PLINY THE ELDER: THE NATURAL HISTORY BOOK VII (With Book VIII 1-34)

Ed. by Tyler T. Travillian

Bloomsbury (2015) p/b 360pp £17.99 (ISBN 9781472535665)

Wonders are many, but none more wonderful than Pliny the Elder, as Sophocles certainly would have said had he not been dead for nearly 500 years. Pliny’s 37-book Naturalis Historia is a stupor mundi, an encyclopedia of everything there was to know—whether it was worth knowing or not—in Rome of the 1st C AD. Book VII is of particular interest, as Pliny observes at the start: ‘So far our subject has covered the world and its lands, peoples, seas, notable [rivers], islands and cities’ and its animals are no less important, he goes on, but ‘first place must go to man’. And what a piece of work he is, Pliny observes: no creature more vulnerable, none with a greater lust for pleasure, none more timid, none more prone to rage, the only animals exhibiting ambition, greed, superstition, concern about the afterlife and so on.

There follow an excursus on varieties of men (e.g. some with eyes on their shoulders); a study of man from birth to death with all his strengths and weaknesses (a sort of Guinness Book of Records, e.g. Lucius Siccius’ 120 battles, 8 single combats, 45 scars in front and none in the back, captured 34 spoils, won 18 spear-shafts and so and on, ending with 10 PoWs and 20 cows); reflections on the human condition (e.g. notable long lives and deaths); and finally a list of human inventions (more long lists, from writing and fabrics to clubs and auguries to shaving). But T.’s text does not end there: he adds the opening of book VIII, where Pliny moves on to the animal kingdom with a description of the animal ‘closest to man sensibus’ (in intelligence, perhaps, or disposition, awareness). Any offers? Yes, Mr Darwin? Hullo? Sorry, wrong. The answer is the elephant, which understands language, can learn ancient Greek, respects the stars and is generally honest, noble, bold and true.

T. supplies the Latin, a commentary with helpful, school-style grammatical as well as generous background information, an appendix on numerals, abbreviations of names, and weights and measures, maps, and a full Latin-English vocabulary and indices. The introduction gives a brief account of Pliny’s life; the Younger’s account of the Elder’s rigorous working practices (regularly dictating over meals, while being scraped down after bathing, and during journeys: no wonder he produced nearly 100 volumes of work in all); a very thoughtful analysis of the structure, content and significance of Books VII and VIII; a list of sources for Book VII (sixty, including references to material taken uncited from Valerius Maximus’ Facta et dicta); extensive notes on his style; his later reception, and further reading.

This, in other words, is an admirably wide-ranging edition, well-suited to introducing to a wider audience both Pliny himself and the realisation that, for a Roman, the world was a place of wonders, ‘discoverable, knowable, comprehensible’—conquerable in that sense as well—and well worth the effort. All so different from the exquisitely enclosed, inward-looking literary worlds of the poets.

 

Peter Jones

 

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