Coin of Vespasian (AD 69-79)
Following Simon Schama’s launch of the BBC’s new Civilisations series last week I am really looking forward to Mary Beard presenting the follow-up because this ought to include some Roman content. It is a great opportunity to talk about Manchester Museum’s new temporary exhibition about Pliny the Elder and Roman Natural History opening on 6th April. Pliny’s work The Natural History is the biggest work of non-fiction to survive from the ancient world. Although it is not a work of art, in summarising information about the world at that time, it has a particular relationship with Roman civilisation and civilisations more widely that is worth exploring, not least because it throws up a challenging conclusion about Manchester Museum and its collection, though I fear that will not find favour with some cultural commentators.
Pliny the Elder was born in Comum in northern Italy in about 23 AD. His wealth qualified him for membership of the equestrian class, the lesser aristocracy of Roman society. After serving in the Roman army in Germany during the 50s AD, Pliny seems to have kept a low profile during the reign of Emperor Nero (AD 54-68). Following the latter’s death, and thanks to his earlier friendship with a fellow Roman officer, Titus, Pliny became a trusted member of the inner circle around the new emperor Vespasian (AD 69-79), who was Titus’ father. Pliny had early morning meetings with Vespasian and held a number of important administrative posts in the provinces. He was procurator of Hispania Tarraconesis in AD 72-4, and was commanding the Roman fleet at Misenum when Vesuvius erupted on 24th August AD 79. Pliny lost his life whilst trying to rescue people caught up in the disaster. Although he is sometimes presented as a martyr to scientific enquiry, his nephew Pliny the Younger’s account makes it clear that Pliny the Elder died heroically trying to save others.
Plaster cast of victim of the eruption of Vesuvius in the Manchester Museum collection
During much of his life Pliny the Elder kept notes about all aspects of the Roman Empire. Some were observations he made himself, some came from other writers. He was offered a very large sum of money for his notebooks at one point, sufficient to have bought himself into the equestrian class had he not already been a member. Pliny the Elder’s working methods are described by his nephew Pliny the Younger: slaves read to his uncle at dinner and whilst he was in the bath. Pliny the Elder told the younger man off for travelling on foot when he could be carried by slaves because it was a wasted opportunity to study. Pliny the Elder’s official duties left him little time for writing during the day so he often stayed up late or got up before dawn to work. He seems to have been permanently sleep-deprived and nodded off easily. Pliny’s hard work compiling his notes created something unique. Pliny succeeded in writing nothing less than a full account, in 37 books, of knowledge as it existed in the Roman Empire during the mid to later 1st century AD. Although it’s called The Natural History, it’s natural history in its broadest sense: it’s a mine of information for a wide range of subjects including agriculture, architecture, astronomy, botany, geography, medicine, numismatics, zoology and the history of art.
A garum factory in North Africa (Nabeul Museum, Tunisia)
Fascinating snippets of information are scattered throughout the Natural History. One of the most memorable is an account of a giant octopus which raided the garum factories of southern Spain at night. This was where fish guts were left to ferment in brine in the sun to produce a relish or sauce that was used as a condiment throughout the Roman world. Something similar to Roman garum is used today in Thai cuisine. The workmen tried to discourage their nocturnal visitor by building a fence but without success. In the end the massive octopus – it’s said to have been the size of 15 amphorae or transport containers – was tracked with dogs and killed using tridents (what else would you use to kill a sea monster in ancient world?). The creature was then pickled and put on display in the governor’s mansion where it became a tourist attraction.
Giant octopus shown on a mosaic in the Lesvos Archaeological Museum
The story about the octopus is just one of a number of marvels that made their way into Pliny’s Natural History. Such stories were very popular at this time and Pliny sourced them from contemporary writers. Pliny claimed to have read 2000 sources by 200 different authors, although research has shown that the actual number is much greater. The Natural History was so big it needed a table of contents. In fact it was the first work of the ancient world to feature one. Pliny intended for it to be consulted as required; he didn’t expect readers to read the whole work. He also criticises those writers who copied the work of others without acknowledging them. As I am currently writing this blog post in a university museum it is perhaps appropriate that I acknowledge Pliny’s condemnation of plagiarism.
The Natural History could be described as the first encyclopaedia and Pliny was proud that it was something that even the Greek writers, whose works he quoted so frequently, hadn’t attempted. However, it’s not always entirely reliable and in some cases the entries are ludicrous. For example, the root of the autumn nettle is recommended as a cure for tertian fevers but only provided that when the root is pulled up from the ground, care is taken to mention the patient’s name, to say who he or she is and who his or her parents are. Folklore remedies feature large in The Natural History: iron nails from a tomb will prevent nightmares if driven into the door at the entrance to a house; give small children boiled mice with their food to stop bed-wetting; the skin of a hyena is a most effectual precaution against robberies and alarms at night; radish will kill a scorpion; or, if someone has a fish bone stuck in their throat, plunge his or her feet in cold water and it will go away. This obviously comes with the usual caveat not to try any of this at home!
