Natural History (Pliny)

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Naturalis Historia, 1669 edition, title page. The title at the top reads: "Volume I of the Natural History of Gaius Plinius Secundus."

The Natural History (Latin: Naturalis Historia) is an early encyclopedia published circa AD 77–79 by Pliny the Elder. It is one of the largest single works to have survived from the Roman Empire to the modern day and purports to cover all ancient knowledge.

Natural History became a model for later encyclopedias and scholarly works as a result of its breadth of subject matter, its referencing of original authors, and its index. The work is dedicated to the emperor Titus, son of Pliny's close friend, the emperor Vespasian, in the first year of Titus's reign. It is the only work by Pliny to have survived and the last that he published, lacking a final revision at the time of his death during the AD 79 eruption of Vesuvius.


Pliny's achievement with Natural History is remarkable considering that he had written other substantial works (which do not survive), and combined his scholarly activities with a busy career as an imperial administrator for the emperor Vespasian. Much of his writing was done at night; daytime hours were spent working for the emperor, as he explains in the dedicatory preface addressed to Vespasian's elder son, the future emperor Titus, with whom he had served in the army. As for the nocturnal hours spent writing, these were seen, not as a loss of sleep, but as an addition to life: for, as he states in the preface, Vita vigilia est, "to be alive is to be watchful", in a military metaphor of a sentry keeping watch in the night.[1] Pliny claims to be the only Roman ever to have undertaken such a work, in his prayer for the blessing of the universal mother:[2]

Hail to thee, Nature, thou parent of all things! and do thou deign to show thy favour unto me, who, alone of all the citizens of Rome, have, in thy every department, thus made known thy praise.

Natural History is described as an encyclopaedia, but this is misleading for a modern reader, who would be hard pressed to locate with any speed what Pliny has to say on the natural history of the chameleon, the medical uses of cabbage or the remarkable effects of goat's blood on diamond. The work does have structure: Pliny uses Aristotle's division of nature (animal, vegetable, mineral) to recreate the natural world in literary form.[3] Rather than presenting compartmentalised, stand-alone entries arranged alphabetically, as a modern encyclopaedia, Pliny's ordered natural landscape is a coherent whole, offering the reader a guided tour: "a brief excursion under our direction among the whole of the works of nature..." The work is unified but varied: "My subject is the world of nature... or in other words, life," he tells Titus.[1]

Naturalis Historia, work printed by Johannes Alvisius in 1499 in Venice, Italy

Nature for Pliny was divine, a pantheistic concept inspired by the Stoic philosophy which underlies much of his thought. But the deity in question was a goddess whose main purpose was to serve the human race: "nature, that is life" is human life in a natural landscape. After an initial survey of cosmology and geography, Pliny starts his treatment of animals with the human race, "for whose sake great nature appears to have created all other things". This teleological view of nature was common in antiquity and is crucial to the understanding of the Natural History.[4] The components of nature are not just described in and for themselves, but also with a view to their role in human life, a view absorbed by Christianity that survived into the 19th century.[citation needed] Pliny devotes a number of the books to plants, with a focus on their medicinal value; the books on minerals include descriptions of their uses in architecture, sculpture, painting and jewellery. If Pliny's premise seems remote from modern ecological theories, the result is a compendium of an entire culture.[5]

A cynocephalus, or dog-head, as described by Pliny in his Natural History. From the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493).

Pliny's work frequently reflects Rome's imperial expansion which brought new and exciting things to the capital: exotic eastern spices, strange animals to be put on display or herded into the arena, even the alleged phoenix sent to the emperor Claudius in AD 47 — although, as Pliny admits, this was generally acknowledged to be a fake. Pliny repeated Aristotle's maxim that Africa was always producing something new. Nature's variety and versatility were claimed to be infinite: "When I have observed nature she has always induced me to deem no statement about her incredible." This led Pliny to recount rumours of strange peoples on the edges of the world.[6] These monstrous races — the Cynocephali or Dog-Heads, the Sciapodae, whose single foot could act as a sunshade, the mouthless Astomi, who lived on scents — were not strictly new. They had been mentioned by the Greek historian Herodotus in the 5th century BC, but Pliny made them better known.[7] See also the "Introduction" to N.H. Loeb III-VII (throughout).

A sciapod, described by Pliny in his Natural History. From the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493).

