December 16, 2013 5:48 AM Subscribe
"My subject is a barren one – the world of nature, or in other words life; and that subject in its least elevated department, and employing either rustic terms or foreign, nay barbarian words that actually have to be introduced with an apology. Moreover, the path is not a beaten highway of authorship, nor one in which the mind is eager to range: there is not one of us who has made the same venture, nor yet one Roman who has tackled single-handed all departments of the subject."Naturalis Historia was written by Pliny the Elder between 77 and 79 CE and was meant to serve as a kind of proto-encyclopedia discussing all of the ancient knowledge available to him, covered in enough depth and breadth to make it by a reasonable margin the largest work to survive to the modern day from the Roman era. The work includes discussions on astronomy, meteorology, geography, mineralogy, zoology and botany organized along Aristotelian divisions of nature but also includes essays on human inventions and institutions. It is dedicated to the Emperor Titus in its epistle to the Emperor Vespasian, a close friend of Pliny who relied on his extensive knowledge, and its unusually careful citations of sources as well as its index makes it a precursor to modern scholarly works. It was Pliny's last work, as well as sadly his sole surviving one, and was published not long before his death attempting to save a friend from the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum, famously recounted by Pliny's eponymous nephew Pliny the Younger.
Here is a reasonable translation that is freely available to download from archive.org for your edification.
Pliny the Elder's habits that led to the book were also famously recounted by his nephew,
"Does it surprise you that a busy man found time to finish so many volumes, many of which deal with such minute details? You will wonder the more when I tell you that he for many years pleaded in the law courts, that he died in his fifty-seventh year, and that in the interval his time was taken up and his studies were hindered by the important offices he held and the duties arising out of his friendship with the Emperors. But he possessed a keen intellect; he had a marvellous capacity for work, and his powers of application were enormous. He used to begin to study at night on the Festival of Vulcan, not for luck but from his love of study, long before dawn; in winter he would commence at the seventh hour or at the eighth at the very latest, and often at the sixth. He could sleep at call, and it would come upon him and leave him in the middle of his work. Before daybreak he would go to Vespasian – for he too was a night-worker – and then set about his official duties. On his return home he would again give to study any time that he had free. Often in summer after taking a meal, which with him, as in the old days, was always a simple and light one, he would lie in the sun if he had any time to spare, and a book would be read aloud, from which he would take notes and extracts. For he never read without taking extracts, and used to say that there never was a book so bad that it was not good in some passage or another. After his sun bath he usually bathed in cold water, then he took a snack and a brief nap, and subsequently, as though another day had begun, he would study till dinner-time. After dinner a book would be read aloud, and he would take notes in a cursory way. I remember that one of his friends, when the reader pronounced a word wrongly, checked him and made him read it again, and my uncle said to him, "Did you not catch the meaning?" When his friend said "yes," he remarked, "Why then did you make him turn back? We have lost more than ten lines through your interruption." So jealous was he of every moment lost."If you would like to read the text in html, I would recommend doing it here,
Book I: Table of Contents of the remaining thirty-six Books, the contents of each Book being followed by a list of the previous writers used as authorities.
Book II: Cosmology, astronomy, meteorology, geography, geology including descriptions of models for explaining these kinds of phenomena that are both fascinatingly wrong and fascinatingly right.
Book III: Ethnography and Geography of Southern Spain; Southern Gaul; Italy; the Western Mediterranean and Ionian and Adriatic Islands; the countries around the north of the Adriatic.
Book IV: Ethnography and Geography of Greece and the rest of the Balkan Peninsula as well as the islands of the Eastern Mediterranean, the Black Sea and the countries west of it, Northern Europe. Includes discussion of the dimensions of the whole of Europe.
Book V: Ethnography and Geography of North Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean and Asia Minor.
Book VI: Ethnography and Geography of the countries from the Black Sea to India including Persia, Arabia, Ethiopia, and the Nile valley.
Book VII: Discussion of the human race as a whole regarding its biology, physiology and psychology. Largely discussing extreme cases of 'monstrous' births as well as remarkable physical, mental, artistic and moral exploits; it also includes a fascinatingly alien and familiar way of discussing ethnic differences.
Book VIII: Deals with various mammals, wild and domesticated; and among them are introduced snakes, crocodiles and lizards.
Book IX: Treats aquatic species, including Nereids, Tritons and the sea-serpent. There are considerable passages on their economic aspects such as the use of fish as food, pearls, dyes obtained from fish, and on their physiology, sensory and reproductive.
Book X: Ornithology: hawks trained for fowling; birds of evil omen; domestication of birds for food; talking birds; reproduction. Appendix on other viviparous species, passing on to animals in general their methods of reproduction, senses, nutrition, friendship and hostility between different species, sleep.
Book XI: Insects, their physiology and habits--especially bees, silk-worms, spiders. Classification of animals by varieties of bodily structure animal and human physiology.
Book XII: Deals with trees known to the Roman world from Britannia to India as well as their various qualities.
Book XIII: Gives foreign trees and their use in supplying scent, fruit, paper and wood.
Book XIV: Discusses vine-growing and varieties of wine.
Book XV: Olives, olive-oil and fruit-trees.
Book XVI: Forest trees, their nature and varieties; their value for timber and other commodities. Longevity of trees. Parasitic plants.
Book XVII: Continues the subject of arboriculture from previous book.
Book XVIII: Deals with cereal agriculture.
Book XIX: With the cultivation of flax and other plants used for fabrics, and with vegetable gardening.
Book XX: Are concerned with the uses of trees, plants and flowers from garden plants, especially in medicine. To understand his treatment of this subject it is necessary to examine the diseases he dealt with and the nature of the remedies he prescribed.
Book XXI: The same, but focusing on flowers that includes ones found in the wild.
Book XXII: The same, but focusing on herbs that includes ones found in the wild.
Book XXIII: The same, but focusing on cultivated trees.
Book XXIV: The same, but focusing on forest trees.
Book XXV: The same, but focusing on self-grown plants.
Book XXVI: The remaining drugs by classes.
Book XXVII: A continuation of the previous book.
Book XXVIII: Drugs obtained from animals.
Book XXIX: Drugs obtained from animals, continued.
Book XXX: Drugs obtained from animals, continued.
Book XXXI: Drugs obtained from different kinds of water.
Book XXXII: Drugs obtained from different kinds of aquatic animals.
Book XXXIII: Discussion of minerals.
Book XXXIV: Discussion of Mining.
Book XXXV: Discussion of the history of art.
Book XXXVI: Discussion of precious stones.
Book XXXVII: Discussion of precious gems.
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