Pliny, the Elder

Talking about your overachiever, back in the days of the Roman Empire there was a nobleman named Gaius Plinius Secundus (AD 23 -79) better known as Pliny the Elder who served as a military commander, provincial governor, lawyer, and naturalist. In the evenings when he wasn’t engaged in his day job Pliny the Elder developed a 37 volume tome that he named Naturalis Historia or Natural History. It was Pliny the Elder’s goal to provide a summary of all branches of knowledge. To this goal Plinius Secundus stated that he presented 20,000 facts from 2,000 works of 200 authors including himself. Pliny the Elder included a References section naming most of his sources which was unusual for the time. Many believe that this was the first time someone assembled in a methodical fashion such divergent ancient knowledge. This compendium is considered to be one of the first encyclopedia ever written and was considered to be the authoritative document on all scientific matters; and, widely used until the middle ages. Naturalis Historia is one of the largest single works from the Roman Empire that survives to this day undergoing many translations over the years. In some areas where access to scholars was not possible a copy of Natural History sufficed as a formal education. Some of the many topics covered in Naturalis Historia include astronomy, agriculture, botany, geography, horticulture, minerology, painting, sculpture, physiology, pharmacology, and zoology.


Of all the topics covered many feel that Pliny the Elder’s greatest achievement was his section on botany, horticulture, and agronomy where he spoke of many species and cultivars that he come across from his time in Germany, Spain, and other parts of Europe that were mostly unknown in Italy. Pliny the Elder spoke of crop rotation, and other state of the art agricultural practices including illustrating an ox driven grain harvester that was being used in an area that is now part of Belgium. Some other points Pliny the Elder presented was mentioning how diet was very important part of ensuring a healthy life and complaining about the high cost of some medicines. Serving as a Naval Commander in AD 79 Pliny the Elder was overcome with noxious fumes when he sailed to Mt. Vesuvius to investigate why a large black cloud lay over the land mass following the volcanic eruption. Many famous quotes were attributed to Pliny the Elder, such as “Home is where the Heart is.” And “From the end springs new beginnings”.

Article by Mike Kay, FCFCDB member

Nature note for