice, in visits to the emperor, and the performance of the miscellaneous commissions entrusted to him by the latter, the extent of his acquisitions is indeed astonishing. From the materials which he had in this way collected he compiled his celebrated Historia Naturalis,
which he dedicated to Titus, and published, as appears from the titles given to Titus in the preface, about A. D. 77.
The circumstances of the death of Pliny were remarkable.
The details are given in a letter of the younger Pliny to Tacitus (Ep.
6.16). Pliny had been appointed admiral by Vespasian, and in A. D. 79 was stationed with the fleet at Misenum, when the celebrated eruption of Vesuvius took place, which overwhelmed Herculaneum and Pompeii. On the 24th of August, while he was, as usual, engaged in study, his attention was called by his sister to a cloud of unusual size and shape, rising to a great height, in the form of a pinetree, from Vesuvius (as was afterwards discovered), sometimes white, sometimes blackish and spotted, according as the smoke was more or less mixed with cinders and earth.
He immediately went to a spot from which he could get a better view of the phaenomenon; but, desiring to examine it still more closely, he ordered a light vessel to be got ready, in which he embarked. taking his tablets with him.
The sailors of the ships at Retina, who had just escaped from the imminent danger, urged him to turn back.
He resolved, however, to proceed, and in the hope of rendering assistance to those who were in peril, ordered the ships to be launched, and proceeded to the point of danger, retaining calmness and self-possession enough to observe and have noted down the various forms which the cloud assumed. Hot cinders and pumice stones now fell thickly upon the vessels, and they were in danger of being left aground by a sudden retreat of the sea.
He hesitated for an instant whether to proceed or not; but quoting the maxim of Terence, fortes fortuna adjuvat,
directed the steersman to conduct him to Pomponianus, who was at Stabiae, and whom he found preparing to set sail. Pliny did his best to restore his courage, and ordered a bath to be prepared for himself.
He then, with a cheerful countenance, presented himself at the dinner-table, endeavouring to induce his friend to believe that the flames which burst out with increased violence were only those of some villages which the peasants had abandoned, and afterwards retired to rest, and slept soundly.
But, as the court of the house was becoming fast filled with cinders, so that egress would in a short time have become impossible, he was roused, and joined Pomponianus.
As the house, from the frequent and violent shocks, was in momentary danger of falling, it appeared the safer plan to betake themselves into the open fields, which they did, tying pillows upon their heads to protect them from the fallling stones and ashes. Though it was already day, the darkness was profound. They went to the shore to see if it were possible to embark, but found the sea too tempestuous to allow them to do so. Pliny then lay down on a sail which was spread for him. Alarmed by the approach of flames, preceded by a smell of sulphur, his companions took to flight. His slaves assisted him to rise, but he almost immediately dropped down again, suffocated, as his nephew conjectures, by the vapours, for he had naturally weak lungs. His body was afterwards found unhurt, even his clothes not being disordered, and his attitude that of one asleep rather than that of a corpse.
It may easily be supposed that Pliny, with his inordinate appetite for accumulating knowledge out of books, was not the man to produce a scientific work of any value.
He had no genius, as indeed might have been inferred from the bent of his mind.
He was not even an original observer.
The materials which he worked up into his huge encyclopaedic compilation were almost all derived at second-hand, though doubtless he has incorporated the results of his own observation in a larger number of instances than those in which he indicates such to be the case. Nor did he, as a compiler, show either judgment or discrimination in the selection of his materials, so that in his accounts the true and the false are found intermixed in nearly equal proportion,--the latter, if any thing, predominating, even with regard to subjects on which more accurate information might have been obtained; for, as he wrote on a multiplicity of subjects with which he had no scientific acquaintance, he was entirely at the mercy of those from whose writings he borrowed his information, being incapable of correcting their errors, or, as may be seen even from what he has borrowed from Aristotle, of determining the relative importance of the facts which he selects and those which he passes over. His love of the marvellous, and his contempt for human nature. lead him constantly to introduce what is strange or wonderful, or adapted to illustrate the wickedness of man, and the unsatisfactory arrangements of Providence.
He was, as Cuvier remarks, (Biograph. Univ.
vol. xxxv.), "an author without critical judgment, who, after having spent a great deal of time in making extracts, has ranged them under certain chapters, to which he has added reflections which have no relation to science properly so called, but display alternately either the most superstitious credulity, or the declamations of a discontented philosophy, which finds fault continually with mankind, with nature, and with the gods themselves." His work is of course valuable to us from the vast number of subjects treated of, with regard to many of which we have no other sources of information.
