Friday, April 27, 2012

Pliny the Elder

Let's kick off this theme week by going really, really old school. Our first naturalist is noted Roman scholar Pliny the Elder. And by Rome, I don't just mean the city, I mean the Empire! Pliny lived nearly 2,000 years ago!

A 17th century depiction.
No images from his lifetime survive.
Gaius Plinius Secondus was born around 23AD in Como Italy and had quite the interesting life. His father was a member of the Equestrian class, which meant young Pliny was able to be educated, and he spent his late childhood and teenage years in Rome. Around 45AD he entered the army, and traveled to what are now the Low Countries and Germany. His time in Germany inspired his first literary work, a short treatise on how to throw spears from horseback (a military technique that he observed there). He also later wrote a 20 volume work titled History of the Germanic Wars.

At the age of 36 Pliny returned to Rome, but the political situation was not exactly favorable towards serious historians and writers, so Pliny's social status and career did not take off as one would expect. That would all change, thanks to some serious government turmoil. Nero was Emperor and his tyrannical ways led to revolts and civil war, and once the dust settled it was the father of one of Pliny's friends, Vespasian, who became the new Emperor. From there Pliny's career skyrocketed, and he was given procuratorships that took him all over the Roman Empire, including Spain and Africa. These travels would all strongly influence his studies in natural history, and would inspire and influence his most famous work, Naturalis Historia.

Naturalis Historia is one of the largest Roman works to have survived into modern times, and at 37 volumes large is almost an understatement. The purpose of the work was for it to be a giant encyclopedia of knowledge, ranging from math, to art, to science. Pliny used his own experiences and collected knowledge to create the book, which was the last thing he wrote, and he also cited literally thousands of other writings to make it incredibly comprehensive. Meteorology, medicine, gemstones, plants, geography, and anthropology are all featured in the work.

Because this is Famous Naturalists week, and because animals are our real focus here, chapters VIII-XI are what interest us the most. These deal with land animals, marine animals, birds, and insects respectively. Pliny writes about all sorts of animals, but some of what he says needs to be taken with a very, very large grain of salt.

Elephants, for example, bury their lost tusks, point lost travelers in the right direction, and are able to walk up a tight-rope backward. He gives them several other human-like traits as well, describing them as merciful and sensible animals. Oh, and Crocodiles? Venomous! Dragons? Yeah, they're real.

4th Centry Mosaic of an Elephant and Tiger
Of course, there is factual information in there as well, and great deals of it at that! Pliny describes animals that weren't often seen by everyday Romans (except maybe in arena spectacles). Tigers, Camels (both Bactrian and Dromedary), and Rhinoceroses are all written about, along with domesticated creatures and even the more common beasts like Squirrels and Mice. He even describes Whales, including Sperm Whales and Orcas- referring to them by, what else, their Latin names. They are, however, called "monstrous fishes."

Overall what I find interesting about this book is the fact that it shows 2,000 year old perceptions about animals. Which creatures were considered important? Exotic? Reviled? It also shows what kind of knowledge was out there at the time- like Whales being fish, or Dragons being real. Really fascinating stuff!

There is so much to be said about Pliny the Elder, and while I'm sure I could easily write a post five times this size, I simply do not have the time! ...Though I should at least mention that he died during the Mount Vesuvious eruption in 79AD, attempting to evacuate people.

His works, as well as the works of his nephew, Pliny the Younger (who references his uncle frequently), are widely available for reading both online and in printed form (though you'll need a big bookshelf!) If you're interested in some 2,000 year old Zoology, or are fascinated by Rome in general, give their works a read!

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