Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.10.07 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.10.07

Hubert Zehnacker, Alain Silberman, Pline l'ancien: Histoire naturelle, livre IV. Collection des universités de France. Série latine, 409.   Paris:  Les Belles Lettres, 2015.  Pp. lvi, 401.  ISBN 9782251014692.  €65.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Tyler T. Travillian, Pacific Lutheran University (


Zehnacker and Silberman’s new edition of Pliny the Elder, Book IV fills a long-standing gap in the Collection Budé’s texts of the Historia Naturalis, which now lacks only the second (and any subsequent) parts of book V and the first and third parts of book VI. NH IV covers much of the geography of Europe including Greece, Thrace, the islands of the Aegean, the Black Sea, Scythia, Germany, Gaul, and Spain (Italy is covered in book III). As a result of the massive amount of terrain, literal and figurative, covered by book IV, it presents special challenges to the editor, which I will mention below. The main aims of the volume are straightforward: a text that improves on Mayhoff’s Teubner, a faithful French translation, and a detailed commentary on Pliny’s geographical information.

The volume contains (1) an Introduction, subdivided into (a) “Material and composition of book IV,”1 (b) “The problem of the sources,” (c) “Bibliography,” and (d) “Establishing the text”. Following the Introduction are (2) the Sigla, (3) a Table of Contents of Book IV, (4) the Text and Translation, (5) the Commentary, (6) an Index locorum, urbium, populorum, and (7) an Index nominum.

Introduction (pp. VII-LIV)

The first section of the introduction, “Material and composition of book IV” (pp. VII-XII) includes an overview of the arrangement of the book in outline form (pp. VII-IX) and then discusses the problems inherent in how Pliny groups geographical and political regions in Europe. According to Zehnacker and Silberman, Pliny must navigate geographical, historical, and cultural demands, which results in descriptions more muddied than those in Pomponius Mela’s De chorographia.

The second section, “The problem of the sources” (pp. XII-XXX), begins with some comments on Pliny’s seemingly haphazard method of citation: he cites generously within book IV but omits authors (such as Mela) mentioned among his sources in book I, includes authors not mentioned in book I, and fails to cite others who (Quellenforschung assures us) were among his sources. Then, largely following Sallmann’s categories of the elements of a Geography,2 they include a list and chart comparing Pliny’s book IV to Mela’s De chorographia, highlighting the differences of content in the two authors. The editors then move on to an extended discussion of Pliny’s source material, noting especially the points of contact with and deviation from Mela. Here they follow a different approach, discussing in turn Pliny’s sources for references of mythology, etymology, history and antiquities, his use of formulae provinciarum, his sources for measures and distances, the coasts of the northern ocean, and his periegesis. The most extensive category is the editors’ treatment of Pliny’s distances and measures, in which they are concerned to show from which sources Pliny derives his numbers, but do not discuss any principles for translating those numbers into modern terms.

The bibliography (pp. XXX-XLIV) makes up the third section. For ease of reference it has been divided as follows: (A) Texts, a comphrensive list of the ancient geographical works and their modern editions; (B) Studies (i) on Pliny, (ii) on general geographical topics, (iii) on Greece and Macedonia, (iv) on Thrace, (v) on Scythia, (vi) on Germany, Gaul, and Iberia; (C) Atlases and Maps. This system makes convenient sense of a large and disparate bibliography. The bibliography includes only two works published after 2003, and those treat geography, not Pliny. Some references to more recent work under “Studies on Pliny” would have been appropriate, particularly Gibson and Morello’s 2011 volume Pliny the Elder: Themes and Contexts and Aude Doody’s extensive publications.

The fourth section, “Establishing the Text” (pp. XLIV-LII) is divided into five subsections. (A) “The editions,” lists preceding editions of the text. The editors note that these editions are of unequal value, but they do not indicate how they determined the value of each edition or what status they assign to each. From (B) “The Manuscripts,” we learn that the editors used the same seven manuscripts as Mayhoff3 as the basis of the text along with occasional references to three other manuscripts4 and the excerpts of a further three.5 Discussion of the mansucripts concludes with a notice that refers the reader to Zehnacker’s edition of book III for the specific method used to establish the text from these manuscripts: “The method that we have followed to establish the text of book III (op. cit., 2nd ed., 2004, p. XXV-XXVI) has been strictly followed here. Consequently we will not revisit it” (p. XLVI). Readers without a copy of Zehnacker’s book III close to hand may find this unsatisfactory. There follows a list of 46 differences between this text and that of Mayhoff, most of which are significant. (C) “Apparatus” describes the editors’ choices: the apparatus does not reproduce variations in spelling where insignificant, but it always includes bars around the Roman numerals to indicate thousands and hundreds of thousands, whether the manuscripts cited included those bars or not. This practice, despite the clarity it promotes, close readers may find disappointing. (D) “Chapters and paragraphs” notes that Pliny’s text has accrued two sets of chapter numbers in addition to a set of paragraph numbers. For ease of reference, this text reproduces all three notations. The paragraphing follows Jan’s Teubner, from which Mayhoff’s edition only rarely deviated.6 Due to the nature of the text, section (E) “Translation” is one of the more interesting portions of the introduction. Lists of names – places, cities, and peoples – comprise the vast majority of book IV, so the translator’s task is primarily, as Zehnacker and Silberman note, one of transfering these names into a new language. The obvious options are either to retain the ancient place names in all instances or to render the local, modern names where available, retaining the ancient names for the rest. Zehnacker and Silberman criticize Rackham’s Loeb for following the latter policy, particularly because by doing so, “He thus occasionally inserts in Pliny’s lists names that are Turkish, Arabic, or Slavic and compensates in this fashion, though only in part, for the absence of a commentary” (p. L). Instead, this edition has chosen a third route: to “Frenchify the ancient proper nouns to the extent possible, avoiding thereby any theoretical system (“esprit de système”) and allowing ourselves to be guided by usage, when it exists, and by euphony” (p. LI). There follow some remarks on the theoretical system they in fact employed when rendering these ancient names into French. Their method seems at first surprising, if not outright bizarre, but the underlying logic seems to be that since Pliny is entirely in Latin with Latinized place names, the most accurate translation would also render all names into the same language, making no attempt to interpret what any of the names signify and so avoiding interpretive errors in the translation. That interpretation is, instead, the role of the commentary, which does in fact give the modern place names for each site, and that interpretation (with its accompanying possibility of error) is also part of the critique Zehnacker and Silberman levy at Rackham.