But what he tells us is often unintelligible, from his retailing accounts of things with which he was himself personally unacquainted, and of which he in consequence gives no satisfactory idea to the reader. Though a writer on zoology, botany, and mineralogy, he has no pretensions to be called a naturalist. His compilations exhibit scarcely a trace of scientific arrangement; and frequently it can be shown that he does not give the true sense of the authors whom he quotes and translates, giving not uncommonly wrong Latin names to the objects spoken of by his Greek authorities.
That repeated contradictions should occur in such a work is not to be wondered at.
It would not, of course, be fair to try him by the standard of modern times; yet we need but place him for an instant by the side of a mans like Aristotle, whose learning was even more varied, while it was incomparably more profound, to see how great was his inferiority as a man of science and reflection. Still it is but just to him to add, that he occasionally displays a vigour of thought and expression which shows that he might have attained a much higher rank as an author, if his mental energies had not been weighed down beneath the mass of unorganized materials with which his memory and his note-tablets were overloaded.
In private life his character seems to have been estimable in a high degree, and his work abounds with grave and noble sentiments, exhibiting a love of virtue and honour, and the most unmitigated contempt for the luxury, profligacy, and meanness which by his time had so deeply stained the Roman people. To philosophical speculation on religious, moral, or metaphysical subjects he does not seem to have been much addicted. All that is very distinctive of his views on such matters is that he was a decided pantheist.
With the exception of some minute quotations from his grammatical treatise (Lersch, Sprachphilosophie der Alten,
vol. i. p. 179, &c.), the only work of Pliny which has been preserved to us, (for it does not appear that any reliance can be placed on the statement that the twenty books on the Germanic wars were seen by Conrad Gesner in Augsburg,) is his Historia Naturalis.
By Natural History the ancients understood more than modern writers would usually include in the subject.
It embraced astronomy, meteorology, geography, mineralogy, zoology, botany, -- in short, every thing that does not relate to the results of human skill or the products of human faculties. Pliny, however, has not kept within even these extensive limits.
He has broken in upon the plan implied by the title of the work, by considerable digressions on human inventions and institutions (book vii.), and on the history of the fine arts (xxxv. -- xxxvii.). Minor digressions on similar topics are also interspersed in various parts of the work, the arrangement of which in other respects exhibits but little scientific discrimination.
The younger Pliny fairly enough describes it as opus diffusum, eruditum, nec minus varium quam ipsa Natura
It comprises, as Pliny says in the preface (§ 17), within the compass of thirty-six books, 20,000 matters of importance, drawn from about 2000 volumes, the works of one hundred authors of authority, the greater part of which were not read even by those of professedly literary habits, together with a large number of additional matters not known by the authorities from which he drew. Hardouin has drawn up a catalogue of the authors quoted by Pliny in the first book, or in the body of the work itself, amounting to between 400 and 500. When it is remembered that this work was not the result of the undistracted labour of a life, but written in the hours of leisure secured from active pursuits, interrupted occasionally by ill health (Praef.
§ 18), and that too by the author of other extensive works, it is, to say the least, a wonderful monument of human industry. Some idea of its nature may be formed from a brief outhine of its contents.
The Historia Naturalis
is divided into 37 books, the first of which consists of a dedicatory epistle to Titus. followed by a table of contents of the other books.
It is curious that ancient writers should not more generally have adopted this usage. No Roman writer before Pliny had drawn out such a table, except Valerius Soranus, whose priority in the idea Pliny frankly confesses. (Praef.
§ 26.) Pliny has also adopted a plan in every way worthy of imitation.
After the table of the subject-matter of each book he has appended a list of the authors from whom his materials were derived; an act of honesty rare enough in ancient as well as modern times, and for which in his prefatory epistle (§§ 16, 17) he deservedly takes credit.
It may be noticed too, as indicating the pleasure which he took in the quantity
of the materials which he accumulated, that he very commonly adds the exact number of facts, accounts, and observations which the book contains.
The second book treats of the mundane system, the sun, moon, planets, fixed stars, comets, meteoric prodigies, the rainbow, clouds, rain, &c., eclipses, the seasons, winds, thunder and lightning, the shape of the earth, changes in its surface, earth-quakes, the seas, rivers, fountains, &c.
He makes no attempt to distinguish between astronomy and meteorology, but jumbles both together in utter confusion.
The book opens with a profession of the pantheistic creed of the author, who assails the popular mythology with considerable force on the ground of the degrading views of the divine nature which it gives (2.5, or 7).
