Naturalis Historia
December 16, 2013 5:48 AM   Subscribe

"My subject is a barren one – the world of nature, or in other words life; and that subject in its least elevated department, and employing either rustic terms or foreign, nay barbarian words that actually have to be introduced with an apology. Moreover, the path is not a beaten highway of authorship, nor one in which the mind is eager to range: there is not one of us who has made the same venture, nor yet one Roman who has tackled single-handed all departments of the subject."
Naturalis Historia was written by Pliny the Elder between 77 and 79 CE and was meant to serve as a kind of proto-encyclopedia discussing all of the ancient knowledge available to him, covered in enough depth and breadth to make it by a reasonable margin the largest work to survive to the modern day from the Roman era. The work includes discussions on astronomy, meteorology, geography, mineralogy, zoology and botany organized along Aristotelian divisions of nature but also includes essays on human inventions and institutions. It is dedicated to the Emperor Titus in its epistle to the Emperor Vespasian, a close friend of Pliny who relied on his extensive knowledge, and its unusually careful citations of sources as well as its index makes it a precursor to modern scholarly works. It was Pliny's last work, as well as sadly his sole surviving one, and was published not long before his death attempting to save a friend from the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum, famously recounted by Pliny's eponymous nephew Pliny the Younger.
Here is a reasonable translation that is freely available to download from for your edification.

Pliny the Elder's habits that led to the book were also famously recounted by his nephew,
"Does it surprise you that a busy man found time to finish so many volumes, many of which deal with such minute details? You will wonder the more when I tell you that he for many years pleaded in the law courts, that he died in his fifty-seventh year, and that in the interval his time was taken up and his studies were hindered by the important offices he held and the duties arising out of his friendship with the Emperors. But he possessed a keen intellect; he had a marvellous capacity for work, and his powers of application were enormous. He used to begin to study at night on the Festival of Vulcan, not for luck but from his love of study, long before dawn; in winter he would commence at the seventh hour or at the eighth at the very latest, and often at the sixth. He could sleep at call, and it would come upon him and leave him in the middle of his work. Before daybreak he would go to Vespasian – for he too was a night-worker – and then set about his official duties. On his return home he would again give to study any time that he had free. Often in summer after taking a meal, which with him, as in the old days, was always a simple and light one, he would lie in the sun if he had any time to spare, and a book would be read aloud, from which he would take notes and extracts. For he never read without taking extracts, and used to say that there never was a book so bad that it was not good in some passage or another. After his sun bath he usually bathed in cold water, then he took a snack and a brief nap, and subsequently, as though another day had begun, he would study till dinner-time. After dinner a book would be read aloud, and he would take notes in a cursory way. I remember that one of his friends, when the reader pronounced a word wrongly, checked him and made him read it again, and my uncle said to him, "Did you not catch the meaning?" When his friend said "yes," he remarked, "Why then did you make him turn back? We have lost more than ten lines through your interruption." So jealous was he of every moment lost."
If you would like to read the text in html, I would recommend doing it here,
Book I: Table of Contents of the remaining thirty-six Books, the contents of each Book being followed by a list of the previous writers used as authorities.

