SECUNDUS (Pliny), Gaius.
(Born: Novum Comum (now Como), Italy, c23 A.D.; Died: Near Pompeii, Italy,
24 August 79 A.D.)
One of the foremost authorities on science in ancient Europe, Pliny was
educated in Rome, and for some years he followed a military career. After
serving in the army, he studied jurisprudence, but retired c57 A.D. to
devote himself to scholarly study and writing. Pliny wrote many historical
and scientific works, including De Laculatione Equestri, Studiosus, Dubius
Sermo, a 20-book history of the GermanicWars, and 31 books of Roman history
covering 41 to 71 A.D. Pliny’s great encyclopedia of nature and
art in 37 books, the Historia Naturalis, is the only one of his works
that has been preserved. The first ten books were published in 77 A.D.
and the remainder after his death, edited probably by his nephew, Pliny
the Younger. In 79 A.D., eager to examine more closely the great eruption
of Mount Vesuvius that overwhelmed and destroyed Herculaneum and Pompeii,
he sailed across the bay of Naples to Stabiae, where he was suffocated
by the vapors from the eruption.
Secundus (commonly called Pliny) was a very learned man of his times,
and certainly one of its greatest readers. A most industrious compiler,
he states in the preface to his Historia that the work contains over 20,000
facts taken from some 200 books and over 100 selected authors. Actually
there are 473 authors mentioned: 146 Roman and 327 Greek. Thus, while
he uses Aristotle as his principle authority, he accumulated information
from sources as he uncovered them, and but for his diligence, a vast amount
of material preserved in the Historia would have been lost to the world.
The Historia Naturalis is the only work of the 132 attributed
to Pliny to have survived to modern times. It was held in high esteem
throughout its existence as manuscripts and for many centuries after its
first appearance in print. It is one of the most precious monuments to
have traveled from ancient times, providing proof of astonishing amount
of erudition on the part of the old Romans. Pliny’s greatest fault
was his uncritical nature as a compiler of facts. Therefore, included
in his text is an incredible amount of data, often of improbable character,
that if it had been omitted would have made a better text. But a careful
reading of the this work will reveal a vast amount of natural history
data common to us now and presumed to be of modern discovery in actuality
was recorded first by Pliny. Also, respect must be paid to the frequent
use of reference citation splattered throughout the tomes. The first ten
books of Pliny’s great work were probably shaped about 77 A.D. During
the next two years, the remainder of the text was being revised and edited,
and was left unfinished at the time of Pliny’s tragic death during
the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. It is probable that some material
was added when the author’s nephew and literary executor, Pliny
the Younger, completed the great work and made it available to the world.
Pliny’s early death may account to some extent for the somewhat
inchoate condition of the Historia.
The Historiae Naturalis is a vast, comprehensive work divided into 37
books (or sections) that may be considered the first encyclopedia of knowledge.
Scientific subjects include astronomy, chemistry, geology, mineralogy,
botany, husbandry, zoology, geography, anthropology,
ethnology, and much on the history and practice of medicine and art. It
was a common source from which early writers of science drew examples,
and it presents in the final four books the ancient Roman view of minerals
and geological processes.
In his preface to the Natural History, Pliny claims rightly that the enterprise
is a novel one. There had been other encyclopedias— for example,
of the liberal arts—but, as he says (preface, sec. 14), no Greek
by himself had compiled an encyclopedia of the whole of nature; and no
Roman had done so by himself or with others. The novelty of the task was
one of its attractions.
Among others were Pliny’s inexhaustible curiosity, and his conviction
that he must be of service. “It is godlike,” he writes (bk.
2, sec. 18), ”for man to help man”—his anxiety to save
the science of past ages from the forgetful indifference of the present,
and his desire to make his reputation secure. The result was aptly described
by Pliny the Younger as ”a diffuse and learned work, no less rich
in variety than nature itself” (III.5.6). The preface addressed
to Titus is followed by a novelty, in that book 1 consists of an index
of topics and authorities for each of the succeeding thirty-six books.
The general plan of the treatise itself is conventional, proceeding from
the world to the earth, and from the earth to its products—animal,
vegetable, and mineral. But this simple outline is blurred
Book 2 duly surveys the universe, ending with the earth conceived as its
center and with terrestrial phenomena. It is followed by books 3-6 (geography),
7 (man), 8-11 (other animals), 12-19 (botany), and 20-27 (materia medica
from botanical sources). These last eight books are complemented
by 28-32 (materia medica from animal sources); books 33-37 concern metals
and stones, including their uses in medicine, architecture, and especially
Yet merely as a compilation of facts the Natural History is unique. Comprehensiveness
is all: ”Things must be recorded because they have been recorded,”
remarks Pliny (bk 2, sec. 85); and criticism will not deter him. In book
37 (sees. 30-6), through his own knowledge and observation Pliny gives
an almost entirely correct account of the nature and provenance of amber,
but not before he has related all the myths and speculations about it
that have come to his notice. Still, this uncritical and all-inclusive
method” has its advantages. A nonsensical reference to Indian amber
may be an indication that shellac was known Pliny would have felt that
knowledge preserved even in this way justified the means. Although such
diffuseness interfered with the practical aims of the work, Pliny’s
influence in the succeeding centuries was nevertheless great and abridgments
were made, especially of his medical and geographical material.