The consideration of the debasing, idle and conflicting superstitious of man-kind draws from him the reflection : Quae singula improvidam mortalitatem involvunt, solum ut inter ista certum sit nihil esse certi, nec miserius quidquam homine, aut superbius.
Similar half gloomy, half contemptuous views of human nature, and complaints against the arrangements of Providence, are of frequent occurrence with Pliny. His own appetite for the marvellous however frequently leads him into an excess of credulity scarcely distinguishable from the superstition which he condemns ; though we must at the same time remember that with Pliny Nature is an active and omnipotent deity; and that his love for the marvellous is not mere gaping wonder, but admiration of the astonishing operations of that deity.
It is a distinctly recognised maxim with him : Mihi existimare de ea.
The mundus is in his view divine in its nature, eternal, infinite, though resembling the finite, globular in form, the sun being the animus
of the whole, and itself a deity (2.4).
He of course supposed this mundus to revolve round an axis in 24 hours.
The earth he looked upon as globular, being fashioned into that shape by the perpetual revolution of the mundus round it, and inhabited on all sides.
The fact that such is its shape he demonstrates by a variety of pertinent arguments (2.64-71). His ideas with regard to the universe, the nature of the stars, &c., their important relation to us as the origin of human souls (2.26), are in the main very much the same as those which through the influence of the Stoic school became generally prevalent among the Roman philosophers, though on various subordinate points Pliny had some singular notions, whether his own, or copied from authors with whom we are unacquainted, many of them ingenious, still more puerile.
The notion which he adopted from the earlier propounders of it, that the germs of the innumerable forms of animals, &c., with which the stars and the universe abound, find their way to the earth, and there frequently become intermingled, producing all kinds of monstrous forms (100.3), accounts for the readiness with which he admits the most fabulous and impossible monsters into his zoology.
The historical and chronological notices with respect to the progress of astronomy which he intersperses are very valuable. Of the beneficial effects of the spread of such knowledge he speaks with generous enthusiasm (2.12).
With respect to the changes in the surface of the earth, produced by the depositions of rivers, and the appearance of volcanic islands, he has some valuable and interesting statements (2.83, &c.).
These changes, and the other starthing natural phaenomena which present themselves in considerable number and variety in the volcanic region of Italy and Sicily, are to Pliny so many proofs of the manifold divine
activity of nature (100.93). Some of the wonders he adduces are however more than apocryphal. On the tides (of the influence of the sun and moon upon which he was well aware), currents and marine springs, he has some remarks which show that his official duties in Spain did not keep him from a careful observation of natural phaenomena (100.97).
The wonderful qualities and phaenomena of various waters and fountains (nam nec aquarum natura a miraculis cessat,
100.103), supply him with details, many of them curious and probably true, others requiring the credulity of Pliny for their belief. From the wonders of water he passes to those of fire (100.104, &c.), and then, by a rather curious arrangement, closes the book with some statements regarding the size of the earth and the distance between various points of it.
The four following books (iii.--vi.) are devoted to geography, and this somewhat small space Pliny has still further narrowed by digressions and declamations, so that his notices are confined chiefly to the divisions of the countries and the mere names of the places in them. Of these he has preserved a very large number which would otherwise have been utterly lost, though the lists are considerably swelled by the unconscious repetition of the same names, sometimes several times over, in slightly varied forms. Pliny was himself but a poor geographer, and his erroneous conception of the forms of different countries often materially affected the way in which he made use of the information which he obtained.
This part of his work contains a curious medley of the geographical knowledge of different ages, not distinguished and corrected, but pieced together into one whole in the best way that the discordant statements allowed.
This discrepancy Pliny sometimes points out, but frequently he omits to do this, and strives to blend the ancient and modern accounts together, so that he often makes the earlier writers speak as though they had used and been familiar with names not in vogue till some time later. (Comp. 4.27, 37.11.)
He does not altogether discredit the stories of early times, and speaks of the Rhipaean mountains and the Hyperboreans with at least as much confidence as of some other better authenticated races. His geography of Italy, Greece, and Asia Minor is that of the times of Strabo. For the N. E. portion of Asia we have that of the time of Eratosthenes. For the southern Asiatic coast up to India we have ancient and recent accounts intermingled; for the North of Europe we have the knowledge of his own times, at least as it appears through the somewhat distorted medium of his imperfect notions.
With regard to India and Ceylon he has some very recent and trustworthy accounts.
Pliny, like Posidonius, makes the habitable earth to extend much farther from east to west than from north to south.