Book II: Cosmology, astronomy, meteorology, geography, geology including descriptions of models for explaining these kinds of phenomena that are both fascinatingly wrong and fascinatingly right.
Book III: Ethnography and Geography of Southern Spain; Southern Gaul; Italy; the Western Mediterranean and Ionian and Adriatic Islands; the countries around the north of the Adriatic.
Book IV: Ethnography and Geography of Greece and the rest of the Balkan Peninsula as well as the islands of the Eastern Mediter­ranean, the Black Sea and the countries west of it, Northern Europe. Includes discussion of the dimensions of the whole of Europe.
Book V: Ethnography and Geography of North Africa, the Eastern Mediter­ranean and Asia Minor.
Book VI: Ethnography and Geography of the countries from the Black Sea to India including Persia, Arabia, Ethiopia, and the Nile valley.
Book VII: Discussion of the human race as a whole regarding its biology, physiology and psychology. Largely discussing extreme cases of 'monstrous' births as well as remarkable physical, mental, artistic and moral exploits; it also includes a fascinatingly alien and familiar way of discussing ethnic differences.
Book VIII: Deals with various mammals, wild and domesticated; and among them are introduced snakes, crocodiles and lizards.
Book IX: Treats aquatic species, including Nereids, Tritons and the sea-serpent. There are considerable passages on their economic aspects such as the use of fish as food, pearls, dyes obtained from fish, and on their physiology, sensory and reproductive.
Book X: Ornithology: hawks trained for fowling; birds of evil omen; domestication of birds for food; talking birds; reproduction. Appendix on other viviparous species, passing on to animals in general their methods of reproduction, senses, nutrition, friendship and hostility between different species, sleep.
Book XI: Insects, their physiology and habits--especially bees, silk-worms, spiders. Classification of animals by varieties of bodily structure animal and human physiology.
Book XII: Deals with trees known to the Roman world from Britannia to India as well as their various qualities.
Book XIII: Gives foreign trees and their use in supplying scent, fruit, paper and wood.
Book XIV: Discusses vine-growing and varieties of wine.
Book XV: Olives, olive-oil and fruit-trees.
Book XVI: Forest trees, their nature and varie­ties; their value for timber and other commodities. Longevity of trees. Parasitic plants.
Book XVII: Continues the subject of arboriculture from previous book.
Book XVIII: Deals with cereal agriculture.
Book XIX: With the cultivation of flax and other plants used for fabrics, and with vegetable gardening.
Book XX: Are concerned with the uses of trees, plants and flowers from garden plants, especially in medicine. To understand his treatment of this subject it is necessary to examine the diseases he dealt with and the nature of the remedies he prescribed.
Book XXI: The same, but focusing on flowers that includes ones found in the wild.
Book XXII: The same, but focusing on herbs that includes ones found in the wild.
Book XXIII: The same, but focusing on cultivated trees.
Book XXIV: The same, but focusing on forest trees.
Book XXV: The same, but focusing on self-grown plants.
Book XXVI: The remaining drugs by classes.
Book XXVII: A continuation of the previous book.
Book XXVIII: Drugs obtained from animals.
Book XXIX: Drugs obtained from animals, continued.
Book XXX: Drugs obtained from animals, continued.
Book XXXI: Drugs obtained from different kinds of water.
Book XXXII: Drugs obtained from different kinds of aquatic animals.
Book XXXIII: Discussion of minerals.
Book XXXIV: Discussion of Mining.
Book XXXV: Discussion of the history of art.
Book XXXVI: Discussion of precious stones.
Book XXXVII: Discussion of precious gems.
posted by Blasdelb (24 comments total) 59 users marked this as a favorite
It seems odd to call the world of nature and life "barren"; he must have meant, barren in terms of learned books.
posted by thelonius at 5:54 AM on December 16, 2013

