Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.02.57

Jehan Desanges (ed.), Pline I' Ancien, Histoire naturelle, livre VI 4e partie (L'Asie africaine sauf l'Égypte, les dimensions et les climats du monde habité). Collection des Universités de France.   Paris:  Les Belles Lettres, 2008.  Pp. xlii, 327.  ISBN 9782251014500.  €31.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Stanley M. Burstein, California State University, Los Angeles (

The past few decades have seen renewed interest in Pliny the Elder and the Historia Naturalis with a corresponding growing recognition of the magnitude of the work and of Pliny's achievement in compiling it. The geographical books (Books 3-6), however, have largely been exempt from this revision. Almost 130 years ago E. H. Bunbury1 observed apropos of these books that "we are struck with the almost total absence of any scientific comprehension of his subject," and little has changed in the assessment of them since then. Yet, not only are these books the fullest extant geographical treatise in Latin, but they are of fundamental importance for the geography and history of many parts of the ancient world. This is particularly true of the final fifty-seven chapters of the sixth book (6. 163-220) edited in this valuable addition to the Budé edition of the Historia Naturalis.

These relatively few chapters are critically important sources for the history of ancient Africa. Without them, our knowledge of the historical geography of Hellenistic Nubia and the Red Sea basin and the history of Ptolemaic activity south of Egypt would be greatly impoverished. And their importance is not limited to northeast Africa, since they contain also the earliest account of the discovery and exploration of the Canary Islands. Fortunately, this section of the Historia Naturalis has found the ideal editor in Jehan Desanges.

The pre-eminent French historian of ancient Africa, for almost half a century since the publication in 1962 of his first book, Catalogue des Tribus Africaines de l'Antiquité Classique à l'Ouest du Nil (Dakar, 1962), Professor Desanges has published a steady stream of books and articles dealing with the text and content of the African sections of the Historia Naturalis. In 1980 he published the first half of his project of providing a complete critical and annotated edition of Pliny's evidence for the historical geography of ancient Africa outside of Egypt in the form of a masterful edition of the North African sections of the Historia Naturalis (5, 1-46).2 Now 28 years later he has completed his project with this fine edition of Historia Naturalis 6, 163-220.

The plan of the volume follows the model of his edition of Historia Naturalis 5, 1-46. A relatively brief introduction is followed by the Latin text accompanied by a clear French translation, commentary, indices of human, divine, and geographical names, and maps of the regions discussed in the text. It is not a criticism of the quality of Professor Desanges' editorial work to say, however, that readers will primarily consult it not so much for the text of these chapters of the Historia Naturalis as for the commentary.

The commentary is truly massive--270 pages of commentary on 31 pages of text or almost ten pages of commentary for each page of text--and comprehensive. Virtually every ancient source on the upper Nile valley and Red Sea is drawn into the discussion of Pliny's text. Equally important, during the almost three decades between the publication of Professor Desanges' edition Historia Naturalis 5, 1-46 and the present volume there has been a massive outpouring of scholarship on the history and archaeology of ancient Nubia and the Red Sea basin, and this scholarship is fully reviewed and critically discussed in the commentary. While the commentary ranges over virtually every aspect of the history of ancient northeast Africa, three themes predominate: Pliny's sources, historical geography, and, of course, the problems of the text itself.

With regard to Pliny's sources for these chapters, Professor Desanges is firmly on the side of those scholars, who believe that Pliny was an active writer, who actually consulted the works he cited instead of finding them already predigested in earlier synthetic works. Accordingly, he identifies multiple sources for this section of the Historia Naturalis. Most important is Juba II's Arabica (FGrH 275 Ff 1-3), which provided Pliny with the basic framework of his account, but which Professor Desanges argues that he supplemented and corrected with material drawn from three groups of eyewitness accounts: Hellenistic works summarizing the results of Ptolemaic exploration of Nubia such as those of Bion, Dalion, and Aristocreon; the official reports of the Nubian campaign of P. Petronius in the 20s BC and the scouting expedition dispatched by Nero in the 60s AD, the latter of which allowed Pliny (HN 6, 184) to claim that the long controversy over the distance between Syene and Meroe had been settled; and, finally contemporary merchants, who had direct knowledge of the Red Sea.

