Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.01.53

Mary Beagon, The Elder Pliny on the Human Animal. Natural History Book 7. Translation with introduction and historical commentary. Clarendon Ancient History Series.   Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 2005.  Pp. 544.  ISBN 0-19-927701-X.  $55.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Donald Lateiner, Ohio Wesleyan University (
Word count: 2648 words

"True glory consists in doing what deserves to be written; in writing what deserves to be read; and in so living as to make the world happier for our living in it." -- C. Plinius Secundus

Mary Beagon, author of the synoptic and influential Roman Nature. The Thought of Pliny the Elder (1992; see S. Myers' review at BMCR 1993.03.19) again pursues the elusive elder Pliny, here in a different format, the atomistic commentary. Biology, anthropology, cultural determinism, and human physiology reveal that man is the highest species in the order of creation (anthropocentric or "teleological emphasis"). The 'crown of creation' approach still appeals to many among us earthlings, even as we examine and cherish ethnic, cultural, and individual characteristics and differences. But, what about the scrap-heap of primitive beliefs, the evil eye, inland Italian fire-walking, the exotic marvels of the (non-Roman and therefore inferior) Other -- Indians, Ethiopians, and Pygmies, for example?

C. Plinius Secundus, purveyor of the generous view, later endorsed by more than one acerbic critic, that nullum esse librum tam malum ut non aliqua parte prodesset, or "no book is so bad that nothing good can be had from some part of it," would like this study of his omnium gatherum. "The first detailed commentary on Book 7" annotates the usual historical gleanings but also "the off-beat, the curious, and the obscure," of which there is a great deal here. The equestrian and admiral Pliny may have been more prone to eccentric beliefs than others of his educated class. We cannot tell, although he thought it wise to aver: "Indeed, what is there that does not appear marvelous when it comes to our knowledge for the first time? How many things, too, are looked upon as quite impossible until they have been actually effected?" The low threshold of his susceptibility to what we choose to denigrate by the word "superstition" surprises the inexperienced.

Pliny writes thoughts worth repeating: "In comparing various authors with one another, I have discovered that some of the gravest and latest writers have transcribed, word for word, from former works, without making acknowledgment." Pliny also notes that "it is generally much more shameful to lose a good reputation than never to have acquired it." Pliny further realized that "No mortal man, moreover, is wise at all moments." Therefore, he advises, "The best plan is to profit by the folly of others."

Not many ancient sources that survive manage in one book to address burning questions such as life expectancy among the Indians, how to go about changes of sex, dangers of pregnancy (e.g., maternal impression) and birth, personal characteristics that can be transmitted to children , unusual examples of strength, sight, voice, and memory. Outstanding achievements of Caesar and Pompey, the activities of the Father of his Country, Augustus, exceptionally intelligent Romans, outstanding scientists and artists of other ethnicities, happiness, the shortness of life, signs of impending death -- Pliny can leave you breathless. Then, he discusses, in this same book, the nature of the soul, the revival of people observed to be dead, attitudes toward cremation, and beliefs in an after-life. As lagniappe (a Quechua Indian word in origin), he notes the discovery of the various arts and sciences with notable moments of technological progress, such as the invention of sundials and water clocks. For him "life is on-guard awakeness" (vita vigilia est; praef. HN). This hardworking Roman ethic penetrates the industrious brain that produced the HN.

Folklorists, then, anthropologists, and social historians can join philologists, epigraphers, and historians in facing a bewildering smorgasbord of naturalia, mirabilia, and incredibilia. The encyclopaedic project to catalogue human constructs and nature's rules and sports appealed to the audience of the earth-conquering early Roman Empire. Pliny proffers both sane dismissals of the absurd and bizarre endorsements of the impossible. His nephew from Como avers (in the precious and pious biography, Ep. 3.5) that the iuridicus Larcius Licinus in 73/4 offered 400,000 HSS for his uncle's many voluminous notebooks (we read of 160 minutissimis scriptos which survived at his death; Ep. 3.5.17). What would have come of this transaction, had it been accepted? Pliny's surviving family consisted of this nephew (his heir) and a sister; other family remains only speculation (as A.N. Sherwin-White cautions in the Letters of Pliny 219 and R. Syme (usually, e.g., in "Pliny the Procurator," HSCP 73 (1969) 201-36 = Roman Papers II (Oxford 1979) 742-73).

