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Pliny's Natural history. In thirty-seven books online

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PURSUANT to a Resolution to the following effect, passed at a meeting of
the Committee held on Wednesday, 3rd February, 1847 :

" The best thanks of the Club are hereby presented to

JONATHAN COUCH, Esq. F.L.S., the Superintending Editor of this
Publication, and Translator of the Work.

Also to the following Gentlemen, viz. :

In the Department of Astronomy,

In the Department of Classical Literature,


In the Departments of Antiquities and Geography,

C. J. B. ALDIS, Esq. M.D.

For the Editorial Assistance rendered by them in the preparation of the
accompanying Work."




called the Elder, to distinguish him from
his nephew of the same name, who was
equally eminent in letters, but in a dif-
ferent field, was born of an illustrious
family of Verona, in the 23rd year of the Christian era.
According to the custom of Roman youths, he
served in the army, where he was honoured with the
regards of Titus, son of Vespasian, and afterwards
emperor, to whom he dedicated his great work on the
" History of Nature."

To one of his inclinations and tastes, the military
career was probably little suited ; yet every Roman
was called on to enter it, whatever department of the
public service he might afterwards occupy. With the
army in Germany he acquired distinction. On his
return to Rome he was enrolled in the College of
Augurs a post which favoured his philosophic in-


quiries ; and he was subsequently appointed Procu-
rator, or Vice-Governor, in Spain.

It has been remarked, that none labour more
strenuously in any favourite pursuit than those whose
time appears absorbed in the necessary affairs of life ;
none are so idle as those whose business is slight
enough to afford leisure for every occupation. Of this
truth history furnishes no example more striking than
is visible in the varied pursuits, the diligence, and the
research of Pliny ; while there can be no doubt also
but that his public services acquired additional value
from the wide range which his mind embraced, and
the rich stores of knowledge which it was his habit to
accumulate and arrange.

Such was the spirituality of his nature, that bodily
requirements much more bodily indulgences seemed
extinct in him. His relaxation from official business
was a change of labour. The greater portion of his
nights was devoted to study ; his very meals were an
abstraction ; for, lest he should forget the higher aim
of existence, his amanuensis read to him in their pro-
gress ; and, instead of walking, he drove in the cha-
riot his secretary beside him to save time and
escape distraction from his contemplations. So nume-
rous and valued were his extracts, remarks, and an-
notations, that Lartius Lutinius offered the philoso-
pher a sum equivalent to more than three thousand
pounds sterling for the possession of them ; but they
were more nobly bequeathed to his beloved and distin-
guished nephew. In the vast realms of Nature and
Art no object was indifferent to him ; in the province
of the Fine Arts, the accuracy of his judgment and
the fidelity of his details seemed only to be outmea-


sured by the extent of his acquirement ; and as a his-
tory, a critique, and a catalogue, nothing more pre-
cious in letters than his 34th, 35th and 36th books,
has escaped the ruin in which the fall of the Roman
empire had nearly involved all of enlightenment that
had grown up and flourished with it. To his huma-
nity and scientific curiosity combined, he became one
of the most memorable martyrs that stand on record.
The events of the day that closed his mortal career,
in the 79th year of the Christian era, are minutely and
touchingly detailed to Tacitus the historian, in one of
the most elegant of the epistles penned by a nephew
who was the worthy inheritor of the wealth, the fame,
and the virtues of his uncle. The body was found
three days after its destruction by the eruptions of
Vesuvius, and interred at Misenum, in face of the fleet
which he had quitted for the prosecution of his phy-
sical investigations. For the emulation of those who
delight to

" Look from nature up to nature's God,"

as the best eulogy that can be pronounced on Pliny
himself, and, at the same time, as a sentiment evincing
his nephew's exalted mind, the subjoined extract of
the memorable letter cannot be too often and too long
remembered : " Equidem beatos puto, quibus Deo-
rum datum est, aut facere scribenda, aut scribere
legenda ; beatissimos vero quibus utrumque."