I think it’s in this sense that Pliny’s work is relevant to Civilisations, the BBC’s new ‘reimagining’ of Kenneth Clarke’s 1969 series Civilisation. Pliny reveals a very different world to that which usually appears in accounts of Roman history and archaeology. Eric Dodds undermined the traditional view of Greek culture as a triumph of rationalism in his book The Greeks and the Irrational (1951). Similarly Pliny, albeit not intentionally, shows us that the Romans were just as liable to so-called ‘primitive modes’ of thought as any other society.
Although in print almost continuously, the Natural History fell out of favour during the Enlightenment when the wisdom of the ancient world was replaced by scientific approaches based on observation and experiment. Pliny has been criticised for his credulity but it is clear that he himself was often sceptical about some of the things he recorded: ‘It is hardly possible to preserve one’s seriousness in describing some of these recipes, but as they have been transmitted to us, I must not pass them by in silence.’
Sometimes Pliny has the last laugh, as for instance when he recommends a plant called ‘rodarum’ for tumours and inflammations. On applying the extract as an ointment, the patient must spit on three times on the right side. The remedy is said to be even more effective if three people from three different nations rub the right side of the patient’s body with it! This may appear farcical until you appreciate that rodarum has been tentatively identified as Spiraea ulmaria, the old botanical name for meadowsweet, which has been used to create non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. As Pliny wrote: ‘there is nothing which cannot be affected by the agency of plants but the properties of by far the greater part of them remain unknown.’ (Book 25.5) One wonders what he would make of the felling of the Amazonian rainforest.
Pliny was clearly fascinated by the natural world. He was environmentally aware, and even something of an eco-warrior. Discussing insects in Book 11 of The Natural History he wrote: ‘In no one of her works has Nature more fully displayed her ingenuity… Nature is nowhere to be seen in to greater perfection than in the very smallest of her works’, a sentiment one could easily imagine being expressed by David Attenborough in another BBC documentary. Pliny records the extinction of plants such as the silphium in North Africa, and regrets the disappearance of certain birds not seen since the time of the augur Mucius: ‘in the general heedlessness as to all knowledge which has of late prevailed, no notice has been taken of them’ (Book 10.5). He decries mining for minerals as so much ‘scrabbling about in the entrails of the earth’ and tells us that the Roman Senate banned mining in Italy, whilst elsewhere an important source of copper had dried up, ‘the earth having been quite exhausted’. It brings to mind images of Roman mining sites in Spain, where the whole landscape is still marked by the scars of industrial scale extraction 2,000 years later.
Despite his environmental awareness, Pliny the Elder definitely comes across as an advocate for Roman imperialism with everything that that entails. Given the circumstances of Pliny’s career and close association with the Flavian Dynasty it would be astonishing if he had been anything else. The Natural History is dedicated to his old comrade-in arms, Titus, and on a number of occasions Pliny makes it clear he’s fully signed up to the Roman imperial project. He pays tribute to Vespasian under whom peace had been restored to the Roman Empire, allowing trade, the exchange of information and interactions between the various parts of the Roman world and beyond. Pliny tells us emphatically that the Roman Empire facilitated the movement of commodities and information about the world and this is what, in his opinion, enabled the progress of civilisation. Since the original series of Civilisation we have become far more sceptical of the claims made about the benefits of empire and are far more aware of the negative impact of colonialism on indigenous peoples, their lands, environment, culture and economy. Pliny may be a strong advocate for Roman imperialism but even so, as we read his monumental work, The Natural History, we can see that civilisation as represented by the Roman Empire was not all it was cracked up to be. The Romans faced many of the challenges we face today: sustainability, environmental destruction, extinction and globalisation. And Pliny has no better idea of how to deal with them than we do, other than to condemn over-indulgence and preoccupation with imported luxuries as un-Roman.
There is one sobering point on which to end. It’s possible to view The Natural History as just as much a product and symbol of Roman imperialism as the Colosseum. Manchester Museum’s collections, too, reflect the unparalleled collecting opportunities made possible by the expansion of another empire, the British Empire. With every discipline represented in the Museum from Archery to Zoology, are we not doing with artefacts what Pliny did with textual records? Is Manchester Museum and other encyclopedic museums to the British Empire what Pliny’s Natural History or the Colosseum were to the Roman Empire?
Many of these questions will be discussed in a new temporary exhibition at Manchester Museum that opens to the public on 6th April 2018. Drawing on Manchester Museum’s wide-ranging collections, and with loans from a number of regional museums, the exhibition explores Pliny the Elder’s life and times, and shows the important role that natural history played in Roman life.
Find out more on social media: #MMPliny @McrMuseum