Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.03.19

Mary Beagon, Roman Nature: The Thought of Pliny the Elder. Oxford Classical Monographs. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992. Pp. xi + 259. ISBN 0-19-814726-0. $59.00.

Reviewed by K. Sara Myers, University of Michigan.

Although frequently dismissed as an unwieldy "conglutination" of raw material in the form of anecdotes, scientific facts, and marvels,1 Pliny's Natural History has seen a notable revival of interest in the past decade. An exciting and expanding field of scholarship, much written in Italian, offers new commentaries, examinations of Pliny's persona, philosophy, and prejudices and asks a whole new range of questions. Most importantly, it is now recognized that the Natural History offers more than an irregular assemblage of strange and scientific facts and marvels. It also serves as a valuable document of the attitudes and prejudices of the author and his age. Mary Beagon's interesting new book, Roman Nature: The Thought of Pliny the Elder, contributes further to the understanding of the underlying ideas of the work and the aims of its author. The subject of this book is argued to be the same as that of Pliny's HN, the relationship between Man and Nature: HN Praef. 13 rerum natura, hoc est vita, narratur. Pliny's aim is a humanitarian one in line with his practical and positive outlook on human life: HN 2.18 deus est mortali iuvare mortalem. He wants to provide useful information (HN Praef. 16 utilitas iuvandi), and to this end even provides his reader with indices and lists of sources. B. suggests that Pliny's idea of the divinity of Nature is an organizing principle behind the work as a whole and devotes most of her discussion to a careful consideration of the important pass ages of the HN which illuminate Pliny's view of Nature and Mankind's place in it. She thus provides the reader of Pliny, faced with the dauntingly multitudinous mass of material in his 37 books, with a helpful introduction to some of the overarching themes and purposes of the Natural History which can be used to disentangle and make sense of this heterogeneous material.

In Chapter One, "Divina Natura: The Roots of Pliny's Thought," B. outlines the philosophical background of Pliny's views on Nature, which have most in common with prevailing Stoic ideas about the divinity of Nature and the hypothesis that the world is designed to benefit mankind (see esp. the cosmology of HN 2).2 As B. explains, "Above all, the centrality of man in Pliny's universe is expressed in the recurring theme of Nature's Providence towards the human race" (p.37). The relationship between nature and man, between man and the divine, their potential partnership or opposition, forms the core of Pliny's thought (p.33). Man's task is to work in harmony with Nature, exploiting, but not perverting, her many resources which have been put at his disposal, and the only way to do this is to gain an understanding and appreciation of Nature (p.35). Allied with Pliny's Stoic outlook is the pervasive moralizing tendency of his natural historical investigations. The combination of scientific reporting and moralizing in the Natural History has struck many as out of place in a natural historical work, but it is very much part of Pliny's purpose. Natural science in Antiquity is always ethically charged and Pliny's rhetoric of persuasion and condemnation is part of his humanitarian aim in helping Mankind to a better, more 'natural', way of life. Like Lucretius, Pliny also has the goal of eliminating man's fear and dependency on traditional religion (pp.72-3, 95-97).

Chapters Two and Three, "Man in Nature," and "Man and the Gods," contain the most important part of B.'s argument since they deal with man's relationship with Nature and the divine -- which is Natura (e.g. HN 2.27). Man's relationship with nature is seen ideally as a partnership, but ambiguities arise throughout the work as to what constitute proper or improper intrusions into and alterations of the natural order (p.42). In a world in which nature is responsible for most of life's discoveries, there is little room for human ingenuity: "Any originality consists of the ability to choose to pervert rather than to follow [nature]" (p.67). If man's ratio challenges the perfection of naturae ratio, it is difficult to determine how man's ingenuity may be allowed to function. B. rightly points out that Pliny does not condemn every interference of man with nature, and indeed does not condemn culture as a whole (p.76). Luxury constitutes a perverted use of nature in rivaling her variety and power (pp.76ff.). B. suggests however that Pliny's moral criticisms "are not allowed to obscure the overall tone of practical humanitarianism: his idea of life is a comfortable one" (p.55), and that "his moral outrage is tempered by business considerations" (p.77). Here, as elsewhere, Pliny's essentially optimistic view of life and man's progress comes into conflict with the traditional and contemporary Roman moral discourse of decline. This inconsistency is illustrated by Pliny's condemnation of Imperial expansion at HN 14.1-6 as causing moral decline and his praise elsewhere of the benefits of Empire (cf. e.g. HN 3.41, 27.13).