No impulse short of an intense love of nature
could have actuated a man so deeply engaged in the
high offices of the state to snatch at every fragment of
his time as his nephew, in a letter to a friend, de-
scribes him and appropriate it to forming a digest of


the scattered rays of natural knowledge. The subject
was scarcely popular with his countrymen ; and its
materials were to he sifted from Greek writers of
every school, with a toil and patience which few can
duly estimate. The abstracts thus made filled one
hundred and sixty closely written volumes, and though
the sentiments, or, as we should now term them, the
theories, of his authors were not a little discordant, he
was well able to separate their matter from their
opinions ; and, if sometimes found to have hastily
adopted hypotheses for facts, it must be remembered
that there existed then no standard for the test of
fact that what he had abstracted had the sanction of
venerable names and that the period of sound criticism
comes in only when vast stores of facts and incidents
have been collected ; and Pliny was then the most dili-
gent accumulator for a riper age. To him belongs
the glory of having harvested the materials for future
science. Where attempts at explanation were made,
occult causes, in the ignorance of experiment, were
the only resource ; and even the great Galileo took
refuge in " Nature's abhorrence of a vacuum," for the
only solution he could give of an operation which now
admits of such rational explanation. Even the errors
of these authors are a portion of the " History of
Nature," and Pliny's record of them becomes valuable,
where otherwise his narrative tempts only to a smile.

The light of modern science clears away the mist ;
yet few, even of ourselves, are privileged, from our
higher sphere of advancement, to look down con-
temptuously on the erroneous conjectures or super-
stitious feelings exemplified in this cyclopaedia of the
Roman naturalist : for too many such failings are still


visible amongst ourselves, and these from a wrong and
sometimes cherished bias in us, which were only an
inability to penetrate more deeply in themselves.

To Pliny's especial honour be it mentioned (and
instances of the merit will be frequently referred to in
the notes), wherever a rational explanation of natural
appearances can be given, he uniformly prefers it to
the traditionary and the vulgar, however the latter may
have been interwoven with the religion of the state, to
which, on other occasions, he paid the homage which
it required : a practice like this demanded no ordinary
courage, when it might easily have provoked the
charge of scepticism and profanity ; and his escape
from this may not, perhaps, unreasonably be traced to
the support he obtained for his remarks from Greek
authors, to whom, in points of speculation, the Romans
peculiarly deferred.

By many it was feared, that if what the people
were accustomed to worship as deities were shewn to
their understandings as only natural influences, they
might sink into atheism, and the little restraint winch
this worship exercised over their morals have been en-
tirely dissipated. The Rationalism of the philosophers
thus appeared a formidable evil ; and the prevalence of
the notion that certain remarkable natural causes pro-
ductive of great good or great evil, according to our
limited judgment, were deities themselves, is amply
illustrated by the fact, that it was triumphantly asked
of the first Christians to shew their God ; and much
of the contempt, persecution, and reproach of atheism
they incurred, may have had its origin in this seeming
incapacity to conform to this demand.

To modern eyes, Pliny's mode of conducting his


investigations has changed its aspect ; and his credu-
lity is gravely urged against him as a crime which his
exposure of much error and superstition is not thought
sufficient to outweigh. Some of the matters which he
announces, it is true, might well have shaken the
strongest tendency to belief : and Herodotus, when re-
porting similar occurrences which had been narrated
to him, is known to have carefully separated between
what was given on the authority of others, and on his
own responsibility. On the other hand, it must be
borne in mind, that a proneness to belief in the case of
natural wonders was the feature -of the age ; and had
these been omitted, the author would have incurred
censure on this ground an accusation, the reverse,
doubtless, of what is now advanced, but which would,
nevertheless, have affected his character for fidelity.

There is, moreover, reason to believe that he has
softened down much of the wonderful which he ex-
tracted from other authors, and the following coinci-
dence may be regarded as giving confirmation to this
estimate of Pliny's discretion. When Aulus Gellius
landed at Brundusium, on his passage from Athens to
Rome, he found on the book-stalls some bundles of
Greek works, which he read with eager curiosity. But,
with every disposition to credit the authorities, he calls
some of the narratives of Aristeas, Isigonius, Ctesias,
Onesicritus, Polystephanus, and Hegesias, unheard
of and incredible. Accordingly, in making extracts
from these volumes, which bore marks of having been
much read, it would appear that he passed by those
incidents which were most absurd, and selected such
only as he deemed worthy of further inquiry. The
selections thus made are found remarkably to corre-


spond with those which Pliny has introduced in his
own work.

