Pliny the Elder

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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 information on geography and 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 first-hand 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 was composed of 37 volumes. It is one of the largest works surviving from classical times. In the preface he says he had brought together 20,000 facts from 2000 works by over 200 authors, and added many additional facts from his own experience.

And, although it contains many mistakes, some due no doubt to the his untimely death, which prevented any revisions, there is a surprising level of accuracy, especially if one allows for the fact that the ancient mind and its beliefs were very different from the modern.

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. His account of gold mining seems to be based on eyewitness experience during his procuratorship of Hispania Tarraconensis.

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. In the original Latin, however, "historia naturalia" means "an account of nature."

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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