Pliny the Elder


Pliny the Elder (between 22 and 24 A.D., New Com – 24 or 25 August 79 A.D., Stabia) was an ancient Roman polymathic writer.

He is best known as the author of Natural History, the largest encyclopedic work of antiquity; his other works have not survived. He was the uncle of Gaius Pliny Caecilius Secundus, known as Pliny the Younger (after the death of his sister”s husband, Pliny the Younger”s father, he adopted his nephew, giving him an excellent education).

Pliny served in the army on the northern frontier of the Roman Empire, and after his return to Rome he engaged in literary work. After Emperor Vespasian came to power, with whose son Titus he served, he was called to public service. In the ”70s Pliny served as governor in the provinces and commanded the fleet in the Gulf of Naples. In 77 or 78 he published Natural History, dedicating it to Titus. Died in the eruption of Vesuvius.

Pliny was born, according to various versions, in 22-23 The place of his birth is usually called New Como (modern Como). However, from time to time Verona is considered the writer”s birthplace – Pliny referred to the Veronian Catullus as his countryman. Nowadays, however, it is thought that the encyclopedist had in mind a common ancestry from Transpania (a region across the Po River). The writer came from a wealthy family of horsemen. As a child Pliny was sent to Rome, where his upbringing and education were directed by a family friend, the politician and poet Publius Pomponius Secundus, who had connections at the court of Emperor Caligula. Among the teachers of the future naturalist are the rhetorician Arellius Fusk, the grammarian Remmius Palemon, and the botanist Antony Castor.

In the late 40s and early 50s Pliny served in the legions on the northern frontier of the Roman Empire. He first served in the province of Lower Germany, was in the Ubian region and in the Rhine delta. From the Natural History we also know of his stay on the other side of the river. Pliny is believed to have participated in Domitius Corbulonus” campaign against the tribe of the Hawks, which took place in 47. It is likely that Pliny first commanded a cohort on foot, then a detachment on horseback. After serving in the province of Lower Germany, the future writer went to the province of Upper Germany: he mentions the hot springs of Aquae Mattiacae (modern Wiesbaden) and the upper Danube. In this province he probably took part in a campaign against the Hutts in 50-51. The governor of Upper Germany at this time was his patron, Pomponius, who directed the campaign. In about 51 or 52 Pliny left the province with Pomponius and returned to Rome. In about 57-58 Pliny was again on the northern frontier in military service (probably again in the province of Lower Germany). At that time he served with the future emperor Titus. Soon Pliny returned to Italy and as early as April 30, 59, observed a solar eclipse in Campania.

In Rome Pliny worked as a lawyer, and by the end of Nero”s reign he had withdrawn from public life. He also wrote several works at this time (see below). There is speculation that Pliny took part in the Judean War (the Roman army there was commanded by Vespasian, father of Titus) and was even procurator of Syria, but this has very shaky grounds.

After Vespasian, Titus” father, became the new emperor in 69, Pliny was called to public service. During this period he may have been patronized by a close associate of Vespasian, Gaius Licinius Mucianus, who was himself a writer. The details of Pliny”s service are unknown: Suetonius mentions that he was procurator of several provinces, without specifying which ones. Only the naturalist”s nephew, Pliny the Younger, mentions in one letter that his uncle had been procurator of Spain, a viceroyalty which is usually dated at 7374. Friedrich Münzer, having studied references to various regions of the Roman Empire in Natural History, suggested that Pliny was procurator of Narbonic Gaul, Africa, Tarraconian Spain, and Belgica in 70-76. Ronald Syme, however, suggested that the writer may have been in Narbonne Gaul and Belgica on transit or other business. Viceroyalty in Africa and Tarraconian Spain is more likely; nothing definite can be said of the other provinces. Some researchers pay attention to the impossibility of establishing when he was governor of the provinces and therefore suggest that he was first made procurator by Nero. The testimony of Suetonius, however, rather points to a succession of posts. It has also been suggested that Pliny may have been an adviser to the emperors in the 1970s.

