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

Introduction to Lithology

By Pliny the Elder (23–79 A.D.)

From the ‘Natural History’: Translation of John Bostock and Henry Thomas Riley

IT now remains for us to speak of stones, or in other words, the leading folly of the day; to say nothing at all of our taste for gems and amber, crystal and murrhine vases. For everything of which we have previously treated, down to the present book, may, by some possibility or other, have the appearance of having been created for the sake of man: but as to the mountains, Nature has made those for herself, as a kind of bulwark for keeping together the bowels of the earth; as also for the purpose of curbing the violence of the rivers, of breaking the waves of the sea, and so, by opposing to them the very hardest of her materials, putting a check upon those elements which are never at rest. And yet we must hew down these mountains, forsooth, and carry them off; and this for no other reason than to gratify our luxurious inclinations: heights which in former days it was reckoned a miracle even to have crossed!

Our forefathers regarded as a prodigy the passage of the Alps, first by Hannibal, and more recently by the Cimbri; but at the present day, these very mountains are cut asunder to yield us a thousand different marbles, promontories are thrown open to the sea, and the face of nature is being everywhere reduced to a level. We now carry away the barriers that were destined for the separation of one nation from another; we construct ships for the transport of our marbles; and amid the waves, the most boisterous element of nature, we convey the summits of the mountains to and fro: a thing, however, that is even less pardonable than to go on the search amid the regions of the clouds for vessels with which to cool our draughts, and to excavate rocks towering to the very heavens in order that we may have the satisfaction of drinking from ice! Let each reflect, when he hears of the high prices set upon these things, when he sees these ponderous masses carted and carried away, how many there are whose life is passed far more happily without them. For what utility or for what so-called pleasure do mortals make themselves the agents, or more truly speaking the victims, of such undertakings, except in order that others may take their repose in the midst of variegated stones? Just as though, too, the shades of night, which occupy one half of each man’s existence, would forbear to curtail these imaginary delights.

Indeed, while making these reflections, one cannot but feel ashamed of the men of ancient times even. There are still in existence censorial laws, which forbid the kernels in the neck of swine to be served at table; dormice too, and other things too trifling to mention: and yet there has been no law passed forbidding marble to be imported, or the seas to be traversed in search of it!

It may possibly be observed that this was because marble was not then introduced. Such however is not the fact: for in the ædileship of M. Scaurus, three hundred and sixty columns were to be seen imported; for the decorations of a temporary theatre, too,—one that was destined to be in use for barely a single month. And yet the laws were silent thereon; in a spirit of indulgence for the amusements of the public, no doubt. But then, why such indulgence? or how do vices more insidiously steal upon us than under the plea of serving the public? By what other way, in fact, did ivory, gold, and precious stones, first come into use with private individuals?

Can we say that there is now anything that we have reserved for the exclusive use of the gods? However, be it so, let us admit of this indulgence for the amusements of the public; but still, why did the laws maintain their silence when the largest of these columns, pillars of Lucullan marble, as much as eight-and-thirty feet in height, were erected in the atrium of Scaurus? a thing, too, that was not done privately or in secret; for the contractor for the public sewers compelled him to give security for the possible damage that might be done in the carriage of them to the Palatium. When so bad an example as this was set, would it not have been advisable to take some precautions for the preservation of the public morals? And yet the laws still preserved their silence, when such enormous masses as these were being carried past the earthenware pediments of the temples of the gods, to the house of a private individual!