In place of maps, which one might expect in a geographical work, Zehnacker and Silberman refer the reader to the Barrington Atlas.

The Sigla (pp. LIII-LIV) makes up the fifth section, while the sixth and final section of the introduction is Pliny’s own “Table of Contents” (pp. LV-LVI) for book IV, reproduced from book I.

Latin Text & French Translation (pp. 1-91, double numbered)

Because the text consists almost entirely of lists of proper names, rendering the sense of it poses no great difficulty, as the editors themselves note (p. L). The French is fluid and very readable, often more so than the Latin it translates. It is worth noting that Zehnacker and Silberman’s policy of Frenchifying the proper names has led them to render the “Maedi,” a Thracian people that appear in §3, as “Mèdes,” unnecessarily conflating them in a way that the Latin of this text does not with the Persian “Medi” (also “Mèdes” in French). They break with their policy again at §24 where they render “Enneacrunos” as “Ennéacrunos (les Neuf Fontaines)” but make no explanation in the commentary for this double translation. (Enneacrunos is presumably a metonomasis for Callirhoe, an effect the editors are attempting to duplicate contrary to their usual policy.)

Commentary (pp. 93-375)

The commentary is printed in a smaller font and with a tighter heading than the text and translation. There can be no question that it is aimed at those interested in the sublime details of Greco-Roman geography: it consists primarily of lengthy explanations of the regions and their peoples, taking pains to detail how other ancient geographers treated the same peoples and places. There is a nice balance of explication with bibliographical references and citation of texts ancient and modern, discussion of varying interpretations of the place names and their precise locations in terms of modern geographical references, and judicious quotation.

Where possible the commentary gives the modern place names for obscure regions or cities, but it leaves the more common ancient names unexplained: e.g. the Euxine Sea, the Hellespont, etc. Another curious facet: the translation renders all of Pliny’s distances literally, so that D passuum becomes “half a mile,” a policy that fits well with the practice of merely Frenchifying names, but the commentary does not usually convert these distances to modern measures. (One exception: the general conversion given in a note to §78 on pp. 272-3, in which 60 miles = 88.8 km.) The editors do not give a rationale for this omission, but it may be due to the frequent impossibility of knowing which sources (and so, often, which value of the stade) Pliny is using for any given measurement. The editors do discuss a specific instance of this problem in the note to §9 on p. 121 in which Isidorus, Artemidorus, and Polybius each give different measures for the circuit of the Peloponnese. A statement to this effect would have improved the introduction, under either the “translation” or “distances and measures” headings.

The focus of the commentary is distinctly geographical, not literary. To give an idea of the sort of note not included in the commentary, cf. the note on “Fons Castalius at p. 118: “[…] sung of by the Latin poets as one of the resting places favored by Apollo and the Muses: Pind. Pyth. 1.75; Soph., Ant. 1130; Verg. Georg. III.293, etc.” This is a feature of the commentary, not a defect: to expect a single commentary, whose topic is the geography of the majority of Europe, to cover historical, literary, and mythological references attached to any region, city, or people would be an impossible task, akin to expecting the commentary to reproduce nine-tenths of the classical world.

The volume concludes with two indices: an Index locorum, urbium, populorum (pp. 377-398) and an Index nominum (pp. 399-400). It is unclear why the editors divided the indices in this way, particularly given the length of the first index and the brevity of the latter, but they are thorough and useful.

The volume has been very well-edited and errors are minimal. In the Index nominum, there is one miscategorization: “Medi (39)” refers to the ethnic category of the Medes and should be listed in the Index locorum, urbium, populorum.

Typographical errors are likewise few. The most jarring was the double period on page 37 in the French translation: “XI. (19)..52” – a minor issue.


1.   I have translated all quotations from Zehnacker and Silberman into English for the ease of the reader.
2.   Sallmann, Die Geographie des älteren Plinius (1971) 193-201. The modified categories Zehnacker and Silberman use are (1) “History and Antiquity,” (2) “Foundation Stories,” (3) “Mythology,” (4) “Etymology,” (5) “Renaming,” (6) “Ethnography,” and (7) “Paradoxography”.
3.   Leid. Voss. F 4; Vat. Lat. 3861; Leid. Lips. N.7; Flor. Riccard. 488; Paris. Lat. 6795; Vindobon. olim 234, nunc 9; Paris. Lat. 6797.
4.   Lond. Arundel. 98; Toletanus 47-14 (nunc Matritensis); a Dalecampio excerptus et in editionis margine litteris M vel Man. notatus.
5.   excerpta codicis Voss. Lat. 4.69; excerpta codicis Paris. Lat. 4860; excerpta a R. Crickladensi composita.
6.   Specifically, §§35 and 66. Zehnacker and Silberman altered the paragraphing slightly at §§37 and 70.

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