199. Natural History by Pliny (the Elder) (c.77AD)

“There is no occurrence so fabulously shameless that it lacks a witness”  Pliny, Zoology, page 118

A truly encyclopaedic work covering the natural sciences as believed in the 1st century.

My copy was only a selection of the 34 volumes, collected together and published by Penguin Classics, translated by John F. Healy (ISBN 9780140444131).

 My thoughts:

Sure, some of the ideas expressed are amusing two thousand years later, but maybe we have a few things wrong too, which can be smirked at by future readers.

Pliny relies on gathering his facts and beliefs from many earlier writers, whom he justly credits before starting and during his review. The first book covers astronomy but also seismology and meteorology, and I had to wonder if the seeming inconsistencies were an inevitable result of relying on so many other minds. For instance, Pliny dismisses the idea of eclipses as supernatural portents of disaster, but the next page he is claiming just that for the appearance of comets. And it seems cats and dogs were the only things not raining down from the skies: here we have milk, blood, flesh, iron, wool and fired house bricks. The Earth is recognised as spherical with North and South Poles, but is still the centre of the universe.

The next books cover the geography and peoples of the Empire and known lands beyond, including ‘Africa’ (Morocco and Libya), Egypt, Ethiopia, ‘Asia’ (Syria, Jordan), India, Taprobane (Sri Lanka), the Himalayas, and China. Greece and Italy are described in terms that would make a tourism promoter proud, but the further away Pliny looks, the more that native tribes sound like they could have been encountered by Gulliver on his travels : men with no heads, and eyes and mouth in their chests; subhumans who live in caves and talk in shrieks, satyrs and Goat-men, cyclopses and one footed men who lie on their backs and use their feet to keep them dry (thanks Herodotus!). He also pinpoints where legendary stories were set e.g. the precise locations of Scylla and Charybides, the Garden of the Hesperides, and the rock where Andromeda was to be sacrificed to the sea monster before being rescued by Perseus.

The Zoology chapters begin with Man, and reads like a very untrustworthy Guinness Book of Records. We also have elephants climbing ropes and avoiding mice, snakes catching high flying birds on the wing, the proverbial lion with a thorn in his foot, or a bone wedged in her teeth, and weasels waiting for crocodiles (which grow to 30 feet long) to fall asleep with their jaws open, so they can jump in and eat the stomachs. Like any good fisherman, we also have some tall tales from the ocean depths : sharks over 150 feet long, lobsters at 6 feet, eels 300 feet long, and whales which cover 3 acres of water.

Further chapters cover botany, medicine and geology, but I think I’ve got the idea. Let’s move on to my two hundredth read. After all, as Pliny himself says in his preface: “I have taken the greatest care to prevent your having to read them from cover to cover”

Favourite lines/passages:

“To sum up the outward madness of nations, this is the land in which we drive out our neighbours and dig up and steal their turf to add to our own … and rejoice in possessing an infinitesimal part of the earth” which is itself “a dot in the universe”     page 33

I particularly like the description of Mount Atlas in north Africa:

“It is said that not a single inhabitant is seen during the day and everything is quiet with a chilling silence like that of the desert; an apprehensiveness that renders one speechless steals over those who approach the mountain, and similarly a fear of the peak soaring above the clouds and reaching almost to the moon. At night Atlas flashes with many fires … and is filled with the wanton frolics of Goat-Pans and Satyrs and resounds with the music of flutes, pipes, drums and cymbals”    page 55

and the idea that the Carthaginians circumnavigated Africa and established settlements which were never heard from again (very Edgar Rice Burroughs-sy)

And a little bit of human anatomy to consider:

“Leading experts state that the eyes are connected to the brain by a vein. I am inclined to believe that they are also connected to the stomach. For it is an established fact that if a man has an eye knocked out he is invariably sick”   page 160

Personal rating: 4/10

Other reading:  First volume of John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War  scifi series. Septuagenarians  relinquish their Earth citizenship to join the space marines in brand new, improved young cloned bodies. Engaging read with plenty of alien species eager to stamp out humanity.

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