Pliny’s Natural History: Or, Why I Read

It’s time once again to show some love for the Romans.

Did you know that wealthier citizens of the Roman Empire purchased known counterfeit coins as collector’s items?

Or maybe you’ve heard the story of Cleopatra drinking a pearl dissolved in vinegar?

Not I, before paging through Pliny the Elder’s Natural History.

The 1601 first edition in English of Pliny's Natural History.
A first edition in English of Pliny’s Natural History.

Now, the Classics—the literature and history of Ancient Greece and Rome—are my home base. I used to spend hours looking up Latin verbs to decide which of the 20 or so possible definitions fit the context of a given sentence, and drilling myself on the seemingly endless incarnations of the Greek verb (TWO Aorists? Really?*). All of this I did with pleasure because I loved the languages and I loved the authors. So how did I miss Pliny the Elder until now?

I knew him only by reputation. I’ve read Pliny the Younger’s account of Elder Pliny’s death at the historic eruption of Vesuvius that buried Pompeii. And I knew Pliny’s Natural History is emphatically crucial to art historians, historians of science, and anyone wanting the ancient equivalent of information one might find in today’s encyclopedias. But that’s rather the point: I didn’t want to read an encyclopedia.

Then I had the opportunity to dig into the first edition in English (1601, trans. by Philemon Holland). And, friends, it is not like reading an encyclopedia. I was blown away by the sheer variety of topics and tidbits, full of erudite narration and unexpected curiosities. This book is a bibliophile’s dream.

Here’s an anecdote about the Emperor Tiberius, who was a terrible person, yet had a soft spot for art.


In this section, Pliny mentions sugar dismissively as a substance used by Indians for medicinal purposes (“serve only for Physick”).


Did you know that soaking a diamond in goat’s blood is one of the few ways to crack it?

Goat's blood

Pliny even gives us a description of the fabled Phoenix—and an anecdote about a fake that was brought to Rome (“he was a counterfeit Phoenix, and no better”).


Want to learn how to manufacture papyrus? How to make the artificial paints the ancients used? Pliny has it covered.

You can read of Atlantis…


the five zones of the earth (only two of which are habitable)…


and sealskins that repel lightning.


You can read “of pictures so lively drawne that birds were deceived therewith.”


Or you can read of echoes, in Philemon Holland’s lively Early Modern English translation:



…from which is the cause of reciprocall voices called Ecchoes, answering one another in many places, when a man doth holla or houpe among them.


This book is simply amazing. The breadth and depth of knowledge contained makes one feel like this book is a miniature lost Library of Alexandria rediscovered.

It can also make you feel a little stupid at times.

Dog star


Who knoweth not, that when the Dog starre ariseth, the heat of the Sunne is fierie and burning?

Erm…me. I didn’t know that. But I know it now, and the process of discovering it through this book has brought me ineffable delight. And think: I simply have to turn the page to experience that happiness all over again through the discovery of another historical gem. Folks, this is why I read: because it brings me joy.


*Giving credit where it is due, fellow bibliophile Brian Yang Hoffman is the one who first put the nightmare of the Greek verb to me in these terms. I always appreciate a good Ancient Greek joke.



5 Comments Add yours

  1. Re: sugar
    I have heard that the Romans (maybe others?) used a lead compound for sweetening.

  2. Mike Gothard says:

    Love this post, Rebecca! Thanks to you it just made my summer reading list.

  3. William Joy says:

    One of your very finest posts, Rebecca.

    1. Appreciated. I was feeling particularly enthusiastic about the book when I wrote this, so I’m glad that came through.

  4. Will says:

    The “dog days of summer” come from the Dog Star reference as well! I’ve always found it interesting that reference materials have not always been quite as dry as we are now accustomed to. Have you ever read Pierre Bayle’s “Historical and Critical Dictionary”? It’s similar in that it’s a dictionary that doesn’t read like a dictionary. He even has some footnotes that are longer than the articles themselves!

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