Roman Nature: The Thought of Pliny the Elder

Roman Nature: The Thought of Pliny the Elder

Roman Nature: The Thought of Pliny the Elder

Roman Nature: The Thought of Pliny the Elder

Synopsis

Pliny's Natural History has too often been regarded as simply a quarry for quaint stories--a view which has tended to overshadow its overall structure and purpose. In this book, Beagon redresses the balance and illuminates the Natural History as the work of an author with an identifiable mode of thinking and a coherent attitude toward his clearly-stated theme, Nature. Taking its cue from Pliny, the book examines his cosmology and in particular his portrayal of the relationship between nature and what he considered nature's greatest creation, Humankind. Author and work are also placed in their wider literary and historical context. Pliny himself emerges no longer as a faceless compiler but as a character with a valuable contribution to make to an understanding of intellectual attitudes in the first century A.D. A more typical Roman than most of the intellectual authors studied today, he can offer a much more accurate picture of the Roman in his "natural" setting.

Excerpt

This book is not intended to be a biography of Pliny. For information on his intriguing but ill-documented career and contacts the reader is referred to the series of articles by the late Sir Ronald Syme, in which a plausible life is painstakingly reconstructed. Nor is it concerned to cover in depth the various important specialist aspects of the Historia Naturalis. These too have been treated in other modern works: its chapters on art history, for instance, in a recent monograph by J. Isager; its scientific information on many occasions in the last few years, much of it at conferences and colloquia.

The aim of the present study is to view the HN as a whole; as testimony to the mode of thought, the outlook on life of the educated Roman citizen of the first century of our era. These rather general phrases are important. Too technical an examination of Pliny's intellectual heritage would be impossible, precisely because he is himself essentially a non-specialist. While he cannot in any sense be termed ordinary, he is not on the same level of intellectual innovation and artistic creativity as a Seneca or a Tacitus. Instead, he offers a valuable insight into the mind of a more typical member of the educated Roman élite. These were the absorbers rather than the innovators, for whom aspects of Greek learning and philosophy were worked into the fabric of their everyday lives, forming a backdrop of general principles and assumptions, rather than a platform for rigorous intellectual exploration. Thus, while I have found it possible to say a great deal in general terms about, for example, Pliny's philosophy and its effects on his ideas in the HN, to dwell too much upon possible sources and specific theories is ultimately unrewarding and for the most part irrelevant.

Instead, I have followed the lead given by Pliny himself, taking up the keynote of the HN, Nature, and in particular man's role in Nature, to build up his world view. Early chapters deal with his ideas on the cosmos, cosmic deity, and man's place in the cosmos. The second part deals with man's relation to specific areas of the natural world around him: the animal kingdom and the elements land and water. The final chapter looks at the use . . .

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