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“Natural History” – ancient encyclopedia

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Pliny the Elder
Pliny the Elder

The great work of the Roman writer and scientist Pliny the Elder was “Naturalis Historia” – an ancient encyclopedia. Interestingly, it was the writer’s only surviving work.

Books of “Natural History”:

  • Book I is an introduction and list of contents of the work and contains a list of authors whose works the author used. We will find here, among others Aristotle, Democritus, Ctesias, Pomponius Mela and, for example, the Moorish king Juba. In further books Pliny also quotes Plato, Pythagoras, Strabo, Pytheas of Massalia and many others. In the second book Pliny contained all knowledge in astronomy and meteorology.
  • Books II-IV deal with world geography.
  • Book V deals with human physiology and anthropology.
  • Books VI-VIII contain all information about animals, and seven more about plants, including separate books about vines, olives and trees.
  • Book VIII deals with the fauna of the known ancient world. The fifteenth chapter of this book is entitled “On animals inhabiting Scythia and northern lands”.
    There are notified 7 animals from this area:

    1. Bifontes | 2. Uri | 3. Wild horse 4. Wild donkey 5. Alce | 6. Machlis | 7. Bonasus

    The first two are “wild bulls”, bifontes and uri, which perhaps refer to the same animal, namely the aurochs (bos primigenius). For sure uri is a turkey. Admittedly, Bifontes’s lion’s mane suggests his connection with the European 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 bifontes and bonasus are bison, and only uri is aurochs).
    Wild horse and donkey are probably again one animal, tarpan – an extinct wild horse that lived in the Eurasian steppes (in the Białowieża Forest survived until 1780).
    The name alce may refer to moose (Alces alces), and the description is also correct. Let’s look at his Latin name anyway.
    The mysterious, strange machlis are probably the result of very vague rumors about reindeer (Rangifer tarandus), which you really rarely see lying. In addition, with a little good will it can be compared to an elk. The region of their occurrence was already very distant from Roman civilization, which is why it is interesting where Pliny got his knowledge of such distant countries.
    Pliny probably gave descriptions only of those animals that were absent from the Empire, apart from those that were commonly known (e.g. deer, wolf). Note that their descriptions quite well correspond to reality. Given that in another chapter of Book VIII the author writes about dragons, this is good evidence of his Scythian-German informants / sources.

  • Book XVIII has the 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 – description of herbs and medicines of plant and animal origin.
  • Books XXXIII and XXXIV deal with metals, XXXV about soil and dyes, and the last two about stones and rocks.
    Each book is extremely extensive – some contain even more than a hundred chapters, which is why a summary of any of them is a difficult task.

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