BMCR 2004.12.23

Pliny the Elder’s Natural History: The Empire in the Encyclopedia

, Pliny the Elder's Natural history : the Empire in the encyclopedia. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. 233 pages ; 22 cm. ISBN 0199262888. £50.00.

Without question, in their own quiet way the newly attested Dii Itinerarii (or Itineris)1 must have viewed the writing of this fine book with favor. It stands as further confirmation of how rewarding the current revival of interest in Pliny the Elder continues to prove, as demonstrated most recently by Sorcha Carey’s Pliny’s Catalogue of Culture: Art and Empire in the Natural History (Oxford, 2003).2 Murphy differs from most of his immediate predecessors, however, by focusing attention less on the author of the Natural History and more on the work itself, on the encyclopedia “as a cultural artefact,” as he phrases it (11), and hence “as a source for ancient Roman culture” (2). This is a creative approach, undertaken in an Introduction, five chapters, and Conclusion. Murphy appreciates that Pliny — despite his active administrative career in several provinces, and his death caused by the desire to observe the eruption of Vesuvius at close range — gathered most of his learning from books. This was no cause for embarrassment on Pliny’s part. On the contrary, it was only because of Roman conquest that detailed knowledge of the world had been unlocked, and only thereby did the opportunity arise to encapsulate it all proudly in an encyclopedia. Greeks had not written this type of work, and such earlier Romans (perhaps Cato the Elder, certainly Varro and Celsus) with the courage to try had plainly lacked the range and depth of far-reaching knowledge that Pliny could command by the Flavian period. He presented it not so much to instruct like a textbook, but rather to offer a work of reference, to classify and validate knowledge (be it familiar, novel or marvelous), and hence above all to celebrate the Roman power which underpinned this authoritative grasp of the world. To Murphy, the Natural History can fairly be compared to an ancient map, as well as to a Roman triumphal procession where newly discovered peoples, lands, plants, animals (or their images) are all paraded for public viewing and instruction.

Murphy’s first two chapters reflect upon the shape of the Natural History as a whole from the reader’s perspective, and the logic informing it. He discerns that within the ostensibly tidy sectioning of the work readers soon encounter a diffuse, breathless style, a devotion to antitheses, and an idiosyncratic linking of ideas which leads repeatedly to digression. This last, disorienting characteristic he sees as no mere accident, but as a deliberate choice on Pliny’s part, both artistic and aesthetic, and a justification for the provision (unusual for ancient works) of a table of contents that in fact fills the first book of the 37.

The encyclopedia’s anchor throughout, Murphy goes on to propose in Chapter two, is Rome: in Pliny’s eyes, Rome is the touchstone to which themes or foreign items are invariably related, or against which they are measured. Pliny not only boasts of the “20,000 things worthy of consideration” that he has included (54), but he also (again unusually for ancient works) takes pains to cite his sources. His purpose is in part to demonstrate his engagement with other writers past and present, but he is eager, too, to disclose his debt to intellectually active social superiors among his contemporaries, recalling the Late Republican milieu where Cicero and his circle dedicated books to one another and exchanged stories. At the same time, just as Pliny deplores indulgence in luxury, so he deplores those who decline to share knowledge, especially at a time when he fears that the changes induced by Rome’s very success are leading to many of the traditional Roman ways decaying unrecorded.

In Chapters 3 to 5 Murphy taps the geographic and ethnographic sections of the Natural History as a fertile means of uncovering the quintessentially Roman character of the work’s purpose. The long-established ethnographic tradition is introduced prior to a focus on Pliny’s contribution to it, found in disjointed passages of his work with no immediately obvious connection to one another. Following the approach taken to Herodotus by François Hartog — who probed ethnographies for the light shed upon the ethnographer, not for truth-value — Murphy explores Pliny’s treatment of luxury, of frankincense from Arabia, of Taprobane (its riches and society), and of the Seres, Essenes and Hyperboreans. What unites these very diverse passages is seen to be a preoccupation with contemporary moral dilemmas, in particular how luxury is to be defined, and to what degree asceticism and suicide each have merit.

Chapter four interprets the geographical section of the Natural History (following a lead given by Nicholas Purcell) as the product variously of bird’s eye view, itinerary by land or sea, and narrative centered around the two mighty conflicting features that frame the physical landscape, rivers and mountains. The parade of fresh knowledge displayed in triumphal processions at Rome is identified as a favored setting and organizing principle for Pliny’s absorption of the novel and unfamiliar.

Pliny’s fullest description of a primitive people is the centerpiece of Chapter five. No matter that modern scholarship can demonstrate the inaccuracy of his account of the Chauci. Rather, Murphy seeks to account for their place in Pliny’s worldview, and finds it in their unstable liminal environment, caught between ordered Nature and Roman power in one direction and the primeval, uncontrollable disorder of Ocean on the other. Their plight acts to remind Romans that there is a point beyond which the natural order cannot be maintained, so that Roman ambitions should extend no further. Moreover the sheer insecurity of the Chauci illustrates the fragility of civilization. It, too, may eventually be overwhelmed by floods (evoked most vividly by Seneca), and Rome itself may sink down into the Cloaca Maxima sewer (described with special pride by Pliny) which underpins it.

