Pliny the Elder
Relevant Non-Istrians

aius (or Caius) Plinius Secundus is better known as Pliny the Elder to distinguish him from his nephew, Pliny the Younger (62-113). He was born in Novum Comum (now Como), the son of a Roman equestrian with the cognomen Celer by one Marcella, some say the daughter of the Senator Gaius (or Caius) Caecilius of Novum Comum, others of one Titus (Titus Flavius Sabinus?), which suggests a possible connection with the Titii Pomponii, and being the connection with the Caecilii from Celer, the cognomen used by that Gens.

Hulton Archive/Getty Imageses

naturalist and encyclopedist

born in Novum Comum
c. 23 A.D.

In the year of Pliny the Elder's birth, 23 A.D., Greek geographer Strabo published his Geography, a work covering the world known to the Romans and Greeks at the time of Emperor Augustus and the only such book to survive from the ancient world. (That work also makes reference to Istria.)

Before 35 A.D. (N.H. xxxvii.81), Pliny's father took him to Rome, where he was educated under his father's friend, the poet and military commander, Publius Pomponius Secundus, who inspired him with a lifelong love of learning. Two centuries after the death of the Gracchi, Pliny saw some of their autograph writings in his preceptor's library (xiii.83), and he afterwards wrote that preceptor's Life.

He mentions the grammarians and rhetoricians, Remmius Palaemon and Arellius Fuscus (xiv.4; xxxiii.152), and he may have been their student. In Rome he studied botany in the topiarius (garden) of the aged Antonius Castor (xxv.9), and saw the fine old lotus-trees in the grounds that had once belonged to Crassus (xvii.5). He also viewed the vast structure raised by Caligula (xxxvi.111), and probably witnessed the triumph of Claudius over Britain in 44 (iii.119). Under the influence of Seneca the Younger he became a keen student of philosophy and rhetoric, possibly studied law, and began practicing as an advocate.

Bust of Gnaeus Domitius Corbula. [Louvre]

In 46 or 47 A.D., at the age of around 23, he began a military career and saw military service under general Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo (ca. 7-67 A.D.)  in Germania Inferior, taking part in the Roman conquest of the Chauci and the construction of the canal between the rivers Maas and Rhine (xvi. 2 and 5). As a young commander of cavalry (praefectus alae) he wrote in his winter-quarters a work on the use of missiles on horseback (De jaculatione equestri), with some account of the points of a good horse (viii.162).

In Gaul and Spain he learnt the meanings of a number of Celtic words (xxx.40). He took note of sites associated with the Roman invasion of Germany, and, amid the scenes of the victories of Drusus, he had a dream in which the victor enjoined him to transmit his exploits to posterity (Plin. Epp. iii.5, 4). The dream prompted Pliny to begin forthwith a history of all the wars between the Romans and the Germans.

He probably accompanied his father's friend Pomponius on an expedition against the Chatti (50), and in the 50s visited Germany for a third time as comrade of  Vespasian, the future emperor, Titus Flavius (Praef. §3). Under Nero he lived mainly in Rome. He mentions the map of Armenia and the neighbourhood of the Caspian Sea, which was sent to Rome by the staff of Corbulo in 58 (vi.40). He also saw the building of Nero's "golden house" after the fire of 64 (xxxvi.111).

Despite his active public life, Pliny the Elder still found time to write enormous amounts of material. He was the author of at least 75 books, not to mention another 160 volumes of unpublished notebooks. His books included volumes on cavalry tactics, biography, a history of Rome, a study of the Roman campaigns in Germany (twenty books), grammar, rhetoric - a detailed work on rhetoric, entitled Studiosus, was followed by eight books, Dubii sermonis, in 67 - contemporary history (thirty-one books), and his most famous and only surviving book, Historia Naturalis (Natural History), published in 77, which consisted of thirty-seven books including all that the Romans knew about the natural world in the fields of cosmology, astronomy, geography, zoology, botany, mineralogy, medicine, metallurgy, and agriculture. The unifying thread of this work was anthropocentrism. The Natural History became a book for general education in the European Middle Ages and remains a key source on Roman life.