"As full of variety as nature itself", stated Pliny's nephew, Pliny the Younger, and this verdict largely explains the appeal of Natural History since Pliny's death in the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. Pliny had gone to investigate the strange cloud — "shaped like an umbrella pine", according to his nephew — rising from the mountain.[8]

The Natural History was one of the first ancient texts to be printed, in 1469, and over two hundred editions had been produced by the end of the nineteenth century. Translations in various languages had already appeared by the Middle Ages, making Pliny's "treasure house" of knowledge widely available.[9] Advances in scholarship and scientific knowledge were slow to displace Pliny as an authority. Renaissance scholars, encouraged by the rediscovery of ancient Greek scientific and other texts, subjected the Natural History to more critical scrutiny, but travelogues and geographical works still described and illustrated encounters with Dog-Heads, Umbrella-Feet, Amazons and the rest. The pioneers of New World exploration used Pliny for reference and comparison with their new discoveries.[10]

Table of contents[edit]

The Natural History consists of 37 books. Pliny devised his own table of contents. The table below is a summary based on modern names for topics.

Volume Books Contents
I 1 Preface and tables of contents, lists of authorities
2 Mathematical and physical description of the world
II 3 - 6 Geography and ethnography
7 Anthropology and human physiology
III 8 - 11 Zoology
IV - VII 12 - 27 Botany, including agriculture, horticulture and pharmacology
VIII 28 - 32 Pharmacology
IX - X 33 - 37 Mining and mineralogy, especially as applied to life and art, including gold, casting in silver,[11] statuary in bronze,[12] painting,[13] modelling,[14] sculpture in marble,[15] precious stones and gems[16]



Pliny's purpose in writing the Natural History was to cover all learning and art so far as they are connected with nature or draw their materials from nature. He says that

My subject is a barren one – the world of nature, or in other words life; and that subject in its least elevated department, and employing either rustic terms or foreign, nay barbarian words that actually have to be introduced with an apology. Moreover, the path is not a beaten highway of authorship, nor one in which the mind is eager to range: there is not one of us who has made the same venture, nor yet one Roman who has tackled single-handed all departments of the subject.


Pliny studied the original authorities on each subject and took care to make excerpts from their pages. His indices auctorum sometimes list the authorities he actually consulted, though not exhaustively; in other cases, they cover the principal writers on the subject, whose names are borrowed second-hand for his immediate authorities. He acknowledges his obligations to his predecessors: "To own up to those who were the means of one's own achievements."[17]

In the preface, the author claims to have stated 20,000 facts gathered from some 2,000 books and from 100 select authors.[18] The extant lists of his authorities cover more than 400, including 146 Roman and 327 Greek and other sources of information. The lists generally follow the order of the subject matter of each book. This has been shown in Heinrich Brunn's Disputatio (Bonn, 1856).[19]

Agrippa (Louvre)

One of Pliny's authorities is Varro. In the geographical books, Varro is supplemented by the topographical commentaries of Agrippa, which were completed by the emperor Augustus; for his zoology, he relies largely on Aristotle and on Juba, the scholarly Mauretanian king, studiorum claritate memorabilior quam regno (v. 16). Juba is one of his principal guides in botany; Theophrastus is also named in his Indices, and Pliny had translated Theophrastus's Greek into Latin. Another work by Theophrastus, On Stones was a cited as a source on ores and minerals. Pliny strived to use all the Greek histories available at the time, such as Herodotus and Thucydides, as well as the Bibliotheca historica of Diodorus Siculus.[20]

Working method[edit]

His nephew, Pliny the Younger, described Pliny's method in the natural history:

Does it surprise you that a busy man found time to finish so many volumes, many of which deal with such minute details? You will wonder the more when I tell you that he for many years pleaded in the law courts, that he died in his fifty-seventh year, and that in the interval his time was taken up and his studies were hindered by the important offices he held and the duties arising out of his friendship with the Emperors. But he possessed a keen intellect; he had a marvellous capacity for work, and his powers of application were enormous. He used to begin to study at night on the Festival of Vulcan, not for luck but from his love of study, long before dawn; in winter he would commence at the seventh hour or at the eighth at the very latest, and often at the sixth. He could sleep at call, and it would come upon him and leave him in the middle of his work. Before daybreak he would go to Vespasian – for he too was a night-worker – and then set about his official duties. On his return home he would again give to study any time that he had free. Often in summer after taking a meal, which with him, as in the old days, was always a simple and light one, he would lie in the sun if he had any time to spare, and a book would be read aloud, from which he would take notes and extracts. For he never read without taking extracts, and used to say that there never was a book so bad that it was not good in some passage or another. After his sun bath he usually bathed in cold water, then he took a snack and a brief nap, and subsequently, as though another day had begun, he would study till dinner-time. After dinner a book would be read aloud, and he would take notes in a cursory way. I remember that one of his friends, when the reader pronounced a word wrongly, checked him and made him read it again, and my uncle said to him, "Did you not catch the meaning?" When his friend said "yes," he remarked, "Why then did you make him turn back? We have lost more than ten lines through your interruption." So jealous was he of every moment lost.


