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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Pliny the Elder (23–79 A.D.)

WHILE the younger Pliny wins his place in literature chiefly by his refined taste and fastidious sense of form, these traits are so lacking in the uncle that his ponderous Cyclopædia of Natural Sciences stands almost like a massive boulder beside the cultivated field of belles-lettres. It is indeed a sufficient proof of lifelong industry; but Pliny was not, like Humboldt, himself a master of many sciences. He had, in numberless passages, not even sufficient critical intelligence to translate or summarize correctly his learned authorities. So while there are a thousand subjects on which we appeal to him as our sole authority, our gratitude is usually querulous,—as gratitude, indeed, too often is! Yet the courage, sincerity, and energy of the man are rarely equaled.

Caius Plinius Secundus was a native of Cisalpine Gaul; probably of Como, where the family estates certainly lay. He rose to high favor at court under the Flavian emperors,—having been in fact an old fellow-soldier of Vespasian before that sturdy veteran’s elevation to the throne,—and ended his days as admiral of the fleet at Misenum, as is so thrillingly related in a famous letter of his nephew cited in the next article. We are indebted to the same filial hand for an account of the elder scholar’s methods of research.

  • “He had a quick apprehension, marvelous power of application, and was of an exceedingly wakeful temperament. He always began to study at midnight at the time of the feast of Vulcan, not for the sake of good luck, but for learning’s sake; in winter generally at one in the morning, but never later than two, and often at twelve. He was a most ready sleeper, insomuch that he would sometimes, whilst in the midst of his studies, fall off and then wake up again. Before daybreak he used to wait upon Vespasian (who also used his nights for transacting business), and then proceed to execute the orders he had received. As soon as he returned home, he gave what time was left to study. After a short and light refreshment at noon (agreeably to the good old custom of our ancestors), he would frequently in the summer, if he was disengaged from business, lie down and bask in the sun: during which time some author was read to him, while he took notes and made extracts,—for every book he read he made extracts out of; indeed, it was a maxim of his that ‘no book was so bad but some good might be got out of it.’ When this was over, he generally took a cold bath, then some slight refreshment and a little nap. After this, as if it had been a new day, he studied till suppertime, when a book was again read to him, which he would take down running notes upon. I remember once, his reader having mispronounced a word, one of my uncle’s friends at the table made him go back to where the word was and repeat it again; upon which my uncle said to his friend, ‘Surely you understood it?’ Upon his acknowledging that he did, ‘Why then,’ said he, ‘did you make him go back again? We have lost more than ten lines by this interruption.’ Such an economist he was of time! In the summer he used to rise from supper at daylight, and in winter as soon as it was dark: a rule he observed as strictly as if it had been a law of the State.
  • “Such was his manner of life amid the bustle and turmoil of the town; but in the country his whole time was devoted to study, excepting only when he bathed. In this exception I include no more than the time during which he was actually in the bath; for all the while he was being rubbed and wiped, he was employed either in hearing some book read to him or in dictating himself. In going about anywhere, as though he were disengaged from all other business, he applied his mind wholly to that single pursuit. A shorthand writer constantly attended him, with book and tablets, who in the winter wore a particular sort of warm gloves, that the sharpness of the weather might not occasion any interruption to my uncle’s studies; and for the same reason, when in Rome, he was always carried in a chair. I recollect his once taking me to task for walking. ‘You need not,’ he said, ‘lose those hours.’ For he thought every hour gone that was not given to study. Through this extraordinary application he found time to compose the several treatises I have mentioned; besides one hundred and sixty volumes of extracts, which he left me in his will, consisting of a kind of commonplace, written on both sides in very small hand,—so that one might fairly reckon the number considerably more. He used himself to tell us that when he was comptroller of the revenue in Spain, he could have sold these manuscripts to Largius Licinus for four hundred thousand sesterces, and then there were not so many of them. When you consider the books he has read, and the volumes he has written, are you not inclined to suspect that he never was engaged in public duties or was ever in the confidence of his prince? On the other hand, when you are told how indefatigable he was in his studies, are you not inclined to wonder that he read and wrote no more than he did?”
  • The mass of citations just mentioned was evidently in great part utilized for the ‘Historia Naturalis,’ or Cyclopædia. This great work was provisionally completed, and presented to the prince-regent Titus, in 77 A.D. The dedication is fulsome, and written in a style utterly inferior to his younger kinsman’s. The body of the work varies in manner with the subject and the source of the citations, but our chief quarrel with it is for ambiguous—or even nonsensical—statements on important questions of fact.

    The arrangement is sufficiently logical. After a general description of the universe (Book ii.), there follows Geography (Books iii.–vi.), Anthropology (vii.), Zoölogy (viii.–xi.), Botany (xii.–xxvii.), and Mineralogy (xxxiii.–xxxvii.). Under Botany a digression of eight books (xx.–xxvii.) deals with the medicinal uses of plants; and thereupon follows, somewhat out of place (xxviii.–xxxii.), an account of curatives derived from the animal world. Under Mineralogy the largest and most important sections deal with the uses of metals, pigments, and stones,—i.e., with the history of the Fine Arts. Besides the introductory book, on the scope of his work and his sources of information, Pliny prefixes to each subsection a list of his authorities. These foot up nearly five hundred writers, more than two thirds of them in Greek. It is evident, however, that many, if not most, were cited at second or third hand from manuals, epitomes, etc.

    Pliny’s labors upon his Cyclopædia were apparently continued to the last. In the form we now have it, the book has probably been edited—not very critically—by the nephew after the uncle’s death.

    Pliny’s work influenced later antiquity powerfully, and has been transmitted in many MSS. The most accessible edition is by Detlefson (Berlin, 1866–73) in six volumes. The Bohn translation (also in six volumes) is fairly good, and is abundantly supplied with learned and somewhat discursive footnotes.

    Our admiration for Pliny’s iron energy increases to astonishment over the catalogue of his lost works. Of these the most important was perhaps the history of his own times, in thirty-one books; which was however soon eclipsed by Tacitus’s masterpiece, and passed into oblivion. The wars in Germany were also treated in twenty books, doubtful points of grammar in eight, the life of his friend Pomponius Secundus in two, the art of oratory in three, and the hurling of the javelin from horseback apparently in one.

    But even the catalogue grows exhausting!