Narratives of similar stamp and character gained
equal credit in Europe during the middle ages : the
famous traveller, Maundeville, believed what he nar-
rated, and found, as he expected, readers ready to be-
lieve him ; and the more so, perhaps, for the marvels
which the history of his tour contains. Indeed, in the
infancy of observation, when the Causes of Natural
Phenomena were little known, so much was seen as to
render every thing probable, and so little understood,
that any explanation was alike satisfactory.

Rapid as is the foregoing sketch of the great natu-
ralist's life and character, enough, it is hoped, has been
glanced at to commend the revival of the volume be-
fore us, and to secure for its author among ourselves a
reverence as great as is the undying interest given by
his name to the cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii,
which perished with him.

The following translation may be regarded as that
of Dr. Philemon Holland, who flourished in the reign
of Elizabeth, and is the only writer who has given a
complete rendering of Pliny's works in English. Some
liberties have been taken with the original translation.
An attempt has been made to reduce its verbosity, and
to approximate it more closely to the brevity and terse-
ness of the Latin text ; while the Editor has been at
the same time studious of not interfering unnecessarily
with the simplicity of style by which writers of that day
were distinguished. The notes are given by various
members of the Club, to whom application has been
severally made by the general Editor, according to
the department in which each may be found most



competent. The contributions have received the
approval of the Committee, and been specially ac-
knowledged in each volume.

The first and thirty-third books of Pliny were
translated by Dr. Bostock in 1828, as specimens of
a new version, which, but for his death, would in all
probability have been completed. Of the notes ap-
pended to these sample chapters, such use has been
made as subserves the purposes of our republishing
Pliny in English ; but, in the main, they are found to
be more critical than explanatory.


Bone Ticket of Admission to the Amphitheatre, found at Pompeii




The Preface to Vespasian\ his [friend'] C. Plinius
Secundus sendeth greeting.

HESE Books, containing the
History of Nature, which a
few days since I brought to
Light (a new work among
the Romans, your Citizens),
I purpose by this Epistle of
mine to present and conse-
crate unto you, most gentle
Prince (for this Title 2 ac-
cordeth fittest unto you, seeing that the Name of
[Most mighty 3 ] sorteth well with the Age of your
Father:) which haply might seem boldness and
presumption in me, but that I know how at other
Times you were wont to have some good Opinion of
my light Matters*. Where, by the Way, you must
give me Leave to soften a little the Verses which

1 Titus. 8 Suavissimm. 3 Maxim-its.

" Namque tu solebas,
Mcas esse aliquid putare nugas"

14 Pliny s Epistle to T. Vespasian. [BooK 1.

I borrow of my Tent-fellow, Catullus (to this Term of Camps 1
you are no Stranger) : for he, as you know well, changing
the former Syllables of his Verses 2 , one for another, made
himself somewhat more harsh than he would seem to be
unto the fine Ears of his familiar Friends, the Veranioli and
Fabulli. And I would be thought by this my intrusive
Writing to you, to satisfy one point, which, as you com-
plained in your Answer of late to another bold Letter of
mine, I had not performed, that is, that all the World might
see (as it were upon Record) how the Empire is managed by
you and your Father equally : and notwithstanding this
Imperial Majesty whereunto you are called, yet is your
Manner of conversing with your old Friends affable, and
the same that always heretofore it had been. For although
you have triumphed with him for your noble Victories, ful-
filled the Office of Censor, and also six times that of Consul 3 ,
shared the Authority of Tribune, Patrons, and Protectors of
the Commons of Rome, together with him : although, I say,
you have otherwise shewed your noble Heart in honouring
and gracing both the Court of the Emperor your Father,
and also the whole State of the Knights and Gentlemen of
Rome, whilst you were Captain of the Guard, and Grand
Master of his House and royal Palace (in all which Places
you demeaned yourself in respect to the Good of the Com-
monwealth), yet to all your Friends, and especially to my-
self, you have borne the same Countenance as in former
Times, when we served under the same Colours, and lodged
together in one Tent. In all the Greatness to which you are
elevated, there is no other Change seen in your Person but
this : That your Power is now commensurate with your Will,
and you are able now to perform that Good which you have
ever intended.