Cranky curiosity-seekers like Dr. Samuel Johnson looked into the obscure byways of this "relatively neglected treasure-trove of ancient common wisdom" (Beagon x). The well-read Doctor has only once been detected paraphrasing Pliny's HN (Rambler #4, 31 March 1750 refers to HN 35.85, Apelles' error in fashioning Venus' sandal). In Rambler #60 (13 October 1750), the accomplished Latinist wrote: "The general and rapid narratives of history, which involve a thousand fortunes in the business of a day, and complicate innumerable incidents in one great transaction, afford few lessons applicable to private life, which derives its comforts and its wretchedness from the right or wrong management of things, which nothing but their frequency makes considerable. Parva si non quotidie fiunt, says Pliny [here the reflective Minor, Ep. 3.1], and which can have no place in those relations which never descend below the consultations of senates, the motions of armies, and the schemes of conspirators." Pliny Maior was an obsessive reader, annotator, and writer, as his unexpected indexes and references to inventors here reveal (e.g., 192-214). Otium was not in his lexicon or on his calendar. His nephew, himself no slouch, describes a typical day: officia and studia, business and literary-scientific pursuits (Ep. 3.5.16). Uncle died with his sandals on.

Pliny was out to inventory the world with an amateur's dedication to expanding horizons, enlarging mentalities, and showing progress from the historical past -- think Guinness Book of [World] Records: "smallest waist on a living person" (15" on a 5'8" woman), "furthest basketball slam dunk from a trampoline" (19 feet), etc. No ancient author lists more sources, and many provided none. Pliny lists those that he respects and those that he scorns -- claiming to have perused two thousand books, an underestimate that Beagon notes (30). Did I hear you say "vacuous"? Shame on you! Paradoxography, the hunger for sensational oddities, met the steely eyes of another miscellanist, the African Aulus Gellius (NA 9.1-12) and of the priestly convivial Greek Plutarch (On Curiosity, Mor. 517-22), and later the miracle-phobe, Lucian (True Histories). But monster documentation lives on in the age of science: largest skull, tail, tusk, snake, insect wingspan (27.5"), litter, nest, amphibian, fish, scorpion (11.5"); oldest chelonian (173 years); longest snake; highest rabbit high jump; smelliest flower; heaviest cucumber (27 lbs., 5.3 oz.) -- you get the "Guinness" idea: varietas naturae, especially generis humani with its versatility and unexpected highs and lows, moral as well as physical extremes. Mankind is hymned for its unexpected fringe races, sui generis individuals, and notable capacities (speech, sexual intercourse 24/7/365, menstruation, keen eyesight (200 kilometers for an unknown Strabo), longevity, etc.)

We possess (praise the monks!) the entire Plinian product from the universe to geography (2-6), from humans to animals and plants, even minerals. But, the focus, pace any mere Aristotle, is man in nature, anthropocentric Stoicism, and finally Romanocentric triumphalism (Beagon 21, 26, 50, 116). Although inclusive, indeed encyclopaedic (HN praef. 14, for the rare word), Pliny's exposition is neither systematic nor analytic nor uniform. He is thinking of practical applications. His massive work publicly displays the macrocosm in a microcosm -- Rome's inexorable advance and domination catalogued on a shelf of book-rolls. Romans are the most versatile, adaptable, and therefore best of all peoples. Best of all -- and happiest -- was Augustus (147). Caesar gets both praise and blame (91), as Augustus ensured, but Pompey receives higher praise than Caesar for more square miles added to the empire (95-97). Catilina's grandfather, Marcus Sergius (104-6), tops the list for having conquered Fortune herself. Cicero gets but an apostrophe for his pre-eminence (116).

