Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.12.08

Hubert Zehnacker (ed.), Pline l'Ancien. Histoire naturelle, Livre III. Budé.   Paris:  Les Belles Lettres, 2004.  Pp. xl, 317.  ISBN 2-251-01407-1.  €50.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by John Scarborough, School of Pharmacy and Department of Classics, University of Wisconsin (
Word count: 2056 words

In the Budé edition, Pliny the Elder now occupies three linear feet on a single shelf, and publication is not yet completed. Editing a single book of the Natural History as a single volume has the notable advantage of allowing each editor good scope for extended commentary, but as the series has progressed, some of the original books in Pliny's account have been split in their turn (Book III, under review here, is the first of four books on geography assembled by Pliny, and previously issued have been Book V in a "first part," North Africa, edited by J. Desanges [1980], and Book VI in a "second part," Central Asia, the East, and India, edited by J. André and J. Filliozat [1980]; Book IV, edited by Zehnacker and A. Silberman, scheduled for 2003, has not appeared). Thus Books I-III, V, pt. 1, VI, pt. 2, and VII-XXXVII of the Natural History are now available with freshly-edited texts, normally good translations, and generally helpful commentaries. The Budé texts certainly supersede the old and rather ungainly Latin edition in the Teubners, edited by L. Ian and C. Mayhoff (in six volumes [1865-1898]), which became the basis for the occasionally wobbly translations by Rackham and others in the Loeb Classical Library. Except for some learned and precise comments by John Bostock and H. T. Riley in the nineteenth-century Bohn translation (The Natural History of Pliny [London, 1855-1857] in six volumes), there is nothing comparable in English to what is offered here in French.

Zehnacker's edition in Book III is marginally an improvement over that produced in the Teubner (the manuscript tradition is somewhat more reliable for the earlier books than those that follow Book XIV), and the translation is better than what one gets in the Loebs. Since much of Pliny's geography is catalogued listings of places, translation is straightforward, unless there is uncertainty about the actual name and a geographical location -- and this is where a good commentary is essential. In Book XXXIII (metals and metallurgy, gemstones, trade-routes, the exorbitant prices for baubles from pearls to sapphires [1983]), Zehnacker has produced a solid translation and wide-ranging commentary but has little to say about Pliny's fascination about metals made into tools, medical or otherwise. Zehnacker marshals to good effect parallel texts from Pomponius Mela, Strabo, Ptolemy's Geography, Julius Solinus, and the collections of the fragments of lost geographers, indicating how the Romans perceived quite differently what we think of as "distance" and space, but he does not explore questions of cartography, which are central to analysis of Agrippa's map, nor how travellers and traders conceived linearly the relation between time and distance as they went from place to place (conceptions related in turn to the roads linking urban centers, inns, and exchange-points for animal transport).

Book III summarizes the geography of Spain, Gallia Narbonensis, Italy, Sicily, Noricum, Pannonia, Upper Moesia, and Dalmatia, and thus is a fundamental text for historians of the early Roman Empire, as has long been recognized, Zehnacker's commentary adds little to what is known about roads, military campaigns, inscriptions, tribal units, and travellers' accounts. One wishes that there was a better accounting for the variations of approach to geography by the Romans to help us compare Strabo and his local tales, Pomponius Mela and the concept of coastal regions one could tour, and whatever Solinus added to the whole picture as he borrowed Pliny's own account. French and German scholarship are well represented in the notes and commentary, but, as is typical of many volumes in the Budé series, there is little notice taken of outstanding research in English, in this case scholarship on Roman geography, map making, road building, land surveying, urban planning, and the role of climate and rainfall. Thus, although Germaine Aujac's Strabon et la science de son temps (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1966), remains one of the better studies of this basic source, an interested reader also should be made aware of Sir Ronald Syme's Anatolica: Studies in Strabo, ed. by Anthony Birley (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995 [published posthumously]), and the insights garnered by Daniela Dueck in her Strabo of Amasia: A Greek Man of Letters in Augustan Rome (London and New York: Routledge, 2002); while omission of Frank E. Romer's very fine translation (with a splendid introduction) of Pomponius Mela's Chorography as Pomponius Mela's Description of the World (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998) suggests Zehnacker has chosen to omit excellent work in English (the Latin text cited by Zehnacker for comparative purposes is rightly that edited by A. Silberman as Pomponius Mela Chorographie [Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1988]). Ptolemy's Geography now has the superb commentary and translation into English (partial) by J. Lennart Berggren and Alexander Jones as Ptolemy's Geography: An Annotated Translation of the Theoretical Chapters (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2000), and Zehnacker and his readers would have gained perceptive ideas about tall-tales intermingling with ancient geography in James S. Romm's definitive The Edges of the Earth in Ancient Thought (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992). Moreover, it is in English that one finds the best work on surveying, map-making, and the whole series of texts and problems attending the agrimensores, ranging from O. A. W. Dilke's pioneering The Roman Land Surveyors: An Introduction to the Agrimensores (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1971) and Greek and Roman Maps (London: Thames and Hudson, 1985), to the edition, translation, and commentaries of Brian Campbell, The Writings of the Roman Land Surveyors (London: Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies, 2000 [Journal of Roman Studies monograph No. 9]). The current cornucopia of excellent scholarship on ancient geography does include some fine works in French and German, but omitting comparable studies in English narrows the necessary guidance for fellow-scholars who will turn to the Budé texts and commentaries for much extraneous information.

