BMCR 2004.06.53

Pliny’s Catalogue of Culture: Art and Empire in the Natural History

, Pliny's catalogue of culture : art and empire in the Natural History. Oxford studies in ancient culture and representation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. xiii, 208 pages : illustrations (some color), 1 map ; 26 cm.. ISBN 0199259135 £90.00.

Some Roman authors behave in a suitable manner for modern literary tastes and others do not. The reputation of Suetonius has suffered by his not writing and arranging his material in the manner of Tacitus. The same may be said of Pliny the Elder. The first problem is that nowadays one does not sit down and write an encyclopedia, one compiles it from the writings of others. All an encyclopediast does is to produce an abbreviated version as a distillation of reality? I am setting up a deliberately extreme position here. Quite apart from the nature of the individual entries, the arrangement, omission and ordering can, of course, have a huge influence on the appearance of the world. To be blunt, an encyclopedia cannot be neutral. And yet, as Carey argues, Pliny has long been seen as an artless, mechanistic writer, a purveyor of lists, anecdotes and exotica. As such his works were seen as almost artless, and as providing a pleasantly unproblematic quarry for modern analysis of the physical world of antiquity.

This view of Pliny has long been going out of fashion, just as the supposed naïeté of Suteonius is not longer widely credited. For example, Carey points out the important work of Marchetti and Beagon on morality and nature respectively.1 But she suggests that there remains a gap for similar revisionism in relation to art. For instance, previous work, such as that of Isager, retains a strong tendency to look at passages in relation to individual art works rather than examining the wider context.2 Why has the dated view held on particularly tenaciously in relation to the way in which Pliny has been used by many art historians? One possible reason for this is the reliance on ancient texts for descriptions of ‘lost’ works of art. In other words most scholars, like Isager, focus on details and miss the bigger picture.

Carey argues that Pliny sets out to provide a unified vision of the physical world of Rome, which is not divided up in the way that modern viewers might expect. What is presented is a totality in which art is linked (even if sometimes uneasily or ironically) with nature, Greek with Roman, austerity with luxury. This entirety reflects the magnificence and comprehensiveness of the Roman victory and yet also the moral price that has been paid for that conquest of time and space. The mindset is that of Virgil writing in the Aeneid, that to you Romans the gods have given imperium sine fine.3 This is command without limit. It was not to be accompanied by moral perfection.

Carey begins by attempting to locate, describe and identify Pliny. Not an easy task, as the title of chapter one, ‘in search of the invisible man’, suggests. In the case of most ancient authors, with rare exceptions such as Augustine, we know of the author’s life by their reputation rather than through their personal testimony. The Elder Pliny’s reputation was fostered by Pliny the Younger, who has left us two major descriptions of his uncle. The first, concerning the eruption of Vesuvius, posits the Elder Pliny as a man of action. However, the description that has influenced posterity is that in Pliny the Younger’s letter to Baebius Macer. In this Pliny appears as ‘the archetypal armchair scholar’ (Carey, p. 5). The resulting image of Pliny the Elder is rather like that of Saint Jerome in his study and, argues Carey, has led to such ideas as Pliny as the ‘academic’ founder of art history. The paradigm of the rise of naturalism, as espoused by Winkelmann, is found in Pliny, but the latter writer did not produce, nor set out to produce, a measured and even account of ancient art. He wrote about the incorporation of Greek art within the empire and the spaces of Italy. His scholarship was not bent upon disciplinary elaboration. His subject, in his chapters on art, was not art, but the universe as occupied by the empire.

Chapter two is about Pliny as encyclopaedist, exploring the ways in which he constructs a ‘catalogue of Roman totality’ (Carey, p. 13). He does not proceed alphabetically in the modern mode. Instead, he starts with the nature of the universe, then explores things above and on the surface, followed by features below the ground. His aim, with regard to his choices in organisation and classification, is to suggest that he is simply following the order of nature itself. He is trying to give the impression of including everything, but of course he certainly cannot, and he knows this. Carey points out Pliny’s lack of enthusiasm for previous Greek scholarship and indeed talks in general of his ‘blatant nationalism’ (p. 33). This is one area where some further development would be welcome. Being Roman was not a simple thing. Others could become Roman and the nature of Romaness could change over time.4 Carey also tends to elide Rome and Italy, which merits some discussion. She does, however, clearly point out Pliny’s attitudes: here was a man who could talk of Italy as the ‘parent of all other lands’. (NH 3,34). However, phrases such as ‘blatant nationalism’ were not originally coined in relation to understandings of the nationes of the ancient world.

Chapter three examines the way in which monuments of Roman conquest are considered outside the main chapters of the Natural History on the ‘history of art’ (books 33 to 37). The key examples used are Augustus’ monument of 6 BC at Le Turbie in the French Alps and Agrippa’s ‘map’ in Rome. The latter, following Brodersen,5 is suggested as being an inscription. The inscription on the monument at La Turbie is associated with the Res Gestae in relation to listings as forms of victory monument. The inference is that the Natural History is itself a victory text.