Right as in, "not a beaten highway of authorship"
posted by Blasdelb at 5:56 AM on December 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think it's striking how much Pliny's outlook and world view resembles a modern one. His attitude to religion (Well, if there is any God, which seems dubious, there's most likely just one; all these temples to gods that are patently made up are just ludicrous), his pragmatic outlook and assumption that things have a natural, broadly scientific explanation; he would have had little difficulty adjusting to modern times, far less than an ancient Egyptian or even a Greek. We are basically Roman.
posted by Segundus at 5:59 AM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Segundus, for the rest of us to follow along, this is from Book II Chapter V of Naturalis Historia,
"For this reason I deem it a mark of human weakness to seek to discover the shape and form of God. Whoever God is—provided there is a God—and in whatever region he is, he consists wholly of sense, sight and hearing, wholly of soul, wholly of mind, wholly of himself. To believe in gods without number, and gods corresponding to men's vices as well as to their virtues, like the Goddesses of Modesty, Concord, Intelligence, Hope, Honour, Mercy and Faith—or else, as Democritus held, only two, Punishment and Reward, reaches an even greater height of folly. Frail, toiling mortality, remembering its own weakness, has divided such deities into groups, so as to worship in sections, each the deity he is most in need of. Consequently different races have different names for the deities, and we find countless deities in the same races, even those of the lower world being classified into groups, and diseases and also many forms of plague, in our nervous anxiety to get them placated. Because of this there is actually a Temple of Fever consecrated by the nation on the Palatine Hill, and one of Bereavement at the Temple of the Household Deities, and an Altar of Misfortune on the Esquiline. For this reason we can infer a larger population of celestials than of human beings, as individuals also make an equal number of gods on their own, by adopting their own private Junos and Genii; while certain nations have animals, even some loathsome ones, for gods, and many things still more disgraceful to tell of—swearing by rotten articles of food and other things of that sort. To believe even in marriages taking place between gods, without anybody all through the long ages of time being born as a result of them, and that some are always old and grey, others youths and boys, and gods with dusky complexions, winged, lame, born from eggs, living and dying on alternate days—this almost ranks with the mad fancies of children; but it passes all bounds of shamelessness to invent acts of adultery taking place between the gods themselves, followed by altercation and enmity, and the existence of deities of theft and of crime. For mortal to aid mortal—this is god; and this is the road to eternal glory: by this road went our Roman chieftains, by this road now proceeds with heavenward step, escorted by his children, the greatest ruler of all time, His Majesty Vespasian, coming to the succour of an exhausted world. To enrol such men among the deities is the most ancient method of paying them gratitude for their benefactions. In fact the names of the other gods, and also of the stars that I have mentioned above, originated from the services of men: at all events who would not admit that it is the interpretation of men's characters that prompts them to call each other Jupiter or Mercury or other names, and that originates the nomenclature of heaven? That that supreme being, whatever it be, pays heed to man's affairs is a ridiculous notion. Can we believe that it would not be defiled by so gloomy and so multifarious a duty? Can we doubt it? It is scarcely pertinent to determine which is more profitable for the human race, when some men pay no regard to the gods at all and the regard paid by others is of a shameful nature: they serve as the lackeys of foreign ritual, and they carry gods on their fingers; also they pass sentence of punishment upon the monsters they worship, and devise elaborate viands for them; they subject themselves to awful tyrannies, so as to find no repose even in sleep; they do not decide on marriage or having a family or indeed anything else except by the command of sacrifices; others cheat in the very Capitol and swear false oaths by Jupiter who wields the thunderbolts—and these indeed make a profit out of their crimes, whereas the others are penalized by their religious observances.

Nevertheless mortality has rendered our guesses about God even more obscure by inventing for itself a deity intermediate between these two conceptions. Everywhere in the whole world at every hour by all men's voices Fortune alone is invoked and named, alone accused, alone impeached, alone pondered, alone applauded, alone rebuked and visited with reproaches; deemed volatile and indeed by most men blind as well, wayward, inconstant, uncertain, fickle in her favours and favouring the unworthy. To her is debited all that is spent and credited all that is received, she alone fills both pages in the whole of mortals' account; and we are so much at the mercy of chance that Chance herself, by whom God is proved uncertain, takes the place of God. Another set of people banishes fortune also, and attributes events to its star and to the laws of birth, holding that for all men that ever are to be God's decree has been enacted once for all, while for the rest of time leisure has been vouchsafed to Him. This belief begins to take root, and the learned and unlearned mob alike go marching on towards it at the double: witness the warnings drawn from lightning, the forecasts made by oracles, the prophecies of augurs, and even inconsiderable trifles—a sneeze, a stumble—counted as omens. His late Majesty put abroad a story that on the day on which he was almost overthrown by a mutiny in the army he had put his left boot on the wrong foot. This series of instances entangles unforeseeing mortality, so that among these things but one thing is in the least certain—that nothing certain exists, and that nothing is more pitiable, or more presnmptuous, than man! inasmuch as with the rest of living creatures their sole anxiety is for the means of life, in which nature's bounty of itself suffices, the one blessing indeed that is actually preferable to every other being the fact that they do not think about glory, money, ambition, and above all death.

