A compendium of Roman knowledge– and our window on the ancient world
Pliny’s Natural History is an astonishingly ambitious work that ranges from astronomy to zoology, covering botany, medicine, geography, magic, metallurgy and religion along the way. The world’s first encyclopaedia, it sheds a bright light on the Roman empire in the first century ad in both its physical and cultural aspects. From it we learn how the Romans mined metals, tended their crops, grafted fruit trees and healed their sick. It tells us which magical or astrological beliefs were common, and even how Romans liked to spend their money – Pliny disapproved of men’s extravagance over silver tableware and women’s over pearls. Through Pliny we know the Romans understood the world was round and revolved once every 24 hours. He scoffs at simple country folk who ‘enquire why the persons on the opposite side don’t fall off’.
Pliny’s wide-ranging fascination with the world is infectious – the reader is quickly absorbed by the knowledge that women used asses’ milk to remove wrinkles, that sons were shorter than their fathers (a sign of moral degeneracy, he explains), and that an actress was still performing aged 104. Yet this is more than just an entertaining book of marvels – it is the most complete picture we have of what people believed 2,000 years ago, how they lived and what their world looked like. Pliny described mining processes with pumps, sluices and shafts that disappeared from knowledge during the Dark Ages. Now archaeologists are uncovering traces of exactly the complex operations that Pliny detailed.
For over a millennium, Pliny’s work was considered to be the summation of human wisdom. He had collated material from over 2,000 source books – few of which survive. The convenience of Pliny’s encyclopaedia allied to his lively style ensured that it was read and copied throughout Europe. The Natural History was studied by every scholar and doctor throughout the Middle Ages, from Bede to Petrarch, and every serious bibliophile had a copy – we know that Charlemagne, Henry II of England and the Duc de Berry owned copies. The fact that almost 200 manuscripts of the work survive is a testament to the regard in which Pliny must have been held.
We see Pliny’s influence throughout medieval thinking – Bestiaries show bears licking their cubs into shape; the Hereford World Map shows Sciapodae whose single foot worked as a sunshade; books repeated Pliny’s stories of origins (the name magnet came from a shepherd called Magnes who found his iron-nailed shoes sticking to the ground), and plans of medieval cathedrals traced patterns based on Pliny’s descriptions of labyrinths in tombs. Chaucer took note of Pliny’s story that Mecenius beat his wife to death for drinking wine and had the Wife of Bath issue a furious assertion of her right to ‘a draughte of sweete wyn’.
Herbalists and doctors relied extensively on Pliny’s description of pharmacopaeia (while many were doubtless grateful for cumin to cure stomach ache, rubbing the gums of restless babies with the mashed brains of a hare may have been less helpful). Thanks to Pliny, ancient Greek knowledge of cosmology survived: educated medieval scholars knew that the world was round – indeed, they followed Pliny’s lead in mocking anyone who did not understand the fact.
When printing presses first appeared, the Natural History was the first classical text chosen to be published in Venice in 1469. As the Renaissance progressed, advances in human understanding of the world began to disprove many of Pliny’s facts, yet his popularity continued. Columbus was inspired by Pliny’s description of Eastern treasures to head out in search of a new route to the Indies (he also noted Pliny’s cures for greying hair and loose teeth). Shakespeare read Pliny in Philemon Holland’s 1601 translation, and used him as a source for Othello, and for imagery in King Lear and As You Like It.
Pliny the Elder was the author of numerous books, of which only one has survived, Natural History. He was born into the Roman equestrian class around AD 23 and pursued an energetic public career: commanding a cavalry unit, working as a lawyer and serving as procurator or governor in various provinces. During this time, he also wrote a treatise on javelin throwing, books on oratory, a biography of his former commander Pomponius Secundus, a history of the Germanic wars (which was a source for Tacitus) and, of course, the Natural History. To accomplish so much, Pliny used his nights for study and his days for public business, sleeping only for a few hours. For a man with his restlessly enquiring mind, life was too precious to be spent in sleep. When he said vita vigilia est (to be alive is to be awake), Pliny was referring not only to physical wakefulness, but to mental alertness and curiosity.
In August, AD 79, Pliny was commanding a fleet in the Gulf of Naples when he was greeted by an unusual sight over Vesuvius: the giant ash cloud from the eruption that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum. He set out to sea to investigate, ignoring the pumice and ash that fell on the ship, and succeeded in rescuing several people. Without a favourable wind, Pliny himself was trapped on the shore and apparently collapsed, overwhelmed by fumes. The story of his death was told by his nephew, Pliny the Younger, in one of his most famous letters, and it became symbolic of a devotion to empirical observation in the face of danger. It is to Pliny the Younger that we owe our knowledge of his uncle's life.
Only with the work in its entirety can we really appreciate the scale of Pliny’s achievement and the breadth of his interest. The Folio Society has used the translation by H. Rackham, W. H. S. Jones and D. E. Eicholz. It is highly readable and eminently clear, without ever straying too far from Pliny’s intensely pithy, epigrammatic style. Anthony T. Grafton, Henry Putnam Professor of History at Princeton University, has contributed a substantial new introduction.
The binding of each of the five volumes shows a beautiful illuminated page – a homage to the influence that Pliny exerted in the Middle Ages. While these designs appear to have been taken from medieval books of hours, in fact they were specially painted by the illustrator Randy Asplund. He has incorporated relevant extracts from the volumes written in beautiful calligraphy, and used motifs from books of hours and treatises to create each binding. Each volume contains numerous illustrations from medieval sources, from the 11th century to the 16th, including a frontispiece showing a representation of Pliny.