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Natural History (Pliny)

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Naturalis Historia

Naturalis Historia
Encyclopaedia, popular science[1]

The Natural History (

Latin: Naturalis historia) is a work by Pliny the Elder. The largest single work to have survived from the Roman Empire to the modern day, the Natural History compiles information gleaned from other ancient authors. Despite the work's title, its subject area is not limited to what is today understood by natural history; Pliny himself defines his scope as "the natural world, or life".[2] It is encyclopedic in scope, but its structure is not like that of a modern encyclopedia. It is the only work by Pliny to have survived, and the last that he published. He published the first 10 books in AD 77, but had not made a final revision of the remainder at the time of his death during the AD 79 eruption of Vesuvius. The rest was published posthumously by Pliny's nephew, Pliny the Younger

The work is divided into 37 books, organised into 10 volumes. These cover topics including astronomy, mathematics, geography, ethnography, anthropology, human physiology, zoology, botany, agriculture, horticulture, pharmacology, mining, mineralogy, sculpture, art, and precious stones.

Pliny's 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.


Copy of Naturalis Historia printed by Johannes Alvisius in 1499 in Venice
, Italy

Pliny's Natural History was written alongside other substantial works (which have since been

lost). Pliny (AD 23–79) 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 (and to whom the work is dedicated). 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.[3] Pliny claims to be the only Roman ever to have undertaken such a work, in his prayer for the blessing of the universal mother:[4][5]

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.

The Natural History is encyclopaedic in scope, but its format is unlike a modern

Aristotle's division of nature (animal, vegetable, mineral) to recreate the natural world in literary form.[6] Rather than presenting compartmentalised, stand-alone entries arranged alphabetically, 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 ..."[7] The work is unified but varied: "My subject is the world of nature ... or in other words, life," he tells Titus.[3]

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

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".[8] This teleological view of nature was common in antiquity and is crucial to the understanding of the Natural History.[9] The components of nature are not just described in and for themselves, but also with a view to their role in human life. 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, art, and jewellery. Pliny's premise is distinct from modern ecological theories, reflecting the prevailing sentiment of his time.[10]

sciapod, described by Pliny in his Natural History, from the Nuremberg Chronicle

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

myths, legends, and facts), but Pliny made them better known.[12]

"As full of variety as nature itself",

Eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79. Pliny had gone to investigate the strange cloud – "shaped like an umbrella pine", according to his nephew – rising from the mountain.[14]

The Natural History was one of the first ancient European texts to be printed, in Venice in 1469.[15] Philemon Holland's English translation of 1601 has influenced literature ever since.[15]


The Natural History consists of 37 books. Pliny devised a summarium, or list of contents, at the beginning of the work that was later interpreted by modern printers as a table of contents.[16] The table below is a summary based on modern names for topics.

Volume Books Contents
I 1 Preface and list of contents, lists of authorities
2 Astronomy, meteorology
II 3–6 Geography and ethnography
7 Anthropology and human physiology
III 8–11 Zoology, including mammals, snakes, marine animals, birds, insects
IV–VII 12–27 Botany, including agriculture, horticulture, especially of the vine and olive, medicine
VIII 28–32
magic, water
, aquatic life
IX–X 33–37 Mining and mineralogy, especially as applied to life and art, work in gold and silver,[17] statuary in bronze,[18] art,[19] modelling,[20] sculpture in marble,[21] precious stones and gems[22]



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.[4] He says:[3]

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 among the Greeks 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 from his immediate authorities.[4] He acknowledges his obligations to his predecessors: "To own up to those who were the means of one's own achievements."[23]

In the preface, the author claims to have stated 20,000 facts gathered from some 2,000 books and from 100 select authors.[24] 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).[4][25]

One of Pliny's authorities is

Bibliotheca Historica of Diodorus Siculus.[26]

Working method

His nephew, Pliny the Younger, described the method that Pliny used to write the Natural History:[27]

Does it surprise you that a busy man found time to finish so many volumes, many of which deal with such minute details?... 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... 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.

Pliny the Younger told the following anecdote illustrating his uncle's enthusiasm for study: [27]

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 emulates that of

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.,[30]

dixit (Apelles) ... uno se praestare, quod manum de tabula sciret tollere, memorabili praecepto nocere saepe nimiam diligentiam.[4]

This might be translated

In one thing Apelles stood out, namely, knowing when he had put enough work into a painting, a salutary warning that too much effort can be counterproductive.[31]

Everything from "a salutary warning" onwards represents the ablative absolute phrase starting with "memorabili praecepto".

Publication history

First publication

Pliny wrote the first ten books in AD 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,[4][32] has apparently forgotten that both are to be found in his uncle's work.[33] He describes the Naturalis Historia as a Naturae historia and characterises it as a "work that is learned and full of matter, and as varied as nature herself."[34]

The absence of the author's final revision may explain many errors,[4] including why the text is as John Healy writes "disjointed, discontinuous and not in a logical order";[35] and as early as 1350, Petrarch complained about the corrupt state of the text, referring to copying errors made between the ninth and eleventh centuries.[36]


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

About the middle of the 3rd century, an abstract of the geographical portions of Pliny's work was produced by

There are about 200 extant manuscripts, but the best of the more ancient manuscripts, that at Bamberg State Library, contains only books XXXII–XXXVII. In 1141 Robert of Cricklade wrote the Defloratio Historiae Naturalis Plinii Secundi consisting of nine books of selections taken from an ancient manuscript.[4][38]

Printed copies

The work was one of the first classical manuscripts to be

printed, at Venice in 1469 by Johann and Wendelin of Speyer, but J.F. Healy described the translation as "distinctly imperfect".[15] A copy printed in 1472 by Nicolas Jenson of Venice is held in the library at Wells Cathedral.[39]


H. T. Riley made a complete translation in 1855.[41]


The Natural History is generally divided into the organic plants and animals and the inorganic matter, although there are frequent digressions in each section.[b] The encyclopedia also notes the uses made of all of these by 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.