Eventually Pliny was appointed commander of the fleet at Miseno (modern Miseno) on the coast of the Bay of Naples. On August 24, 79, a violent eruption of the volcano Vesuvius began, and Pliny arrived by ship at Stabia on the other side of the gulf. At Stabia he was poisoned by sulfuric fumes and died. Pliny”s reason for approaching the erupting volcano is unclear, making him often seen only as a victim of his own curiosity. However, his nephew, who was at Mizen, in a letter to the historian Tacitus, described his uncle”s death in detail: he went to the other side of the bay, not only to observe a rare natural phenomenon up close, but also to help save his friends. In Stabia he comforted the panic-stricken natives and waited for a change of wind and calm sea to set sail, but eventually he suffocated. The report of Pliny the Younger that his uncle had a “thin and weak throat by nature” is now generally understood to mean asthma. Suetonius, however, left the version that the naturalist died after asking his slave to put him out of his misery. Thus, along with his desire to observe the eruption, Pliny was guided by his desire to help those affected by the cataclysm.

We know from his nephew”s letters that Pliny the Elder was a man of extraordinary diligence. There was no place that he did not find comfortable for scholarly pursuits; there was no time that he did not take advantage of to read and take notes. He read, or was read to, on the road, in the bath, at lunch, in the afternoon, and time was also taken away from sleep, as far as possible, for he considered every hour not devoted to mental pursuits to be lost. All kinds of books were read, even bad ones, for, according to Pliny the Elder, no book was so bad that no good could come out of it. In one of his letters, Pliny the Younger lists his uncle”s writings: “On the Cavalry Throwing” (De iaculatione equestri), “On the Life of Pomponius Secundi” in two books (De vita Pomponii Secundi), a rhetorical work in three books (Priscian and Gregory of Tours call this work Ars Grammatica), a historical work in thirty-one books, which described events from where Aufidius Bassi (A fine Aufidii Bassi) finished his history, the Germanic Wars in twenty books (Bellorum Germaniae), and finally the thirty-seven books of Natural History. In addition, one hundred and sixty books of minute writing with extracts or notes which he made while reading (not preserved to this day) remained after the author”s death.

“The Natural History is dedicated to Titus. Since Pliny refers to him in the introduction as a six-time consul, the work is dated 77 (Titus was later consul twice more). The Natural History originally had 36 books. The present 37 books appeared later, according to various versions, because of the division of Book XVIII into two parts or because of the addition of the contents and list of sources as a separate Book I. The work on dart throwing and the biography of Pomponius were presented to the public in 62-66, and at the same time Pliny began to write a history of the Germanic wars. Treatises on Rhetoric and Grammar were completed by the author in 67-68, and History after Aufidius Bassus between 70 and 76.

Features of Natural History

Pliny himself characterized his work as “ἐγκύκλιος παιδεία” (hence the word “encyclopedia”). It was assumed that “circular learning” preceded a special, in-depth study of particular subjects. In particular, this is how Quintilian understood the expression. Pliny, however, gave a new meaning to this Greek expression: the Greeks themselves had never produced a single work covering all areas of knowledge, although it was the Greek sophists who first purposefully imparted their students knowledge that might be useful to them in their daily lives. Pliny was convinced that only a Roman could write such a work.

The first example of the typically Roman genre of the compendium of all known knowledge is sometimes considered an instruction by Cato the Elder to his son, but more often by Marcus Terentius Varron”s Disciplinae, one of the most important sources for Pliny. Of the other important forerunners of the Natural History, the Artes of Aulus Cornelius Celsus is cited. Pliny makes no secret of the fact that attempts were made in Rome to produce such a work. However, the Natural History, unlike its predecessors, was not just a collection of various information, but covered all the major fields of knowledge and focused on their practical application.

It is unclear to what audience Pliny was aiming when he began his major work. His own words in the introduction, as if the Natural History was intended for artisans and farmers, are sometimes taken on faith, but are often dismissed as insincere. For example, B. A. Starostin believes that the author”s target audience is Roman warlords. In the researcher”s opinion, in fact, “his focus was on the feeding and general subsistence of the troops. Be that as it may, the purpose of the entire essay was an attempt to relate the current state of ancient science to practice – in particular agriculture, commerce, and mining. Attention is now also drawn to the importance for the author of establishing links between man and nature.