Chapter four explores the dangers of luxury and its connection with empire. This is a very challenging area. The paradox is that Rome, lacking in luxury, conquered the world and was then seduced by the enervating adundance of the east. This was a well-worn topos from which Pliny does not depart. He celebrates the victories while moralizing about certain of their side-effects. This is paradoxical but typical of the views of this period. One problem is that, just like the texts, Carey is rather free in talking about Rome’s ‘moral decline’, without sorting out to what extent this was a reality, however distorted, or a literary fiction. The word ‘decline’ also has so much baggage associated with it that it may be problematic to focus on the term. Averil Cameron questioned its use, preferring to talk of the transformation rather than the decline of Rome at the end of antiquity, but for Gibbon, as many others, the moral fall of Rome was beginning under the early empire.6 It is interesting that supposedly decadent monuments such as the theatres of Scaurus and Curio were not ignored by Pliny. His aim was the present Rome, warts and all, so long as the warts were carved out of marble and the whole was suitably magnificent.

Chapter five examines art and nature. Carey stresses the ironies of the interconnection between the two, showing how, for example, artificial grottoes were modeled on nature, but that, on occasion, nature was praised for matching the greatness of artifice. An interesting idea which might expand the argument further is to think about power. Great art was about power over nature; getting nature, in the form of physical matter, to do what you want. But what you want should be in harmony with nature, hence breaches of the moral building-code could be condemned as being ‘unnatural’ whilst remaining noteworthy wonders.

At p. 133 Carey makes a very interesting point about luxuria — that it was associated with uncontrollable appetite. This helps to clarify some of the discussions made back in chapter four. In his Satire 11, Juvenal warned of the dangers of the spendthrift who might bankrupt himself. The dangers of luxuria can be related to social stability. The use of splendour could allow those with new money to claim high status and cause old money to bankrupt itself in the struggle to keep up. The discourse on luxury can, therefore, be put in the context of social competition among the elite.

Chapter six looks at portraiture, and contrasts traditional portrait imagery of ancestors with productions such as the colossus of Nero. This chapter says interesting if not especially original things about images and memory and would, perhaps, be better recast in relation to the foregoing ideas on society and luxury. The earlier colossus of Spurius was appropriate, we are told, because it was made from melted-down captured breastplates and glorified the State. That of Nero was not, because it was about ostentatious spending that glorified him. In this context, disputes over luxuria and aristocratic Hellenophobia can be related to the attempt to limit imperial power. Pliny, like his contemporaries, is caught between admiring the glories and criticizing the ‘excesses’ of the imperial project. For Pliny, the greatest work of art ever made was the Laocoon. This statue may have been Hellenistic Greek, or a Roman copy or simply Roman, but it was on display in the palace of Titus and, argues Carey, its origins did not particularly matter. Through its placement, it was a testament to the greatness of empire.

The complementary theme, that of desire for the return of the imagined-as-pure Roman past is also important for Pliny. Carey hints, excitingly, that the key here is Pliny’s list of the most valuable substances which is given at the end of the Natural History (37, 201). Gold, ‘for which all mortals go mad, is scarcely tenth on the list of precious commodities’. Perhaps here, we hint at a final return of the golden age, when there is so much abundance that gold itself is commonplace and despised. There is no need for ruinous competition in building and decoration since everyone is wealthy and content. It was in association with these Augustan fantasies that Pliny pretended that his work was not dedicated to Titus but to the ‘common crowd, the farmers and artisans’ (NH, pref, 6; Carey, p. 15).

Pliny’s personal dreams were ended by the disaster of Vesuvius’ eruption, which cost him his life. But his visions, and this book which is inspired by them, continue to provide much food for thought. I must say Carey’s work did leave me desirous of a clearer examination of luxuria. I think a little more on ethnic identity would help. Catherine Edwards, in a recent article, talked of the way in which Greek statues became Roman in the way that the Athenian Parthenon frieze ‘became’ the British Elgin marbles.7 This was perhaps a way out of the conundrum of a glorious but tainting empire. If only the empire were truly Roman then the contaminating substances and images would lose their power, since they would simply be trophies dedicated to the public good. If you think and act in a fully Roman way, luxurious spending would cease to be such but would appear simply as a token of supremacy, located safely in the public sphere of victory, rather than caught up in the anxious rivalries of the ruling class.


1. C. Marchetti, Plinio il Vecchio e la Tradizione del Moralismo Romano (Pisa, 1991) and M. Beagon, Roman Nature (Oxford, 1992).

2. J. Isager, Pliny on Art and Society (London, 1991).

3. Vergil, Aeneid, 1, line 279.

4. There is a huge bibliography on this. See, for example, the introduction to G. Woolf, Becoming Roman (Cambridge, 1998).

5. K. Brodersen, ‘Terra Cognita: Studien zur römischen Raumerfassung’, Spudasmata 59 (1995), pp. 268-87.

6. A. Cameron, ‘Ideologies and agenda in late antique studies’, in L. Lavan & W. Bourdon (eds) Theory and Practice in Late Antique Archaeology, Late Antique Archaeology 1 (Leiden, 2003), pp. 3-21.

7. Catherine Edwards, ‘Incorporating the alien: the art of conquest’, in eds. C. Edwards and G. Woolf, Rome: The Cosmopolis (Cambridge 2003), esp. p. 59.