Encyclopaedic

08 25 pliny the elderToday I am celebrating the life of Pliny the Elder. I don’t know when his birthday was, probably some time in 23 AD. I do know when he died though. It was on this day in 79AD, the day after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum. I mentioned the first stirrings of the volcano the day before yesterday when I wrote about Vulcanalia.

If you’ve watched QI you might be familiar with his work. Pliny wrote a lot of books but he is most famous for his massive thirty seven volume work called Naturalis Historia. His aim was to gather together in one place, all the knowledge in the entire world. The topics he covered were: astronomy, meteorology, geography, ethnography, anthropology, human physiology, zoology, botany, agriculture, pharmacology, magic, aquatic life, mining, mineralogy and art. It was an ambitious project which I couldn’t hope to even summarize here. He had to do an awful lot of reading. With the help of his assistants he trawled through 2,000 volumes by 100 authors. This wasn’t even his job, it was something he did in his spare time. He would be carried from place to place rather than walk so that he could read as he went. He would have someone read to him while he ate and he would have someone else taking notes for him. Staying up long into the night reading was something that he saw not as losing sleep but adding to his life.

Naturalis Historia was widely admired and used as a scholarly text well into the middle ages. In the early 7th century Isadore of Seville relied heavily on it for his own encyclopaedic work Etymologiae, a collection of knowledge so vast that he has been made patron saint of the internet. Pliny’s work was one of the first ancient European texts to be printed in Venice in 1469. It’s a massively useful book for anyone who wants to know what life was like in Ancient Rome.

Pliny knew that the earth was a sphere suspended in space. He knew that the time of the sunrise depended on where you were on that sphere. He also deduced that amber was made from petrified tree sap, because of the insects that were sometimes trapped in it. At the same time though, he thought that the fossilized bones of dinosaurs were the bones of giant humans.

08 25 cynocephalusIt’s really some of his more outlandish beliefs though that make him so endearing. He tells us that bear cubs are born as formless lumps that are licked into shape by their mothers. He has a lot to tell us about people from lands far away, such as the Cynocephali, a dog-headed race of people. Belief in their existence persisted well into medieval times. Pliny had their description from a Greek historian called Herodotus, writing in the 5th century BC. No doubt belief in the Cynocephali came from people who had seen Egyptian carvings of their god Anubis. Other mythical races that he describes are harder to pin down, such as the Sciapods, the people with only one huge foot or the Astomi, who had no mouths but drew sustenance by smelling apples and flowers.

Some of the cures he suggests are most unusual. For baldness, he suggests rubbing mouse poo into your scalp. If you had a headache, the thing to do would be to get some fox genitals, put them in a bag and tie them to your forehead. My favourite though is his suggested treatment for incontinence. You should drink a glass of wine mixed with the ash of a burned pig’s penis and urinate in your or your neighbour’s dog’s bed.

Pliny died after he went to investigate the aftermath of the Versuvius eruption and ended up rescuing a couple of friends. Even though he tied a pillow round his head in an attempt to avoid dust inhalation, it was quite likely the cause of his death. His friends though, escaped to tell the story. If you’re wondering if there was a Pliny the Younger, there was. He was Pliny’s nephew. He’s not called Pliny the Younger because it was his given name. It seems it was a condition of his uncle’s will that he take that name.

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