BMCR 2020.04.24

The Medicina Plinii: Latin text, translation, and commentary

, The 'Medicina Plinii': Latin text, translation, and commentary. Scientific writings from the ancient and medieval world. London; New York: Routledge, 2019. ix, 302 p.. ISBN 9781138934825 $124.00.

Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia was, by all accounts, one of the most influential texts of Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Yet its encyclopedic scope and length proved too much for many readers seeking information on just one topic. So, in the later Roman Imperial period, several intrepid editors provided syntheses of sections from Pliny’s Historia. These include Solinus’s Collectanea rerum mirabilium, the Medicina Plinii, and the Physica Plinii. The Medicina Plinii(hereafter MP) was compiled during the later third or fourth century CE by someone writing as Plinius Secundus Junior, or the “Second Pliny the Younger”. This Pseudo-Pliny gathered together over one thousand of the medical remedies described by the genuine Pliny (primarily in books #20-27, on herbs, in his Historia) and arranged them in three books according to malady, from head to foot in the first two books, ending with skin conditions, diseases of the whole body, and poisons in the third book. The MP was a key medical text of early medieval “monastic medicine” before the rise of a more formal medical curriculum in the High Middle Ages.

In the book under review, ancient historian Yvette Hunt presents the first complete English translation of this important text, supported by an extensive commentary on terms and themes in every one of the chapters. The volume also includes a detailed index of diseases and conditions, medicinal ingredients and compound remedies, as well as medical tools and methods, as they are found in both the Latin and English texts and in the commentary. Hunt undertook this task of translation, she explains, at the request of Kai Brodersen, who recently published his own German translation of the MP. Brodersen contributes an all-too-brief introduction (ten pages) to Hunt’s book, in which he places the MP in the Late Antique tradition of euporista (easily obtainable remedies). He aptly compares it to the euporista compilations of Theodorus Priscianus, Oribasius, and Pseudo-Galen, as well as to the Herbarius of Pseudo-Apuleius. Brodersen’s discussion of the popular drinks and sauces that appear frequently in the text (passum, mulsum, pusca, garum, moretum) is helpful for readers unfamiliar with these terms, as is his outline of the weights and measures employed in the MP(uncia, drachma, cochlear, denarius, and so on). Brodersen’s comments are clearly intended for the novice reader in ancient medicine and he has made no effort to discuss the scholarship on the MP or its textual history. Much of this introduction is translated directly from Brodersen’s introduction to his own translation of the MP,[1] a point that should have been made clearer for readers expecting in this book an original introduction to the work.

Hunt’s English translation of the MP faces the Latin text, which is reproduced from the 1964 edition by Alf Önnerfors for the Corpus Medicorum Latinorum series, although she has broken the text more clearly into separate paragraphs (allowing for easy comparison of the Latin and English) and has changed all of Önnerfors’s consonantal U’s to V’s. She has also preserved all of the textual insertions and deletions found in Önnerfors’s edition. Hunt’s translation is solid and demonstrates an obvious comfort with the idiosyncrasies of Late Antique Latin. The English text is accessible both to scholars and beginning students of Roman culture or ancient medicine. She has wisely not translated most terms for weights and measures which, as noted, are described in Brodersen’s introduction. She likewise does not translate some of the Latin medical terms (e.g. alopecia, epiphora, angina, elephantiasis, phthiriasis) for which there is no comfortable translation or for which the modern English equivalent has a different meaning. Yet each of these terms is given a significant commentary later in the volume, providing readers with valuable intellectual and historical context for Pseudo-Pliny’s medical vocabulary.

Some English phrases, however, sound like “translation-ese” and could have been rendered into more idiomatic English: capitis dolor could be “headache” rather than “pain of the head” (16-17); or when phthiriasis and itching are dramatically said to “commonly turn to ruin” (in perniciem solent convertere, 18-19), perhaps the author more pragmatically meant they “are likely to become pernicious”; or several remedies call for sordes ex auriculis, which is translated as “filth from the ears”. This phrase could be rendered as “earwax” and, in fact, that is the term Hunt herself uses in the index for these very passages (297). The only apparent error in the text is the curious addition of the words praef. venentum [sic] to the Latin chapter titles of Book III (70), which Hunt translates on the facing page as “Preface on poisons” (71). While there is indeed a separate preface about poisons at this point of the work, the words praef. venentum are not found in the editions of Rose or Önnerfors, nor is venentum an actual word.

Hundreds of herbal ingredients are mentioned in the text, whether of plant, mineral, or animal origin, most of which Hunt has endeavored to identify and translate. The identifications usually appear sound, but it would be appreciated if Hunt had explained her sources for this information. Her readers might not be familiar with the difficulties in identifying and translating plant and ingredient names in premodern texts, a situation in which the Latin terms rarely correlate to a specific species or variety as understood by modern botanists or gardeners. Why is serpullum translated (16-17) specifically as “tufted thyme” (Thymus caespitius) when most dictionaries and works on premodern botany identify it rather as a generic wild thyme or creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum)? Why are aristolochia and spondylium, each of which appear many times throughout the work, not translated even though Hunt clearly defines them, respectively, as birthwort (Aristolochia clematitis) and hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium) in her commentary (219)? But these slips in translation or identification are relatively uncommon. Hunt has, for the most part, provided a valuable representation in English of the contents and “flavor” of the MP.

The most impressive aspect of this book is Hunt’s Commentary, which extends for nearly two hundred pages. Hunt provides a brief description of every one of the 92 separate chapters in the three books of the MP, outlining its contents, its relation to preceding and following chapters, and the rationale for its placement in the larger work. She has meticulously researched the medical texts of over fifty other authors to provide comparanda, that is, similar passages in these related works. These comparanda range from the earliest Hippocratic works in the fifth century BCE to Byzantine Hippiatrica texts of the tenth century CE. In this respect, she has certainly succeeded in her goal “to contextualise the Medicina Plinii within its medical, literary, and cultural context” (viii). Nearly every paragraph of the work is provided with historical commentary and comparanda to Pliny’s original Naturalis Historia and works such as Dioscorides’ De materia medica and the De Medicamentis of Marcellus Empiricus. However, untrained readers might be led to believe that these were the actual sources of the MP, when in fact Marcellus was writing a century or more after MP. Hunt should have distinguished more clearly between the works she considered to be the actual sources of the MP and those listed just for comparison. Similarly, the volume desperately needs a discussion, however brief, of the sources and compositional methods of the MP. Brodersen hints at this in his introduction, but readers are left without a clear understanding how much of the MP comes from the original Pliny, how the compiler chose and adapted passages from Pliny and other authors, and how the MP relates to similar texts, especially the Physica Plinii. All of these points are brought up occasionally in the Commentary but without any consistency or cross-referencing.

My criticisms, however, are solely on the finer points of presentation and translation. When Hunt’s book is considered as a whole, she has performed a valuable task in making an English translation of this important medical work from a transitional period in the history of European medicine, when the monumental medical texts of the Augustan era (e.g. Pliny, Dioscorides, Celsus) were recast for a new sort of reader in the later Empire. Modern readers will find in her translation a fascinating and valuable window onto healing, trade, and medical culture in the Roman world, and her commentary is a treasure trove of textual comparisons for scholars of premodern medicine.


[1] Kai Brodersen, Plinius’ Kleine Reiseapotheke (Franz Steiner, 2015), 7-14. A sample of this introduction is available at the publisher’s website.