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Phoenix in message of Pliny the Elder

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

A phoenix in a Roman painting
Phoenix in the Roman painting | Photo: akg-images / Erich Lessing

Pliny the Elder in his preserved work “Natural History” left us a lot of information about various species of animals as well as creatures that were born in the minds of people. A great example of the latter group is the famous phoenix.

According to the accounts of Pliny, the phoenix lives in Arabia and, as he himself claims, he does not know if the information about this amazing animal is not just a fairy tale. The phoenix is ​​to be the size of an eagle, the neck is golden and the rest of the body is purple; the tail, in turn, has blue and red feathers. The phoenix is ​​supposed to live for 540 years1 and when it ages, it builds a nest of cinnamon and incense and then dies there. From the preserved bones and ashes a new bird is born, which as yet a chick carries the nest to the City of the Sun2 and places it there on the altar in honour of the sun god; thus he honours his predecessor.

Interestingly, Pliny tells after Cornelius Valerianus that the phoenix was once to arrive in Roman-ruled Egypt – during the consulate of Quintus Pluatius and Sextus Papinius in 36 CE. He was to appear in Rome during the reign of Emperor Claudius in 47 CE and it was shown at the comitium in the place where people gathered. However, Pliny considers both of these revelations to be false.

It should be mentioned that it is possible that ancient writers identified the mythical phoenix with the golden pheasant (Chrysolophus pictus).

  1. Herdotus believed that the phoenix lived 500 years; other sources said more than a thousand years.
  2. Probably Heliopolis, in upper Egypt.
  • Pliny the Elder, Natural history, X.2.3

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