By the western coast of Europe he understands simply Spain and Gaul ; after them begins the northern ocean, the greater part of which he thought had been sailed over, a Roman fleet having reached the Cimbrian peninsula, and ascertained that a vast sea stretches thence to Scythia.
He seems to have imagined that the northern coast of Europe ran pretty evenly east and west, with the exception of the break occasioned by the Cimbrian Chersonesus (4.13, &c.). Beyond Germany, he says, immense islands had been discovered, Scandinavia, Eningia, &c.
He also believed the northern coast of the earth to have been explored from the east as far as the Caspian sea (which he regarded as an inlet of the northern ocean) in the time of Seleucus and Antiochus. More than one voyage had also been made between Spain and Arabia (2.67, 68).
He evidently considered India the most eastern country of the world (6.17).
The third and fourth books are devoted to Europe, the countries of which he takes up in a somewhat curious order.
He begins with Spain, specifying its provinces and conventus, and giving lists of the towns, the position of some of which he defines, while the greater number are merely enumerated in alphabetical order; mentioning the principal rivers, and noting the towns upon them.
He gives a few notices of the inhabitants of the different provinces, but no clear or comprehensive account of the population of the country generally, or any intelligible views even of its physical characteristics.
After a similar account of Gallia Narbonensis, Pliny proceeds to Italy. His account of this country is, on the whole, the best of the kind that he has given. Following the division of Augustus, he enumerates the different provinces, going round the coast.
The extent of coast line was of course favourable for defining the positions of places situated on or near it. Where the coast or river does not give him a convenient method of defining the position of places, he simply enumerates them, usually in alphabetical order.
He has been at considerable pains to specify a number of distances between mouths of rivers, headlands, and other salient or important points, but his numbers can scarcely ever be relied on. Many are egregiously wrong.
This may be partly the fault of copyists, but there can be little doubt that it is mainly the fault of Pliny himself, from his misunderstanding the data of the authors from whom he copied.
In connection with the more important sections of Italy he enumerates in order the races which successively inhabited them, and where the occasion presents itself mentions not only the towns which existed in his own time, but those which had been destroyed. The Tiberis and Padus, especially the latter, he describes with considerable care.
After the provinces on the western coast of Italy, he takes the islands between Spain and Italy, and then returns to the mainland.
Leaving Italy he proceeds to the provinces on the north and east of the Adriatic sea, and those south of the Danube--Liburnia, Dalmatia, Noricum, Pannonia, Moesia; and in the fourth book takes up the Grecian peninsula. His account of this is a good example of his carelessness, indistinctness, and confusion as a geographer.
After the provinces on the western side of northern Greece (Epeirus, Acarnania, &c.), he takes the Peloponnesus, and then comes back to Attica, Boeotia, and Thessaly. His account excludes the Peloponnesus from Hellas or Graecia, which begins from the isthmus, the first country in it being Attica, in which he includes Megaris (4.7). His notices are of the most meagre description possible, consisting of hardly anything but lists of names. All that he says of Attica does not occupy twenty lines. After Thessaly come Macedonia, Thrace, the islands round Greece, the Pontus, Scythia, and the northern parts of Europe. Of the existence of the Hyperboreans he thinks it impossible to doubt, as so many authors affirmed that they used to send offerings to Apollo at Delos (4.12). Nor does he express any distrust when recounting the stories of races who fed upon horses' hoofs, or of tribes whose ears were large enough to serve as a covering for their bodies. His account of Britain, which he makes he over against Germany, Gaul, and Spain, is very meagre. From Britain he proceeds to Gallia, in his account of which he mixes up Caesar's division according to races with the division according to provinces (Ukert, Geographie der Griechen und Römer,
2.2. p. 238), and so, not unnaturally, is indistinct and contradictory. After Gallia he comes back to the northern and western parts of Spain and Lusitania.
This sketch will give the reader an idea of the clumsy manner in which Pliny treats geography.
It is unnecessary to follow him in detail through the rest of this part of his work.
It is carried on in much the same style. When treating of Africa he mentions (apparently without disbelief) the monstrous races in the south, some without articulate language, others with no heads, having mouths and eyes in their breasts.
He accedes to the opinion of king Juba, that the Nile rises in a mountain of Mauritania, and that its inundations are due to the Etesian winds, which either force the current back upon the land, or carry vast quantities of clouds to Aethiopia, the rain from which swells the river. Of the races to the north and east of the Pontus and on the Tanais he has preserved a very large number of names.