His twenty volumes of the History of the German Wars are the only authority expressly quoted in the first six books of the Annals of Tacitus (1.69), and probably one of the principal authorities for the Germania. It was superseded by the writings of Tacitus, and, early in the 5th century, Symmachus had little hope of finding a copy (Epp. xiv.8).

Vespasian, bust from Écija [Museo Arqueológico, Sevilla]

Under the rule of his friend Vespasian (9 A.D.-79 A.D.) - originally known as Titus Flavius Vespasianus or Titus Flavius Sabinus Vespasius, who became emperor of Rome [and had a known tie to Istria: his mistress Antonia Caenis, Cenide or Cenida] under the name Imperator Caesar Vespasianus Augustus or Titus Flavius, ruling from 69 to 79 - he returned to the service of the state as procurator in Gallia Narbonensis (70) and Hispania Tarraconensis (73), and also visiting the province of Gallia Belgica (74). During his stay in Spain he became familiar with the agriculture and the mines of the country, besides paying a visit to Africa (vii.37). On his return to Italy he accepted office under Vespasian, then emperor, whom he used to visit before daybreak for instructions before proceeding to his official duties, after the discharge of which he devoted all the rest of his time to study (Plin. Epp. iii.5, 9).

He completed a History of his Times in thirty-one books, possibly extending from the reign of Nero (who died in 68) to that of Vespasian, and deliberately reserved it for publication after his death (N. H., Praef. 20). It is quoted by Tacitus (Ann. xiii.20, xv.53; Hist. iii.29), and is one of the authorities followed by Suetonius and Plutarch.

In 77 A.D., he virtually completed his great work, the Naturalis Historiæ (Natural History), an encyclopedia into which Pliny collected much of the knowledge of his time. The work had been planned under the rule of Nero (who committed suicide in 68). The materials collected for this purpose filled rather less than 160 volumes in 23, when Larcius Licinus, the praetorian legate of Hispania Tarraconensis, vainly offered to purchase them for a sum equivalent to more than £3,200 (1911 estimated value) or £200,000 (2002 estimated value). He dedicated the work to his friend, Vespasian.who was then Emperor. Pliny justified the title as the study of "the nature of things, that is, life".

He apparently published the first ten books himself and was engaged on revising and enlarging the rest during the two remaining years of his life. The work was probably published with little, if any, revision by the author's nephew, who, when telling the story of a tame dolphin, and describing the floating islands of the Vadimonian Lake , thirty years later (viii. 20, ix. 33), has apparently forgotten that both are to be found in his uncle's work (ii. 209, ix. 26). He described the Naturalis historia, as a Naturae historia, and characterized it as a "work that is learned and full of matter, and as varied as nature herself."

Much information covering Pliny the Elder came from his nephew and adopted son, the writer Pliny the Younger (62-113), including the story of his death.

The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius

An imaginative 19th century portrait of Pliny the Elder. No contemporary depiction of him has survived. [Source:]

It was soon after publishing his first then books of the Natural History that he received from Vespasian the appointment of praefect of the Roman fleet at Misenum, across the Bay of Naples. As commander of the fleet, on August 24, 79 A.D. he was stationed at Misenum at the time of the great eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which overwhelmed Pompeii and Herculaneum. A desire to observe the phenomenon directly, and also to rescue some of his friends from their perilous position on the shore of the Bay of Naples, led to Pliny's launching of his galleys and crossing the bay to Stabiae (Castellammare di Stabia). Although he believed that Stabiae would be a safe distance from the eruption, he did not take into account the possibility of the volcano releasing toxic gases. Consequently, he was asphyxiated, not in the streets of Pompeii, but across the bay at Stabiae.

Pliny's nephew, Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus (better known as Pliny the Younger), was the son of his sister Plinia and Lucius Caecilius who died soon after his birth. The nephew grew up in Pliny the Elder's house in Como and Rome and later was adopted by him, thereby also taking his name. Pliny the Younger's birth name was Caius Caecilius Secundus, and he afterwards became known as Caius Plinius Caecilius Secundus.