Pliny”s work has often been assessed as a heap of facts, chosen arbitrarily. Such an assessment was most characteristic of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (see below). However, it is now recognized that the Natural History is characterized by a clear consistency of presentation. Thus, the animals are subdivided according to their habitat (book 8 is devoted to animals that live on land, 9 to animals in the sea, 10 to animals in the air), and in each of these books the account begins with large animals (elephants, whales) and ends with small animals. The second half of Book XI is devoted to anatomical matters, which sums up the books on animals. In the books on geography, the narrative begins with the west, then describes all known lands in a circle. Minerals are described by degree of preciousness, beginning with gold. In the history of art the author resorts, among other things, to chronological systematization. It is also no coincidence that the narrative begins with a book on cosmology, since Pliny arranged the material from the general to the particular, and the sky was evaluated by ancient authors as the fundamental part of the universe. After considering astronomical matters, the Roman author turns to a description of meteorology, geology, moving on to the geography of the earth itself. Pliny then moves on to the inhabitants of the planet, after which he discusses plants, agriculture, and pharmacology, and concludes his work with an account of the minerals and metals that are mined underground. Thus, the Roman author describes nature consistently from top to bottom. In addition, symmetry is found in the themes of all 36 major books:

The arrangement of the material in each book has its own regularities, along with the above movement from the general to the particular. Usually Pliny, when reporting a fact, supplements it with a historical excursus, a paradoxical testimony, or a discussion of the morality of a phenomenon to form a coherent picture of it. Through reports of unique phenomena and peculiarities of phenomena, Pliny delineates the boundaries of the phenomenon itself.

There are mistakes in the work: sometimes Pliny misinterprets his source, sometimes he incorrectly selects a Latin equivalent for a Greek word. He copies all the mistakes of his predecessors due to the cabinet nature of the work (for example, the statement that the distance from the Sun to the Moon is 19 times greater than the distance from the Earth to the Moon, as well as the widespread in antiquity view of the movement of planets along complex trajectories in the framework of the theory of homocentric spheres). At times, when describing the same phenomena in different parts of the work, Pliny contradicts himself; however, such episodes may be rhetorical devices. Finally, Pliny has information about people with dog heads and other tall tales. Pliny relates especially many tall tales in books VII (first of all, in passages 9-32, about unusual people and creatures; 34-36, about women by whom beasts and other creatures were born; 73-76, about dwarfs and giants) and VIII (XVI, 132; XVII, 241 and 244, and XVIII, 166). However, fantastic information was perceived differently in the age of Pliny (see below).

Pliny meticulously counts how many single facts, historical excerpts, and general judgments he gave the reader in each book; in all, he collected 20,000 facts worthy of consideration.

Sources of Natural History

Since Pliny himself did not conduct any experiments and was not a specialist in the areas of knowledge he described, he could rely primarily on the works of his predecessors. Although scientists in ancient times did not always adhere to strict citation rules, the Roman naturalist lists his sources in the first book. In all, he used the works of more than 400 authors, 146 of whom wrote in Latin. This allows us to speak about Pliny”s systematization not only of Roman knowledge, but of the entire antique scientific heritage. He made the most extensive use of some two thousand books by one hundred major authors. It is assumed that the author first created the basis of the future work on the basis of a small number of works, and then supplemented it with the works of other researchers.

The main sources for the individual books are considered to be:

There is no consensus on the nature of Pliny”s use of his materials. Often he rewrote or translated whole pages of text from his sources, which was the normal practice in the ancient era, but sometimes he questioned their testimony. Some information, however, he obtained from practical experience. This concerned, however, the practical application of the information in question. Pliny gathered most of these facts from his travels in the provinces and intercourse with officials. In addition, his information about Spain is characterized by detail and evidence of personal observation: in particular, he describes in detail and with knowledge the techniques used in mining in that province.

Since Pliny accurately enough and in accordance with reality described the internal structure of the Egyptian pyramids, it is accepted to consider him the first European to have been there.

Pliny”s style is characterized as extremely uneven, and much of the only surviving work is written in dry language, lacking any stylistic design. Thus, some passages look like a mechanical amalgamation of Pliny”s extracts from various books. This feature of Pliny has often been criticized by scholars, and as a result, for example, M. M. Pokrovskij rejects Pliny”s literary talent altogether. The general characterization of the Roman author as a mediocre stylist is also often found in modern philology (for example, the Cambridge History of Classical Literature blames him for his inability to organize his thoughts). Apparently this was not due to the specific genre of the work: the naturalist”s contemporaries Columella and Celsus, whose works were also encyclopedic in nature, wrote much better than Pliny.

However, in the Natural History, along with raw passages, there are well-finished fragments (above all, moralizing passages, as well as a general introduction to the work). They show all the signs of the author”s familiarity with the literature and rhetorical devices of the Silver Age: he uses antitheses, exclamations and artificial word order. Historical digressions and carefully constructed extended descriptions encyclopedic material are enlivened by inexpressively designed encyclopedic material.

In general, Pliny strives for brevity. Depending on the situation, he may resort both to the archaization of speech and to the introduction of new words and expressions. In the Natural History there is a great deal of special terminology, as well as words of Greek origin or entire expressions in ancient Greek. The characterization of the subject itself and the commentary on it are not usually separated, but are described together.

As a rule, Pliny is characterized by a disordered structure of phrases. There are many complex sentences in the essay in which the subject changes in each part. Because of this, some phrases are difficult to interpret, and the essay as a whole gives the impression of incompleteness. Pliny himself, however, apologizes to readers for possible flaws in his style.

“…let everyone judge it as he likes; our task is to describe the obvious natural properties of things, not to ferret out dubious reasons” (Natural History, XI, 8)

Pliny was a keen practitioner and evaluated all achievements of science and technology according to their usefulness to society. For example, describing the most famous structures of antiquity, the Roman naturalist repeatedly emphasized the uselessness of the costly Egyptian pyramids and the palaces of the Roman elite, contrasting them with the useful and no less grandiose aqueducts and sewers. Pliny”s commitment to a practical approach is also reflected in his low regard for speculative and speculative studies not based on reliable evidence. Another characteristic feature of his worldview is his admiration of the greatness of nature, which is expressed in the form of marvelous wonders. This makes the entire Natural History not a dry listing of facts, but a eulogy to nature.

Pliny”s philosophical views are unclear. One of the phrases in the preface to the work is sometimes interpreted as evidence of the author”s philosophical independence: “both Stoics, and dialecticians Peripatetics, and Epicureans (and always expected from grammarians) nurture criticism against the books on grammar published by me”. Often, however, his worldview is characterized as moderate and rational Stoicism. B.A. Starostin suggests Pliny”s close acquaintance with Mithraism, up to the influence of this doctrine on the role of the Sun in the Natural History.

In describing geography, Pliny was characterized by Romanocentrism: according to him, Ireland was further from Britain, that is, northwest; Phrygia was further from Troas; also, according to his notes, Euphrates originally had an outlet to the sea separate from the Tigris.In a number of relevant topics (for example, in the consideration of agriculture) Pliny does not simply blindly collect the testimony of predecessors, but emphasizes the organizational side of the issue, that is, the practical application of knowledge. This allows the Natural History to be considered a practice-oriented thematic compilation, but not a mechanical compilation. Works of the latter type became popular later and reached the culmination of development in the form of Justinian”s Digesta and the Encyclopedia of Judgment.

The absence of a critical approach to the selection of facts and explanation of natural phenomena can be caused as absolutely other purpose of the work (see the citation at the beginning of the section), and the credulity of the author, caused characteristic for the Roman outlook in I century AD special interest in the unusual and wonderful. At the same time, Pliny himself sometimes criticized other authors for his gullibility. Thanks to the increased interest in everything unusual, Pliny”s writing met the interests of the mass reader. For the same reason, however, he also included in the Natural History obviously unreliable information (see above). In the first century A.D. there was a perception in ancient society that various miracles were happening far from the empire”s capital, and that fantastic people and animals from myths and legends lived there. The Roman naturalist retained this belief, recording the Greek proverb, “Africa is always bringing something new.” According to Pliny scholar Mary Bigon, travelers to distant lands “felt that they would lose face if they did not return with facts and figures that would satisfy impatient and curious listeners at home; accordingly, they preferred to make up tall tales rather than admit the absence of miracles.” Nevertheless, this approach allowed Pliny”s Encyclopedia to become a valuable source on popular folklore and various superstitions in the Roman Empire.