Book I serves as Pliny's preface, explaining his approach and providing a table of contents.


How Hipparchus found the distances to sun and moon

The first topic covered is Astronomy, in Book II. Pliny starts with the known universe, roundly criticising attempts at cosmology as madness, including the view that there are countless other worlds than the Earth. He concurs with the four (Aristotelian) elements, fire, earth, air and water,[42] and records the seven "planets" including the sun and moon.[43] The earth is a sphere, suspended in the middle of space.[44] He considers it a weakness to try to find the shape and form of God,[45] or to suppose that such a being would care about human affairs.[46] He mentions eclipses, but considers Hipparchus's almanac grandiose for seeming to know how Nature works.[47] He cites Posidonius's estimate that the moon is 230,000 miles away.[c] He describes comets, noting that only Aristotle has recorded seeing more than one at once.[48]

Book II continues with natural meteorological events lower in the sky, including the winds, weather, whirlwinds, lightning, and rainbows.[49] He returns to astronomical facts such as the effect of longitude on time of sunrise and sunset,[50] the variation of the sun's elevation with latitude (affecting time-telling by sundials),[51] and the variation of day length with latitude.[52]


In Books III to VI, Pliny moves to the Earth itself. In Book III he covers the geography of the Iberian peninsula and Italy; Book IV covers Europe including Britain; Book V looks at Africa and Asia, while Book VI looks eastwards to the Black Sea, India and the Far East.


Book VII discusses the human race, covering anthropology and ethnography, aspects of human physiology and assorted matters such as the greatness of Julius Caesar, outstanding people such as Hippocrates and Asclepiades, happiness and fortune.


A collection of Roman amber from the Archeological Museum of Aquileia

Zoology is discussed in Books VIII to XI. 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 aquariums was a popular pastime of the rich, and Pliny provides anecdotes of the problems of owners becoming too closely attached to their fish.

Pliny correctly identifies the origin of



Botany is handled in Books XII to XVIII, with Theophrastus as one of Pliny's sources. The manufacture of papyrus and the various grades of papyrus available to Romans are described. Different types of trees and the properties of their wood are explained in Books XII to XIII. The vine, viticulture and varieties of grape are discussed in Book XIV, while Book XV covers the olive tree in detail,[53] followed by other trees including the apple and pear,[54] fig,[55] cherry,[56] myrtle and laurel,[57] among others.

Pliny gives special attention to spices, such as

cane sugar
. He mentions different varieties of pepper, whose values are comparable with that of gold and silver, while sugar is noted only for its medicinal value.

He is critical of

attar of roses, which he says is the most widely used base. Other substances added include myrrh, cinnamon, and balsam

Drugs, medicine and magic

A major section of the Natural History, Books XX to XXIX, discusses matters related to medicine, especially plants that yield useful drugs. Pliny lists over 900 drugs, compared to 600 in

De Materia Medica, 550 in Theophrastus, and 650 in Galen.[58]
The poppy and opium are mentioned; Pliny notes that opium induces sleep and can be fatal.[59] Diseases and their treatment are covered in book XXVI.

Pliny addresses

Ancient Persia as the source of magical ideas. He states that Pythagoras, Empedocles, Democritus and Plato all travelled abroad to learn magic, remarking that it was surprising anyone accepted the doctrines they brought back, and that medicine (of Hippocrates) and magic (of Democritus) should have flourished simultaneously at the time of the Peloponnesian War


harvesting machine

The methods used to cultivate crops are described in Book XVIII. He praises

Roman water mills across the Empire.[d]


Pliny extensively discusses metals starting with gold and silver (Book XXXIII), and then the base metals copper, mercury, lead, tin and iron, as well as their many alloys such as electrum, bronze, pewter, and steel (Book XXXIV).

He is critical of greed for gold, such as the absurdity of using the metal for coins in the early Republic. He gives examples of the way rulers proclaimed their prowess by exhibiting gold looted from their campaigns, such as that by Claudius after conquering Britain, and tells the stories of

malleability and ductility, 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. He rejects Herodotus's claims of Indian gold obtained by ants or dug up by griffins in Scythia

reverse overshot water-wheels
operated by treadmill and found in Roman mines. 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.

Fraud and forgery are described in detail; in particular

silver mines. He records that it is toxic, and amalgamates with gold, so is used for refining and extracting that metal. He says mercury is used for gilding copper, while antimony is found in silver mines and is used as an eyebrow cosmetic

The main ore of mercury is


Pliny gives a special place to iron, distinguishing the hardness of steel from what is now called wrought iron, a softer grade. He is scathing about the use of iron in warfare.


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

In the last two books of the work (Books XXXVI and XXXVII), Pliny describes many different

fluorspar, noting that it is carved into vases and other decorative objects.[61] The account of magnetism includes the myth of Magnes the shepherd

Pliny moves into

sesterces for the item. Nero deliberately broke two crystal cups when he realised that he was about to be deposed, so denying their use to anyone else.[63]

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, presaging the

Mohs hardness scale. Diamond sits at the top of the series because, Pliny says, it will scratch all other minerals.[64]

Art history

Pliny's chapters on Roman and Greek art are especially valuable because his work is virtually the only available classical source of information on the subject.[65]

In the


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:113, 156, XXXVI:17, 39, 41).[4]

Laocoön and his Sons