Pliny, Preserving Knowledge

Knowledge is fragile and easily lost. The books in the library at Alexandria were not bound volumes like those in modern libraries, but texts that were handwritten on scrolls of paper made from the papyrus plant (Cyperus papyrus), a type of sedge, and a long book might comprise several scrolls. Later texts, though not those at Alexandria, were written on parchment, which is made from animal skin. Alexandrian merchants had close links with the papyrus producers, which may be why the library preferred papyrus, and the increasing popularity of parchment outside Alexandria may have been due to the heavy demand for papyrus at Alexandria and the consequent rise in its price. In either case, the material is highly flammable.

The best way to preserve knowledge is to produce many copies and store them in different places. That is simple enough today, but it was more difficult before the invention of printing. An alternative might be to gather as much information as possible and record all of it in a single place, in a book that others could then copy, even though copying meant laboriously writing the entire text by hand. One person who took the latter approach, aiming to gather together as much information on the natural world as he could, was the Roman army officer, administrator, and author Gaius Plinius Secundus (23–79 c.e.), who is better known as Pliny the Elder—“elder” because his nephew and biographer was also called Pliny and is known as Pliny the Younger.

The work in which Pliny recorded everything he could find out about the natural world was entitled Historia naturalis (Natural history) and it consisted of 37 volumes—Pliny called them books (libri). The first book is a table of contents and a list of all the sources Pliny used. There follow 18 volumes describing nature and a further 18 on practical applications of the knowledge of plants and animals. Books 12 through 17 deal with plants. Books 12 and 13 describe exotic trees—trees that do not grow naturally around the Mediterranean, book 14 deals with vines and wines, book 15 with olives and other fruit trees, book 16 with forest trees, and book 17 with other useful plants such as wheat and barley, including information on storage, milling, making bread, and making porridge. These books also contain detailed descriptions of Roman gardens and gardening methods. Books 20 through 25 and 27 describe drugs obtained from plants.

Pliny was fluent in ancient Greek and was able to translate Greek texts into Latin, but in doing so he claimed Greek knowledge on behalf of Rome, was often disparaging about the Greeks, and in places scholars say his translations were rather too free. Revealing his Roman appropriation of originally Greek material, in the final book Pliny wrote: “Greetings, Nature, mother of all creation, show me your favor in that I alone of Rome's citizens have praised you in all your aspects.” That said, the Natural history is a valuable summary of the attitudes and state of knowledge in first-century Rome. Pliny is precise and accurate in his descriptions of those plants and their uses of which he had personal experience, drawing heavily on Theophrastus. He had to rely on travelers returning from distant lands for information about plants to which he had no personal access.

Pliny the Elder was born in 23 or 24 c.e. in the city of Novum Comum (modern Como). He had a sister Plinia and a father wealthy enough for him to receive a good education. By the year 30, Pliny was living in Rome as a student. One of his teachers, Publius Pomponius Secundus, had connections at the courts of the emperors Caligula (ruled 37–41) and Claudius (ruled 41–54), through which Pliny was able to embark on a military career when he completed his education. In 45, when he was 21 years old, Pliny went to serve in what is now Germany. He was in Rome briefly in 52, but otherwise remained in Germany. During his time in Germany, he became friendly with the future emperor Vespasian (ruled 69–71) and his son Titus (ruled 79–81). Pliny returned to Rome in 59. Nero (ruled 54–68) was emperor and Pliny maintained a low profile, probably spending most of his time writing. When Vespasian became emperor in 69, Pliny was made a procurator—a government official—with duties that took him through most of the western part of the empire. After some years he returned to the military as prefect of one of Rome's two navies, based at Misenum, on the Bay of Naples.

In August 79 Pliny was at Misenum and his sister Plinia was staying with him together with her son, Pliny the Younger. On August 24, Vesuvius, the large volcano on the opposite side of the bay, became active. Pliny had been out and on his return home he took a bath. It was after his bath that Plinia drew his attention to the cloud above the volcano. Realizing that people were in danger, Pliny ordered the warships to be launched with the intention of using them to evacuate the inhabitants of the towns across the bay. By the time they arrived it was evening. They landed at Stabiae, where Pliny spent the night with his friend Pomponianus. According to his nephew's account, Pliny dined cheerfully, or with the pretense of cheerfulness in order not to alarm his hosts, and then he went to bed.

In the middle of the night, Pliny was roused from his bed. Rocks were falling close to the house, and the building itself was shaking badly. Everyone decided they would be safer in the open, so they left the house, using pillows to protect their heads from falling stones. By this time it should have been daylight, but the volcanic cloud made it darker than the darkest night. They and other parties seeking safety had lamps and torches to help them find their way.

They all decided to go to the shore to see whether they could find safety by sailing out from the coast, but the sea was too rough for them to launch boats. Pliny, who may have been asthmatic, lay down on a linen cloth. Twice he asked for cold water, which he drank. Then they saw flames approaching and there was a smell of sulfur. Two slaves helped Pliny struggle to his feet, but he collapsed at once. He was inhaling ash and found breathing difficult and painful. The situation on the shore must have been chaotic, for Pliny was not found until the morning of August 26. His body was intact, and he looked as if he was asleep.