Contents Index


Caius Plinius Secundus, CE 23-79, Roman naturalist.

Pliny the Elder was the author of Historia naturalis, the principal compendium of scientific knowledge for the original Augustan age, a work to which Percy Bysshe Shelley was introduced at Eton. He claimed there to have, for the most part, translated the encyclopedic work on metallurgy, pharmacology, zoology, anthropology, and psychology into English.

The Natural History is the only one of Pliny's seven writings to survive antiquity entire. That work in thirty-seven books was an attempt to survey all natural knowledge systematically in an unadorned style, and his methodical approach and careful regard for citation make it a model of ancient scientific research, in spite of Pliny's superstitious beliefs in magic. Book 1 is an introduction to the entire work. Book 2 addresses cosmology and astronomy; books 3 through 6 are on geography. The next thirteen books treat biology: zoology in books 7 through 11, botany in books 12 through 19. Books 20 through 22 address medicine; books 23 through 37 are concerned with metals, minerals, and precious stones.

Pliny's authority was comparable to Aristotle's throughout the Middle Ages; only in 1492 did he come under attack in Niccolò Leoniceno's catalogue of his errors. From then on its influence waned by degrees, and few regarded it seriously as science after the end of the seventeenth century.

Pliny died in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in CE 79, famously described in letters by his nephew.