Pliny the Younger was then seventeen years old and was with Pliny the Elder at Misenum, but did not venture out on the ships with his uncle. He stayed back at Misenum and observed the events from there. He also received first-hand reports from those who had been with his uncle at his death. Based on this information Pliny the Younger wrote two letters to the historian Tacitus twenty-seven years later that recount the events surrounding the eruption of Vesuvius and the death of Pliny the Elder. These letters survive and provide a vivid account of the events (Epp. vi.16). The two letters, as translated by Professor Cynthia Damon of Amherst College and are part of her Web site for Classics 36 Pompeii and Herculaneum. See Pliny Letter 6.16 and Pliny Letter 6.20.

In his Natural History Pliny the Elder had described Pompeii as follows:

Book 3, Chapter 40. How [sc. to describe] the Campanian coast and its happy, indeed blessed delightfulness, plainly the handiwork of Nature in her favorite spot!

Book 3, Chapter 60 (in the survey of the west coast of Italy, moving south) Next comes Campania, a region blessed by fortune. From this bay onwards you find vine-growing hills and a noble tipple of wine famed throughout the world. Over this area the gods of wine and grain fought their hardest, or so tradition tells us. The territories for Setine wine and Caecuban begin here; beyond these lie Falernum and Calenum. The come the Massic mountains, and those of Gauranum and Surrentum. There lie spread the fields of Leborinum with their fine harvest of grain. These shores are watered by warm springs; they are famed beyond any other for their shellfish and their fine fish. Nowhere do olives produce more oil--the production strives to match the demands of human pleasure.

The area has been in the hands of Oscans, Greeks, Umbrians, Etruscans, and Campanians. On the coast are the Savo river, the town of Volturnum with its stream, Liternum, Cumae (a colony of Chalcis), Misenum, the harbor of Baiae, Bauli, the lakes Lucrinus and Avernus, beside the latter a city, formerly called Cimmerium, now Puteoli, a foundation of Dicaearchus, then the Phlegraean fields, and the Acherusian swamp lying beside Cumae. On the shore is Naples, another Chalcidian colony, called Parthenope for the Siren's tomb, then Herculaneum, Pompeii (with Vesuvius visible close at hand and the Sarno river washing its walls), the hinterland of Nuceria, and Nuceria itself, 9 miles distant from the sea. Then Surrentum and the promontory of Minerva, an ancient abode of the Sirens.

Pliny the Younger also sent to another correspondent an account of his uncle's writings, his work habits, and his life style (iii.5):

"...he possessed a keen intellect; he had a marvellous capacity for work, and his powers of application were enormous. He used to begin to study at night on the Festival of Vulcan, not for luck but from his love of study, long before dawn; in winter he would commence at the seventh hour or at the eighth at the very latest, and often at the sixth. He could sleep at call, and it would come upon him and leave him in the middle of his work. Before daybreak he would go to Vespasian--for he too was a night-worker--and then set about his official duties. On his return home he would again give to study any time that he had free. Often in summer after taking a meal, which with him, as in the old days, was always a simple and light one, he would lie in the sun if he had any time to spare, and a book would be read aloud, from which he would take notes and extracts. For he never read without taking extracts, and used to say that there never was a book so bad that it was not good in some passage or another. After his sun bath he usually bathed in cold water, then he took a snack and a brief nap, and subsequently, as though another day had begun, he would study till dinner-time. After dinner a book would be read aloud, and he would take notes in a cursory way. I remember that one of his friends, when the reader pronounced a word wrongly, checked him and made him read it again, and my uncle said to him, 'Did you not catch the meaning?' When his friend said 'yes,' he remarked, 'Why then did you make him turn back? We have lost more than ten lines through your interruption.' So jealous was he of every moment lost. In summer he used to rise from the dinner-table while it was still light; in winter always before the first hour had passed, as though there was a law obliging him to do so. Such was his method of living when up to the eyes in work and amid the bustle of Rome. When he was in the country the only time snatched from his work was when he took his bath, and when I say bath I refer to the actual bathing, for while he was being scraped with the strigil or rubbed down, he used to listen to a reader or dictate. When he was travelling he cut himself aloof from every other thought and gave himself up to study alone. At his side he kept a shorthand writer with a book and tablets, who wore mittens on his hands in winter, so that not even the sharpness of the weather should rob him of a moment, and for the same reason, when in Rome, he used to be carried in a litter. I remember that once he rebuked me for walking, saying, 'If you were a student, you could not waste your hours like that,' for he considered that all time was wasted which was not devoted to study."