The Victorians understood such noble Fachliteratur, byproducts of military imperialism. Americans may now be more ambivalent or confused about their beneficent and peaceful selflessness, their Herculean "spreading around" of democracy, but President Theodore Roosevelt had no qualms. Thus self-confident, he strenuously pursued hunting game in Africa, building the Panama Canal for unappreciative Columbians and Chileans, and personally collecting (at great personal risk) ornithological specimens on the previously unexplored River of Doubt in the Amazonian jungle (see, recently, Candice Millard's study of the presidential naturalist, The River of Doubt. Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey ).

The introduction of 57 pages presents the facts and controversies of Pliny's career (did he attend, participate in, or annotate from a corner, Neronian orgies with Petronius and Silia (Tac. Ann. 16.20)? How did a good man survive under bad emperors, Julio-Claudian or Flavian? Like his imperial tent-mate, or in imitation, Pliny decried the previous dynasty's excesses of luxury and applauded the current one's useful public edifices. Bizarre and brutal Nero looks bad in Pliny (46), no surprise in any Flavian author, a fortiori in a no-nonsense one. For him, luxury (94), decadence, and indolence offer negative foils to physical labor, primitive Italian simplicity, and Roman dynamic "can do" attitudes.

Stoic humanitarian ideals encouraged a few emperors to implement vast expenditures of public paternalism, euergetism to the max. Pliny inserted in and decoratively pinned common wisdom on a vulgar Stoic skeleton of epistemology. Stoics were thick enough in the Po Valley, e.g., Thrasea Paetus of Padova, Pomponius his friend, probably the Stoic malcontents of Nero's day who became the victims in the alleged conspiracy of 65 CE. One can more easily imagine him convivializing with the inquisitive Stoic Seneca (Sen. Ep. 82.3) than with the poetic Stoic Lucan or the unStoic Epicurean voluptuary Petronius, but Neronian politics, we know (Tac. Ann. 16. 18-19), produced strange bedfellows. Titus, dedicatee of HN, was for Pliny both maximus and iucundissimus (cf. Tac. Hist. 2.1 and 77). His tastes differed from those of his philosopher-expelling father Vespasian's (Suet. Vesp. 3).

This Pliny (born in 23 CE) was a teenager under Tiberius, and perhaps held equestrian office under Nero. He had already become friends with Titus. A cavalryman, he wrote some technical military work, a biography (of his patron P. Pomponius Secundus, cos. suf. 44 and a 'consular poet'), histories (German Wars, in twenty volumes; a continuation of Aufidius Bassus after 68 CE in thirty-one volumes?, probably utilized by Tacitus', his nephew's friend), and the Natural History in thirty-seven volumes, dedicated to that contubernalis in a tranquil Germany, Titus (Suet. Tit. 4). Pliny was procurator (70-76 CE) in several places including probably Hispania Tarraconensis (HN 19.35), perhaps Africa and almost certainly Gallia Belgica (see R. Syme, Tacitus [1958] 1.61). He commanded the vigiles in Rome, meanwhile visiting the equally dawn-devoted Italian emperor Vespasian daily (Ep. 3.5.9), and directed the western fleet at Misenum. He died but two months after his imperial patron, Vespasian, while investigating the Vesuvian eruption of 24 August 79, still only fifty-five years old (Ep. 6.16.4).

The energetic Pliny had wide interests, vivid sympathies, and immense capacities to remember and to collect. He fears leaving out the weird (6) -- the single-eyed and backwards footed (10, 11). The Triballes have looks that kill (16; relevant to students of the Gaze); elsewhere, dog-headed men bark (23). Pliny seems to endorse a divine origin for visions and dreams (86, 109). Longevity yarns force the lucubrating compiler into some welcome skepticism (153-64) and census statistics. Nevertheless, when Pliny calls in the astrologers, we realize that the empiricism was just a feint. After all, Nature wants to amuse herself (32, a surprising personification), so (I suppose) Alcippe gave birth to an elephant (34) not knowing yet, perhaps, that sneezing after sexual intercourse can cause a woman to abort (42). When one reads that menstruation blunts knife blades (64), one hastily turns to Beagon's commentary for help with this vehement locus classicus of the gynaecophobic "medico-magical subculture of folk beliefs" (Beagon 229). There we read that the ancients recorded that menses cloud, corrode, and kill. Menses also draw off boils and fevers, and even calm storms (HN 28.77). Menses blight crops but kill harmful insects. They pollute and they cleanse. On knife-blade blunting, however, there is only a lonely cross-reference to 28.79, where -- once you get there -- the same claim appears for razors with no Beagon to light the way.

