previous next


[12arg] Of extravagant tales which Plinius Secundus most unjustly ascribes to the philosopher Democritus; and also about the flying image of a dove.

PLINY THE ELDER, in the twenty-eighth book of his Natural History asserts 1 that there is a book of that [p. 243] most famous philosopher Democritus On the Power and Nature of the Chameleon, and that he had read it; and then he transmits to us many foolish and intolerable absurdities, alleging that they were written by Democritus. Of these unwillingly, since they disgust me, I recall a few, as follows: that the hawk, the swiftest of all birds, if it chance to fly over a chameleon which is crawling on the ground, is dragged down and falls through some force to the earth, and offers and gives itself up of its own accord to be torn to pieces by the other birds. Another statement too is past human belief, namely, that if the head and neck of the chameleon be burned by means of the wood which is called oak, rain and thunder are suddenly produced, and that this same thing is experienced if the liver of that animal is burned upon the roof of a house. There is also another story, which by heaven! I hesitated about putting down, so preposterous is it; but I have made it a rule that we ought to speak our mind about the fallacious seduction of marvels of that kind, by which the keenest minds are often deceived and led to their ruin, and in particular those which are especially eager for knowledge. But I return to Pliny. He says 2 that the left foot of the chameleon is roasted with an iron heated in the fire, along with an herb called by the same name, “chameleon”; both are mixed in an ointment, formed into a paste, and put in a wooden vessel. He who carries the vessel, even if he go openly amid a throng, can be seen by no one.

I think that these marvellous and false stories written by Plinius Secundus are not worthy of the name of Democritus; the same is true of what the same Pliny, in his tenth book, asserts 3 that [p. 245] Democritus wrote; namely, that there were certain birds with a language of their own, and that by mixing the blood of those birds a serpent was produced; that whoso ate it would understand the language of birds and their conversation.

Many fictions of this kind seem to have been attached to the name of Democritus by ignorant men, who sheltered themselves under his reputation and authority. But that which Archytas the Pythagorean is said to have devised and accomplished ought to seem no less marvellous, but yet not wholly absurd. For not only many eminent Greeks, but also the philosopher Favorinus, a most diligent searcher of ancient records, have stated most positively that Archytas made a wooden model of a dove with such mechanical ingenuity and art that it flew; so nicely balanced was it, you see, with weights and moved by a current of air enclosed and hidden within it. About so improbable a story I prefer to give Favorinus' own words: “Archytas the Tarentine, being in other lines also a mechanician, made a flying dove out of wood. Whenever it lit, it did not rise again. For until this... .” 4

1 xxviii. 112.

2 xxviii. 115.

3 x. 137.

4 There is a lacuna and the sense is uncertain.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

load focus Introduction (John C. Rolfe, 1927)
load focus Latin (John C. Rolfe, 1927)
hide References (4 total)
  • Cross-references to this page (2):
  • Cross-references in general dictionaries to this page (2):
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: