Natural History (Pliny)
|Author||Pliny the Elder|
|Subject||Natural history, ethnography, art, sculpture, mining, mineralogy|
|Genre||Encyclopaedia, popular science|
It is one of the largest single works to have survived from the Roman Empire to the modern day and purports to cover all ancient knowledge.
The work's subject area is thus not limited to what is today understood by natural history; Pliny himself defines his scope as "the natural world, or life".
It is encyclopedic in scope, but its structure is not like that of a modern encyclopedia.
It is the only work by Pliny to have survived, and the last that he published.
The rest was published posthumously by Pliny's nephew, Pliny the Younger.
The work is divided into 37 books, organised into 10 volumes.
These cover topics including astronomy, mathematics, geography, ethnography, anthropology, human physiology, zoology, botany, agriculture, horticulture, pharmacology, mining, mineralogy, sculpture, painting, and precious stones.
Pliny's Natural History was written alongside other substantial works (which have since been lost).
Pliny (AD 23–79) combined his scholarly activities with a busy career as an imperial administrator for the emperor Vespasian.
Much of his writing was done at night; daytime hours were spent working for the emperor, as he explains in the dedicatory preface addressed to Vespasian's elder son, the future emperor Titus, with whom he had served in the army (and to whom the work is dedicated).
As for the nocturnal hours spent writing, these were seen not as a loss of sleep but as an addition to life, for as he states in the preface, Vita vigilia est, "to be alive is to be watchful", in a military metaphor of a sentry keeping watch in the night.
Pliny claims to be the only Roman ever to have undertaken such a work, in his prayer for the blessing of the universal mother:
The Natural History is encyclopaedic in scope, but its format is unlike a modern encyclopaedia.
However, it does have structure: Pliny uses Aristotle's division of nature (animal, vegetable, mineral) to recreate the natural world in literary form.
Rather than presenting compartmentalised, stand-alone entries arranged alphabetically, Pliny's ordered natural landscape is a coherent whole, offering the reader a guided tour: "a brief excursion under our direction among the whole of the works of nature ..." The work is unified but varied: "My subject is the world of nature ... or in other words, life," he tells Titus.
Nature for Pliny was divine, a pantheistic concept inspired by the Stoic philosophy, which underlies much of his thought, but the deity in question was a goddess whose main purpose was to serve the human race: "nature, that is life" is human life in a natural landscape.
This teleological view of nature was common in antiquity and is crucial to the understanding of the Natural History.
The components of nature are not just described in and for themselves, but also with a view to their role in human life.
Pliny's premise is distinct from modern ecological theories, reflecting the prevailing sentiment of his time.
Pliny's work frequently reflects Rome's imperial expansion, which brought new and exciting things to the capital: exotic eastern spices, strange animals to be put on display or herded into the arena, even the alleged phoenix sent to the emperor Claudius in AD 47 – although, as Pliny admits, this was generally acknowledged to be a fake.
Pliny repeated Aristotle's maxim that Africa was always producing something new.
Nature's variety and versatility were claimed to be infinite: "When I have observed nature she has always induced me to deem no statement about her incredible."
This led Pliny to recount rumours of strange peoples on the edges of the world.
"As full of variety as nature itself", stated Pliny's nephew, Pliny the Younger, and this verdict largely explains the appeal of the Natural History since Pliny's death in the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79.
Pliny had gone to investigate the strange cloud – "shaped like an umbrella pine", according to his nephew – rising from the mountain.
The Natural History was one of the first ancient European texts to be printed, in Venice in 1469.
Philemon Holland's English translation of 1601 has influenced literature ever since.
The Natural History consists of 37 books.
Pliny devised a summarium, or list of contents, at the beginning of the work that was later interpreted by modern printers as a table of contents.
The table below is a summary based on modern names for topics.
|I||1||Preface and list of contents, lists of authorities|
|II||3–6||Geography and ethnography|
|7||Anthropology and human physiology|
|III||8–11||Zoology, including mammals, snakes, marine animals, birds, insects|
|IV–VII||12–27||Botany, including agriculture, horticulture, especially of the vine and olive, medicine|
|VIII||28–32||Pharmacology, magic, water, aquatic life|
|IX–X||33–37||Mining and mineralogy, especially as applied to life and art, work in gold and silver, statuary in bronze, painting, modelling, sculpture in marble, precious stones and gems|
Pliny's purpose in writing the Natural History was to cover all learning and art so far as they are connected with nature or draw their materials from nature.
Credits to the contents of this page go to the authors of the corresponding Wikipedia page: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural History (Pliny).