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History of Science Roman - Pantheon

History of Science Online

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LibraryThing: Science in Ancient Mesopotamia Week 6: Roman Science

Pliny the Elder, Natural History (1st century A.D.)

| Source page | Hero | Cicero | Lucretius | Pliny the Elder | Ptolemy | Galen | Capella | Basil and Philoponos | Augustine | Boethius | Isidore of Seville | Benedict |

John Bostock, H.T. Riley.
Web Source
Pliny at Perseus in English and Latin.
Word count

Pliny, 1601Background

Pliny the Elder's Natural History defined the scope and breadth of the field of natural history, the description ("historia") of nature, as opposed to natural philosophy, the inquiry into the causes of natural phenomena. It remained one of the most important encyclopedias of natural knowledge through the early modern period. Pliny, a Roman nobleman, died in 79 AD investigating the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius that buried Pompeii.

Study Questions

Consider these questions as you read in order to gauge your understanding of the text. Hint: You may want to print this page and mark the key words and phrases relevant to these questions.

  1. Dedication: Pliny wrote in Latin for Roman readers. How does he explain why his book will be useful to Roman readers?
  2. Table of Contents: What was the scope or breadth of "Natural History" according to Pliny? What did he leave out that you would include? What would you leave out that he put in?
  3. Cosmology: Pliny's indebtedness to Stoic natural philosophy is evident in his description of the celestial element as fire rather than as a fifth element. Are the other elements the same as the Aristotelian ones?
  4. Cosmology: According to Pliny, the Sun occupies a privileged position in the middle of the heavens, where it may shine its light both downward upon the Earth and inferior planets, and outward toward the superior planets and the fixed stars. Explain.
  5. Insects: In the History of Animals, Aristotle argued that no realm of nature is unworthy of investigation and understanding. Compare Aristotle's argument with Pliny's.


Book 1, Dedication. ....I have included in thirty-six books 20,000 topics, all worthy of attention, (for, as Domitius Piso says, we ought to make not merely books, but valuable collections,) gained by the perusal of about 2000 volumes, of which a few only are in the hands of the studious, on account of the obscurity of the subjects, procured by the careful perusal of 100 select authors; and to these I have made considerable additions of things, which were either not known to my predecessors, or which have been lately discovered. Nor can I doubt but that there still remain many things which I have omitted; for I am a mere mortal, and one that has many occupations. I have, therefore, been obliged to compose this work at interrupted intervals, indeed during the night, so that you will find that I have not been idle even during this period. The day I devote to you, exactly portioning out my sleep to the necessity of my health, and contenting myself with this reward, that while we are musing on these subjects (according to the remark of Varro), we are adding to the length of our lives; for life properly consists in being awake....

Book 1, Table of Contents.
The 1st book is the Preface of the Work, dedicated to Titus Vespasian Cæsar.
The 2nd is on the World, the Elements, and the Heavenly Bodies.
The 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th books are on Geography, in which is contained an account of the situation of the different countries, the inhabitants, the seas, towns, harbours, mountains, rivers, and dimensions, and the various tribes, some of which still exist and others have disappeared.
The 7th is on Man, and the Inventions of Man.
The 8th on the various kinds of Land Animals.
The 9th on Aquatic Animals.
The 10th on the various kinds of Birds.
The 11th on Insects.
The 12th on Odoriferous Plants.
The 13th on Exotic Trees.
The 14th on Vines.
The 15th on Fruit Trees.
The 16th on Forest Trees.
The 17th on Plants raised in nurseries or gardens.
The 18th on the nature of Fruits and the Cerealia, and the pursuits of the Husbandman.
The 19th on Flax, Broom, and Gardening.
The 20th on the Cultivated Plants that are proper for food and for medicine.
The 21st on Flowers and Plants that are used for making Garlands.
The 22nd on Garlands, and Medicines made from Plants.
The 23rd on Medicines made from Wine and from cultivated Trees.
The 24th on Medicines made from Forest Trees.
The 25th on Medicines made from Wild Plants.
The 26th on New Diseases, and Medicines made, for certain Diseases, from Plants.
The 27th on some other Plants and Medicines.
The 28th on Medicines procured from Man and from large Animals.
The 29th on Medical Authors, and on Medicines from other Animals.
The 30th on Magic, and Medicines for certain parts of the Body.
The 31st on Medicines from Aquatic Animals.
The 32nd on the other properties of Aquatic Animals.
The 33rd on Gold and Silver.
The 34th on Copper and Lead, and the workers of Copper.
The 35th on Painting, Colours, and Painters.
The 36th on Marbles and Stones.
The 37th on Gems.