With regard to India he has some accounts which show that amid the conflicting, and what even Pliny calls incredible statements of different writers, a good deal of accurate information had reached the Romans.
It is to be regretted that Pliny was deterred by the nature of these accounts from giving us more of them.
It would have been interesting to know what Greeks who had resided at the courts of Indian kings (6.17) told their countrymen. We could have spared for that purpose most of the rough and inaccurate statements of distances which he has taken the trouble to put in. Some intercourse which had taken place with the king of Taprobane in the reign of the emperor Claudius enables Pliny to give a somewhat circumstantial account of the island and people. Though of very small value as a systematic work, the books on geography are still valuable on account of the extensive collection of ancient names which they contain, as well as a variety of incidental facts which have been preserved out of the valuable sources to which Pliny had access.
The five following books (vii.--xi.) are devoted to zoology.
The seventh book treats of man, and opens with a preface, in which Pliny indulges his querulous dissatisfaction with the lot of man, his helpless and unhappy condition when brought into the world, and the pains and vices to which he is subject.
After bespeaking some measure of belief for the marvellous accounts that he will have to give, and suggesting that what appears incredible should be regarded in its connection with a great whole (naturae vero rerum vis alque majestas in omnibus momentis fide caret, siquis modo partes ejus ac non totam complectatur animo
), he enumerates a number of the most astonishing and curious races reported to exist upon the earth :--cannibals, men with their feet turned backwards; the Psylli, whose bodies produce a secretion which is deadly to serpents; tribes of Androgyni; races of enchanters ; the Sciapodae, whose feet are so large, that when the sun's heat is very strong they he on their backs and turn their feet upwards to shade themselves; the Astomi, who live entirely upon the scents of fruits and flowers; and various others almost equally singular. Haec,
he remarks, atque talia ex hominum genere ludibria sibi, nobis miracula, ingeniosa fecit natura.
He then proceeds to a variety of curious accounts respecting the generation and birth of children, or of monsters in their place.
An instance of a change of sex he affirms to have come within his own knowledge (7.4).
The dentition, size, and growth of children, examples of an extraordinary precocity, and remarkable bodily strength, swiftness, and keenness of sight and hearing, furnish him with some singular details.
He then brings forward a variety of examples (chiefly of Romans) of persons distinguished for remarkable mental powers, moral greatness, courage, wisdom, &c., preserving some interesting anecdotes respecting the persons adduced. Then follow some notices of those most distinguished in the sciences and arts, and of persons remarkable for their honours or good fortune, in connection with which he does not forget to point out how the most prosperous condition is frequently marred by adverse circumstances.
He then mentions a number of instances of great longevity. Men's liability to disease draws from him some pettish remarks, and even some instances which he mentions of resuscitation from apparent death only lead to the observation : haec est conditio mortalium; ad has et ejusmodi occasiones fortunae gignimur, uti de homine ne morti quidem debeat cerdi
(7.52). Sudden death he looks upon as an especially remarkable phaenomenon, and at the same time the happiest thing that can happen to a man.
The idea of a future existence of the soul he treats as ridiculous, and as spoiling the greatest blessing of nature--death (100.55 or 56).
It must have been in some peculiar sense, then, that he believed in apparitions after death (100.52 or 53).
The remainder of the book is occupied with a digression on the most remarkable inventions of men, and the authors of them.
He remarks that the first thing in which men agreed by tacit consent was the use of the alphabet of the Ionians; the second the employment of barbers; the third marking the hours.
The eighth book is occupied with an account of terrestrial animals. They are not enumerated in any systematic manner.
There is, indeed, some approximation to an arrangement according to size, the elephant being the first in the list and the dormouse the last, but mammalia and reptiles, quadrupeds, serpents, and snails, are jumbled up together. For trustworthy information regarding the habits and organisation of animals the reader will commonly look in vain : a good part of almost every article is erroneous, false, or fabulous. Pliny's account is, of course, filled with all the most extraordinary stories that he had met with, illustrating the habits or instinct of the different animals.
The elephant he even believes to be a moral and religious animal, and to worship the sun and moon (8.1). His entertaining account of the elephant and the lion will give somewhat favourable samples of the style in which he discusses natural history (8.1-11, 16).