But it agrees with life's experience to believe that in these matters the gods exercise an interest in human affairs; and that punishment for wickedness, though sometimes tardy, as God is occupied in so vast a mass of things, yet is never frustrated; and that man was not born God's next of kin for the purpose of approximating to the beasts in vileness. But the chief consolations for nature's imperfection in the case of man are that not even for God are all things possible—for he cannot, even if he wishes, commit suicide, the supreme boon that he has bestowed on man among all the penalties of life, nor bestow eternity on mortals or recall the deceased, nor cause a man that has lived not to have lived or one that has held high office not to have held it—and that he has no power over what is past save to forget it, and (to link our fellowship with God by means of frivolous arguments as well) that he cannot cause twice ten not to be twenty, or do many things on similar lines: which facts unquestionably demonstrate the power of nature, and prove that it is this that we mean by the word 'God.' It will not have been irrelevant to have diverged to these topics, which have already been widely disseminated because of the unceasing enquiry into the nature of God."
posted by Blasdelb at 6:12 AM on December 16, 2013 [6 favorites]

Last week's BBC podcast of In Our Time With Melvyn Bragg covered the nephew, Pliny the Younger.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:14 AM on December 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

We are basically Roman.

We're a lot like Carthage, actually.
posted by thelonius at 6:23 AM on December 16, 2013

Wait, Pliny the Elder is not just a beer?
posted by COD at 6:23 AM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

We are basically Roman.

We're a lot like Carthage, actually

Do go on?
posted by jetlagaddict at 6:26 AM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Carthage was basically about making money, and lots of it. While we get, for the most part, a very one-sided account of their society (Roman sources), it seems clear that they weren't much interested in the arts and sciences, unless they had a practical application. I think most Americans would think that they had good sense.
posted by thelonius at 6:29 AM on December 16, 2013

it seems clear that they weren't much interested in the arts and sciences, unless they had a practical application.

You could just as easily level that accusation against the Romans.
posted by absalom at 6:31 AM on December 16, 2013