Pliny's writing style draws from that of Seneca.[21] It aims less at clearness and vividness than at epigrammatic point. It contains many antitheses, questions, exclamations, tropes, metaphors, and other mannerisms of the Silver Age.[22] The structure of the sentence is also apt to be loose and straggling. There is an excessive use of the ablative absolute, and ablative phrases are often appended in a kind of vague "apposition" to express the author's own opinion of an immediately previous statement, e.g.,[23]

dixit (Apelles) … uno se praestare, quod manum de tabula sciret tollere, memorabili praecepto nocere saepe nimiam diligentiam.

Publication history[edit]

First publication[edit]

Pliny apparently published the first ten books himself in 77, and was engaged on revising the rest during the two remaining years of his life. The work was probably published with little revision by the author's nephew Pliny the Younger, who, when telling the story of a tame dolphin and describing the floating islands of the Vadimonian Lake thirty years later,[24] has apparently forgotten that both are to be found in his uncle's work.[25] He describes the Naturalis historia as a Naturae historia and characterizes it as a "work that is learned and full of matter, and as varied as nature herself."[26]

The probable absence of the author's final revision may explain errors such as repetition, contradiction, mistranslations from Greek authors, and misplaced marginal additions; but the work has also been transcribed many times.


About the middle of the 3rd century, an abstract of the geographical portions of Pliny's work was produced by Solinus; and early in the 4th century, the medical passages were collected in the Medicina Plinii. Early in the 8th century, Bede had access to a manuscript of parts of the work, which he used in his "De Rerum Natura", especially the sections on meteorology and gems. However, Bede updated and corrected Pliny on the tides.

In the 9th century, Alcuin sent a request to Charlemagne for a copy of the earlier books.[27] Dicuil gathered extracts from the pages of Pliny for his own Mensura orbis terrae (ca. 825).

The Natural History of Pliny in a mid-12th-century manuscript from the Abbaye of Saint-Vincent, Le Mans, France

Pliny's work was held in high esteem in the Middle Ages. The number of extant manuscripts is about 200; but the best of the more ancient manuscripts, that at Bamberg State Library, contains only books xxxii–xxxvii. Robert of Cricklade, prior of St. Frideswide's Priory at Oxford, dedicated to Henry II a Defloratio consisting of nine books of selections taken from one of the manuscripts of this class, which has been recently recognized as supplying us with the only evidence for some parts of the true text. Among the later manuscripts, the codex Vesontinus, formerly at Besançon (11th century), has been divided into three portions, now in Rome, Paris, and Leiden respectively, while there is also a transcript of the whole of this manuscript at Leiden.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the multiplicity of texts in circulation, many were in a poor state. Thus, when Petrarch bought a copy in Mantua in 1350, he wrote:

What would Cicero, or Livy, or the other great men of the past, Pliny above all, think if they could return to life and read their own works?

He answered his own rhetorical question that they would scarcely recognise them owing to the inevitable corruptions and copying errors. Petrarch corrected some of the worst texts, but translation was difficult, for instance because Pliny had introduced non-Latin words and described long-forgotten techniques.

Printed copies[edit]

The work was one of the first classical manuscripts to be printed, having been so at Venice in 1469 by Johann and Wendelin of Speyer, but J.F. Healy described the translation as "distinctly imperfect". A copy printed in 1472 by Nicolas Jenson of Venice is held in the library at Wells Cathedral.[28] Philemon Holland's much improved translation of 1601 and further versions multiplied as Pliny's reputation grew during the Renaissance. As common throughout the Renaissance, classical works such as this inspired scholars to look at the achievements of antiquity and the ways nature could be studied, reviving interest in minerals and mining, for example. Pliny is much quoted by Georg Agricola in his De Re Metallica.

Sir Thomas Browne expressed skepticism about Pliny's dependability in his 1646 Pseudodoxia Epidemica:[29]

Now what is very strange, there is scarce a popular error passant in our days, which is not either directly expressed, or diductively contained in this Work; which being in the hands of most men, hath proved a powerful occasion of their propagation. Wherein notwithstanding the credulity of the Reader is more condemnable then the curiosity of the Author: for commonly he nameth the Authors from whom he received those accounts, and writes but as he reads, as in his Preface to Vespasian he acknowledgeth.


The work is generally divided into the organic plants and animals and the inorganic matter, although there are frequent digressions in each section.[30] The encyclopedia also notes their interactions with the Romans. Its description of metals and minerals is valued for its detail in the history of science, being the most extensive compilation still available from the ancient world.


The manufacture of papyrus and the various grades of papyrus available to Romans are described in detail. Different types of trees and the properties of their wood are likewise thoroughly explained. He describes the olive tree and its commonly ascribed features in detail. Botany is also discussed, with Theophrastus as one of Pliny's sources.

Pliny gives special attention to spices, such as pepper, ginger, and cane sugar. He mentions several different varieties of pepper, whose values are comparable with that of gold and silver, while sugar is noted only for its medicinal value.