The text is well-edited, improved where it could be improved, and the translation is better than what one gets in the Loebs (not better than Bostock and Riley in the old Bohn series), but the commentary lacks depth, seemingly confined to a catalogue of places. This is partially faithful to Pliny's intent, to be sure, but leaves out the breathless enthusiasm our polymath infuses as he collects facts and details and the continual historical and cultural associations Pliny makes with those geographical locales -- they are anything but bare-boned catalogues if one notes the history stuffed into the sections. For example, there is an intriguing bit on Pyrrhus thinking about building a causeway between Epirus and Apulia (III, 101 = Zehnacker, p. 58), simply dismissed as confusion about Xerxes' famous bridge and a reference to the tactics of Pompey in containing pirates, as alluded to by Varro (Zehnacker, p. 208 comm.); and there are hundreds of these inserted anecdotes in Natural History, III, each of which deserve careful inquiry and interpretation. Sometimes one cannot trust Pliny's rapid-phasing memory, but to assume in advance that such details are untrustworthy is to presume a modern scholar "knows better" than someone rather closer in time to the event or fact under consideration.

After World War II, Les Belles Lettres announced the new edition, translation, and commentary on Pliny the Elder, to be published as single books, edited by one or more scholars, and Book XI (Insects and Invertebrates, and Body-Parts' Nomenclature), appeared in 1947, edited by A. Ernout and R. Pépin (Pépin shortly edited and published an edition with translation and commentary of the medical poem by the third-century Serenus as Quintus Serenus (Serenus Sammonicus) Liber medicinalis (Le livre de médecine) [Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1950]), and commentaries in both volumes were brief and not particularly informative. Les Belles Lettres published Book XII of Histoire naturelle (Trees) in 1949, again edited by Ernout, with translation and ephemeral commentary, and I and II of Histoire naturelle appeared in 1951, both edited and translated by J. Beujeau (the "Table of Contents," and Pliny's famous accounts of astronomy and cosmology), followed by Books VIII (Land Animals [1952]), and XIII (Exotic Plants[1956]), again edited with minimal commentary by A. Ernout. To this point, the incisive and extensive notes in the Bostock and Riley 1855-1857 English translation of Pliny's Natural History remained far more instructive than what had been made available in the new French editions and translations. Once, however, the talented Jacques André became involved in the project, the quality of both translations and commentaries improved markedly, and his edition of Book XIV (Fruit-Bearing Trees, and Vines [1958]), soon became a standard reference.