Well, the Romans became very enamored of Greek culture, and went to great lengths to assimilate it. The wealthy spared no expense in acquiring Greek statues, Greek slaves to tutor their children, and so on. Around Pliny's lifespan, too, they developed their own first-rate literary culture. So they at least had a sense that they ought to make a show of some class, after conquering the known world.
posted by thelonius at 6:35 AM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Here is a pretty awesome BBC documetary that talks about Carthage and the really good reasons for being very cautious about drawing comparisons between what little we know of them and the modern world.
The Phoenician Carthage - The Roman Holocaust (1:37:35)
Carthage was the centre of the Carthaginian Empire in antiquity. The city has existed for nearly 3,000 years, developing from a Phoenician colony of the 1st millennium BC into the capital of an ancient empire. The first civilization that developed within the city's sphere of influence is referred to as Punic (a form of the word "Phoenician") or Carthaginian. According to Greek historians, Carthage was founded by Canaanite-speaking Phoenician colonists from Tyre (in modern Lebanon) under the leadership of Elissa. It became a large and rich city and thus a major power in the Mediterranean. The resulting rivalry with Syracuse, Numidia, and Rome was accompanied by several wars with respective invasions of each other's homeland. Hannibal's invasion of Italy in the Second Punic War culminated in the Carthaginian victory at Cannae and led to a serious threat to the continuation of Roman rule over Italy; however, Carthage emerged from the conflict weaker after Hannibal's defeat at the Battle of Zama in 202 BC. Following the Third Punic War, the city was destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC. However, the Romans re founded Carthage, which became the empire's fourth most important city and the second most important city in the Latin West.
Important for context while watching the film is this paper,
Skeletal Remains from Punic Carthage Do Not Support Systematic Sacrifice of Infants
Two types of cemeteries occur at Punic Carthage and other Carthaginian settlements: one centrally situated housing the remains of older children through adults, and another at the periphery of the settlement (the “Tophet”) yielding small urns containing the cremated skeletal remains of very young animals and humans, sometimes comingled. Although the absence of the youngest humans at the primary cemeteries is unusual and worthy of discussion, debate has focused on the significance of Tophets, especially at Carthage, as burial grounds for the young. One interpretation, based on two supposed eye-witness reports of large-scale Carthaginian infant sacrifice [Kleitarchos (3rd c. BCE) and Diodorus Siculus (1st c. BCE)], a particular translation of inscriptions on some burial monuments, and the argument that if the animals had been sacrificed so too were the humans, is that Tophets represent burial grounds reserved for sacrificial victims. An alternative hypothesis acknowledges that while the Carthaginians may have occasionally sacrificed humans, as did their contemporaries, the extreme youth of Tophet individuals suggests these cemeteries were not only for the sacrificed, but also for the very young, however they died. Here we present the first rigorous analysis of the largest sample of cremated human skeletal remains (348 burial urns, N = 540 individuals) from the Carthaginian Tophet based on tooth formation, enamel histology, cranial and postcranial metrics, and the potential effects of heat-induced bone shrinkage. Most of the sample fell within the period prenatal to 5-to-6 postnatal months, with a significant presence of prenates. Rather than indicating sacrifice as the agent of death, this age distribution is consistent with modern-day data on perinatal mortality, which at Carthage would also have been exacerbated by numerous diseases common in other major cities, such as Rome and Pompeii. Our diverse approaches to analyzing the cremated human remains from Carthage strongly support the conclusion that Tophets were cemeteries for those who died shortly before or after birth, regardless of the cause.
posted by Blasdelb at 6:38 AM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

it seems clear that they weren't much interested in the arts and sciences, unless they had a practical application.

See, I wouldn't really agree with that-- I have seen Carthaginian settlements in Sicily and I wouldn't describe them as barren of art, not least of which is funerary. (Tophets are indeed super interesting and badly understood!) They were involved with trade across the Mediterranean at a time when artistic styles and materials went from the near east across to Spain-- I don't know a huge amount about Punic art, but I think that's an unduly narrow view.

Well, the Romans became very enamored of Greek culture, and went to great lengths to assimilate it.

I also think this is unfairly narrow-- yes, they definitely did that, but Rome already had a rich Italic art tradition, and even if we continue to privilege Greek art and styles as "better," Roman colonial art can be pretty awesome too. I mean, it's somewhat amusing to me that Pompeii and the areas where Pliny died are often popularly presented as this case study of All Things Roman, but given its long history of being controlled and conquered by the Oscans, Samnites, Greeks, and Etruscans...well, it's complicated.
posted by jetlagaddict at 6:54 AM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Well, that's kind of true, thelonius. The Roman view of the Greeks was rather complicated. They basically stole and Romanized Greek culture*, sure, but they were also very skeptical of the "effeminante" Greeks. The Roman admiration of the Greeks was really an "arms length" affair - aristocrats who were too enamored with Greek culture - like, say, Hadrian - were viewed very suspiciously by the Roman elite.

*Cultural appropriation is also a very American trait.
posted by absalom at 7:04 AM on December 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

Well, that's kind of true, thelonius. The Roman view of the Greeks was rather complicated. They basically stole and Romanized Greek culture*, sure, but they were also very skeptical of the "effeminante" Greeks. The Roman admiration of the Greeks was really an "arms length" affair - aristocrats who were too enamored with Greek culture - like, say, Hadrian - were viewed very suspiciously by the Roman elite.

Which sounds very simliar to America's attitude towards British (and to an extent, French) culture.
posted by spaltavian at 7:36 AM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'd like to think that there is more to the study of ancient history than just a series of Barnum Statements defeated only by a self-serving bias and told for the appeasement of those who lack the perspective to see it. "Cultural appropriation is a trait that is very characteristic of your culture" could be ripped from a fortune cookie and ring just as true for anyone an economically dominant culture stretching back to well before Gaius Plinius Secundus, in meaning everything it says nothing.