He critically notes the following of perfumes: "Perfumes are the most pointless of luxuries, for pearls and jewels are at least passed on the one's heirs, and clothes last for a time, but perfumes lose their fragrance and perish as soon as they are used." He gives a summary of their ingredients, such as attar of roses, which he says is the most widely used base. Other substances added include myrrh, cinnamon, and balsam gum.


A collection of Roman amber from the Archeological Museum of Aquileia

The encyclopedia mentions different sources of purple dye, particularly the murex snail, the highly prized source of Tyrian purple. It describes the elephant and hippopotamus in detail, as well as the value and origin of the pearl and the invention of fish farming and oyster farming. The keeping of aquaria was a popular pastime of the rich, and Pliny provides several amusing anecdotes of the problems of owners becoming too closely attached to their fishes.

Pliny correctly identifies the origin of amber as the fossilised resin of pine trees. Evidence cited includes the fact that some samples exhibit encapsulated insects, a feature readily explained by the presence of a viscous resin. Pliny refers to the way in which it will exert a charge when rubbed, a property well known to Theophrastus. He devotes considerable space to bees, which he admires for their industry, organisation, and honey, discussing the significance of the queen bee and the use of smoke by beekeepers at the hive to collect the honeycombs. He praises the song of the nightingale.


Pliny has an extensive discussion of metals including gold, silver, copper, mercury, lead, tin and iron, as well as their many alloys such as electrum, bronze, pewter, and steel. He devotes much space to a long discussion about the greed for gold, such as the absurdity of using the metal for coins in the early Republic. He gives several examples of the way rulers proclaimed their prowess by exhibiting gold loot from their campaigns, such as that by Claudius after conquering Britain, as well as relating the stories of Midas and Croesus. He then proceeds to discuss why the metal is unique in its malleability and ductility being far greater than any other metal. The examples given are its ability to be beaten into fine foil with just one ounce, producing 750 leaves four inches square. Fine gold wire can be woven into cloth, although imperial clothes usually combined it with natural fibres like wool. He once saw Agrippina the Younger, wife of Claudius, at a public show on the Fucine Lake involving a naval battle, wearing a military cloak made of gold.

Given gold's value and importance to the Romans, its occurrence and extraction receives a long section of text and starts with a rejection of the ideas initiated by Herodotus of Indian gold obtained by ants or dug up by griffins in Scythia. The section is discussed in more detail below.

The next metal described is silver. It does not occur in native form and has to be mined, usually occurring with lead ores. Spain produced the most silver in his time, many of the mines having been started by Hannibal. One of the largest had galleries running for between one and two miles into the mountain, "water-men" (which he calls "aquatini") draining the mine, and they "stood night and day in shifts measured by lamps, bailing out water and making a stream." Pliny is probably referring to the reverse overshot water-wheels operated by treadmill and found in Roman mines in the 1920s as discussed below. Britain, he says, is very rich in lead, which is found on the surface at many places, and thus very easy to extract; production was so high that a law was passed attempting to restrict mining.

Roman coins were struck, not cast, so these coin moulds were created for forgery

Another of Pliny's obsessions is with fraud and forgery, and in particular coin counterfeiting by mixing copper with silver, or even admixture with iron. Tests had been developed for counterfeit coins and proved very popular with the victims, mostly ordinary people. In the same section, he deals with the liquid metal mercury, which is also found in silver mines. He correctly says it is toxic, and amalgamates with gold, so is used for refining and extraction of that metal. He says mercury is used for gilding copper. Antimony is found in silver mines and is used as an eyebrow cosmetic.

The main ore of mercury is cinnabar, long used as a pigment by painters. He says that the colour is similar to that of the cochineal insect. The dust is very toxic, so workers handling the material wear face masks of bladder skin. Copper and bronze are, says Pliny, most famous for their use in statues, of which there were many in Rome. Their most extravagant use was in colossi, gigantic statues as tall as towers, the most famous being the Colossus of Rhodes. He personally saw the massive statue of Nero in Rome, which was later removed after the emperor committed suicide. The face of the statue was modified shortly after Nero's, death during Vespasian's reign, to make it truly a statue of Sol. Hadrian moved it, with the help of the architect Decrianus and 24 elephants, to a position next to the Flavian Amphitheater. This building took the name Colosseum in the Middle Ages, after the statue nearby.

He gives a special place to iron, distinguishing the hardness of steel from what is now called wrought iron, a softer grade with (we know now) a smaller carbon content. He is scathing about the use of iron: "and yet in other places we dig with sheer recklessness when iron is needed – a metal even more welcome than gold amid the bloodshed of war."


Amethyst intaglio (1st century CE) depicting Nero as Apollo playing the lyre (Cabinet des Médailles)

He describes many different minerals and gemstones, building on works by Theophrastus and other authors. The topic concentrates on the most valuable gemstones, because it gives him yet another opportunity to criticize the obsession with luxury products such as engraved gems and hardstone carvings.