The reader of the seventh book will be prepared to find in the eighth the most extraordinary and impossible creatures figuring by the side of the lion and the horse. Thus we have the achlis, without joints in its legs (100.16); winged horses armed with horns (100.30); the mantichora, with a triple row of teeth, the face and ears of a man, the body of a lion, and a tail which pierces like that of a scorpion (ib.); the monoceros, with the body of a horse, the head of a stag, the feet of an elephant, the tail of a boar, and a black horn on its forehead two cubits long (100.31); the catoblepas, whose eves are instantly fatal to any man who meets their glance (100.32); and the basilisk, possessed of powers equally remarkable (100.33). Pliny certainly was not the man to throw out the taunt : mirum est quo procedat Graeca credulitas
(8.22 or 34).
He cites Ctesias with as much confidence as Aristotle; and it is not unlikely that in some instances he has transformed the symbolical animals sculptured at Persepolis into real natural productions.
With his usual proneness to ramble off into digressions, his account of the sheep furnishes him with an opportunity for giving a variety of details regarding different kinds of clothing, and the novelties or improvements introduced in it (8.48 or 73).
In the ninth book he proceeds to the different races inhabiting the water, in which element he believes that even more extraordinary animals are produced than on the earth, the seeds and germs of living creatures being more intermingled by the agency of the winds and waves, so that he assents to the common opinion that there is nothing produced in any other part of nature which is not found in the sea, while the latter has many things peculiar to itself. Thus he finds no difficulty in believing that a live Triton, of the commonly received form, and a Nereid, had been seen and heard on the coast of Spain in the reign of Tiberius, and that a great number of dead Nereids had been found on the beach in the reign of Augustus, to say nothing of sea-elephants and sea-goats.
The story of Arion and the dolphin he thinks amply confirmed by numerous undoubted instances of the attachment shown by dolphins for men, and especially boys.
It seems that these creatures are remarkably apt at answering to the name Simon, which they prefer to any other (100.8). Pliny, however, rightly terms whales and dolphins beluae,
though the only classification of marine animals is one according to their integuments (9.12 or 14, 13 or 15). His account of the ordinary habits of the whale is tolerably accurate; and indeed, generally speaking, the ninth book exhibits much less of the marvellous and exaggerated than some of the others.
He recognises seventy-four different kinds of fishes, with thirty of Crustacea (14 or 16).
The eagerness with which pearls, purple dye, and shell-fish are sought for excites Pliny to vehement objurgation of the luxury and rapacity of the age (100.34). On the supposed origin of pearls, and the mode of extracting the purple dye, he enters at considerable length (100.34-41). Indeed, as he sarcastically remarks : abunde tractate est ratio qua se virorum juxta feminarumque forma credit amplissimam fieri.
The tenth book is devoted to an account of birds, beginning with the largest--the ostrich.
As to the phoenix even Pliny is sceptical; but he has some curious statements about eagles, and several other birds.
The leading distinction which he recognises among birds is that depending on the form of the feet (10.11 or 13).
Those, also, which have not talons but toes, are subdivided into oscines
the former being distinguished by their note, the latter by their different sizes (100.19 or 22).
He notices that those with crooked talons are usually carnivorous; that those which are heavy feed on grain or fruits; those that fly high, on flesh (100.47).
The validity of augury he does not seem to question. Though he had found no difficulty in winged horses (8.21), he regards as fabulous winged Pegasi with horses' heads.
The substance of the bird when hatched he states to be derived from the white of the egg, the yolk serving as its food (100.53). From his account of eggs he digresses into a general discussion of the phaenomena of generation in animals of all kinds (100.62, &c.), in connection with which he has several most extraordinary statements, as, e. gr., that the spinal marrow of a man may turn into a serpent (100.66), and that mice can generate by licking each other.
The generation and fecundity of these little creatures he regards as especially astonishing; and what becomes of them all he cannot think, as they are never picked up dead, or dug up in winter in the fields (100.65).
He then proceeds to some statements as to the relative acuteness of the senses in different animals, and other miscellaneous matters.
The reciprocal enmities and attachments of different animals are frequently touched upon by him.
The first part of the eleventh book is occupied with an account of insects.
The phenomena of the insect kingdom Pliny regards as exhibiting the wonderful operations of nature in even a more surprising manner than the others.
He, however, only notices a few of the most common insects. On bees he treats at considerable length.
He finds space, however, to mention the pyralis, an insect which is produced and lives in the fire of furnaces, but dies speedily if too long away from the flame (100.36).
The remainder of the book (100.37 or 44, &c.) is devoted to the subject of comparative anatomy, or at least something of an approximation to that science. Considerable ingenuity has been shown by those from whom Pliny copies in bringing together a large number of coincidences and differences, though, as might have been expected, there are many errors both in the generalisations and in the particular facts.