On the other hand, having enjoyed this book and spent way to much time reading about trees, I'm really curious what mefites who click these links find and see in Pliny's work.
posted by Blasdelb at 8:21 AM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Which sounds very simliar to America's attitude towards British (and to an extent, French) culture.

....and Roman.
posted by Barticus at 8:22 AM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

While y'all are having serious discussions up there, I just wanted to point out for the other low-browsers that if you find Pliny the Elder's name to be familiar, it could be because he turned up in Harry Potter as the discoverer of the Basilisk. This is, at least, why his name was scratching around in my head already.
posted by whatzit at 8:42 AM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Cultural appropriation is a trait that is very characteristic of your culture" could be ripped from a fortune cookie and ring just as true for anyone an economically dominant culture

While that is true, it doesn't mean that the specific mix of envy and dismisal of the effte is necessarily the universal means of appropriation.

it seems clear that they weren't much interested in the arts and sciences, unless they had a practical application.

I don't think this is true of Carthage or the United States. While most of America's output might be considered lowbrow or commerical, it is a content generating machine. Some of our biggest industries are artistic.
posted by spaltavian at 8:54 AM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've been reading this very translation off and on; one observation Pliny made which intrigued me was his statement that Roman houses were shingled with split oaken shingles for a period of 475 years. I assume that the easily available supplies of virgin oak forests played out. In contrast, our (North American) "wood shingle period" lasted for about one hundred years. Until the 1950s most houses in the US were shingled with Western Red Cedar; now such roofs are a display of wealth.
posted by Agave at 8:57 AM on December 16, 2013 [6 favorites]

COD: "Wait, Pliny the Elder is not just a beer?"

The story behind the name of that beer is pretty neat:
After much research in beer books, brainstorming, and deliberation, we came up with "Pliny the Elder". Pliny, the man, lived in the first century- 23 to 79 A.D. According to our brewing references, he and his contemporaries either created the botanical name or at least wrote about Lupus Salictarius, or hops, currently known as Humulus Lupulus.

Pliny the Elder is very tasty beer when you can get it fresh. It includes enough hops that certain flavor compounds are actually saturated so that no more will dissolve in the beer. Delicious. Vinny from Russian River kindly shared the recipe (PDF), which I have made and which compared well to the real thing.

The hops or "Lupus Salictarius" in Pliny's Natural History is the "willow wolf" mentioned in book XXI, part L, which he lists among plants that grow wild and are "delicacies rather than foods." Hops do love to climb and I suppose they would "strangle" a willow tree.
posted by exogenous at 9:51 AM on December 16, 2013 [4 favorites]

Self-comparisons to Rome are sort of in our national DNA; the Founders were very fixated on the question of why the Roman Republic fell, iirc. The Carthaginian thing (which isn't my idea, it was an aside in some book I read) does not really work as a tight comparison, probably. But it's interesting to think about.

Great post, thanks.
posted by thelonius at 10:27 AM on December 16, 2013

Or,... it's just possible that every single human civlization since Egmu Schmotz invented the pointy stick [1] has valued art, money, the great and lasting (known) achievements of preceding civilizations, and interesting or useful aspects of other, contemporary human societies.

[1] The most-referenced ancient individual in my freshman high school history class; still one of the greatest classes I've ever taken. Thank you, Mr. P. K. Krokstrom, for your skills and efforts to force us to think.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:43 AM on December 16, 2013

Blasdelb: "Often in summer after taking a meal, which with him, as in the old days, was always a simple and light one,"

Kind of classic Roman veneration for the glory of the past, there. I'm sure Pliny the Elder lived his life broadly as described, but there are a lot of tropes of duty and self-denial that are cliched descriptions of the good Roman citizen.
posted by Chrysostom at 4:52 PM on December 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

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