Friday, March 18, 2011

Pliny the Elder - A Really Busy Botanist

While researching information on medicinal herbs, I am often presented with information from several classical scholars.  I am only familiar with their names and understand that they were pioneers in these fields of study, but that's all I know.  So, in order to understand more I have decided that we should learn about these people who paved the way for our education and enjoyment.

Gaius Plinius Secundus (23 AD - August 25, 79 AD), better known as Pliny the Elder, was a Roman author, naturalist, and natural philosopher, as well as naval and army commander of the early Roman Empire, and personal friend of the emperor Vespasian. Spending most of his spare time studying, writing or investigating natural and geographic phenomena in the field, he wrote an encyclopedic work, Naturalis Historia, an encyclopedia in 37 books of the natural world, which became a model for all such works written subsequently.   Pliny surveyed all the known sciences of his day, notably astronomy, meteorology, geography, mineralogy, zoology, botany, agriculture, and horticulture

Pliny- was born in 23 or 24 at Novum Comum (modern Como), a small city in the region known as Gallia Transpadana. We do not know much about his family, except for the fact that he had a sister, and that his father was wealthy enough to be a member of the equestrian class. (That means he was rich and privileged.) 

Ancient scientists preferred the direct observation method. They would observe a phenomenon with skill that comes from experience and write highly detailed notes about what they saw.  Pliny the Elder was one such scientist and writer who had a passion for directly observing phenomena and taking notes.
"Here we must mention the awe felt for this plant by the Gauls. The Druids - for so their magicians are called - held nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and the tree that bears it, always supposing that tree to be the oak. But they choose groves of oaks for the sake of the tree alone, and they never perform any of their rites except in the presence of a branch of it; so that it seems probable that the priests themselves may derive their name from the Greek word for that tree. In fact, they think that everything that grows on it has been sent from heaven and is a proof that the tree was chosen by the god himself."
Some time between 70-78 AD, Pliny was made prefect of one of the two Roman navies stationed at Misenum.  Pliny was responsible for the safety of the entire western half of the Mediterranean.  He must have been a terribly busy man, as during that time he was able to finish his encyclopedia, the Naturalis Historia, which contained all the knowledge he had, both from reading and from autopsy.  It was dedicated to his friend Titus, and:
"was written for the masses, for the horde of farmers and artisans, and, finally, for those who have time to devote time to these pursuits."
In August 79, Pliny's sister and her son (Pliny the younger) were staying with him at Misenum, when that infamous volcano, Vesuvius became active.  Pliny saw that this event was important enough for closer inspection, and he ordered a fast boat to be made ready. 

However, upon closer inspection, Pliny's simple investigation became a humanitarian mission.  He gave orders for his warships to be launched, so that people from the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, which surrounded the volcano, could be evacuated. 

While attempting the rescue,  the prevailing wind would not allow Pliny's ship to leave the shore. He died during the evacuation; the exact cause of his death is unknown, but it seems that he may have been asthmatic and was overcome by the sulphurous fumes.  

His nephew, Pliny the Younger, wrote of him in a letter to the historian Tacitus:
For my part I deem those blessed to whom, by favour of the gods, it has been granted either to do what is worth writing of, or to write what is worth reading; and most fortunate of all is he who can do both.  Such a man was my uncle.

Sourses include: 
LIVIUS - Articles on Ancient History;
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