The heart of this section of the Historia Naturalis, however, is Pliny's account of the historical geography of the Nile valley between the first cataract and the Kushite capital Meroe, and it forms, therefore, the core of Professor Desanges' commentary. Pliny's account is built around four lists of toponyms (HN 6, 178-82): Bion's lists of settlements on the east and west banks of the Nile, Juba's parallel list of settlements on the east bank of the Nile, and the much shorter list of towns between Syene and Napata recorded by P. Petronius in the mid 20s BC. The historical value of these lists is great. They, for example, clearly disprove the theory that Lower Nubia was uninhabited for most of the first millennium BC. Identifying, however, the toponyms mentioned by Pliny with places known from Egyptian and Meroitic sources is difficult. Almost three decades ago the Egyptologist Karl-Heinz Priese3 proposed a comprehensive set of identifications for these toponyms based on alleged parallels between them and place names mentioned in Greek, Meroitic, Hieroglyphic, Coptic, and Arabic sources. Priese's identifications have been widely accepted and underlie all recent maps of ancient Nubia, including my own and its companion (Maps 81-82) in the Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World. It is a sobering experience, therefore, to read Professor Desanges' demonstration of the flaws in Priese's methodology and his exhaustive name by name deconstruction of Priese's identifications, leaving no doubt that in all too many cases the only possible conclusion is non liquet. As a result, all future reconstructions of the settlement history of the Upper Nile Valley will have to begin with Desanges' thorough commentary on Pliny's toponym lists.

The same toponym lists make producing a satisfactory text of these chapters of the Historia Naturalis a challenge for editors. The manuscripts preserve medieval scribes' efforts to accurately copy long strings of what, to them, were meaningless syllables, that themselves represented Pliny's attempt to produce Latin equivalents for Greek transcriptions of originally Nubian place names. In this situation, simply knowing where to divide the groups of barely understood syllables into words is often impossible. Similar problems are provided by the numerous ethnonyms and numerals--most of the latter of which result from Pliny's conversion of distances he found expressed in Greek stades in his sources into Roman miles--scattered throughout the text. Understandably, therefore, Professor Desanges' approach to his task is cautious, adhering as closely as possible to the readings of the manuscripts--many of which he newly collated for this edition--while engaging with the work of his predecessors, particularly the fundamental early 20th century editions of Mayhoff and Detlefsen. The result is a conservative text, largely purged of adventurous emendations such as, e.g., Detlefsen's arbitrary replacement of the manuscripts' artificum with elephantum at HN 6, 186, that is a worthy addition to the Budé edition of the Historia Naturalis.

The completion of a scholarly project extending over three decades is a rare event, particularly when the project is a truly magisterial edition of an important text such as Professor Desanges' edition of the African sections of the Historia Naturalis. Like its predecessor, historians of ancient geography and Africanists will find this volume indispensable. It is unfortunate, therefore, that the indexes--a brief index of gods and persons, another of geographical names, and index rerum, all keyed to Pliny's text--are inadequate, making it difficult to efficiently access the vast and varied body of information contained in the commentary.


1.   E. H. Bunbury, A History of Ancient Geography (London, 1883) 2, 374.
2.   Desanges, Jehan (ed., trans., comm.). Pline I' Ancien, Histoire naturelle, livre V 1-46 L'Afrique du Nord (Paris, 1980).
3.   Unfortunately, Priese's doctoral thesis in which he developed his arguments was never published. His conclusions, therefore, are available only in the form of brief articles, most importantly, Karl-Heinz Priese, "Zu Ortsliste der römischen Meroe-expeditionen unter Nero," Meroitica 1 (1973) 123-26; and "Orte des mittleren Niltals in der Überlieferungen bis zum Ende des christlichen Mittelalters," Meroitica 7 (1984) 484-97.

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2010
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review
Bryn Mawr Classical Commentaries

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010

HTML generated at 10:22:18, Friday, 19 February 2010