Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.08.20

John F. Healy, Pliny the Elder on Science and Technology.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1999.  Pp. 467.  ISBN 0-19-814687-6.  $110.00.  

Reviewed by Sorcha Carey, Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London
Word count: 951 words

Pliny the Elder's Natural History is the ultimate sourcebook. Incorporating some 20,000 facts (in Pliny's own estimation, Pref. 17), its 37 books cover almost every aspect of the ancient world, from geography, to agriculture, metallurgy, and the history of art. Not surprisingly, then, Pliny's name is ubiquitous in modern attempts to understand ancient Greece and Rome. Cited in contexts as diverse as the history of ancient agricultural implements and the history of Greek art,1 Pliny's encyclopaedic work tells us everything we need to know about the ancient world. It is perhaps only fitting that Pliny died during the same eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 which buried the Campanian cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum (his death is memorably described by his nephew, Pliny the Younger, in a letter to the historian Tacitus (Ep. 6.16)). While Pompeii and Herculaneum appear perfectly to preserve a day in the life of ancient Rome, Pliny's contemporary account of the ancient world contains the whole of antiquity between its pages. And if the streets, shops and houses excavated from the volcanic ashes of Vesuvius seem reassuringly familiar to the modern tourist, then the Natural History too sits comfortably with a modern audience. Equipped with a table of contents (book 1) and a bibliography for each of the subsequent 36 books, the Natural History approaches the scholarly apparatus of the modern day sourcebook.

But, as recent studies of Pompeii have shown, an apparently straightforward portrait of the ancient world can be as misleading as it is informative. While its similarity with the modern encyclopaedia is one of the reasons why the Natural History remains an essential source on the ancient world, the comparison has often obscured rather than enhanced our understanding of Pliny's encyclopaedic project. Placed on a par with the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Pliny inevitably falls short. Scholars, happy to cite the Natural History for the information it contains (especially when Pliny was drawing on a source which no longer survives), have been unable to forgive the combination of rhetoric and dry intonation, and the apparent lack of critical judgement which characterises its presentation.2

Healy's book is a welcome addition to a growing number of publications which have sought to rescue Pliny from the status of 'compiler', and to reveal Pliny's original contribution.3 The preface briefly outlines the progress which has been made in Plinian studies in the last decade or so, both in interpretations of Pliny's text, and in corrections to the text itself. Healy himself is an exponent of the new, more positive, approach to Pliny. One of his most interesting contributions to our understanding of the Natural History is his demonstration of how Pliny develops "'a language within a language', ... a 'subset' of literary Latin in which words have a specialised meaning, different from normal usage" (ix & Chapter 7).4 And he rightly emphasizes (4 & 98) the influence which Pliny's rhetorical training had on his writing.

The focus of Healy's book is Pliny as a source for ancient scientific knowledge and technology. But unlike earlier accounts which have simply excerpted whole subjects from the Natural History without any consideration of their context as a whole,5 Healy's exploration of science and technology in the Natural History is prefaced with a lengthy discussion of Pliny's cultural and political context. Chapters 1-7 provide a clear account of Pliny's life and career (what little we know is largely gleaned from the Natural History -- ironically, Pliny's work is the sourcebook for himself, as much as for the ancient world as a whole -- and the letters of his nephew, Pliny the Younger), and the composition of the Natural History, its content, sources and style.

Chapters 8-9 place Pliny's contribution to science and technology in the wider context of scientific knowledge and technical literature in the ancient world. Healy argues that the Natural History makes a meaningful contribution to our understanding of the natural sciences and technology in the ancient world and, in particular, that it can be understood using modern scientific categories. Healy's assessment of Pliny's scientific contribution (and of the Natural History as a whole) is broadly positive. But one senses that in insisting on Pliny's capacity to stand up to modern criteria, Healy on occasion has to make excuses, which, were Pliny being judged on his own terms, would be unnecessary. Chapter 8, for example, argues that Pliny does exercise critical judgement, but then has to explain the inclusion of mirabilia in the Natural History (109-11 & Chapter 5).

Healy's work will prove invaluable to scholars wishing to understand Pliny's own particular contribution to ancient science and technology, as well as to those who have a more general interest in ancient science and technology. Discussion of individual topics is presented in a clear and accessible manner. If I have a quibble, it is that in setting out the subject so clearly, Healy brings Pliny even closer to our modern conception of what an encyclopaedia should be. While almost every scholar of the ancient world will quote Pliny at some time or other, few, I imagine, ever really read the Natural History for its own sake. And yet behind the table of contents and bibliographies which, for the modern scholar, make the Natural History appear a familiar yet inevitably inferior reference book, lurks a more complex portrait of the world. In many ways, the seventeenth century scholars and collectors who looked to Pliny as the model for their curiosity cabinets were closer to understanding the true message of the Natural History. Both Pliny and Healy quote Domitius Piso in their preface -- "it is not books but store-houses that are needed" ("thesauros oportet esse, non libros").6 Perhaps now it is time to reverse Piso's dictum.


1.   K. D. White (1967) Agricultural Implements of the Roman World, Cambridge, refers to over 30 different passages in the Natural History.
2.   Goodyear's assessment of Pliny (cited by Healy, 98) in E. J. Kenney (ed.) (1982) The Cambridge History of Classical Literature II. Latin Literature. Cambridge, 670, is among the more extreme, but is by no means isolated: "Pliny is one of the prodigies of Latin literature, boundlessly energetic and catastrophically indiscriminate, wide-ranging and narrowminded, a pedant who wanted to be a popularizer, a sceptic infected by traditional sentiment, and an aspirant to style who could hardly frame a coherent sentence. ... In truth, Pliny had neither literary skill nor sense of propriety, and he failed to discipline his thoughts."
3.   Andrew Wallace-Hadrill (1990) 'Pliny the Elder and Man's Unnatural History', G & R, 37.1: 80-96; S. Citroni Marchetti (1991) Plinio il Vecchio e la tradizione del moralismo romano, Pisa; J. Isager (1991) Pliny on Art and Societ. The Elder Pliny's Chapters on the history of art, London; and M. Beagon (1992) Roman Nature, Oxford.
4.   See also his more detailed discussion: J. Healy (1988), 'The Language and Style of Pliny the Elder', in Filologia e Forme Letterarie: Studi offerti a Francesco della Corte, iv: 1-24, Urbino.
5.   E.g. K. Sallmann (1971), Die Geographie des Alteren Plinius in ihrem Verhältnis zu Varro. Berlin and New York.
6.   Pliny Natural History, Pref. 17 and Healy, facing page 1.

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