In 1958, A. Ernout and R. Pépin produced their edition of Histoire naturelle, Book XXVI (Remedies from Plants, Classed by Disease), followed in 1959 by Ernout's Book XXVII (More Botanical Remedies), continuing with the same editor's texts and translations of XXVIII (Remedies from Living Creatures [1962]), XXIX (More Remedies from Living Creatures [1962]: XXIX, 1-8, contains Pliny's 'history of medicine,' and his famous invectives against Greek physicians), and XXX (More Remedies from Animals [1963]). But it was the brilliant scholarship of Jacques André that lifted the Budé Pliny into the levels of standard texts and commentaries, and from 1958 through 1974, André edited, translated, and composed significant commentaries on twelve books of Pliny's encyclopedia.1 To this list of prodigious scholarship, André added collaboration (with R. Bloch and A. Rouveret) in producing the fine edition, translation and commentary of Book XXXVI (Properties and Nature of Stones [1981]), as well as his own edition, translation and commentary of an anonymous Latin tract on physiognomy (Budé Traité de physiognomie [1981]), and much of the research performed for forty years is distilled in his L'Alimentation et la cuisine à Rome (Les Belles Lettres, 1981), Les noms de plantes dans la Rome antique (1985: a greatly appreciated corrective to the errors in LSJ), and Le vocabulaire latin de l'anatomie (1991). André gives due credit to some fine scholarship in Italian, Spanish, and English, as well as the continuing production of some spendid work on ancient science and medicine in German. This characteristic acknowledgement of the culture-spanning profession of classical scholarship simply enriches André's writing, as does the sure command of the details of botany, medicine, phytochemistry, and zoology. Zehnacker's Pliny is not on the same plane as given by André, but the new edition of Book III is of far better substance than the early texts and commentaries on Pliny in the Budé collection.

Les Belles Lettres currently is displaying a welcome sense of inclusion in the publication of several editions, translations, and commentaries on medical and scientific works, generally ignored by the editors of the Loeb Classical Library, and neglected by Teubner's replacement press, E. G. Saur. Recently, the Greek text and translation with commentary on Soranus' Gynecology was completed in four volumes (1988, 1990, 1994, 2000), and there are new editions of Cassius Felix (2002), Ctesias of Cnidus (2004), Gargilius Martialis (2002), three volumes devoted to Greek alchemy (1995, 2000, 2002), Galen's Exhortation to Study Medicine and On the Art of Medicine (2000), the four volumes of Hermetic texts in reprint (2002), Greek lapidary texts (1985), and Book I of Celsus' De medicina (1995, ed. G. Serbat, whose 1972 edition of Pliny, Book XXXI, gave notice of another great talent in the Budé series). The eleven volumes of Hippocratic works in the Budé generally duplicate those now in the Loeb Classical Library, but the French editions carry some remarkable commentaries by J. Jouanna, R. Joly, and M.-P. Duminil (one wonders why no series of the Hippocratic writings includes a modern edition, translation and commentary on the works of gynecology and obstetrics).2

Les Belles Lettres suffered a terrible fire on 29 May 2002, in which the firm lost over 3,000,000 books, but it has decided to reprint all 794 titles in the previously published Budé series. One can only wish the publishing house the best of luck, and classical scholarship has benefited enormously from its editorial decisions, which have attempted to incorporate the full range of texts in Greek and Latin. The latest volume in the ongoing edition of Pliny the Elder is testimony to these efforts, and generally the quality of the editions and commentaries from Les Belles Lettres has been of a high order. One looks forward to the completion of Histoire naturelle, and the further inclusion of other texts and translations of medical and scientific tracts from Greek and Roman antiquity.


1.   XV (Fruit-Bearing Trees [1960]; XVI (Wild or Forest Trees [1962]); XVII (Cultivated Trees [1964]); XIX (Flax and Linen, and Garden Plants [1964]); XX (Remedies from Garden Plants [1965]); XXI (Flowers and Wreaths [1969]); XXII (Properties and Importance of Plants [1970]); XXIII (Remedies from Cultivated Trees [1971]); XXIV (Remedies from Wild or Forest Trees [1972]); and XXV (The Properties and Nature of Wild Plants [1974]).
2.   Unhappily, in his new edition, translation, and commentary Nicander's Theriaca (2002) Jean-Marie Jacques openly shuns the applicable natural history of snakes, spiders, scorpions, insects, and so forth. Such willful neglect of the basic protein chemistry of snake and spider venoms, and the fairly assured identifications of species among the reptiles, insects, arachnids, myriapods, and other animals, denigrates our very shrewd ancient predecessors.

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