Pliny the Elder

Pliny the Elder (23-79) was a Roman encyclopedist. His greatest and only surviving work, the Natural History, has been called one of the most influential books ever written in Latin.

Pliny whose full name was Gaius Plinius Secundus, was born at Comum in the region north of the Po River and was educated in Rome. After the military career normal for his social rank, during which he served as a cavalry officer in Germany (47-57), he practiced law. During Nero's reign (54-68), Pliny found it prudent to concentrate on literature. He performed official tasks in various provinces for the emperor Vespasian (69-79), whom he knew well.

Pliny's true occupations, however, which he practiced constantly, were reading and writing. He had a voracious hunger for knowledge of all kinds and was diligent in collecting it. Some of his 102 volumes, which were described by his nephew, Pliny the Younger, were On the Use of the Javelin in the Cavalry; a biography in 2 books of his friend Pomponius Secundus; On the German Wars, a complete history in 20 books of all Roman wars with Germans up to his own times; The Student, in 3 books, on the education from childhood of an orator; Doubtful Speech, 8 books on grammar; and a continuation in 31 books of the history by Aufidius Bassus.


Natural History

Book 1 of the Natural History contains a long preface to the emperor Titus, in whose reign the work was completed, and a table of contents for the remaining books together with the authors consulted. Books 2-6 describe the universe and the surface of the earth; book 7 treats man; books 8-11 treat animals; books 12-19, plants; books 20-27, the use of plants in medicines; books 28-32 deal with medicines derived from animals; and books 33-37, with minerals and their use in the arts.

Pliny's work is by no means scientific in the modern sense. It contains many errors, some the result of his mistranslating Greek, most due to the haste with which he worked and his uncritical acceptance of his sources. Nevertheless, it remains the chief source of information on topics ranging from lost works of art to popular magic and includes much on history, literature, and Roman ritual and customs.

Pliny was admiral of the fleet at Misenum in 79, when the great eruption of Vesuvius occurred on August 24. According to his nephew, Pliny the Younger, his scientific curiosity impelled him to approach the volcano more closely in order to inspect its smoke cloud. He was informed that a lady of his acquaintance, whose house was at the base of the volcano, was in danger and unable to escape by land. He rescued his friend by ship and, noting that many others were in a like situation, ordered the ships of the fleet to be used to evacuate them from the danger area. He continued on to Stabiae (4 miles north of Pompeii), from which all the occupants were fleeing, continually describing each new phase of the eruption and ordering that a slave note down his observations exactly as he made them. When the earthquakes and fire grew more intense, he was unable to escape. His body was discovered 2 days later on the beach at Stabiae, where he had died, apparently of asphyxiation.


Further Reading on Pliny the Elder

Pliny's Natural History, with Latin text and English translations by H. Rackham and others, is in the Loeb Classical Library (10 vols., 1938-1963). Pliny is examined in detail in H. N. Wethered, The Mind of the Ancient World: A Consideration of Pliny's Natural History (1937), and is discussed in H. J. Rose, A Handbook of Latin Literature (1936; 3d ed. 1966). There is a brief biography in George Schwartz and Phillip W. Bishop, eds., Moments of Discovery: The Origins of Science (1958). Pliny's contribution is covered in Charles Singer and others, eds., A History of Technology, vol. 2 (1956).