Pliny the Elder


Gaius Plinius Secondus, called Pliny the Elder to distinguish him from his nephew, known as Pliny the Younger, was born in 23 CE in Como (Northern Italy). His was a wealthy and influential family. Pliny studied at Rome before serving in the Roman military in Germany, eventually commanding a cavalry squadron. About eight years later he returned to Rome and studied law. Near the end of Nero's reign Pliny once again entered public service as a Procurator in Spain. When Vespasian, who Pliny had come to know in Germany, became ruler, Pliny returned to Rome as part of his inner circle, and received a naval commission. In 79 CE Pliny was killed in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which he had come to study.


Pliny's work habits are described in a letter by the younger Pliny (Epistles 3.v): "...he possessed a keen intellect; he had a marvelous 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. In summer he used to rise from the dinner-table while it was still light; in winter always before the first hour had passed, as though there was a law obliging him to do so. Such was his method of living when up to the eyes in work and amid the bustle of Rome. When he was in the country the only time snatched from his work was when he took his bath, and when I say bath I refer to the actual bathing, for while he was being scraped with the strigil or rubbed down, he used to listen to a reader or dictate. When he was traveling he cut himself aloof from every other thought and gave himself up to study alone. At his side he kept a shorthand writer with a book and tablets, who wore mittens on his hands in winter, so that not even the sharpness of the weather should rob him of a moment, and for the same reason, when in Rome, he used to be carried in a litter. I remember that once he rebuked me for walking, saying, 'If you were a student, you could not waste your hours like that,' for he considered that all time was wasted which was not devoted to study."

Pliny wrote several multi-volume texts, most of which have been lost. The early works reflected his military career, but later he wrote a treatise on grammar and continued a history of Rome begun by Aufidius Bassus. His last, largest and most well-known work, and the only one to have survived, is called Natural History (Naturalis historia). Written in Latin, it is a compilation of everything Pliny heard, read or saw, and is a mix of fact and fable. The work is in 37 books, arranged by topic.

Book 1: table of contents of the other 36 books, and a list of authorities
Book 2: mathematics and meteorology;
Book 3-6: geography and ethnography of the known world
Book 7: anthropology and human physiology
Book 8-11: zoology
Book 12-19: botany, agriculture and horticulture
Book 20-27: plants used in medicine
Book 28-32: animals used in medicine
Book 33-37: mineralogy, minerals used in medicine, gemstones, the fine arts.

Pliny drew on many earlier writers for his Natural History, a list of which he provides in Book 1; these include Varro, Livy, Euclid, Eratosthenes, Aristotle, Archimedes, Cato the Censor, Augustus, Valerian, Dionysius, Aristides, Xenophon, Herodotus, Alexander the Learned, Alexander the Great, Seneca, Virgil, Hippocrates, Lucilius, and dozens of others. He often names his authorities and notes where they disagree. Pliny appears to have accepted as true (or at least worth recording) everything he read, without questioning its accuracy. There are only a few instances where he claims to have seen with his own eyes something of which he writes. Pliny was a compiler, a gatherer and recorder of information.

Pliny's Natural History, either directly or indirectly through quotes by later authors, greatly influenced the development of the bestiary and other medieval beast literature. The zoology chapters (books 8 to 11) are frequently quoted, though Pliny is not always acknowledged as the source. Just as Pliny accepted the authority of earlier writers, later writers accepted his authority.

See also Encyclopedia.