Pliny was a pronounced Roman patriot, which is also evident in his relatively neutral encyclopedic genre. It has been noted that he more readily referred to Roman authors, although he was often able to use Greek primary sources of information. Like Cato the Elder, valued by Pliny, he does not miss a chance to criticize the Greeks and their customs. Repeatedly he points out the gullibility of Greek writers, and he also condemns the use by Greek physicians of medicines prepared from human organs. Pliny, however, recognizes Aristotle”s reputation as an unquestionable scientific authority, and he calls Alexander the Great the greatest of kings.

Because Pliny came from the class of horsemen and was new to Roman political life, he did not share the old Roman prejudices about the prospects of new technologies. The horsemen traditionally pursued profit-oriented activities, not limiting themselves to certain areas of the economy, while the senators were traditionally engaged in agriculture and land transactions. Therefore, the horsemen were interested in new technologies, and many of the Roman authors quoted by the Encyclopedist also came from this class.

Despite the considerable progress of humanity as a whole, Pliny expresses concern about the decline of morality and the diminishing interest in knowledge (see quotation at right). In ancient times, the view that technological and scientific progress was linked to moral decline was widespread (Seneca, with whom Pliny was well acquainted, was one of the most prominent representatives of this tradition). But the naturalist retains hope for improvement in the future, and observes that “human customs become obsolete, but not the fruits .

The negative characteristics of the Emperor Nero in the work are sometimes explained by the desire to prove his loyalty to the new Flavian dynasty, to one of whose representatives the Natural History was dedicated. However, it is more plausible that the author expressed his political predilections in his last historical work (A fine Aufidii Bassi has not survived), which covered, among other things, the reign of Nero and the events of the year of the four emperors.

The writings of Pliny were well known in antiquity. They were already known to Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus and Avlus Gellius.

As early as the second century, short paraphrases (epitomes) of the Natural History began to be compiled, especially of books on medicine and pharmacology, which had a negative effect on the dissemination of the original work. The Natural History was relied upon in the late second or early third century by Serenus Samonicus when he wrote his verse medical poem Liber Medicinalis. At the same time, Quintus Gargilius Martialus used Pliny”s work, and Gaius Julius Solinus compiled an extract, Collectanea rerum memorabilium, which included much information from Pliny”s encyclopedia. Besides them, the Natural History was also used by other encyclopedists of the ancient era. The same is true, no one else in the antique era tried to repeat and surpass Pliny”s major work.

In Rome, however, not only Pliny”s Encyclopedia of the Sciences was well known, but also his other works. In particular, his manual of eloquence is considered the predecessor of the famous manual of Quintilian; the latter quotes it, although he sometimes notes the excessive pedantry of his predecessor. In addition, his work on grammar was often quoted by ancient scholars. Although Pliny”s historical works have not survived, it is suggested that A fine Aufudii Bassi (History after Aufudii Bassi) was one of the main sources for later historians for an account of events from Claudius” reign to ”69. The work was probably quite complete and detailed in detail, but without an in-depth analysis of events. As a consequence, the work was well suited for use and revision, and was referred to by Tacitus, Plutarch, Dion Cassius, and, less frequently, Suetonius. The latter left a brief biography of Pliny in his work On Remarkable Men. Tacitus used in his works not only “History after Aufidius Bassus,” but also an essay on the Germanic wars – perhaps it was one of the sources for the famous “Germany.” Tacitus” attitude to Pliny, however, may have been quite critical: in the second book of his Histories of Rome, the author rebukes the bias of predecessors who recounted the events of the 69 civil war, and among them, probably, Pliny.

In the Late Antiquity and Early Middle Ages, the Roman encyclopedia was not forgotten and was used by the major scholars of the time. Other works of Pliny, however, were lost in the early Middle Ages (see below). Information from Natural History was actively used by monks as a source of scientific knowledge, especially on astronomy and medicine. The scope of Pliny”s work, however, was much broader, and his encyclopedia was even used to compose sermons and commentaries on the Bible. Jerome of Stridon knew Pliny well and called him the Latin Aristotle and Theophrastus; Isidore of Seville”s De rerum natura draws heavily on the ancient naturalist, especially in describing astronomy and meteorology. In addition, the Spanish author used in his Etymologies both the Roman encyclopedia itself and its abbreviations made by Solinus. Bede the Venerable used the Natural History as a source of information on astronomy and other sciences. John Scotus Eriugena”s treatise Periphuseon, or On the Division of Nature was largely based on the information of the Roman encyclopedia. Pliny was also used by Paul Deacon. The geographical evidence of Pliny remained relevant. The Irish monk Dicuilus used the first five books of Pliny for his work De mensura Orbis terrae (On the Measurement of the World).