B. argues against seeing a conflict between the "philosophical" and the "utilitarian" Pliny (p.78), and suggests that art/culture and nature need not be seen as opposing spheres (p.84). Yet this is, I think, to gloss over a tension at the center of Pliny's work concerning the proper activity of man and one which is deeply rooted in the whole Roman discourse of moral decline and progress. The proper way of life, that is, how to follow nature correctly, constitutes the major issue of Pliny's work. The answer to this question may ultimately be less morally than culturally determined, as B. perhaps suggests by entitling her book Roman Nature, but does not develop. As Andrew Wallace-Hadrill has argued, "Pliny seeks to root in natural and divine order culturally specific Roman values."3 For Pliny, B. suggests, the productive garden (hortus) represents the epitome of man's ideal relationship with nature (HN 19.50ff.), one in which nature's productivity is increased through man's activity and one which "was felt to be particularly appropriate to Roman mores" (p.161, cf. pp.90-91, 131, 175-77, 240).4

B. includes in Chapter Four, "Man and the Animals," a fascinating discussion of that strange attitude of Romans towards animals which combined admiration with a desire to see great numbers of them slaughtered in the arena (p.147ff.). B. argues that Pliny's books devoted to animals (HN 8-11) put the marvels of nature's creations on display to emphasize her potentia and varietas (p.131) and illustrate further man's centrality (p.124). Chapter Five, "Land and Sea," considers man's activities in relation to these two elements. Most interesting here is Pliny's divergence from traditional moral condemnation of maritime achievements. For Pliny, as for other natural philosophers, the sea is an unnatural element for mankind, but B. interestingly suggests that Pliny's view of navigation is colored by his pride in Roman naval achievements and a pragmatism in the form of financial considerations (p.183-92). Pliny's patriotism and "fascination with man's achievements" here again contradict the censorious moral tone he uses elsewhere (p.200). For Pliny, the ideal life is aligned with the traditional agricultural "Roman ideology of the soil," (e.g. HN 18.5: quippe sermo circa rura est agrestesque usus, sed quibus vita constet honosque apud priscos maximus fuerit), a life appropriate to traditional Roman values of hard work and self-sufficiency (pp.161, 175-77). Here again B. points out that Pliny's image of agrarian life differs from the traditional primitivistic view and instead he presents a more positive and realistic view of agriculture (p.164).

B.'s final chapter deals with medicine, an area where many of the contradictions in Pliny's views can be highlighted: "His advocacy of herbal remedies shows Pliny at his least rational" (p.233). Pliny reveals here again his prejudice against Greeks in his strictly dichotomous view of Greek ars medicinae vs. traditional Roman herbal medicine. At HN 29.27 Pliny claims that the moral degeneracy on Rome is due more to medicine (medicina) than anything else. For Pliny medicine is associated with the Greeks and condemned as an ars (HN 29.16) which constitutes an abuse of ratio (p.202). B. again reminds us of the social prejudices behind Roman moral indignation, that is, the resentment of the intellectual monopoly of Greek doctors and the use of this knowledge as a means of non-traditional social advancement (pp.205, 222, cf. HN 24.5: vicendoque victi sumus. paremus externis). Also at issue in Pliny's advocacy of purely natural remedies is the ideal of self-sufficiency (pp.205-10). Nature supplies easily and cheaply all necessary remedies (HN 24.4). The doctor comes between man's ideal direct relationship with nature, "in which nature gives cheap and simple herbal remedies to those willing to make the effort to find and identify them" (p.222). As B. points out, Pliny's anti-Greek prejudice "brings to [his] view of medicine a certain distortion of ideas" (p.203). Specifically, it forces Pliny into an untenable strict Greek vs. Roman, theory vs. practice division of medicine, which contradicts his belief elsewhere that theory and practice can be blended and belies his extensive use of Greek sources (cf. HN 7.8).