Botany, the next division of natural history taken up by Pliny, occupies by far the largest portion of the work. Including the books on medical botany, it occupies sixteen books, eight on general botany (xii.-xix.), and eight more on medicines derived from plants. Pliny's botany is altogether devoid of scientific classification.
The twelfth book treats of exotics, especially the spice and scent bearing trees of India, Arabia, and Syria. Of the trees themselves Pliny's account is extremely unsatisfactory : frequently he merely names them.
The book is chiefly occupied with an account of their products, the modes of collecting and preparing them, &c.
The first part of the thirteenth book is occupied with a general account of unguents, the history of their use, the modes of compounding them, and the plants from which they are chiefly derived. Palms and other exotics, chiefly those of Syria, Arabia, and Egypt, taken up without any principle of arrangement, are noticed or described in the remainder of the book. His account of the papyrus (100.11 or 21-13 or 27) goes considerably into detail.
The fourteenth book is occupied with an account of the vine, and different notices respecting the various sorts of wines, closing with a somewhat spirited review of the effects of drunkenness.
The fifteenth book treats of the more common sorts of fruit, the olive, apple, fig, &c.
The sixteenth passes first to the most common kinds of forest trees, and then contains a great variety of remarks on general botany, and other miscellaneous notices, especially on the uses of wood and timber, into the midst of which there is awkwardly thrust some account of reeds, willows, and other plants of that kind.
The seventeenth book treats of the cultivation and arrangement of trees and plants, the modes of propagating and grafting them, the diseases to which they are subject, with the modes of curing them, &c.
The eighteenth book opens with an apology, in Pliny's peculiar style, on behalf of the earth, the benign parent of all, whom men have unjustly blamed for the mischievous use which they themselves have made of some of her products.
The rest of the book is occupied with an account of the different sorts of grain and pulse, and a general account of agriculture.
This and the preceding are by far the most valuable of the botanical books of the Historia Naturalis,
and exhibit a great amount of reading, as well as considerable observation.
The next eight books (xx.--xxvii.) are devoted, generally speaking, to medical botany, though the reader must not expect a writer like Pliny to adhere very strictly to his subject. Thus, a great part of the twenty-first book treats of flowers, scents, and the use of chaplets; and some of the observations about bees and bee-hives are a little foreign to the subject. Indeed, the 20th and part of the 21st book are rather a general account of the medical, floral and other productions of gardens
(see 100.49, end). Then, after giving an account of various wild plants, and some general botanical remarks respecting them, Pliny returns to the subject of medicines.
The classification of these is chiefly according to the sources front which they are derived, whether garden or other cultivated plants (xx.--xxii.), cultivated trees (xxiii.), forest trees (xxiv.), or wild plants (xxv.); partly according to the diseases for which they are adapted (xxvi.). Cuvier (l.c.
) remarks that almost all that the ancients have told us of the virtues of their plants is lost to us, on account of our not knowing what plants they are speaking of. If we might believe Pliny, there is hardly a single human malady for which nature has not provided a score of remedies.
In the twenty-eighth book Pliny proceeds to notice the medicines derived from the human body, and from other land animals, commencing with what is tantamount to an apology for introducing the subject in that part of the work. Three books are devoted to this branch, diversified by some notices respecting the history of medicine (29.1-8), and magic, in which he does not believe, and which he considers an offshoot front the art of medicine, combined with religion and astrology (30.1, &c).
The thirty-first book treats of the medical properties of various waters; the thirty-second of those of fishes and other aquatic creatures.
The remaining section of the Historia Naturalis
would doubtless have been headed by Pliny "Mineralogy," though this title would give but a small idea of the nature of the contents.
In the 33d book the subject of metals is taken up.
It begins with various denunciations of the wickedness and cupidity of men, who could not be content with what nature had provided for them on the surface of the earth, but must needs desecrate even the abode of the Manes to find materials for the gratification of their desires. Pliny's account of gold and silver consists chiefly of historical disquisitions about rings, money, crowns, plate, statues, and the other various objects in the making of which the precious metals have been used, in which he has presented us with a number of curious and interesting notices.
He also specifies when and how metallic products are used as remedies.
The mention of bronze (book xxxiv.) leads him to a digression about statues and statuaries, again chiefly of an historical kind, and preserving several interesting and valuable facts (100.9-19).
In the 19th chapter he enumerates the chief works of the most celebrated statuaries, but the barren inventory is enlivened by very few remarks which can satisfy the curiosity of the artist or the lover of art.
