Pliny the Elder

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Pliny the Elder, Naturalis historia in the Florence manuscript, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana , Plut. 82.4, fol. 3r (15th century)

Gaius Pliny Secundus Maior , also Pliny the Elder (* 23 or 24 in Novum Comum , today Como; † August 25, 79 in Stabiae on the Gulf of Naples ), was a Roman scholar, officer and administrative officer, who was mainly through the Naturalis historia , an encyclopedic work on natural history, has gained importance. He died at the age of about 55 during the great Vesuvius eruption .

Pliny the Elder is not to be confused with his nephew Pliny the Younger (Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus Minor).


Memorial stone for Pliny the Elder, today attached to Como Cathedral

Pliny 's life is attested almost only by a few allusions in his own work Naturalis historia, by two letters from Pliny the Younger and the Vita Plinii from the Catalogus virorum illustrium Tranquilli . According to the latter, his birthplace is Novum Comum in the province of Gallia cisalpina . The date of birth can be narrowed down as his nephew reports that Pliny was 56 years old when he died.

Pliny came from a knightly family and must have received an education that enabled him to become one of the most important scholars of his time. It is documented that Pliny was taught and brought up in Rome in the house of Publius Pomponius Secundus . However, details are not known. He himself only gives a few brief testimonies.

Pliny served as an officer in various Roman provinces. In AD 47 he came to Lower Germany and came to the Chauken region under Domitius Corbulo . Later he reached areas north of the Middle and Upper Rhine. He was back in Italy no later than AD 59, but did not exercise any military or civil function in the state under Nero and concentrated on his scientific and literary activities. According to the Principate of Nero, Pliny served in several Roman provinces as financial administrator ( Procurator ), including in Hispania Tarraconensis . Around AD 79, as prefect , he was in charge of the Roman fleet stationed in Misenum not far from Vesuvius .

Pliny remained unmarried and childless throughout his life. After the death of his brother-in-law, he lived with his sister and her son, Pliny the Younger, whom he designated as his adoptive son in his will .

The death of Pliny has been handed down in detail in a letter from Pliny the Younger to the Roman historian Tacitus . When a large black cloud was observed, Pliny initially wanted to sail to the shore below Vesuvius out of research interests in order to observe the phenomenon. In response to a call for help from a certain Rectina, he decided to save the people living there, but due to the ash rain (due to the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius on August 24, 79) the bank could not be reached. Instead he drove to Stabiae and stayed on the estate of a Pomponianus. After a restless night, the building had to be vacated in the morning due to strong earthquakes. Pliny collapsed dead on the coast. The cause of death is now unclear. In research, possible causes are death from suffocation, poisoning, asthma attacks, heart attacks or strokes .



Pliny the Younger passed on not only biographical information, but also information about his uncle's literary activity. In a letter to Baebius Macer, he lists his writings in chronological order. In addition, Pliny the Elder left 160 notebooks with notes and excerpts from earlier writers, closely written on both sides. The dating attempts were made retrospectively:

  • De iaculatione equestri liber unus (throwing a javelin from a horse, a book): around the end of the 1940s
  • De vita Pomponi Secundi duo (Life of Pomponius Secundus, two books): around the 1950s
  • Bellorum Germaniae libri XX (20 books about the wars in Germania): Completed around the 1940s, but not published until the 1950s
  • Studiosi libri tres (The Student, three books): around the end of the 1950s
  • Dubii sermonis libri octo (indistinct expression, eight books): in the dangerous time for writers under Nero, approx. 65–68 AD.
  • A fine Aufidii Bassi libri triginta unus (continuation of Aufidius Bassus, 31 books): under Vespasian, between 69 and 79 AD.
  • Naturae historiarum libri triginta septem (natural history, 37 books): c. 77 AD.

The Bella Germaniae and A fine Aufidii Bassi are among the historical writings, the rest mainly deal with rhetorical and literary-historical issues. Most of these works, however, have survived today at most in fragments or not at all.

Historical works

The bella Germaniae ( Germanic Wars ) comprised 20 books and were already difficult to access in late antiquity , as can be seen in a letter from Quintus Aurelius Symmachus from 396. With the histories comprising 31 books (which his nephew listed under A fine Aufidii Bassi ), Pliny followed up with the historian Aufidius Bassus . It is therefore assumed, but it has not been proven with certainty, that the depiction began in 47, the presumed endpoint of Aufidius Bassus in his history.

The beginning of the fourth book of Naturalis historia in the Leiden manuscript, Library of the Rijksuniversiteit , Voss. Lat. F. 4, fol. 20v (first half of the 8th century)
Pliny (left) presents Emperor Titus with a scroll dedicated to his work. Illumination in a manuscript of the Naturalis historia . Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana , Plut. 82.1, fol. 2v (early 13th century)

Both the histories , which reached into the reign of Vespasian , as well as the German Wars (the extent of which is controversial, but which perhaps extended to the middle of the 1st century) were used extensively by Tacitus as a source, who soon supplanted Pliny's writings. Suetonius , however, also used the historical works of Pliny.

The fragments are collected in The Fragments of the Roman Historians (No. 80).