1 Conterranewn.

2 It seemeth that Pliny read thus in Catullus :

" Tuputare namque,
Nugus esse aliquid meas solebas"
which, indeed, was but an hard composition and couching of the words.

3 Sexies, or rather Septies; out of Suetonim.

BOOK I.] Pliny s Epistle to T. Vespasian . 15

And however this great Majesty resplendent in you on
every Side, in regard of those high Dignities, may induce the
World at large to reverence your Person, yet 1 for my part
am aided only with the strength of Confidence to shew my
Duty in a more familiar manner than others : and, therefore,
this my Boldness you will impute unto your own Courtesy ;
and if it be a Fault in me, you will seek your Pardon from
yourself. I have laid Bashful ness aside, but to no Purpose.
For although your Gentleness and Humanity induce me to
draw near to your Presence, yet you appear in other re-
spects in great Majesty : for the Sublimity of your Mind,
your high Attainments, set me as far behind as if the Lictors
marched before you. Was there ever any Man, whose
Words passed from him more powerfully, and who more
truly might be said to flash forth as Lightning the Force of
Eloquence ? What Tribune was ever known more effectu-
ally to move the People with agreeable Language ? How
admirably you thundered out the Praise of the worthy Acts
of your Father ! What a Testimony of Love to your Bro-
ther! How skilful in Poetry! How ingeniously you find
means to imitate your Brother 1 in this respect 2 ! But who is
able boldly to give sufficient Estimate of these Gifts ? How
may any One enter into the due Consideration of them with-
out Fear of the exact Judgment of your Wit, especially being
challenged therunto as you are ? For the case of such as
publish a Work in general is unlike theirs who dedicate it
by Name to yourself. For had I set forth this my Book
without any personal Dedication, I might have said, Sir,
why should a mighty Commander and General 3 busy him-
self to read such Matters ? These Treatises were written for
the lower Classes, for rude Husbandmen and Peasants of
the Country, for the Mass of Artisans, and those who had
Leisure for studying them. Why should you make yourself

1 For Domitian Vespasian was reputed an excellent Poet.

2 The sense of the passage, as seen by supplying the ellipsis of the
original, is this : " With what testimony of love you set forth the praises
of your brother to the full." Wern. Club.

' A Iraperator.

16 Pliny s Epistle to T. Vespasian. [BooK L

a Censor of this Work? When I first thought of this Enter-
prise of mine, I never reckoned you in the Number of those
Judges that should stoop to pass sentence upon these Writ-
ings. It is a common case, and incident to Men of deep
Learning, that their Judgment be rejected in this behalf.
Even that illustrious Orator, M. Tullius, who for Wit and
Learning had not his Fellow, useth the Benefit of this
Liberty : and (whereat we may well marvel) maintaineth the
Action by an Advocate, taking Example (for his Defence)
from Lucilius : for in one Part of his Works thus he saith,
/ wish not the learned Persius to read these Books of mine ;
but I prefer Lcelius Decimus. Now if such a one as Lucilius,
who was the first that durst control the Writings of others,
had reason thus to say ; if Cicero borrowed the same Speech
in his Treatise of the Republic 1 , how much greater Cause
have I to decline the Censure of a competent Judge? But
I am cut off from this refuge, in that I expressly make
choice of you in this Dedication of my Work : for it is one
Thing to have a Judge, either selected by Plurality of
Voices, or cast upon a Man by drawing Lots ; arid another
Thing to choose and nominate him from all others : and
there is great Difference between that Provision which we
make for a Guest solemnly bidden and invited, and the
sudden Entertainment which is ready for a Stranger who