Book 2 (Cosmology), Chapter 4, Section 5. Of the Elements and the Planets.
Pliny 1601, contentsI do not find that any one has doubted that there are four elements. The highest of these is supposed to be fire, and hence proceed the eyes of so many glittering stars. The next is that spirit, which both the Greeks and ourselves call by the same name, air. It is by the force of this vital principle, pervading all things and mingling with all, that the earth, together with the fourth element, water, is balanced in the middle of space. These are mutually bound together, the lighter being restrained by the heavier, so that they cannot fly off; while, on the contrary, from the lighter tending upwards, the heavier are so suspended, that they cannot fall down. Thus, by an equal tendency in an opposite direction, each of them remains in its appropriate place, bound together by the never-ceasing revolution of the world, which always turning on itself, the earth falls to the lowest part and is in the middle of the whole, while it remains suspended in the centre, and, as it were, balancing this centre, in which it is suspended. So that it alone remains immoveable, whilst all things revolve round it, being connected with every other part, whilst they all rest upon it.
(6.) Between this body and the heavens there are suspended, in this aërial spirit, seven stars, separated by determinate spaces, which, on account of their motion, we call wandering, although, in reality, none are less so. The sun is carried along in the midst of these, a body of great size and power, the ruler, not only of the seasons and of the different climates, but also of the stars themselves and of the heavens. When we consider his operations, we must regard him as the life, or rather the mind of the universe, the chief regulator and the god of nature; he also lends his light to the other stars. He is most illustrious and excellent, beholding all things and hearing all things, which, I perceive, is ascribed to him exclusively by the prince of poets, Homer.

Book 11 (Insects), Chapter 1, Section 1.
We shall now proceed to a description of the insects, a subject replete with endless difficulties; for, in fact, there are some authors who have maintained that they do not respire, and that they are destitute of blood. The insects are numerous, and form many species, and their mode of life is like that of the terrestrial animals and the birds. Some of them are furnished with wings, bees for instance; others are divided into those kinds which have wings, and those which are without them, such as ants; while others, again, are destitute of both wings and feet. All these animals have been very properly called "insects," from the incisures or divisions which separate the body, sometimes at the neck, and sometimes at the corselet, and so divide it into members or segments, only united to each other by a slender tube. In some insects, however, this division is not complete, as it is surrounded by wrinkled folds; and thus the flexible vertebræ of the creature, whether situate at the abdomen, or whether only at the upper part of the body, are protected by layers, overlapping each other; indeed, in no one of her works has Nature more fully displayed her exhaustless ingenuity.

(2.) In large animals, on the other hand, or, at all events, in the very largest among them, she found her task easy and her materials ready and pliable; but in these minute creatures, so nearly akin as they are to non-entity, how surpassing the intelligence, how vast the resources, and how ineffable the perfection which she has displayed. Where is it that she has united so many senses as in the gnat?--not to speak of creatures that might be mentioned of still smaller size--Where, I say, has she found room to place in it the organs of sight? Where has she centred the sense of taste? Where has she inserted the power of smell? And where, too, has she implanted that sharp shrill voice of the creature, so utterly disproportioned to the smallness of its body? With what astonishing subtlety has she united the wings to the trunk, elongated the joints of the legs, framed that long, craving concavity for a belly, and then inflamed the animal with an insatiate thirst for blood, that of man more especially! What ingenuity has she displayed in providing it with a sting, so well adapted for piercing the skin! And then too, just as though she had had the most extensive field for the exercise of her skill, although the weapon is so minute that it can hardly be seen, she has formed it with a twofold mechanism, providing it with a point for the purpose of piercing, and at the same moment making it hollow, to adapt it for suction.

What teeth, too, has she inserted in the teredo, to adapt it for piercing oak even with a sound which fully attests their destructive power! while at the same time she has made wood its principal nutriment. We give all our admiration to the shoulders of the elephant as it supports the turret, to the stalwart neck of the bull, and the might with which it hurls aloft whatever comes in its way, to the onslaught of the tiger, or to the mane of the lion; while, at the same time, Nature is nowhere to be seen to greater perfection than in the very smallest of her works. For this reason then, I must beg of my readers, notwithstanding the contempt they feel for many of these objects, not to feel a similar disdain for the information I am about to give relative thereto, seeing that, in the study of Nature, there are none of her works that are unworthy of our consideration.


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HSCI 3013. History of Science to 17th centuryCreative Commons license
Kerry Magruder, Instructor, 2004
Brent Purkaple, TA

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