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Pliny's Natural History: "Historia Naturalis"

The writer’s name and the book’s title makes it all sound like a yawn but when we bother to have a look at who the writer actually was we find a man with some impressive qualities and experiences. To attest this there are a good number of quotes by Pliny which are still in current use.

Pliny (Pliny the Elder) was born in AD 23 and died in AD79. He came from the upper-middle class (the Equestrians), he had a good education as well as a unique love of learning, he partook in military campaigns in distant Germany, worked as a high ranking bureaucrat in Spain, became admiral of the navy in the western Mediterranean, met various emperors (he survived the reign of Nero!) and altogether lived a rather eventful life.

As Admiral of the navy stationed in the gulf of Naples he died on a humanitarian mission, also driven by curiosity, whilst trying to lead the rescue party into the disaster area caused by the famous eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Conjecture suggests that it may have been the noxious fumes or, given his weight, a heart attack that had the better of him.

Historia Naturalis

Pliny’s Historia Naturalis is to all intents and purposes an encyclopedia of the (Roman) world. It is particularly interesting to note that this kind of study was of little interest to Roman culture of the time and as such his work is all the more praiseworthy - ie he wrote it for love of learning rather than a wish for glory in the commonly understood sense of the word. In his own words:

"Among these things, one thing seems certain - that nothing certain exists and that there is nothing more pitiful or more presumptuous than man."

From a studen'ts point of view it is full of incredibly useful insights, quotes and references for just about any essay anyone may care to write.

If you're interested in early dentistry and medicine:

“…. recommend a mouse to be eaten twice a month, as a preventive of tooth-ache. Earth-worms, boiled in oil and injected into the ear on the side affected, afford considerable relief….”

Could there be a vein of truth in the remedy? At any rate his writings (or indeed recordings!) influenced "scientific" circles throughout the Middle Ages.

The title of the book “Natural History” might be better translated as “an inquiry into the nature of the world about us”:

The subjects covered by the 37 chapters/books are pretty interesting, at times outright surprising or even bizarre: stretching as far as concepts like infinity of the universe, sex changes, aphrodisiacs, descriptions of birds and so on. I love the way in which anecdotes seem to pop up in seemingly irrelevant places, but then again they weren’t irrelevant to the writer!……. His account of history of art and great works of the time is the only one to have survived to this day - you can imagine its significance.

A brief view of the books’ contents:



Chapter 1. Table of contents and bibliography.
Chapter 2. Cosmology, astronomy and meteorology
Chapters 3 - 6 Geography of various parts of the known world. Chapter 7. Anthropology and physiology (of man). Also includes interesting tidbits such as sex changes (yes you read it right) and resuscitation amongst others.
Chapters 8 - 11. Animals and insects. Including uses and processes such as making royal purple from common Murex shells or the production of silk.
Chapters 12-17 Plants of all types and shapes. 13 is great about grapes and wine production.
Chapters 18-19 Farming and farming methods
Chapters 20 – 29 Drugs and Medicine. Number 28 includes drugs made from man! Yuk: Including charms and incantations, baldness, aphrodisiacs and beauty treatment. An eye opener! Did you know that drowning a lizard in someone’s urine would reduce or even eliminate their sex drive?
Chapter 30 A chapter on magic, including a clever trick whereby you stick bits of bread into your ears in order to remove the piece which got stuck in your throat. Apparently it works similarly with bones too, so if you’re choking you know what to do.
Chapters 31 – 37 Various elements including water, precious stones, paint, art and artists and a few whacky stories. The part on art is particularly useful as it describes various great works which we have since re-discovered and continue to admire in our museums.

As may be seen, from a student's point of view, this text greatly facilitates the writing of essays on almost any subject whilst giving the opportunity to easily find and introduce new angles and points of view, supported by proper quotes and references with the least effort.

Quotes by Pliny

Perhaps one of his best remembered:

| Scholarly information about Pliny's Natural History (Wikipedia) | Buy Pliny's Natural History on Amazon |


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This page about Pliny and his book Natural History was written by Giovanni Milani-Santarpia for - Rome apartments