“Natural History” continued to be one of the most important sources for the encyclopedists of the High and Late Middle Ages. Around 1141 in England, Robert of Cricklade compiled Defloratio Historiae Naturalis Plinii Secundi (A Compilation of the Best of the Natural History of Pliny Secundus) in nine books, from which materials the author deemed obsolete were excluded. Thomas of Cantimpre, author of De natura rerum, acknowledged that he owed his knowledge to Aristotle, Pliny, and Solinus. Bartholomew of England made active use of Pliny”s testimony in his De proprietatibus rerum (On the Properties of Things). In addition, John of Salisbury knew the Natural History and often referred to it. Finally, Vincent of Beauvais” popular medieval encyclopedia, The Great Mirror (Speculum naturale), relied heavily on the testimony of Pliny.

During the Renaissance, despite the gradual emergence and spread of translations of scientific treatises from Arabic and ancient Greek into Latin, the Natural History remained a very important source of scientific knowledge. It was most often used to compile medical manuals and sections on medicine in general encyclopedias. In addition, Pliny”s work became the basis for the formation of a unified Latin terminology in a number of sciences. Pliny”s Encyclopedia was read by many humanists, including Petrarch, who had a handwritten copy of the encyclopedia and made notes in its margins.

Before the invention of printing, Pliny”s work often had to be abridged because of the high cost of a separate copy and the excessive length of the original text. At the end of the fifteenth century, the Natural History began to be printed frequently, not hindered by its considerable length (see below). This contributed to the spread of the complete body of ancient knowledge beyond a narrow circle of scholars. In 1506 the sculptural group Laocoon and His Sons found in Rome (see right) was identified from Pliny”s description, and in general the last books of the encyclopedia influenced the development of ideas about ancient art. In 1501 the first translation of Pliny”s Encyclopedia into Italian appeared, by Cristoforo Landino, and the work was soon translated into French and English. William Shakespeare, François Rabelais, Michel Montaigne, and Percy Shelley, among others, were familiar with the Natural History.

At different times readers of Natural History paid attention to different details. In the Early Middle Ages, for example, this work was looked to primarily for entertaining stories and isolated facts. In the Renaissance, Pliny was looked upon as a writer, paying much attention to his language. “Natural History” partially replaced the lost works of ancient authors as a source of information, and was also very helpful in translating the terminology of ancient Greek scientific treatises into the Latin language generally accepted in science. After the invention of printing, the problem of restoring the original text of the Roman author became acute (see below). Along with philological criticism, researchers began to draw attention to the inconsistency of a number of facts reported by Pliny about the nature of reality. Because of this, the Roman encyclopedia gradually lost its importance as a source of relevant knowledge on the natural sciences and by the beginning of the 20th century it began to be perceived as a collection of not always reliable information or even pure fiction. It was not until the end of the twentieth century that the importance of Natural History was recognized, not only for the history of science, but also for the study of the entire ancient worldview.

In volcanology, a specific type of volcanic eruption is named after Pliny, characterized by powerful explosive outbursts of magma and massive ash deposits (during such an eruption in 79 the author of Natural History died). In 1651 Giovanni Riccioli named after the Roman author a crater on the moon 41 km in diameter between the seas of Clarity and Tranquility.

Because of its popularity, the Natural History has survived in many manuscripts. None of the extant manuscripts, however, covers the entire work. In all, there are about 200 manuscripts that are quite large. Two groups of manuscripts are usually distinguished: vetustiores (older) and recentiores (more modern). The oldest of them belong to the end of the eighth or beginning of the ninth century. The earlier manuscripts are preserved only in fragments (in particular, fragments of a manuscript of the 5th century have survived). It is known that in the ninth century copies of Pliny”s Encyclopedia were in the largest monasteries of Western Europe: in particular in Corby, Saint Denis, Lorche, Reichenau, and Monte Cassino. The manuscript from Reichenau has survived as a palimpsest: sheets of parchment with books XI-XV were reused. In addition, quite ancient manuscripts with books II-VI have survived in Leiden (ninth-century manuscript) and Paris (ninth-tenth-century manuscript). Other works of Pliny were known in antiquity as early as the 6th-7th centuries (Gregory of Tours knew the grammatical work of the Roman author). However, already in the High Middle Ages he is known exclusively as the author of the Natural History, and manuscripts of his historical and grammatical works have not reached our days.