Pliny the Elder wrote several multi-volume texts, most of which have been lost in antiquity, thereby playing no role in perpetuating Pliny's fame. A few fragments survive of his earlier writings on grammar, a biography of Pomponius Secundus, a history of Rome begun by Aufidius Bassus, a study of the Roman campaigns in Germany, and a book on hurling the lance.

His last, largest and most well-known work, and the only one to have survived, is called Natural History (Naturalis Historia). Written in Latin,  it was used as an authority over the following centuries by countless scholars.

Pliny the Elder is still remembered in vulcanology where the term plinian (or plinean) refers to a very violent eruption of a volcano after a long period of being dormant. The term ultra-plinian is reserved for the most violent type of plinian eruption such as the 1883 destruction of Krakatoa.

A statue of Pliny on the facade of the Duomo of Como celebrates him as a native son.

The Naturalis Historiæ

1669 edition of Naturalis Historiæ.

Pliny's greatest achievement was Naturalis Historiæ (Natural History). It is a compilation of everything that Pliny heard, read or saw, and is a mix of fact and fable. In writing it, Pliny or his assistants extracted roughly 20,000 facts from 2,000 volumes by 100 authors. The 37-volume history had a table of contents that, when translated into English, required more than 70 pages. Book 3 includes a description of Istria.

A novel feature of the Natural History was the care taken by Pliny in naming his sources. Book 1 consists of an index of topics and authorities for each of the succeeding thirty-six books. In it, he cited nearly four thousand authors. Book 2 deals with cosmography, meteorology and terrestrial phenomena. It is followed by books 3-6 (geography), 7 (man), 8-11 (animals), 12-17 (botany), 18-19 (agriculture), 20-27 (materia medica from botanical sources), 28-32 (materia medica from animal sources) and 33-37 (metals, stones and their uses in medicine and architecture).

Compiling so much information didn't leave much time for fact checking, and Pliny verified little of what he wrote. The volumbes are a wonderful melange of the real and the fantastic, the never was and the never could be.

Among the marvels he described were monstrous races in far-off places: evil-eyed Illyrians, one-legged Monocoli and animal-human hybrids. He wrote of dog-headed people who communicated by barking, and people with no heads at all, their eyes in their shoulders. He wrote of snakes that launch themselves skyward to catch high-flying birds, and of the "basilisk serpent" of Africa, which kills bushes on contact, bursts rocks with its breath and is so venomous that when one was killed by a man on horseback, "the infection rising through the spear killed not only the rider but also the horse." He also described a boy who rode to and from school on a dolphin's back, and the gigantic skeletal remains of the mythical hunter Orion. He described a battle between an elephant and a dragon, whose blood combined, to account for the origin of cinnabar. He described petrified shark teeth as glossopetrae (tongue stones), and wrote of the octopus, "No animal is more savage in causing the death of a man in the water." These fantastic descriptions weren't accompanied by pictures. He opposed the use of illustrations, thinking they would be degraded by repeated copying. He was probably right, though even degraded images might have been more reliable than some of his text.

If Pliny's accuracy was lacking, his productivity certainly wasn't. Natural History proved such an enormous influence on medieval thought that no full-scale critique of the work was produced until 1492. Savants and collectors throughout the Renaissance likewise saw him as a role model. One reason Pliny's work survived so well was that it was written in Latin — for centuries, the privileged few who could read could read Latin as easily as their own language.

At the conclusion of his literary labours, as the only Roman who had ever taken for his theme the whole realm of nature, he prays for the blessing of the universal mother on his completed work. In literature he assigns the highest place to Homer and to Cicero (xvii.37 seq.); and the next to Virgil. He was influenced by the works of the Numidian king Juba II, who he called "my Master". He takes a keen interest in nature, and in the natural sciences, studying them in a way that was then new in Rome, while the small esteem in which studies of this kind were held does not deter him from endeavouring to be of service to his fellow countrymen (xxii.15).

