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Pliny the Elder

(23—79 ad) Roman statesman and scholar


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(ad 23/4–79),

Gaius Plīnius Secundus, prominent Roman equestrian, from Cōmum in Gallia Cisalpina (see gaul (cisalpine) ), and uncle of Pliny the Younger, best known as the author of the 37‐book Natural History, an encyclopaedia of all contemporary knowledge—animal, vegetable, and mineral—but with much that is human included too: ‘Nature, which is to say Life, is my subject’.

Characteristic of his age and background in his range of interests and diverse career, Pliny obtained a cavalry command through the patronage of Pomponius Secundus (consul 41), and served in Germany, alongside the future emperor Titus. Active in legal practice in the reign of Nero, he was then promoted by the favour of the Flavians through a series of high procuratorships (including that of Hispania Tarraconensis), in which he won a reputation for integrity. He became a member of the council of Vespasian and Titus, and was given the command of the Misēnum fleet (see Navies). When Vesuvius erupted in 79, duty and curiosity combined, fatally; he led a detachment to the disaster‐area, landed at Stabiae, and died from inhaling fumes. For his career and death two letters of his nephew are the primary source.

Throughout this career Pliny was a most prolific author. His cavalry command produced a monograph on the use of the throwing‐spear by cavalrymen, piety towards his patron demanded a biography in two books. German Wars in 20 books recounted Roman campaigns against the Germans, and was used by Tacitus. The years of his procuratorships produced a 31‐book history covering the later Julio‐Claudian period; and, dedicated to Titus, the Natural History.

Pliny was impressed by scale, number, comprehensiveness, and detail. Characteristically he claims that there are 20,000 important facts derived from 2,000 books in his work, but this is a severe underestimate. The value of what he preserves of the information available to him far outweighs the fact that when he can be checked against the original, he often garbles his information through haste or insufficient thought. Our study of ancient agriculture, medicine, metallurgy, and the canon of great artists in antiquity, would all be impoverished if the work had perished (see art, ancient attitudes to). He can scarcely be blamed for not applying the standards of empirical enquiry to ancient medical lore, or for sharing widespread misconceptions about the world. Indeed, one of the interesting aspects of the work is the eloquent witness that he provides for precisely these pre‐scientific ways of thinking.

Pliny was no philosopher, and the sections where Pliny's thought is least accessible are often those where subject matter such as the Cosmos or the Divine take him away from the relatively concrete. Even here, though, there is an engaging personality at work, and there are enough asides and reflections on the world to give an impression of the author which is highly individual: as is the style and the imagery. The standard ethical diatribe against luxury and aristocratic excess of the man from the municipality is given vivid historical and geographical colour, and if the Roman past is idealized, it is partly through the evocation of an image of the Roman people which is among the least hostile treatments of the many in any ancient author. The themes of the excellence of the natural endowment of Italy, and the moral threat posed by the exotic, form a laconic and memorable conclusion to bk. 37 (described in bk. 1, end, as ‘nature compared in different lands; products compared in value’).

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Subjects: Classical Studies.


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