Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.01.39

Roy K. Gibson, Ruth Morello (ed.), Pliny the Elder: Themes and Contexts. Mnemosyne supplements. Monographs on Greek and Roman Language and Literature, 329.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2011.  Pp. xiv, 248.  ISBN 9789004202344.  $141.00.  

Reviewed by Harry Hine, University of St Andrews (

Table of Contents

This volume of papers grew out of a conference on the Elder Pliny held at the University of Manchester in 2006. The first few papers are on different aspects of Pliny and imperialism. Rhiannon Ash, ‘Pliny the Elder’s attitude to warfare’ (1-19), looks at the various ways in which warfare features in the Natural History: events are regularly dated during a specific war; warfare, and the spare time that goes with army life, enable military men to be ‘cutting-edge researchers’ (7), discovering new information, and bringing their discoveries back to Rome; Pliny also acknowledges the costs of war; yet war is not just a human aberration, for he sees it in the physical and animal worlds; ultimately the Pax Romana has been achieved by war, and can only be maintained by military vigilance.

Andrew Fear, ‘The Roman’s burden’ (21-34), asks what light Pliny can shed on the motivations of Roman imperialism. He argues against post-colonial approaches that hold that ‘at best, Rome was indifferent to the nature of her subjects’ lives and that often Roman rule was actively harmful to provincials and knowingly so’ (22). Pliny, by contrast, sees the empire as bringing civilisation and humanitas to the provinces (in HN 27.2-3 the Romans, by bringing peace, are a gift of the gods to mankind). Pliny has a real horror of barbarism, which is partly based on his military experience: his negative view of the primitive living conditions of the Chauci (HN 16.3- 4) contrasts tellingly with Tacitus’s description of them as populus inter Germanos nobilissimus (Germ. 35). Fear argues that, since Pliny’s comments about empire are all made in passing, they are likely to be representative of his time, and they cohere with evidence that the Flavians were concerned for the interests of the provincials.

Eugenia Lao, ‘Luxury and the creation of a good consumer’ (35-56), looks first at the metaphorical economy of knowledge and intellectual activity in the Natural History: knowledge is a commodity, Pliny’s work is a publicly available storehouse full of it, and he acknowledges the sources of his information; by contrast he criticises those who hoard knowledge for themselves, or steal ideas without acknowledgement, and he laments the decline in intellectual trade. The second part of the paper looks at the information Pliny provides for producers and consumers of material goods and commodities, information that enables purchasers to be wiser and more discerning; but the risk for Pliny is that in encouraging connoisseurship he also encourages the love of excessive luxury that he deplores.

The next two contributions take different approaches to the mirabilia that are so prominent in the Natural History. Valérie Naas, ‘Imperialism, mirabilia and knowledge: some paradoxes in the Naturalis Historia (57-70), draws attention to some of the paradoxes in Pliny’s handling of mirabilia. Traditionally marvels were associated with the periphery of the known world, and the expansion of the Roman empire enables the discovery of new marvels; but these marvels are often brought back to Rome to be displayed there, and as a consequence Rome itself has become the greatest marvel (HN 36.101). Sometimes Pliny wants to give a rational explanation for marvels, sometimes he is content to let them remain beyond the reach of explanation. The concentration on marvels, Naas argues, risked contributing to the decline in scientific progress, and in Pliny’s view the empire itself endangers the advance of knowledge, for both peace and loss of freedom are obstacles to its progress (but Naas acknowledges that the theme of loss of freedom leaves few traces in the Natural History).

Mary Beagon, ‘The curious eye of the Elder Pliny’ (71-88), also discusses Pliny’s use of mirabilia, and arrives at a more positive evaluation than Naas. She contrasts Pliny with Seneca, who is constantly trying to draw the reader’s attention from the terrestrial to the celestial, and from what is visible to the eyes to what is discerned with the mind; whereas Pliny places a higher value on the terrestrial. Whereas Naas thinks that understanding removes the need for wonder, and that the pursuit of marvels is a factor in the decline of scientific investigation, Beagon, while acknowledging that explanation can destroy wonder, argues that for Pliny new wonders are constantly appearing with changes in the environment, and ‘wonder and explanation can knit together in a never-ending circle of intellectual curiosity, rather than presenting the inquirer with a simple and finite one-way journey from wonder to explanation’ (86).

Ernesto Paparazzo, ‘Philosophy and science in the Elder Pliny’s Naturalis Historia’ (89-111), argues that Pliny is acquainted with Stoic ideas about the elements, nature, mixture, and other aspects of physics, and that he operates with the Posidonian conception of the clear demarcation between philosophy and science, with science in an ancillary role. Paparazzo offers attractive explanations of a number of puzzling passages, and shows that some of the much-repeated arguments that Pliny is a low-grade popular scientist, or that his ethical drive is inconsistent with a scientific approach, are founded on modern notions rather than the Stoic notions with which Pliny operated. Finally he suggests that Pliny’s Stoicism is most likely mediated via Antiochus and Varro. Paparazzo acknowledges that Pliny had only a general acquaintance with Stoicism (‘I am not maintaining that he was an adept, scholarly competent follower of Stoicism’ (106)), which maybe disarms objections that some things in Pliny are incompatible with Stoicism. But occasionally he seems to be straining too hard to find a Stoic basis for Pliny’s utterances: for instance, the stark contrast between ratio and uoluntas (sc. numinum) at HN 37.60 (numinum profecto talis inuentio est et hoc munus omne, nec quaerenda ratio in ulla parte naturae, sed uoluntas) seems scarcely compatible with Stoicism; for SVF 2.933, which Paparazzo quotes (100), says that the divine will is a series of causes (compare Seneca Ep. 65.4, quoted on p. 101).