In the Middle Ages, the enormous volume of the Natural History and the abundance of special terminology led to a large number of errors in each rewrite. In addition, later authors used large fragments from the work of the Roman author and often added something of their own to it, and later authors assumed that the additions also belonged to Pliny. In particular, Jerome of Stridon quoted several times exactly the fragments of the Natural History supplemented by someone else.

Pliny”s popular encyclopedia was first printed very early, in 1469, by the brothers da Speira (von Speyer) in Venice. Before the end of the fifteenth century fourteen more different editions of the Natural History were published. Because of the lack of experience in criticizing the text, publishers usually typed and printed the text from a single manuscript with all its errors. In 1470 the Natural History was printed by Giovanni Andrea Bussi at Rome (in 1472 this version was reprinted by Nicolas Janson at Venice), in 1473 by Niccolò Perotti. In 1476 a valuable commentary edition of Pliny by Filippo Beroaldo the Elder was published at Parma, which was subsequently reprinted in 1479 at Treviso, in 1480 and 1481 at Parma, and in 1483, 1487, and 1491 at Venice. In 1496 the Britannici brothers published the Natural History in Brescia (which was reprinted in Venice later that year), and in 1497 the text of Pliny”s work with commentaries by the famous philologist Hermolao Barbaro was published in Venice (two years later this edition was reprinted in Venice). According to Barbaro”s own calculations, he identified and corrected five thousand textual errors in the entire work. Erasmus of Rotterdam undertook his own edition of the text of the Natural History (he was assisted in editing the text by the philologist Beatus Renanus. Pliny”s work was thus uniquely popular among the encyclopedic works of antiquity. For example, Varron”s work was lost, and a number of medieval encyclopedias were not published at all after the invention of printing and only a few were printed for scientific purposes, but only until the seventeenth century. The Natural History, on the other hand, had survived at least 222 editions of the text, as well as 42 incomplete and 62 critical editions, by the beginning of the twentieth century.

In 1492 a discussion about the value of the Natural History began in Italy, initiated by the humanist Niccolò Leoniceno. A physician and translator of Ancient Greek, Leoniceno drew attention to the large number of errors in the sections on medicine and pharmacology in the Natural History and published a short article in which he asserted the secondary character of the Roman naturalist”s work as a whole. He rebuked Pliny for his lack of scientific method, his amateurism in medical and philosophical matters, and he opposed the criticism of the Greeks in the pages of the Encyclopedia. Leoniceno”s work was noticed by the humanist Pandolfo Collenuccio, who defended the Roman author. In particular, he suggested that the errors in the text of the Roman encyclopedia were caused by inaccuracies in the rewriting of the text in the Middle Ages. Leoniceno and Collenuccio subsequently published several other articles arguing in their favor. The debate became well known in scholarly circles, and in 1509 in Ferrara all the articles of both participants were brought together and published. This controversy is considered the first serious study of Natural History and of Pliny himself. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the Roman encyclopedia was actively studied in Germany. In 1852, Ludwig von Jahn discovered an unknown manuscript of the 10th-century Natural History in Bamberg (containing books XXXII-XXXVII), which influenced some editions of Pliny made in Germany. Around the same time, Ludwig von Urlichs was purposefully studying the art history sections of the Natural History. Among others, Otto Jahn and Heinrich Brunn researched Pliny”s work.

In general, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, anticollectors criticized Pliny for blindly copying materials of other authors and for large fragments of stylistically crude text, and historians of science for the lack of a coherent methodology in the selection of material and in its interpretation. For example, Theodore Mommsen considered Pliny a “careless compiler,” and Alexander Coiret characterized Natural History as “a collection of anecdotes and tales of idle cronies. By the end of the twentieth century, however, the prevailing view of Pliny in the history of science had been revised for the better.


  1. Плиний Старший
  2. Pliny the Elder