Pliny the Elder

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Pliny the elder
(23–79 AD)
Gaius Plinius Secundus (23–79 AD), known to posterity as Pliny the Elder, was an ancient Roman naturalist, historian, and military officer, who also served during his career in a variety of important governmental posts. His only surviving work, his encyclopedic Naturalis Historia ("Natural History") covers nearly the entire field of ancient knowledge about the natural world.

Pliny spent much of his spare time personally investigating the natural phenomena recorded in his encyclopedia and he governed or visited many provinces of the western half of the Roman Empire, experiences that allowed him to collect great quantities of firsthand material. He also regularly had books dealing with nature, geography, and mineralogy, written by the best available authorities, read to him aloud. While he was lying in the sun, bathing, or dining, he would listen and have his secretaries note down information for inclusion in his encyclopedia. Daily, he rose long before dawn to write, study, and carry out his official duties.

Natural History of Pliny the Elder
The Natural History of Pliny the Elder 12th century illuminated manuscript Abbaye Saint-Vincent, Le Mans, France.
Published during the last two years of Pliny's life, the Naturalis Historia ultimately extended to 37 volumes. It is one of the largest works surviving from classical times. And, although it contains many mistakes, some due no doubt to the author's untimely death, which prevented any revisions, there is a surprising level of accuracy. He states correctly, for example, that Venus is the only heavenly body, other than the sun and moon, that casts a visible shadow; or that a bird egg can be made flexible by placing it in vinegar and dissolving away its hard outer shell. Pliny's writings offer not only insights into nature itself, but also into the Roman conception of nature, which differed substantially from our own. The name and subject matter of the Natural History gave us the term and subject natural history.

An eruption of Vesuvius
An eruption of Vesuvius in 1822, similar to the one that killed Pliny in 79 AD.
Pliny's death seems to have been, at least in part, the consequence of his penchant for direct observation. He died during the eruption of Vesuvius (79 AD) that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum. While serving as a naval commander at the harbor town of Misenum on the northwestern rim of the Bay of Naples, he saw the eruption commence. Though at a safe distance, he took his fleet to the scene of the catastrophe to make direct observations and rescue people on the shore. In the ensuing catastrophe, he was overwhelmed.
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  • Pliny's History of the German Wars is now lost, but was apparently an erudite work, given that it was an important source for Tacitus.
  • Gaius Plinius Secundus came to be known as Pliny the Elder to distinguish him from his nephew, Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, who was also a prolific author.

Roman Empire in the time of Pliny
Roman Empire in the time of Pliny.

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