Aude Doody, ‘The science and aesthetics of names in the Natural History’ (113-29), surveys the functions of names in Pliny, and the various problems they could pose. The needs of the specialist who wished to be able to identify things in the real world were rather different from those of the generalist looking for a pleasurable read, and it was a problem for Pliny himself to identify all the plants, for instance, whose names he gives: similar names could be confused, the same species could have more than one name or no name, the same name was sometimes used for more than one species, and so on. On a literary level, the series of names can give structure to the exposition (things with similar sorts of names could be grouped together), and there are patriotic and aesthetic issues if too many Greek or barbarian names clutter up the text. Pliny has to negotiate a way between the potential of names either to impress or to bore the reader.

The next three papers look closely at particular passages of the Natural History. Cynthia Damon, ‘Pliny on Apion’ (131-45), is principally concerned with a textual problem in a passage of the preface concerning Apion the grammaticus. He was a notorious self-publicist, given to frivolous and even fraudulent displays of learning, so it is not surprising that he, with his bold claim to confer immortality on his dedicatees, appears in the preface (25) as a foil to Pliny; but what is surprising is that he appears in the context of Pliny’s discussion of the exotic titles that earlier writers have given to their works, but in Apion’s case the transmitted text contains no title. Editors have seemingly been content with the incoherence – deeming Pliny to be a poor writer - but Damon argues persuasively that the text must be corrupt, and that aliqua conceals the missing title (... immortalitate donari a se scripsit ad quos aliqua componebat). Her tentative suggestion is Ἀλήθεια, which she offers as a shortened version of something such as ‘True History’, a suitably pretentious title; though she readily acknowledges that no solution can be certain.

Ruth Morello, ‘Pliny and the encyclopaedic addressee’ (147-65), takes a close look at the preface of the Natural History, where the frivolous tone of the opening, with its Catullan (mis)quotation, is surprising given that the preface is addressed to Titus and introduces a work that is scarcely frivolous. Morello’s argument is that the preface should ‘be read as a sophisticated exercise in defining a problematic addressee and then turning him into the reader Pliny wants him to be’ (151); as the preface continues, Titus is presented as ‘a totalising polymath’ (159), prima facie well suited to be recipient of the Natural History, but at the same time he is a connoisseur of Catullan poetry, so not certain to be enamoured of this heavyweight encyclopaedic work, whose real audience is farmers and artisans. But there is a novel twist at the end: Pliny has provided an index, and neither Titus nor anyone else is expected to read the work all through. ‘Pliny’s only real nugae are his playful prefatory thoughts, but even in them he means business’ (165).

Clemence Schultze, ‘Encyclopaedic exemplarity in Pliny the Elder’ (167-86), suggests that the historical exempla in Pliny provide him with a means of engaging with the history of humankind, even though this is not a formal part of his natural history. She examines in detail two exempla, the story of Chresimus (HN 18.41-3), and L. Licinius Crassus and his trees (HN 17.1-6), and argues that they show how Pliny’s exempla require attentive reading, and it is sometimes hard to tell whether they exemplify something good or bad. (Schultze doubts the authenticity of the story of Chresimus, because it comes from the annalist Piso Frugi, and ‘the terms chresimos and frugi are linked by Cicero (Tusc. 3.16-17) as possible translations of each other’ (175), which she finds too good to be true. But the argument seems tenuous; what Cicero says of frugalitas is: angustius apud Graecos ualet, qui frugi hominesχρησίμουςappellant, id est, tantum modo utiles; which is not really saying that the Greek word is a possible translation of the Latin.)

The last two papers deal with early reception. Roy Gibson, ‘Elder and better: the Naturalis Historia and the Letters of the Younger Pliny’ (187-205), argues first that the younger Pliny knew his uncle’s work well and expected his readers to know it too. The argument that the Younger’s treatment of Catullus in Ep. 1.16.3-6 echoes and responds to the Elder’s remarks on Catullus in his preface is persuasive, but Gibson seems to acknowledge that some of the other claimed allusions are more recherché. The second half of the paper argues that in Ep. 3.5, listing the Elder’s writings, Pliny deliberately follows the order of composition rather than publication, so that the list culminates with the Natural History rather than the posthumously published history, even though the Elder had treated the latter as the more important work (Pref. 18-20); this ordering, together with the Vesuvius letter 6.16, which casts the Elder as dying in the cause of science, has served to boost the reputation of the Natural History as the Elder’s crowning achievement.

Finally, Michael Reeve, ‘The Vita Plinii’ (207-22), traces the fortunes of the brief life of Pliny, generally thought to be Suetonian, in the manuscripts and early printed editions of Pliny, and produces a fresh edition and translation of the text. Reeve shows that the attribution to Suetonius is not securely transmitted in the manuscripts, but he finds a couple of tell-tale Suetonian fingerprints in the language of the life.

These papers, as varied in subject matter and approach as the Natural History itself, together form a valuable addition to the ever-growing bibliography on Pliny. There is a General Index and Index of Passages at the end.

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