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Pliny the Elder

(23 - 25 August 79 CE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Pliny the Elder on the nineteenth-century image. Interestingly, in a letter from Pliny the Younger to Tacitus about the eruption of Vesuvius, Pliny the Elder is presented as a very fat person, so the artist’s image seems to be wrong.

Pliny the Elder (Maior) was born in the year 23 CE in Novum Comum (now Como in Lombardy, northern Italy) as Gaius Plinius Secundus. Pliny was of Etruscan origin, as indicated by his surname Plinius. He was a Roman official, historian, writer, philosopher of nature and fleet commander. His only surviving work is “Natural History”, a kind of encyclopedia, which is a mine of knowledge and ideas in Roman times. He was a good friend of Emperor Vespasian on a daily basis.

He was educated in Rome. He was the son of Gaius Plinius Celer and Marcelli. He had a sister, Plinia, who gave birth to a nephew – Pliny the Younger. Pliny the Elder belonged to the state of equites and performed various functions resulting from this affiliation. Pliny neither married nor had any children. Hence, in his will, he decided to adopt his nephew.


In 46 CE, 23-year-old Pliny joined the military as a junior officer, which was the customary career development of the equites estate. In the years 47-52, Pliny served in the army in Germany. Initially, he held the office of praefectus cohortis under the orders of Gnaeus Domitius Corbula in Germania Inferior. He took part in numerous military expeditions – incl. the Chauk conquest and the canal construction between the rivers Rhine and Meuse. In time, Pliny was transferred to Germania Superior under the command of Publius Pomponius Secundus. There he was promoted to the rank of military tribune. Certainly, during his stay in the region, Pliny participated in the expedition against the Khattas in 50 CE. He was then 27 years old. During his service, he made friends with Pomponius Secundus, who was the addressee of many of his letters in the future.

He was then transferred again to Corbulo. He was given the rank of prefectus alae and was in charge of a cavalry detachment of 480 men. The last commander of Pliny during his service was Pompey Paulinus – governor of the Germania Inferior province in the years 55-58 CE. At that time, probably – following his nephew’s notes – he wrote his first work – “De jaculatione equestri” devoted to throwing a javelin in horse riding.

Vesuvius eruption victims. The biggest impression on tourists is caused by the casts of the bodies of the inhabitants. The ashes covering Pompeii quickly solidified, retaining the shape of the buried bodies inside.
Author: Lancevortex | Under Creative Commons Attribution License - Share Alike 3.0.

During the reign of Emperor Nero he held no high office, but in 69 CE, when Vespasian became emperor, Pliny the Elder returned to Rome and assumed many different public offices. In 73 CE he was governor of the province of Spain. He also served as a senior official in Roman administration in Narbonne Gaul (70 CE), Africa (72 CE), and Belgian Gaul (76 CE).

In 79 CE, as admiral, he headed a fleet squadron stationed at Misenum. When he heard the news about the eruption of Vesuvius he immediately set off to rescue Campania with the intention of helping the local people. The curiosity to see the extraordinary natural phenomenon, which is the volcanic eruption, was stronger for him, it became the reason for his death on August 25, 79 CE.

The circumstances of the death of Pliny the Elder were described by his nephew Pliny the Younger in a letter to Tacitus. Pliny the Elder died on his way to the port, possibly of respiratory failure as a result of sulfur fumes and other gases. It was suspected that he might also have died from a heart attack. Before that, he had stayed in the house where Pomponianus lived, whom Pliny had come to save. His body was found three days later with no visible external injuries. He left a will in which he adopted a nephew – Pliny the Younger (62-114 CE).


In his spare time, Pliny conducted research and wrote and learned about natural and geographical phenomena. To this end, he preferred to study phenomena in the field and up close.
He wrote many works: Bellorum Germaniae libri XX and A fine Aufidii Bassi, a work depicting contemporary history from the moment Aufidius Bassus ended his story – Roman historian during the reign of Tiberius.

Natural history

The only surviving work is “Natural History” (Naturalis Historia), a kind of encyclopedia in 37 books. It is a mine of knowledge and ideas in Roman times. Information about northern Europe was taken from the treatise of Pytheas of Massalia “On the Ocean” from the 4th century BCE. The encyclopedia was arranged not by entries, but by sections. It was created during the Flavian dynasty and contained a total of 2,493 paragraphs (the Polish edition from 1845 had 10 volumes). He dedicated the great work to Titus, son of Vespasian.