He provides a thorough discussion of the properties of fluorspar, noting that it is carved into vases and other decorative objects. It is often banded with purple colours, which is presumably why the Romans regarded it so highly.

He accurately describes the octahedral shape of the diamond and proceeds to mention that diamond dust is used by gem engravers to cut and polish other gems owing to its great hardness. His recognition of the importance of crystal shape is a precursor to modern crystallography, while mention of numerous other minerals presages mineralogy. He also recognises that other minerals have characteristic crystal shapes, but in one example, confuses the crystal habit with the work of lapidaries.

Rock crystal is valuable for its transparency and hardness, he says, and can be carved into vessels and implements. Pliny relates the story of a woman who owned a ladle made of the mineral, paying the sum of 150,000 sesterces for the item.

Nero deliberately broke two crystal cups when he realised that he was about to be deposed, so denying anyone else of their use.

Pliny returns to the problem of fraud and the detection of false gems using several tests, including the scratch test, where counterfeit gems can be marked by a steel file, and genuine ones not. Perhaps it refers to glass imitations of jewellery gemstones. He refers to using one hard mineral to scratch another, the first allusion to what is now the Mohs hardness scale. Diamond sits at the top of the series because, Pliny says, it will scratch all other minerals.

Detail of a relief depicting a Gallo-Roman harvesting machine


The methods used to cultivate crops are described extensively by Pliny in Books 18 to 28. He praises Cato the elder and his work De Agri Cultura, which he uses as a primary source. Pliny's work includes discussion of all known cultivated crops and vegetables, as well as herbs and remedies derived from them. It is also a source for some interesting devices and machines used in cultivation and processing the crops. For example, he describes a simple mechanical reaper that cut the ears of wheat and barley without the straw and was pushed by oxen (Book XVIII, chapter 72). This device was forgotten in late antiquity or the early middle ages, during which period reapers reverted to using scythes and sickles to gather crops. It is depicted on a bas-relief from the later Roman period found at Trier.


The sixteen overshot wheels at Barbegal are the largest known Roman mill complex

Book eighteen describes how grain is ground using pestles powered by water wheels, found in the remains of many Roman water mills found across the Empire. Extant mills found at Barbegal in southern France use water supplied by the aqueduct supplying Arles, powering at least sixteen overshot water wheels arranged in two parallel sets of eight down the hillside. It is thought that the wheels were overshot water wheels with the outflow from the top driving the next one down in the set, and so on to the base of the hill. Vertical water mills were well known to the Romans, being described by Vitruvius in his De Architectura of 25 BC.

A sawmill powered by a water wheel has been described in a bas-relief from Hierapolis, known as the Hierapolis sawmill. Rather than using the direct drive from the rotating shaft, the Hierapolis sawmill powered a crankshaft to activate the long saw blades in cutting stone. Part of the apparatus on the sarcophagus shows a gear train which could control cutting speed.

There are later references to floating water mills from Byzantium. The Aqua Traiana fed water mills arranged in a parallel sequence at the Janiculum, under the present American Academy in Rome. The milling complex had a long history and were put out of action by the Ostrogoths when they cut the aqueduct in 537 AD during the first siege of Rome. Belisarius restored the supply of grain by using mills floating in the Tiber. The complex of mills bear parallels with a similar complex at Barbegal in southern Gaul and to sawmills on the river Moselle by the poet Ausonius. The use of multiple stacked sequences of reverse overshot water-wheels was widespread in Roman mines.

Art history[edit]

Pliny's chapters on Roman and Greek art are especially valuable because his work is virtually the only classical source of information on the subject.

In the history of art, the original Greek authorities are Duris of Samos, Xenocrates of Sicyon, and Antigonus of Carystus. The anecdotic element has been ascribed to Duris (xxxiv. 61, Lysippum Sicyonium Duris begat nullius fuisse discipulum etc.); the notices of the successive developments of art and the list of workers in bronze and painters to Xenocrates; and a large amount of miscellaneous information to Antigonus. The last two authorities are named in connection with Parrhasius (xxxv. 68, hanc ei gloriam concessere Antigonus et Xenocrates, qui de pictura scripsere), while Antigonus is named in the indices of xxxiii–xxxiv as a writer on the "toreutic art", or the art of embossing metal, or working it in ornamental relief or intaglio.

Greek epigrams contribute their share in Pliny's descriptions of pictures and statues. One of the minor authorities for books xxxiv – xxxv is Heliodorus of Athens, the author of a work on the monuments of Athens. In the indices to xxxiii–xxxvi, an important place is assigned to Pasiteles of Naples, the author of a work in five volumes on famous works of art (xxxvi. 40), probably incorporating the substance of the earlier Greek treatises; but Pliny's indebtedness to Pasiteles is denied by Kalkmann, who holds that Pliny used the chronological work of Apollodorus of Athens, as well as a current catalogue of artists. Pliny's knowledge of the Greek authorities was probably mainly due to Varro, whom he often quotes (e.g. xxxiv. 56, xxxv. 173, 156, xxxvi. 17, 39, 41). Varro probably dealt with the history of art in connection with architecture, which was included in his Disciplinae.