The introduction of this digression, and the mention of some mineral pigments, leads Pliny to take up the subject of painting in the 35th book. His account, however, is chiefly that of the historian and anecdote collector, not that of a man who understood or appreciated the art.
The early stages of it he discusses very summarily; but on its progress after it had reached some maturity, and the various steps by which it rose in estimation among the Romans, he has many valuable and interesting records.
In his account of the pigments employed by the ancient painters, he mixes up the medical properties of some of them in a way peculiarly his own, though not very conducive to regularity of arrangement. His chronological notices of the eras of the art and of the most distinguished painters are extremely valuable, and he notices, usually with tolerable clearness, the great improvers of the art, and the advances which they respectively made.
The reader will find in this part of the work many interesting anecdotes of the great painters of Greece; but will often wish that instead of a great variety of unimportant details, and accounts of trivial processes and mechanical excellences, Pliny had given a more full and satisfactory account of many of the masterpieces of antiquity, which he only barely mentions.
The excellent materials which he had before him in the writings of several of the ancient artists, and others which he might have consulted, might have been worked up, in better hands, into a far more interesting account.
After a short notice of the plastic art, a few chapters at the end of the book are devoted to the medical and other properties of various mineral products, the use of bricks, &c.
For the 36th book "lapidum natural restat,
" as Pliny says, "hoc est praecipua morum insania.
" Marble and the other kinds of stone and kindred materials used in buildings, or rather the admirable and curious works in which they have been employed (including a notice of sculpture and sculptors), occupy the greater portion of the book, the remainder of which treats of other minerals, and the medicinal and other uses to which they were applied. The 37th book treats, in a similar manner, of gems and precious stones, and the fine arts as connected with the department of engraving, the whole concluding with an energetic commendation of Italy, as the land of all others the most distinguished by the natural endowments and the glory of its inhabitants, by the beauty of its situation, and its fertility in everything that can minister to the wants of man.
The style of Pliny is characterised by a good deal of masculine vigour and elevation of tone, though its force is frequently rather the studied vehemence of the rhetorician than the spontaneous outburst of impassioned feeling.
In his fondness for point and antithesis, he is frequently betrayed into harshness, and his pregnant brevity not uncommonly degenerates into abruptness and obscurity, though much of this latter characteristic which is found in his writings is probably due to the corrupt state of the text.
The editions of Pliny's Natural History are very numerous. The first was published at Venice 1469
, and was rapidly followed by many others; but the first edition of any great merit was that by Hardouin (Paris, 1685, in 5 vols. 4to.; 2nd edition 1723, 3 vols. fol.), which exhibits great industry and learning. The edition published by Panckoucke (Paris, 1829-1833, in 20 vols.) with a French translation by Ajasson de Grandsagne is enriched by many valuable notes by Cuvier and other eminent scientific and literary men of France.
These notes are also appended, in a Latin form, in another edition in six volumes (Paris, 1836-38, Panckoucke).
The most valuable critical edition of the text of Pliny is that by Sillig (Leipzig, 1831-36, 5 vols. 12mo.).
The last volume of this edition contains a collation of a MS. at Bamberg of great value (containing, however, only the last six books), which supplies words and clauses in many passages not suspected before of being corrupt, from which it may be inferred that the text of the earlier books is still in a mutilated state, and that much of the obscurity of Pliny may be traced to this cause.
A considerable passage at the end of the last book has been supplied by Sillig from this manuscript.
It appears from his preface that Sillig is engaged upon a more extensive edition of Pliny.
The Natural History of Pliny has been translated into almost all languages : into Engish by Holland (London, 1601)
; into German by Denso (1764-65)
, and Grosse (1781-88, 12 vols.)
; besides translations of parts by Fritsch
; into Italian by Landino (Ven. 1476)
, Bruccioli (Ven. 1548)
, and Domenichi (Ven. 1561)
; into Spanish by Huerta (Madrid, 1624-29)
; into French by Dupinet (1562)
, Poinsinet de Sivry (1771-82)
, and Ajasson de Grandsagne
; into Dutch (Arnheim, 1617)
; into Arabic by Honain Ibn Ishak (Joannitius)
A great deal of useful erudition will be found in the Exercitationes Plinianae on the Polyhistor of Solinus, by Salmasius
. Another valuable work in illustration of Pliny is the Disquisitiones Plinianae, by A. Jos. a Tnrre Rezzonico. Parma, 1763-67, 2 vols. fol.
(Ajasson de Grandsagne, Notice sur la Vie ct les Onvrages de Pline l'ancien ; Bäihr, Geschichte der Römischen Literatur, p. 471