The scheme of his great work is vast and comprehensive, being nothing short of an encyclopedia of learning and of art so far as they are connected with nature or draw their materials from it. With a view to this work he studied the original authorities on each subject and was most assiduous in making excerpts from their pages. His indices auctorum are, in some cases, the authorities which he has actually consulted (though in this respect they are not exhaustive); in other cases, they represent the principal writers on the subject, whose names are borrowed second-hand for his immediate authorities. He frankly acknowledges his obligations to all his predecessors in a phrase that deserves to be proverbial (Praef. 21, plenum ingenni pudoris fateri per quos profeceris). He had neither the temperament for original investigation, nor the leisure necessary for the purpose.

It is obvious that one who spent all his time in reading and in writing, and in making excerpts from his predecessors, had none left for mature and independent thought, or for patient experimental observation of the phenomena of nature. But it must not be forgotten that it was his scientific curiosity as to the phenomena of the eruption of Vesuvius that brought his life of unwearied study to a premature end; and any criticism of his faults of omission is disarmed by the candour of the confession in his Preface: nec dubitamus multa esse quae et nos praeterierint; homines enim sumus et occupati officiis.

His critics say that his style betrays the unhealthy influence of Seneca. It aims less at clearness and vividness than at epigrammatic point. It abounds not only in antitheses, but also in questions and exclamations, tropes and metaphors, and other mannerisms of the Silver Age (the first two centuries A.D.). The rhythmical and artistic form of the sentence is sacrificed to a passion for emphasis that delights in deferring the point to the close of the period. The structure of the sentence is also apt to be loose and straggling. There is an excessive use of the ablative absolute, and ablative phrases are often appended in a kind of vague "apposition" to express the author's own opinion of an immediately previous statement, e.g. xxxv.80, dixit (Apelles) ... uno se praestare, quod manum de tabula sciret tollere, memorabili praecepto nocere saepe nimiam diligentiam.

Book volumes:

  • 1: table of contents of the other 36 books, and a list of authorities;
  • 2: mathematics and meterology;
  • 3-6: geography and ethnography of the known world;
  • 7: anthropology and human physiology;
  • 8-11: zoology;
  • 12-19: botany, agriculture and horticulture;
  • 20-27: plants used in medicine;
  • 28-32: animals used in medicine;
  • 33-37: mineralology, minerals used in medicine, gemstones, the fine arts.

Pliny drew on many earlier writers for his Natural History, a list of which he provides in Book 1; these include Varro, Livy, Euclid, Eratosthenes, Aristotle, Archimedes, Cato the Censor, Augustus, Valerian, Dionysius, Aristides, Xenophon, Herodotus, Alexander the Learned, Alexander the Great, Seneca, Virgil, Hippocrates, Lucilius, and dozens of others. He often names his authorities and notes where they disagree. Pliny appears to have accepted as true (or at least worth recording) everything he read, without questioning its acuracy. There are only a few instances where he claims to have seen with his own eyes something of which he writes. Pliny was a compiler, a gatherer and recorder of information. His industry was immense and his knowledge of sources extensive, but his information is mostly secondhand and quite useless as science.

Nonetheless, Pliny's Natural History, either directly or indirectly through quotes by later authors, greatly influenced the development of the bestiary and other medieval beast literature. The zoology chapters (books 8 to 11) are frequently quoted, though Pliny is not always acknowledged as the source. Just as Pliny accepted the authority of earlier writers, later writers accepted his authority.

Through the ages

About the middle of the 3rd century an abstract of the geographical portions of Pliny's work was produced by Solinus; and early in the 4th century the medical passages were collected in the Medicina Plinii. Early in the 8th century we find Bede in possession of an excellent manuscript of the whole work. In the 9th century Alcuin sends to Charlemagne for a copy of the earlier books (Epp. 103, Jaffé); and Dicuil gathers extracts from the pages of Pliny for his own Mensura orbis terrae (ca. 825).

Pliny's work was held in high esteem in the Middle Ages. The number of extant manuscripts is about 200; but the best of the more ancient manuscripts, that at Bamberg, contains only books 32 to 37. Robert of Cricklade, prior of St. Frideswide at Oxford, dedicated to Henry II a Defloratio consisting of nine books of selections taken from one of the manuscripts of this class, which has been recently recognized as sometimes supplying us with the only evidence for the true text. Among the later manuscripts, the codex Vesontinus, formerly at Besançon (11th century), has been divided into three portions, now in Rome, Paris, and Leiden respectively, while there is also a transcript of the whole of this manuscript at Leiden.