For a number of items relating to works of art near the coast of Asia Minor and in the adjacent islands, Pliny was indebted to the general, statesman, orator and historian Gaius Licinius Mucianus, who died before 77. Pliny mentions the works of art collected by Vespasian in the Temple of Peace and in his other galleries (xxxiv. 84), but much of his information about the position of such works in Rome is from books, not personal observation. The main merit of his account of ancient art, the only classical work of its kind, is that it is a compilation ultimately founded on the lost textbooks of Xenocrates and on the biographies of Duris and Antigonus.[31]

In several passages, he gives proof of independent observation (xxxiv. 38, 46, 63, xxxv. 17, 20, 116 seq.). He prefers the marble Laocoön and his Sons in the palace of Titus (now in the Vatican) to all the pictures and bronzes in the world (xxxvi. 37). The statue is attributed by Pliny to three sculptors from the island of Rhodes: Agesander, Athenodoros and Polydorus.

In the temple near the Flaminian Circus, Pliny admires the Ares and the Aphrodite of Scopas, "which would suffice to give renown to any other spot". He adds:

At Rome indeed the works of art are legion; besides, one effaces another from the memory and, however beautiful they may be, we are distracted by the overpowering claims of duty and business; for to admire art we need leisure and profound stillness (xxxvi. 26–72).

He discusses the passion among the Roman elite for collecting engraved gems and extravagant hardstone carvings with his usual irony.

Roman mining[edit]

The striking landscape of Las Médulas, the most important gold mine in the Roman Empire, resulted from the Ruina Montium mining technique.

Pliny provides lucid descriptions of many areas of Roman technology, some of which have been verified by scholarly research and archaeology. Thus, he gives a clear description of gold mining, which includes large-scale use of water to scour alluvial gold deposits. The description probably refers to mining in Northern Spain, especially at Las Médulas, shown at right, and the remains of water tanks and numerous Roman aqueducts has been verified on the ground at this vast site. Fieldwork in the surrounding area has discovered many more Roman mines where similar techniques were used on a large scale. At another location, Montefurado on the river Sil, the river itself was diverted to expose placer deposits in the bed of the river. It is likely that Pliny saw the operations of gold extraction himself, since the sections in Book xxxiii read like an eye witness report. He was a Procurator in Hispania Tarraconensis in the later years of his life, so would have had access to the many mines of the region.

Drainage wheel from Rio Tinto mines

However, similar remains have been found in Britain, especially at Dolaucothi in west Wales, where excavations in the modern village have confirmed the presence of a fort and settlement, as well as a bathhouse nearby. Field work has also established the extensive use of hydraulic mining to prospect for gold by construction of several aqueducts and many water reservoirs and tanks at the minehead, just as Pliny describes. The water supply was used for hushing the deposits, by releasing a full tank, the water wave scouring the ground below. Alternatively, the aqueduct stream could be simply released onto the deposit, the water wearing it down if of a soft and alluvial nature. Hard rock veins could be worked by fire-setting with the water used to scour away the rock debris. The same water supplies were probably used in a controlled way to drive watermills to crush the ore, and to wash the resultant powder for extraction of the gold dust.

His work supplements the De Architectura of Vitruvius, who describes many devices and engines for construction of buildings and aqueducts, as well as dewatering machines such as reverse overshot water-wheels and the use of the Archimedean screw. They were used in deep mining when shafts penetrated the water table, and examples have been found in many Roman mines when re-entered by modern mining attempts. The system found at the Rio Tinto copper mines in Spain comprised a set of 16 such wheels arranged in pairs in a vertical sequence with a total lift of 96 feet. The wheels were worked as treadmills by workers standing on the tops, and lifting would have needed careful co-ordination to remove the water effectively.

Sequence of wheels found in Rio Tinto mines

Pliny describes methods of underground mining, including the use of fire-setting to attack the gold-bearing rock and so extract the ore. It involved creating a fire against a hard rock working to weaken it sufficiently to be able to remove it effectively, followed by quenching with water or vinegar. The method was fraught with problems, not least of which was the formation of large volumes of toxic gases, so ventilation was essential in the confined galleries. One way of achieving a good flow of air was by means of adits, which would not only drain excess water but also allow air to circulate freely through the mine. Three such adits were driven through barren rock at Dolaucothi direct to the workings. Two remain open to this day, and the method was used widely in later mines in Britain. That it was widespread is attested by Diodorus Siculus describing the gold mines of Ancient Egypt.