Late pagan and early Christian marvel-mongers, unsurprisingly, excerpted the unprecedented work. Christian moralists censored it. Variously interested hands plundered and abridged it (Beagon 35-7). The HN was printed early, first in 1469, and Englished by 1601. No one, I think, has ventured to pronounce it "strangely neglected." Although its "science" has long since been hooted down, the HN has recently experienced a resurgence of attention from those interested in the culture of nature. Beagon also examines his intellectual background, the nature of his unique book, and its themes. A useful English translation of perplexing materials follows the introduction and occupies forty-six pages. Then we reach the main course, the commentary of 366 pages, preceding the twenty-six page bibliography and the index.

Pliny's manic industriousness inclined him to count the sleeping half (not really twelve hours!; see Sherwin-White ad Ep. 3.5.13) of life half a life lost, but then he grows sick of all the ills which beset us and asserts that Nature's best gift is shortness of life (167-8). Happy, sad, and unexpected demises of historical figures follow with paragraphs on the wisdom of cremation for Sulla and the non-existence of the soul (187, 189). He appends a list of inventors including bricks, the level, democracy, the javelin (Penthesilea, 201), the Pyrrhic dance, the oar (from the town of Copae! ha ha! or pathetic etymologizing?), the anchor, etc., etc. Excuse my impatience provoked by this compulsive smorgasbording. Furthermore,I have no woman's brassiere at hand to cure my headache (see HN 28.76).

Pliny describes his arguably dreary epoch as one declining towards the Stoic conflagration (73), but usually he suppresses his veneer of philosophy. The thought is more congenial to the depressive Epicureans (Beagon 254 compares Lucretius DNR 5.827) than to the more cheerful Stoic hypothesis of regeneration and mutual assistance (HN 2.18). Until that inevitable apocalypse, the Romans will stand out for their virtus (130).

This volume in the "Clarendon Ancient History Series" ranges into valuable territories of the offbeat and the obscure in Roman Imperial culture. The lemma form invites references to ancient comparanda often surviving in fragments only (and some authors only are known from this very text!). The alleged phenomena of nature and culture require assiduous attention to scattered folkloric, prosopographic, and medical articles and monographs -- is any one of the reported menstrual or seminal beliefs anyhow valid? The equally industrious Beagon admirably collects ancient, medieval, and later parallels. We welcome this demonstration of how one might intelligently comment today line-by-line on a capacious text that does not commend itself easily to continous reading: a minimum of sal Atticum (cf. HN 31.87). For the synoptic view, one recommends her 1992 Roman Nature. For more specialized studies, the recent Plinian bibliographic eruption includes: R. French and F. Greenaway, eds. Science in the Early Roman Empire: Pliny the Elder, his sources and influence (London 1986), J.F. Healy, Pliny the Elder on Science and Technology (Oxford 1999), V. Naas' Le projet encyclopédique de Pline l'ancien (Rome 2002), S. Carey's Pliny's Catalogue of Culture: Art and Empire in the NH (Oxford 2003), and now Trevor Murphy, Pliny the Elder's NH. The Empire in the Encyclopedia (Oxford 2004) [non vidi]. Beagon has thrown down a gauntlet for thirty-six comparable projects on a credulous author inconsistently rational and persistently perplexing. Would you entrust your fleet to a man who thinks that human saliva provides an antidote for snakebites or that it will drive snakes to scamper off (13-15)?

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