A special interest attaches to his account of the manufacture of the papyrus (xiii.68 seq.), and of the different kinds of purple dye (ix.130), while his description of the notes of the nightingale is an elaborate example of his occasional felicity of phrase (xxix.81 seq.).

Sir Thomas Browne expressed a wholesome skepticism about Pliny's dependability in his Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646):

"Now what is very strange, there is scarce a popular error passant in our days, which is not either directly expressed, or diductively contained in this Work; which being in the hands of most men, hath proved a powerful occasion of their propagation. Wherein notwithstanding the credulity of the Reader is more condemnable then the curiosity of the Author: for commonly he nameth the Authors from whom he received those accounts, and writes but as he reads, as in his Preface to Vespasian he acknowledgeth."

Most of the recent research on Pliny has been concentrated on the investigation of his authorities, especially those which he followed in his chapters on the history of art - the only ancient account of that subject which has survived.

A carnelian inscribed with the letters C. PLIN. has been reproduced by Cades (v.211) from the original in the Vannutelli collection. It represents an ancient Roman with an almost completely bald forehead and a double chin; and is almost certainly a portrait, not of Pliny the Elder, but of Pompey the Great. Seated statues of both the Plinies, clad in the garb of scholars of the year 1500, may be seen in the niches on either side of the main entrance to the cathedral church of Como.

The elder Pliny's anecdotes of Greek artists supplied Vasari with the subjects of the frescoes which still adorn the interior of his former home at Arezzo.


  • Natural History by Pliny the Elder (10 vols.), Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 1991
  • Letters and Panegyricus by Pliny [the Younger], Harvard University Press, 1969
  • Roman Science: Origins, Development, and Influence to the Later Middle Ages by William H. Stahl, University of Wisconsin Press, 1962
  • Pliny the Elder: Historia Naturalis by Joyce Irene Whalley, Victoria and Albert Museum (London), 1982
  • Lilian Armstrong, The Illustration of Pliny's Historia naturalis: Manuscripts before 1430 (Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 46, 1983, 19-39).
  • Roger French, Ancient Natural History: Histories of Nature (London; New York: Routledge, 1994) 
  • Roger French, ed., Frank Greenaway, ed., Science In The Early Roman Empire: Pliny the Elder, His Sources and His Influence (London: Croom Helm, 1986) 
  • Roger French, Andrew Cunningham, Before Science: the Invention of the Friars' Natural Philosophy (Aldershot, Hants: Scolar Press, 1996) 
  • Wilma B. George, The Yale (Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 31, 1968, 423-28).
  • H. R. Hays, Birds, Beasts, and Men: A Humanist History of Zoology (New York: Putnam, 1972).
  • Pliny the Elder, Philemon Holland, trans; James Eason, ed., The Historie of the World. Commonly called, The Naturall Historie Of C. Plinius Secundus, Translated into English by Philemon Holland (James Eason).
  • Pliny the Elder, H. Rackham, trans., Natural History (London: Harvard University Press, 1940; Series: Loeb Classical Library) 
  • Pliny the Elder, Bill Thayer, ed., Pliny the Elder: The Natural History (Bill Thayer)
  • Marian Elizabeth Polhil, Materia medica animalis: Untersuchungen zum 'Tierbuch' (ca. 1478) des Zuercher apothekerknechts Hans Minner (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 2002)
  • Elena Sada, Genesi del lupo cattivo (Studi medievali)

Editions and translations online:

  • English (ed. John Bostock, M.D., F.R.S., H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A.) | Latin (ed. Karl Friedrich Theodor Mayhoff) -

Selected works - Natural History (Naturalis Historiæ)

See also:


Cognomen = surname. The cognomen was originally the third name of a Roman in the Roman naming convention. The term is also occasionally seen in modern times as an obscure synonym for nickname or epithet....


  • The Medieval Bestiary -

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Created: Monday, January 23, 2006; Updated Sunday, March 06, 2016
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