A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 1, chapter X
Science of the roman period
Two famous expositors: Pliny and Ptolemy
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 disregarded.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.