Engraving of Pliny the Elder.

Pliny the Elder

(23 - 79)

Two years before his death from inhaling the fumes of an erupting Mount Vesuvius, Pliny the Elder completed the Natural History. Announcing in the book’s prefatory remarks that his subject was “the natural world or life,” Pliny drew together an array of existing scholarship, citing some one hundred sources, and supplemented it with his own views. Containing books on subjects such as cosmology, geography, biology, agriculture, pharmacology, and geology, his study was regarded as a touchstone of scientific investigation until the late fifteenth century.

All Writing


“There is one thing at which I cannot sufficiently wonder,” wrote Pliny the Elder, “that of some trees, the very memory has perished, and even the names recorded by authors have passed out of knowledge.”


According to his nephew, Pliny the Elder liked to rise in the middle of the night and study by lamplight. “Admittedly, he fell asleep very easily,” Pliny the Younger wrote, “and would often doze and wake up again during his work.”

Voices In Time

c. 77 | Misenum

Art of Memory

Pliny the Elder recalls those who remembered.More


Beware a comet “if it resembles a flute,” Pliny the Elder warned; “it portends something unfavorable related to music.” The Roman author did not offer further particulars.


According to Pliny, after an oracle predicted Aeschylus would die from being hit by a falling house, the poet began “trusting himself only under the canopy of the heavens.” His precaution was futile; he was killed that day when hit by a tortoise dropped from the sky by a hungry eagle eager to crack open its shell.


According to sixth-century-bc Greek poet Hipponax of Colophon, in times of drought, famine, or plague an ugly or deformed person was chosen by the community to be pharmakós, or scapegoat. After being fed figs, barley cake, and cheese, he would be struck on the genitals with the bulbs and twigs of wild plants, led on a procession accompanied by flute, and burned on a pyre. His ashes were thrown into the sea. It is believed that Hipponax, whom Pliny the Elder once called “notoriously ugly,” may have been exaggerating the ritual.


In his catalogue of the world’s people in his Natural History, Pliny the Elder mentioned Scythians who feed on human flesh, Africans who “are frequently seen to all appearance and then vanish in an instant,” the Arimaspi who have only one eye, the Adrogyni who possess male and female parts, and the Monocoli who are born with “only one leg, but are able to leap with surprising agility.”

A god cannot procure death for himself, even if he wished it, which, so numerous are the evils of life, has been granted to man as our chief good.

—Pliny the Elder, c. 77

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