Naturalis historia

His natural history , the Naturalis historia , occupies a special position . All 37 volumes of the extensive encyclopedia have been preserved in their entirety, as they have been continuously received and reproduced. The natural history knowledge around 50 AD was gathered in it. This makes the work an important source for the assessment and reception of ancient knowledge today.

Pliny arranged in it traditional scientific knowledge of Greek authors such as Aristotle , Theophrastus and Hippocrates of Kos directly from manuscripts and put this in relation to new geographical knowledge of Catos , Varros , Mucianus and others. The work is particularly characterized by its structure: It consists of 37 volumes that can be used independently of one another. A volume of Naturalis historia could thus function as a manual for a subject.

The encyclopedia dealt with the subjects of cosmography (book 2), geography (book 3–6), anthropology (book 7), zoology (book 8–11), botany (book 12–19), medicine (20–32), Metallurgy and mineralogy as well as painting and art history (Book 33–37). Book 9 on zoology deals with the purple dyeing of this period.


Charles Plumier named the genus Plinia of the myrtle family (Myrtaceae) in honor of Pliny . Carl von Linné later took over this name.

In the novel Pompeii by Robert Harris , Pliny is represented at the end of his life in Misenum.

The lunar crater Pliny was named after him.


Overview representations in manuals


Overall representations

Individual topics

  • Johannes Hahn : Pliny and the Greek doctors in Rome: the conception of nature and criticism of medicine in the 'Naturalis Historia'. In: Sudhoff's archive. Volume 75, 1991, pp. 209-239.
  • John F. Healy: Pliny the Elder on Science and Technology. Oxford University Press, Oxford 1999, ISBN 0-19-814687-6 .
  • Thomas Köves-Zulauf : Talking and silence. Roman religion with Pliny Maior. Fink, Munich 1972.
  • Helmut Leitner: Zoological terminology with the older Pliny. Hildesheim 1972.
  • Valérie Naas: Pliny Secundus (Caius). In: Richard Goulet (ed.): Dictionnaire des philosophes antiques. Vol. 5, Part 1, CNRS Éditions, Paris 2012, ISBN 978-2-271-07335-8 , pp. 876-884 (about Pliny 's relationship to philosophy)
  • Klaus Sallmann: The geography of the elder Pliny in its relationship to Varro. Attempt a source analysis. De Gruyter, Berlin 1971, ISBN 3-11-001838-1 .
  • Klaus Sallmann: The historian's dream: To the 'Bella Germaniae' of Pliny and to the Julian-Claudian historiography. In: Rise and Fall of the Roman World . II 32.1, Berlin 1984, pp. 578-601.

Web links

Wikisource: Pliny the Elder  - Sources and full texts
Wikisource: Gaius Plinius Secundus  - Sources and full texts (Latin)
Commons : Pliny the Elder  - collection of images, videos and audio files


  1. Pliny minor, Epist. III, 5, 7.
  2. Gerhard Winkler: Pliny the Elder , p. 553.
  3. Gerhard Winkler: Pliny the Elder. In: Bernhard Zimmermann (Ed.): Metzler Lexicon of ancient literature. Authors, genres, terms. Stuttgart 2004, p. 553.
  4. ^ W. Kroll: Pliny d. Ä. In: RE 21 (1951), col. 274.
  5. ^ W. Kroll: Pliny d. Ä. In: RE 21 (1951), col. 276.
  6. ^ W. Kroll: Pliny d. Ä. In: RE 21 (1951), col. 277.
  7. Reinhard Wolters: Pliny. In: Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde . Vol. 23rd 2nd edition Berlin 2003, here p. 211.
  8. Pliny minor, Epist. VI, 16.
  9. ^ Pliny minor, epist. III, 5, 17.
  10. ^ Symmachus, epist. IV 18 (Edition Otto Seeck ).
  11. On the bella Germaniae see above all Klaus Sallmann: The dream of the historian: On the 'Bella Germaniae' of Pliny and the Julio-Claudian historiography. In: Rise and Fall of the Roman World . II 32.1, Berlin 1984, pp. 578-601. See also Ronald Syme : Tacitus. Vol. 1, Oxford 1958, especially p. 287 ff.
  12. Francesca Berno: Pliny the Elder (Gaius Pliny Caecilius Secundus maior). Naturalis historia. In: Christine Walde (Ed.): The reception of ancient literature. Cultural-historical dictionary of works. Stuttgart 2010, p. 697.
  13. ^ Cancik, Hubert: Or - Poi, p. 1139.
  14. ^ Franz Brunhölzl: Pliny the Elder in the Middle Ages. In: Lexicon of the Middle Ages . Vol. 7, Col. 21 f.
  15. Francesca Berno: Pliny d. Ä. (Gaius Pliny Caecilius Secundus maior). Naturalis historia. In: Christine Walde (Ed.): The reception of ancient literature. Cultural-historical dictionary of works. Stuttgart 2010, pp. 697-699.
  16. ^ Charles Plumier: Nova Plantarum Americanarum Genera . Leiden 1703, p. 9.
  17. ^ Carl von Linné: Critica Botanica . Leiden 1737, p. 94; Carl von Linné: Genera Plantarum . Leiden 1742, p. 239.