Naturales quaestiones

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Naturales quaestiones is an encyclopedia of the natural world written by Seneca around 65 AD. It is much shorter than the Naturalis Historia produced by Pliny the Elder some ten years later.

Ancient bust of Seneca, part of a double herm (Antikensammlung Berlin)


The work was written by Seneca the Younger around 65 AD, and is addressed to Lucilius Junior. It is one of the few Roman works which deals with scientific matters. It is not a systematic work, but a collection of facts of nature from various writers, Greek and Roman, many of which are curiosities. The first book deals with meteors, halos, rainbows, mock suns, etc.; the second of thunder and lightning; the third of water; this book also contains the description of the Roman heat exchangers, which were called "dracones", or "miliaria"; and a description of the deluge. The book shows that ancient rivers were not as pristine as we tend to think: for instance, the Alpheus became incredibly filthy when thousands of people congregated on its banks for the olympic games. The fourth book speaks of hail, snow, and ice; the fifth of winds; the sixth of earthquakes and the sources of the Nile; and the seventh of comets. Moral remarks are scattered through the work; and indeed the design of the whole appears to be to find a foundation for ethics in the knowledge of nature.

There are many incidental comments, such as the reference to water heating apparatus using coiled tubes in a furnace. The same section on water (Chapter III) refers directly to the use of hypocausts at the baths.

Selected quotes[edit]

Man is really something worthless, if he doesn't rise above human concerns; in Latin: "Quam despecta res est homo, nisi supra humana surrexerit".

What is God? Everything you see, and everything you don't see too; in Latin: "Quid est deus? Quod vides, totum, et quod non vides, totum".

The earth is but a point, yet how many nations divide it violently among themselves. How ridiculous are boundaries among humans! In Latin: "Hoc est illud punctum, quod inter tot gentes ferro et igne dividitur? O, quam ridiculi sunt mortalium termini!"

In the third book, the description of the deluge ends with a bitter note: "... all animals will be created from scratch and the earth will be given a new man, who knows nothing of crime and is born under better auspices. But their innocence will last as long as they are inexpert; soon, evil will sneak in. Virtue is difficult to find, needs a governance and a guide; to learn vice, no teacher is needed." In Latin: "... omne ex integro animal orietur, dabiturque terris homo inscius sceleris et melioribus auspiciis natus. Sed illis quoque innocentia non durabit, nisi dum novi sint; cito nequitia subrepit. Virtus difficilis inventu est, rectorem ducemque desiderat; etiam sine magistro vitia discuntur."

In the book on earthquakes, Seneca imagines that Lucilius questions the value of science: "What is - you are asking - the reward for this toil? It is the greatest reward of all, to know nature." In Latin: "Quod, inquis, erit pretium operae? Quo nullum maius est, nosse naturam."

See also[edit]


Further reading[edit]

  • Seneca, Naturales Quaestiones: Bks. I-III, v. 1. Loeb Classical Library
  • Seneca, Naturales Quaestiones: Bks. IV-VII, v. 2. Loeb Classical Library
  • Seneca, "Ricerche sulla Natura", a cura di Piergiorgio Parroni, Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, a recent (2010) edition with a fine comment.

External links[edit]