||While Strabo was
pursuing his geographical studies at Alexandria, a young man came to Rome
who was destined to make his name more widely known in scientific annals
than that of any other Latin writer of antiquity. This man was Plinius
Secundus, who, to distinguish him from his nephew, a famous writer in another
field, is usually spoken of as Pliny the Elder. There is a famous story
to the effect that the great Roman historian Livy on one occasion addressed
a casual associate in the amphitheatre at Rome, and on learning that the
stranger hailed from the outlying Spanish province of the empire, remarked
to him, "Yet you have doubtless heard of my writings even there." "Then,"
replied the stranger, "you must be either Livy or Pliny."
The anecdote illustrates the wide fame
which the Roman naturalist achieved in his own day. And the records of
the Middle Ages show that this popularity did not abate in succeeding times.
Indeed, the Natural History of Pliny is one of the comparatively few bulky
writings of antiquity that the efforts of copyists have preserved to us
almost entire. It is, indeed, a remarkable work and eminently typical of
its time; but its author was an industrious compiler, not a creative genius.
As a monument of industry it has seldom been equalled, and in this regard
it seems the more remarkable inasmuch as Pliny was a practical man of affairs
who occupied most of his life as a soldier fighting the battles of the
empire. He compiled his book in the leisure hours stolen from sleep, often
writing by the light of the camp-fire. Yet he cites or quotes from about
four thousand works, most of which are known to us only by his references.
Doubtless Pliny added much through his own observations. We know how keen
was his desire to investigate, since he lost his life through attempting
to approach the crater of Vesuvius on the occasion of that memorable eruption
which buried the cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii.
Doubtless the wandering life of the soldier
had given Pliny abundant opportunity for personal observation in his favorite
fields of botany and zoology. But the records of his own observations are
so intermingled with knowledge drawn from books that it is difficult to
distinguish the one from the other. Nor does this greatly matter, for whether
as closet-student or field-naturalist, Pliny's trait of mind is essentially
that of the compiler. He was no philosophical thinker, no generalizer,
no path-maker in science. He lived at the close of a great progressive
epoch of thought; in one of those static periods when numberless observers
piled up an immense mass of details which might advantageously be sorted
into a kind of encyclopaedia. Such an encyclopaedia is the so-called Natural
History of Pliny. It is a vast jumble of more or less uncritical statements
regarding almost every field of contemporary knowledge. The descriptions
of animals and plants predominate, but the work as a whole would have been
immensely improved had the compiler shown a more critical spirit. As it
is, he seems rather disposed to quote any interesting citation that he
comes across in his omnivorous readings, shielding himself behind an equivocal
"it is said," or "so and so alleges." A single illustration will suffice
to show what manner of thing is thought worthy of repetition.
"It is asserted," he says, "that if the
fish called a sea-star is smeared with the fox's blood and then nailed
to the upper lintel of the door, or to the door itself, with a copper nail,
no noxious spell will be able to obtain admittance, or, at all events,
be productive of any ill effects."
It is easily comprehensible that a work
fortified with such practical details as this should have gained wide popularity.
Doubtless the natural histories of our own day would find readier sale
were they to pander to various superstitions not altogether different from
that here suggested. The man, for example, who believes that to have a
black cat cross his path is a lucky omen would naturally find himself attracted
by a book which took account of this and similar important details of natural
history. Perhaps, therefore, it was its inclusion of absurdities, quite
as much as its legitimate value, that gave vogue to the celebrated work
of Pliny. But be that as it may, the most famous scientist of Rome must
be remembered as a popular writer rather than as an experimental worker.
In the history of the promulgation of scientific knowledge his work is
important; in the history of scientific principles it may virtually be