B. does a very good job in giving us a grounding in the essential unity of Pliny's work and the importance of Natura to his conception of human life. Pliny's persistent inconsistencies make any coherent analysis of his overall philosophical or moral position difficult, but no less interesting and important, since his failings frequently reveal his cultural and political biases. Ideas of Nature in Rome are always culturally charged and at the root of these inconsistencies lie essential contradictions in Roman ways of formulating their cultural ideals. B. makes it clear that Pliny's views on this subject must be taken into account. B. also associates Pliny's inclusion of so much disparate material with his desire to praise nature. She connects the often condemned inclusion in the HN of many mirabilia (despite Pliny's protest to the contrary at Praef.12) with Stoic ideas of the contemplation of nature as a spectaculum (esp. pp.47, 153ff.). Rather than merely revealing Pliny's credulity (which, it must be admitted, is considerable), the inclusion of these marvels of nature reveals nature's divinity and complexity. This complexity requires knowledge, and knowledge will also lead to the proper attitude of admiration (HN 7.7).

One of the strongest points of this book is B.'s constant attention to Pliny's social and literary background and her desire to place his work in its historical and intellectual context. B. reminds us of Pliny's equestrian background and draws a connection between contemporary equestrian business interests and the writing of practical and technical manuals, as well as the competitive interest in the collection of mirabilia (pp.6-10). B. draws attention to the often-noted anti-Neronian and pro-Flavian political bias which colors Pliny's perspective throughout his work (pp.17-18).5 In claiming to present a portrait of the author and his age (e.g. p.25), B. promises rather more than she delivers, and could have included towards this goal more comparative evidence from contemporary, earlier, and later Latin literature, especially poetry, which might illuminate Roman views of nature and culture.6 There is clearly much exciting work to be done on Pliny's Natural History and on the ways in which it can enrich our understanding of the Flavian intellectual climate and Roman ideology in general. B.'s new book renews and increases one's admiration of Pliny's achievement, but leaves one with a lingering sense of doubt that he could ever be regarded as a typical member of any age!


  • [1] See, for example, F.R.D. Goodyear in The Cambridge History of Classical Literature, Vol. 2. Latin Literature (1982) pp.670-2.
  • [2] Appearing simultaneously with B. is Sandra Citroni Marchetti's book, Plinio il Vecchio e la tradizione del moralismo romano (Pisa, 1991), which deals with the philosophical background in rather fuller detail. See also her articles in ANRW 2.36.5 (1992): 3249-3306, and Atene e Roma 27 (1982): 124-48.
  • [3] A. Wallace-Hadrill, "Pliny the Elder and Man's Unnatural History," G&R 37 (1990): 92. Included here is also an important discussion of the centrality of the theme of luxury in the HN.
  • [4] Those interested in Vergil's views of nature in the Georgics will find in Pliny a fascinating comparandum for attitudes on farming and gardening, cf. especially HN 17.58 on grafting.
  • [5] See further on Pliny's political bias, Jacob Isager, Pliny on Art and Society (Odense, 1991), and idem, "Plinio il Vecchio e le meraviglie di Roma," ARID 15 (1986) 37-50.
  • [6] Consider, for example, the fascinating shift in moral perspective on nature/culture exhibited in Statius and the younger Pliny, as discussed by Z. Pavlovskis, Man in an Artificial Landscape (Leiden, 1973).

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