Pliny included about 20,000 pieces of information from all areas of knowledge at the time – a description of the world, celestial bodies, meteorological phenomena, as well as geography, ethnology, anthropology, physiology, psychology, zoology and anatomy, botany, gardening, agriculture, herbal and animal medicines, metallurgy, mineralogy, gold, silver, gem processing, medicine, painting, sculpture etc.

Pliny claimed that he used the works of 327 Greek writers and 146 Latin writers to compose “Natural History”, and that he had studied about 2,000 volumes. According to scientists “History” itself is full of errors and is not a masterpiece of literature. The author also introduced many personal reflections into the work. This encyclopedia is a particularly valuable resource for ancient history for researchers and scientists. An interesting fact is that he owned the famous cry “great landed estates have lost Italy” (Latifundia perdidere Italiam) – related to the situation of a Roman peasant who could not withstand competition with great latifundia.

Books of “Natural History”:

  • Book I is the introduction and table of contents for the work and contains the list of authors whose work the author has used. We will find here, among others Aristotle, Democritus, Ctesias, Pomponius Mela and, for example, the Moorish king Juba. In later books, he also cites Plato, Pythagoras, Strabo, Pytheas of Massalia, and many others. In the second book, Pliny included all his knowledge of astronomy and meteorology.
  • Books II-IV deal with the geography of the world.
  • Book V is about human physiology and anthropology.
  • Books VI-VIII contain all information about animals, and seven more about plants, including separate books on grapevines, olives and trees.
  • Book VIII of “Natural History” by Pliny the Elder deals with the fauna of the known ancient world. Chapter fifteen of this book is entitled “The Animals of Scythia” and sixtenn “The animals of the north”. Let’s see what the greatest natural authority of ancient Rome had to say on this subject:

    Scythia produces but very few animals, in consequence of the scarcity of shrubs. Germany, which lies close adjoining it, has not many animals, though it has some very fine kinds of wild oxen: the bison, which has a mane, and the urus, possessed of remarkable strength and swiftness. To these, the vulgar, in their ignorance, have given the name of bubalus whereas, that animal is really produced in Africa, and rather bears a resemblance to the calf and the stag.

    The North, too, produces herds of wild horses, as Africa and Asia do of wild asses; there is, also, the elk, which strongly resembles our steers, except that it is distinguished by the length of the ears and of the neck. There is also the achlis, which is produced in the island of Scandinavia; it has never been seen in this city, although we have had descriptions of it from many persons; it is not unlike the elk, but has no joints in the hind leg. Hence, it never lies down, but reclines against a tree while it sleeps; it can only be taken by previously cutting into the tree, and thus laying a trap for it, as otherwise, it would escape through its swiftness. Its upper lip is so extremely large, for which reason it is obliged to go backwards when grazing; otherwise, by moving onwards, the lip would get doubled up. In Pæonia, it is said, there is a wild animal known as the bonasus; it has the mane of the horse, but is, in other respects, like the bull, with horns, however, so much bent inwards upon each other, as to be of no use for the purposes of combat. It has therefore to depend upon its flight, and, while in the act of flying, it sends forth its excrements, sometimes to a distance of even three jugera; the contact of which burns those who pursue the animal, just like a kind of fire.

    Pliny the Elder, Natural History, VIII.15-16

    The last fragment in this chapter seems to be accidental. On the other hand, from the previous text, information about the 7 animals in the area in question can be drawn:

    1. Bison | 2. Urus | 3. Wild horse | 4. Wild asses | 5. Elk | 6. Achlis | 7. Bonasus

    The first two are “wild bulls”, bisontes (bison) and uri, which may refer to the same animal, namely the aurochs (bos primigenius). Surely uri is a turem (it even has a similar name). It is true that bisontes’ lion’s mane suggests its connection with the bison (bison bonasus), but the Latin name of the bison and the fact that its horns are actually bent towards the head support the thesis that the bison is the last of the described animals, bonasus (or bisontes and bonasus are bison, and only uri is auroch).
    Alces alces) and the description is correct as well. Let’s take a look at its Latin name.

  • Book XVIII has the all-word title “How To Run A Farm” and the next four books contain information about garden plants, flowers and plant dyes.
  • Books XIX-XXIX were devoted to medical issues – the description of herbs and medicines of plant and animal origin.
  • Books XXXIII and XXXIV are about metals, XXXV about soil and dyes, and the last two about stones and rocks.
    Each book is extremely extensive – some of them even contain more than a hundred chapters, so summarizing any of them is a difficult task. Fauna of Northern Europe according to Pliny.

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