In another part of his work, Pliny describes the use of undermining[32] to gain access to the veins, but it probably refers to opencast rather than underground mining, given the dangers to the miners in confined spaces.

Pliny's description of gold mining methods[33] has been confirmed by field work and archaeology, especially the use of water power in sluicing alluvial gold ores, both in Britain at Dolaucothi in South Wales and at Las Médulas and many other mines in northern Spain. His description of construction of the aqueducts needed to prospect for gold-bearing ore by removing overburden and work the alluvial deposits bears the hallmarks of the eyewitness, and he served as Procurator in northern Hispania when the region, in 73 AD, was experiencing a gold rush. The memory must thus have been fresh in his mind when he wrote Book xxxiii. As the mines grew, more water was supplied simply by building new aqueducts along the line of the original, and the remains of such multiple systems are still visible at Dolaucothi and Las Médulas.

Such methods of hydraulic mining were used widely during the gold rushes of California and Australia in the Victorian period. By contrast with aqueducts providing potable water for towns and cities, those used in mining had a higher gradient so as to provide a faster stream to speed operations, and consequently a shorter life. It seems clear that the methods of hydraulic mining such as hushing were a Roman innovation, nothing comparable being known in previous times. No doubt their skills at aqueduct building promoted their less well-known use in large-scale mining, as attested by Pliny.

The research at Dolaucothi has shown how aqueducts could be used not just for prospection, but also for removing waste rock. A large tank would be built at the end of the aqueduct, and once a vein found, it was attacked using fire-setting (building a fire against the rock, then dousing with water) and the precious ore-bearing minerals extracted by hand. The waste or barren rock surrounding the vein was then washed away, again by using the wave of water from a full tank to scour the waste away. Pliny actually recommends a particular size of tank (200 by 200 feet, and 10 feet deep), but those found on the ground at Dolaucothi vary greatly in size and are smaller than he says. The same water supply was then used as a gentle stream to wash the crushed ore, the gold particles being collected in riffle boxes. At least two of the tanks used at the gold mine still hold water, a tribute to their builders nearly 2000 years ago.

Pliny was famously scathing about the search for precious metals and gemstones, as evidenced by this statement: "Gangadia or quartzite is considered the hardest of all things – except for the greed for gold, which is even more stubborn."[34]


Some of Pliny's most famous adages[35] include:

Among these things, one thing seems certain – that nothing certain exists and that there is nothing more pitiful or more presumptuous than man.
Because of a curious disease of the human mind, it pleases us to enshrine in history records of bloodshed and slaughter, so that those ignorant of the facts of the world may become acquainted with the crimes of mankind.


