Among the achievements of the ancient Roman Empire that are still recognized today, historians list things like aqueducts, roads, legal theory, outstanding architecture, and the spread of Latin as the language of the intellect (along with the Latin alphabet preserved today in many popular fonts). However, Rome was not known for significant advances in fundamental science.
But in the field of articulating and preserving current knowledge of nature, one Roman surpassed all others. He was the scholar Gaius Pliny Secundus, also known as Pliny the Elder, the original compiler of scientific knowledge by reviewing previously published works.
If he were immortal, Pliny would be celebrating his 2000th anniversary this year. No one knows his exact date of birth, but we can infer 23 AD because his nephew states how old he was when he died. His death was on August 25, 79 AD, a date established by an unfortunate volcanic event.
Pliny was like a Renaissance man a millennium and a half before the Renaissance. Besides his duties in the Roman Empire as a military commander and provincial government official, he was a student of law, language, history, geography, and every branch of the natural sciences. An indefatigable worker, intensely curious about everything, he despised sleep because it interfered with his duties, and hated walking because he could not walk and write at the same time.
His Natural science, a 37-volume masterpiece of high literary quality but enormous factual density, attempted to record and systematize the totality of human knowledge of nature. He examined hundreds of ancient texts by the most famous authors in all scientific fields, extracting from them thousands of concrete facts to preserve for posterity. As a late classicist David Eichholtz wrotePliny’s motivation was “his anxiety to save the science of past ages from the forgetful indifference of the present.”
Pliny was born in Como, Italy, into a family of sufficient stature that he was educated in Rome and then pursued a military career, including service as a cavalry squadron commander in Germany. During this time he wrote a history of Roman military activity in this region, after first compiling a now-lost treatise on how best to throw a javelin.
About AD 58 Pliny returned to Rome, where he devoted his writing to grammar and rhetoric and may have practiced law. For years he avoided government intervention, probably because he was no friend of the mad emperor Nero. But he was on friendly terms with Vespasian, who became emperor in 69. Pliny soon held positions of government in the Roman provinces of Spain, France, and possibly Africa.
(Credit: THE BRITISH LIBRARY / HARLEY 2677 F.1) Pliny the Elder, as shown in a Latin book, is believed to have been born 2,000 years ago.
All the while, Pliny read voraciously (or had books read aloud to him). He collects fact after fact about the natural world in order to compile a comprehensive account of all the knowledge of nature accumulated by those before him. No one else has produced anything so encyclopedic about the natural sciences. (In fact, the very concept of an “encyclopedia” was unknown at the time.) He published it in 77 AD, two years before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Pliny then commanded a flotilla of Roman ships that sailed to the vicinity of the volcano, perhaps out of Pliny’s curiosity or possibly on a rescue mission. Tradition says that Pliny died from inhaling toxic volcanic fumes, although some historians suspect that he simply suffered a heart attack.
Pliny begins his book 1 Natural science with a dedication to the emperor Titus (son of Vespasian) and a detailed description of what follows. First came a book on the universe, the celestial bodies and the elements, followed by several books on the geography of the Earth and its inhabitants. Book 7 discusses man and his inventions. Next came the animals (land and sea), and then a book each on birds and insects. Many volumes follow on various aspects of plants, trees, flowers and fruits and their cultivation. Botanical themes continue in several books on the use of plant products in medicine. More medicine follows with comments on medicinal substances derived from animals. Pliny ends with five books on metals and minerals, including their role in painting, providing the earliest detailed account of the history of art.
(CREDIT: THE BRITISH LIBRARY / ARUNDEL 98 F.85V) Pliny’s descriptions of the planet’s animals include the fantastic, from unicorns to creatures that can kill with their eyes. The flourish at the beginning of book 10 in a copy of Natural History set in England imagines a mythic hybrid of man and beast.
Pliny’s emphasis on facts obscures an underlying philosophy about the universe and humanity’s place in it. His approach was not to defend any philosophy, but to discuss nature factually. This meant, as the classical historian By Doody wrote, “knowing that six European trees produce resin, that there are three kinds of lettuce, that the best kind of emeralds come from Scythia.” Yet Pliny’s presentation was infected with a deep-rooted belief that the universe existed to serve humanity. As Doody notes, Pliny believed that nature was “a conscious, creative force that consciously organizes the world in view of the needs of mankind.” This view reflected the then-popular Stoic philosophy that the cosmos was imbued with a powerful unifying force, or pneumawhich unites all that exists and determines the properties of matter.
“All nature is animated by a providential presence that directs it, and this divine power can be identified both with nature and with the world itself,” commented Doody. This is what makes understanding all of nature so important to Pliny.
Pliny’s books have served as an authoritative source of information about nature for centuries. “The Natural science it continued to be used as a practical source of medical and scientific knowledge well into the 16th century,” commented Doody. Today, it remains a useful resource for scholars studying ancient knowledge, and in fact is still sometimes cited in scholarly articles today. In 2020 Annual Review of Cell Biology and Developmental Biologyfor example, Sarah M. More and colleagues cite Pliny as one of the earliest authors they describe hibernation. And bioluminescence, a hot research topic in the 21st century, was first reported (in scyphozoans) by Pliny, as Stephen H. D. Haddock and coauthors reported in 2010. Annual Review of Marine Science.
For all its advantages, those of Pliny Natural science there was one serious drawback. It was full of errors. Pliny pretty much believed everything he read from ancient authorities and basically retweeted it without any fact checking. His book on land animals includes the mythical unicorn or unicorn, “very fierce animal,” he writes, with “a single black horn sticking out of the middle of his forehead.” (It is not a rhinoceros—he describes that beast elsewhere.) And he mentions the legendary Ethiopian animal called the catoblepas, deadly to the human race, “for all who see his eyes fall dead on the spot.” (He could have better titled his book with animals Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. And yes, he describes a basilisk that can also kill with a look and destroy plants with its touch or even its breath.) On the other hand, Pliny sometimes expresses skepticism and rejects some outrageous claims. On the one hand, he rejected the idea of immortality. If he was wrong, there would be a serious fire hazard on his birthday this year.
Tom Siegfried is a science journalist in Avon, Ohio. His latest book, The Number of the Heavens, about the history of the multiverse, was published in September by Harvard University Press.
This article originally appeared in Knowable Magazine, an independent journalistic venture from Annual Reviews. Read the original here.