Sunday, January 16, 2022

Pliny the Elder, an Early Scientist

Pliny the Elder (supposedly)

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Gaius Plinius Secundus (23-79 CE), is usually called Pliny the Elder to distinguish him from his nephew (and adopted son), the lawyer and author Pliny the Younger (61-113).

The elder author was a naturalist and military commander, and a personal friend of the Roman emperor. His work is distinguished by his willingness to go out in the field and "get his hands dirty," making direct observations rather than just speculating on the nature of things, like many natural philosophers of his day.

Pliny was a single man, without children. At times he lived with his sister, mother of his nephew Pliny the Younger, whom he is said to have adopted. Certainly the younger man was familiar with his uncle's daily routine, describing his eating and working habits in letters to his contemporaries.

His greatest work is called the Natural History, similar to an encyclopedia that contained much of the current knowledge of his day. Its 37 books were completed within a few years of his death, and contain new materials as well as summaries of his earlier works and the works of others. It covers biology (both botany and zoology) as well as astronomy and geology. It is also a major source for understanding the art and artists of his time.

Pliny died as a result of one of the best-known events of classical times. As a naval commander, he was stationed at Misenum, across the Bay of Naples from Mount Vesuvius, which erupted spectacularly in the year 79. This was one of the volcano's many eruptions, and the one which buried the town of Pompeii.

Pliny was preparing to visit the shores near the blast to observe the phenomenon more closely when word came that some of his friends needed to be rescued. He sailed across the bay in a fast boat. Unable to leave again because the wind was against him, he dined with his friends, and was unable to stand up to leave. (One story says he was sitting in a bath, perhaps because he had asthma and he was trying to clear his lungs.) His friends left him behind, where he died, most probably from inhaling the bad air.

From The Natural History

Creatures such as these are described by Pliny; learn more about them here.

As we mentioned, Pliny's Natural History covered essentially all of the knowledge of his day, but it also contained philosophical observations. Here's some of what he said about humankind's most fascinating subject--humankind--in Book VII, Chapter 1: "Man."

Humans are the only animals, Pliny says, that have to get their covering (i.e. clothes) by stealing it from other creatures; nature has given "shells, crusts, spines, hides, furs, bristles, hair, down, feathers, scales, and fleeces" to other forms of life, and even the trunks of trees are protected by bark. Humans alone, he says, "at the very moment of their birth" are "cast naked upon the naked earth" and "abandon[ed] to cries, to lamentations, and--a thing that is the case with no other animal whatever--to tears: this, too, from the very moment that he enters upon existence." And again, "The animal which is destined to command all the others, lies--bound tightly hand and foot [in swaddling bands], and weeping aloud! This is the penalty he has to pay on beginning life, for the sole fault of having been born."

He reflects further:

"How soon do humans gain the power of walking? How soon do they gain the faculty of speech? How soon are their mouths fitted for chewing?... While other animals have an instinctive knowledge of their natural powers--some, of their swiftness of pace, some of their rapidity of flight, and some again of their power of swimming--humans are the only ones that know nothing, that can learn nothing without being taught; they can neither speak, nor walk, nor eat*, and, in short, they can do nothing, at the prompting of nature only, but weep. For this reason, many have been of the opinion that it would be better not to be born, or if born, to be annihilated at the earliest possible moment." [Pliny is alluding to a common saying: "Those whom the gods love, die young."]

[*A footnote points out that Pliny has forgotten that infants do not need to be taught how to suck.]

Pompeii with Mount Vesuvius behind


Vocabulary: Match the words to their meaning. Correct answers are in the first comment below.

  1. annihilated
  2. asthma
  3. botany
  4. encyclopedia
  5. faculty
  6. geology
  7. i.e.
  8. inhaling
  9. instinctive
  10. naturalist
  11. phenomenon
  12. speculating
  13. swaddling bands
  14. volcano
  15. zoology
  1. guessing; imagining
  2. natural; innate; not learned
  3. the study of the earth
  4. the study of animals
  5. an ability; a capacity for something
  6. wiped out; destroyed
  7. a mountain that can explode and send out materials
  8. a disease of the lungs which makes breathing difficult
  9. an event; something that happens
  10. the study of plants
  11. that is; in other words
  12. an early kind of scientist
  13. a set of books that discusses every subject known to a culture
  14. long, narrow pieces of cloth wrapped around a baby to keep it from moving
  15. breathing in

Questions to Answer: Answer the following questions in your own words. Suggested answers are in the first comment below.

  1. Who was Pliny the Younger?
  2. What was Pliny the Elder's occupation, aside from being a naturalist?
  3. What was did Pliny's write about in his *Natural History?
  4. How and when did Pliny die?
  5. How does Pliny seem to feel about human beings?

Questions to Think About: These questions do not have "right" or "wrong" answers. They only ask your opinion.

  1. Could one person write a work covering all of the knowledge available to us today? Why do you think that was possible for Pliny?
  2. Why do you think other naturalists in Pliny's day were unwilling to "get their hands dirty"?
  3. Do you agree with Pliny's opinion of humankind? Why or why not?

1 comment:


    Vocabulary: 1. F; 2. H; 3. J; 4. M; 5. E; 6. C; 7. K; 8. O; 9. B; 10. L; 11. I; 12. A; 13. N; 14. G; 15. D

    Questions to Answer (suggested answers; yours may be written slightly differently)

    1. Pliny the Younger, a lawyer and author, was Pliny the Elder's nephew and adopted son.
    2. Pliny the Elder was a Roman military commander.
    3. Pliny wrote about biology, astronomy, geology, art, and basically all the topics studied in his day.
    4. Pliny died after the explosion of Mount Vesuvius in the year 79 CE.
    5. Pliny is pretty negative and pessimistic when he writes about human beings.

    Questions to Think About do not have any single correct answer. However, any answers you give should be supported by what you read or by things you know ("I think... because...").