The Italian author Italo Calvino writes that while people often consult Pliny's Natural History for facts and curiosities, he is an author who "deserves an extended read, for the measured movement of his prose, which is enlivened by his admiration for everything that exists and his respect for the infinite diversity of all phenomena".[36] Calvino notes that while Pliny is eclectic, he was not uncritical, though his evaluations of sources are inconsistent and unpredictable. Further, Calvino compares Pliny to Immanuel Kant, in that God is prevented by logic from conflicting with reason, even though (in Calvino's view) Pliny makes a pantheistic identification of God as being immanent in nature. As for destiny, Calvino writes that "it is impossible to force that variable which is destiny into the natural history of man: this is the sense of the pages that Pliny devotes to the vicissitudes of fortune, to the unpredictability of the length of any life, to the pointlessness of astrology, to disease and death."[36]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Pliny the Elder. "Dedication to Titus: C. PLINIUS SECUNDUS TO HIS FRIEND TITUS VESPASIAN". Natural History. 
  2. ^ "XXXVII.77". Natural History. 
  3. ^ Cf. "Introduction" to Natural History, Bks. I–II, Loeb Classical Library (rev. ed. 1989), pp. vii-x.
  4. ^ Pliny the Elder. "vii". Natural History. 
  5. ^ Cf. "Introduction" to Natural History, Bks. III-VII, Loeb Classical Library (rev. ed. 1989), pp. xi-xiii.
  6. ^ Cf. Pliny's consideration of Aristotle, as well as modern criticism of Pliny's work, in Trevor Murphy, Pliny the Elder's Natural History: The Empire in the Encyclopedia, OUP (2004), pp. 1-27, 194-215.
  7. ^ Pliny the Elder. "vii.2". Natural History. 
  8. ^ All citations from Pliny the Younger's Letters; see also "The Letters of Pliny the Younger", in Project Gutenberg.
  9. ^ Philemon Holland's English translation of 1605 was used by Shakespeare and other writers. Columbus consulted Pliny in an Italian translation; he noted remedies for ailments, from kidney stones to greying hair and loose teeth, as well as information on the treasures of the East.
  10. ^ The great humanist collectors, such as the Italian Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605), regarded Pliny's treasure-house of twenty-thousand facts as a challenge. As late as the beginning of the 19th century, the German naturalist Johann Blumenbach sough comfort in the Plinian principle of nature's infinite variety as he struggled to comprehend the apparently impossible lying before his very eyes: a little quadruped with a bird's beak, now known as the duck-billed platypus.
  11. ^ xxxiii.154–751
  12. ^ xxxiv
  13. ^ xxxv.15–941
  14. ^ 151–851
  15. ^ xxxvi
  16. ^ xxxvii
  17. ^ Praef. 21
  18. ^ Anderson, Frank J. (1977). An Illustrated History of the Herbals. Columbia University Press. p. 17. ISBN 0-231-04002-4. 
  19. ^ Cf. Heinrich Brunn's Kleine Schriften Gesammelt Von Hermann Brunn Und Heinrich Bulle...: Bd. Zur Griechischen Kunstgeschichte. Mit 69 Abbildungen Im Text Und Auf Einer Doppeltafel, 1905 reproduction by Ulan Press (2012).
  20. ^ Cf. Mary Beagon, Roman Nature: The Thought of Pliny the Elder, Clarendon Press (1992), s.v.; Trevor Murphy, Pliny the Elder's Natural History: The Empire in the Encyclopedia, OUP (2004), pp. 196-200 and passim.
  21. ^ Cf. Trevor Murphy, Pliny the Elder's Natural History: The Empire in the Encyclopedia, OUP (2004), pp. 181-197.
  22. ^ Cf. P. L. Chambers, The Natural Histories of Pliny the Elder: An Advanced Reader and Grammar Review, University of Oklahoma Press (2012), s.v., and Latin syntax in Pliny; see also Roger French & Frank Greenaway, Science in the Early Roman Empire: Pliny the Elder, his Sources and Influence, Croom Helm (1986), pp. 23-44.
  23. ^ N.H. 35.80
  24. ^ Pliny the Younger. "viii.20, ix.33". Letters. 
  25. ^ Pliny the Elder. "ii.209, ix.26". Natural History. 
  26. ^ Pliny the Younger. "III.5". Letters. ; see also The True Story of Lake Vadimo (Italian).
  27. ^ Epp. 103, Jaffé
  28. ^ Church, C.M. (1904). "Historical traditions at Wells, 1464, 1470, 1497.". The Archaeological Journal 61 (11): 155–180. 
  29. ^ Available at the [1] University of Chicago site
  30. ^ Compare structure at LacusCurtius, with footnotes.
  31. ^ On these, compare Dictionary of Art Historians, s.v. "Xenocrates"; A. Dalby, "The Curriculum Vitae of Duris of Samos" in Classical Quarterly new series vol. 41 (1991) pp. 539–541; D. Bowder, "Duris of Samos" in Who Was Who in the Greek World (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1982) pp. 101–102; Reinhold Köpke, De Antigono Carystio (1862), in Latin, Caput II.1.26,47.
  32. ^ Cf. "Pliny's Arrugia Water Power in Roman Gold-Mining", by David Bird, in Mining History Vol. 15, Nos. 4/5 (2004).
  33. ^ N.H. 33.21
  34. ^ "...est namque terra ex quodam argillae genere glarea mixta — gangadiam vocant — prope inexpugnabilis. cuneis eam ferreis adgrediuntur et isdem malleis nihilque durius putant, nisi quod inter omnia auri fames durissima est [...]" N.H. xxi-72. See also "Pliny's Arrugia Water Power in Roman Gold-Mining", by David Bird, in Mining History, cit.
  35. ^ Cf. Summa Gallicana (bilingual), s.v. "Pliny the Elder: Highlights".
  36. ^ a b Calvino, Italo (2009 (first published as Perché leggere i classici, Mondadori, 1991)). Why Read the Classics?. Penguin (Modern Classics). pp. 37–46. ISBN 978-0-141-18970-3. 


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  • Jones, G. D. B.; I. J. Blakey; E. C. F. MacPherson (1960). "Dolaucothi: the Roman aqueduct". Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies 19: 71–84 and plates III–V. 
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  • Lewis, P. R. (1977). The Ogofau Roman gold mines at Dolaucothi. The National Trust Year Book 1976–77. Llandeilo: The National Trust. 
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  • Lewis, P. R.; Jones, G. D. B. (1970). "Roman gold-mining in north-west Spain". Journal of Roman Studies (The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 60) 60: 169–85. doi:10.2307/299421. JSTOR 299421. 
  • Rackham, H.; Jones, W. H. S. & Eichholz, D. E. (translators), Pliny – Natural History, 10 volumes, (Loeb Classical Library), 1938–1962.
  • Wethered, H. N. (1937). The Mind of the Ancient World: A Consideration of Pliny's Natural History. London: Longmans Green. 
  • Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 

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