1 This work of Cicero, entitled " De Republica," is more than once
referred to by Pliny. The high standard of morals which it upheld
caused it to be much respected by the most eminent Fathers of the Latin
Church : insomuch that it is thought to have suggested to St. Augustine
the idea of his celebrated work, " De Civitate Dei." During the. dark
ages, however, the Treatise " De Republica " was so completely lost, that
upon the revival of letters, not a single manuscript of it could be any
where discovered. At length, about thirty years since, a large portion of
it was found by Angelo Ma'i, then Librarian of the Vatican, in a parch-
ment manuscript. The parchment had been washed, and again used for
a manuscript ; but the original writing was so far from having been en-
tirely effaced by the ablution, that the large Roman letters were soon
rendered legible again by the aid of a peculiar process. The recovered
portion of this valuable work, being about one-third of the entire Trea-
tise, was printed in London in one volume, 8vo. 1823. Wern. Cluib.

BOOK l.J Pliny s Epistle to T. Vespasian. 17

cometh to our House unlocked for. Cato, that professed
Enemy of Ambition, who took as great Contentment in
those Estates and Dignities which he refused as in them
which he enjoyed, attained to such a good Name of upright-
ness, that when in the hottest Contention about the Election
of Magistrates, they that contested for these Offices put into
his Hands their Money upon Trust, as an Assurance of their
Integrity and Fidelity in this respect; they professed that they
did it in Testimony of their Opinion of his Equity and Inno-
cence : whereupon ensued that noble and memorable Exclam-
ation of M. Cicero in these Words : " Oh ! happy M. Portius,
whom no Man would ever venture to solicit to any thing
contrary to right!" When L. Scipio, surnamed Asiaticus,
appealed to the Tribunes, and besought their lawful Favour
(among whom, C. Gracchus was one, a Man whom he took
for his mortal Enemy), he exclaimed, "That his very Ene-
mies, if they were his Judges, could not choose but give Sen-
tence on his Side." Thus every Man maketh him the supreme
Judge of his Cause, whom himself hath chosen : which Man-
ner of Choice the Latins call an Appeal (Provocatio). As
for yourself, who are set in the most eminent Place, and
endued with the highest Eloquence and deepest Learning, it
is no Wonder if those who do their Duty unto you approach
with the utmost Respect and Reverence: in which regard,
exceeding Care above all Things would be had, that what-
soever is said or dedicated unto you, may become your Per-
son, and be worthy your Acceptance. And yet the Gods
reject not the humble Prayers of country Peasants, yea, and
of many Nations, who offer nothing but Milk unto them :
and such as have no Incense, find grace with the Oblation
of a Cake made only of Meal and Salt ; and never was any
Man blamed for his Devotion to the Gods, if he offered ac-
cording to his best Ability.

I may be more challenged for my inconsiderate Boldness,
in that I would seem to present these Books unto you, com-
piled of such slender Matter : for in them can be comprised
no great Ability (which otherwise in me was ever meagre),
neither admit they any Digressions, Orations, and Discourses,

18 Pliny s Epistle to T. Vespasian. [BooK I.

nor wonderful Incidents and variable Issues ; nor any other
Circumstances that may be agreeable to rehearse, or pleasant
to hear. The Nature of all Things in this World, that is to
say, Matters concerning our ordinary Life, are here deli-
neated ; and that in barren Terms, without any Show of
Phrases : and what I have noted concern the commonest
Points thereof, so that I am to deliver the Matter either
in rustic, or foreign, nay, even barbarous Language, such
as may not well be uttered, but with Apology to the Reader.
Moreover, the Way that I have pursued hath not been
trodden before by other Writers ; being indeed so strange,
that no one would willingly travel therein. No Latin Author
among us hath hitherto ventured upon the same Argument,
no Grecian whatsoever hath handled all : and that because
most study rather to pursue Matters of Delight and Plea-
sure. It may be confessed, that others have made profession
of doing so, but they have done it with such Subtilty and
Deepness, that their Efforts lie as if buried in Darkness. I,
therefore, take upon me to gather a complete Body of Arts
and Sciences (which the Greeks call lyptuxXcwra/ds/og), that are
either altogether unknown or have been rendered doubtful
through too great Refinement of Ingenuity ; other Matters

Online Librarythe Elder PlinyPliny's Natural history. In thirty-seven books → online text (page 1 of 60)