The place that Pliny claims for himself in his encyclopedia is the focus of the Conclusion. In imperial Rome knowledge reflected the power wielded by emperors, and should properly be validated and controlled by them. The bold author whose work sought to encompass all knowledge must therefore not seem to be rising above his emperor, and Pliny’s Preface in particular was crafted with care to dispel any such impression. In the longer term, his encyclopedia enjoyed undreamt-of success. It continued to be copied (and in full!3) while the sources it drew upon were neglected, for over a millennium it defined knowledge, and in the Renaissance it was first a model and then a challenge to supersede.

Murphy’s ambitious reading of the Natural History and of the thinking behind it is a persuasive one that coheres. Its thrust could be variously reinforced and extended. As a further small illustration of the emperor as the authority to whom all curious knowledge must be presented, I did miss the story which for long eluded Fergus Millar, of the mother who worried that she would lose her son to the emperor because of his unique ability to understand the language of birds.4 The likeness also seen by Mary Beard between ethnographic images displayed in Roman triumphs and the ‘mock villages’ that became such an indispensable feature of late 19th and early 20th century World’s Fairs perhaps appeared too recently to be noted.5 Limitation of the imaginative modes that dominated the conceptual geography of the Romans to five (131, following Purcell) overlooks a sixth in constant use by Pliny, namely division of the Roman world into its provinces. Purcell drew attention to the empire’s ‘cellular’ nature, “a great mass of individual units whose only common matrix was relationship to Rome”.6 Yes, to be sure. But it is no less striking conceptually that as soon as Rome established two contiguous provinces (Hispania Ulterior and Citerior in the 190s B.C.), the senate at once ordered the land boundary between them to be defined.7 From Augustus’ Principate onwards we may fairly imagine widespread awareness of the principal cells’ spatial relationship to one another. Monuments large or small marked not only the termini of the great roads and the edges of the empire (cf. 175), but also the boundaries within the quilt of provinces. Pliny assumes this conceptual grasp of his readers, as does Ptolemy in his Geography, among other authors, and it is no less fundamental to an understanding of the Antonine and Bordeaux Itineraries.8

Murphy is right to be struck (129) by the enumeration in the table of contents (Bk 1) of the total numbers of towns, races, rivers, mountains etc that Pliny’s readers will find recorded in each of the geographical books (3-6). This is none other than the format expected of the well prepared Roman itinerary,9 as seen for example on the Vicarello cups or in the Bordeaux itinerary (which totals not only milia, but also mutationes and mansiones). Murphy’s larger vision of the Natural History as “like an ancient map of the world” with Rome as its center (20) is especially exhilarating, although for us the cartographic image which it recalls cannot be the lost map of Agrippa (157), but surely can be the later, unmentioned Peutinger Map. Here Rome dominates at the center, seas and continents are remoulded (cf. 46-47), and the display of routes, principal settlements, road stations and distances is unashamedly both triumphalist and encyclopedic. At the same time, mountain chains, and even more so the freely flowing rivers — the great ones with their multiple tributaries and branches — stand out as prominent, formative components of the landscape, just as Pliny regarded them.

It is a tribute to Pliny’s skill and energy that he was able to complete an encyclopedia which reorients an entire Greek and Roman intellectual universe by placing Rome firmly at its center, which no ancient successor sought to improve upon, and which continued to be copied in full despite its length. His sources faded away, like Ptolemy’s predecessor Marinus or the jurists excerpted for the Digest; in the fifteenth century it was from him that the naturalists of the Renaissance took their start, just as its mapmakers and explorers were inspired by Ptolemy. Murphy convincingly succeeds in setting Pliny’s outlook and methods within the political, social and cultural context of his own time and of Roman tradition. His perceptive investigation, while pitched for a specialist audience, is concise, well documented, and a pleasure to read. It also underlines, incidentally, what valuable service a new, sound English translation of Books 3 to 6, if not more, could perform in opening the Natural History to a wider range of modern readers.10


1. AE 2000.1191, from Pannonia Superior.

2. Reviewed by Dominic Janes in BMCR 2004.06.53.

3. Surely read “not difficult” in the penultimate line of text on p. 209.

4. Porphyry, On Abstinence from Living Things, 3.3.7, cited in The Emperor in the Roman World (with Afterword, Cornell, 1992), 637-38.

5. In C. Edwards and G. Woolf (eds.), Rome the Cosmopolis (Cambridge, 2003), chap. 2.

6. In T. Blagg and M. Millett (eds.), The Early Roman Empire in the West (Oxford, 1990), 8.

7. Livy 32.28.11 with J.S. Richardson, Hispaniae: Spain and the Development of Roman Imperialism, 218-82 BC (Cambridge, 1986), 77.

8. Further discussion by Richard Talbert, “Rome’s provinces as framework for world-view” in L. de Ligt, E.A. Hemelrijk and H. W. Singor (eds.), Roman Rule and Civic Life: Regional Perspectives (first to fourth centuries AD) (Leiden, forthcoming).

9. Contrast Pliny’s disapproval: “Onesicriti et Nearchi navigatio nec nomina habet mansionum nec spatia” (NH 6.96).

10. The Sammlung Tusculum makes the entire work available in a modern German translation, capped now (2004) by a splendidly organized Gesamtregister of over 1,500 pages, itself a minor marvel. In English, by contrast, the standard Loeb edition is long overdue for revision and updating. Its translation of Books 3 to 6 suffers from the well intentioned, but disconcerting, tendency to substitute a ‘modern’ equivalent for an ancient name (thus Jeni-Hisari for Sigeum) and to present Greek toponyms in an English form (thus Cynossema and Hiera Sycaminos are rendered as the Bitch’s Tomb and Holy Mulberry respectively).