Hannibal's fire is proof that Pliny was hot stuff

Pliny the Elder on Science and Technology

June 29, 2001

Pliny the Elder was a learned Roman whose scientific curiosity was so compelling that it led to his death when he sailed too near the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79. He consulted thousands of sources and drew on first-hand experiences to compile a vast encyclopedia of contemporary knowledge about nature and technology.

He intended his work to be accessible to ordinary readers, to "farmers and artisans, and finally, those who have time to devote to these studies". Pliny's Historia Naturalis was widely read and admired in antiquity, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Today, his compendium paints a vivid panorama of scientific knowledge and belief in the early Roman Empire.

John Healy's engaging study of Pliny on science and technology appeals not only to general readers, but it is a long-awaited, valuable reassessment for scientists, classicists, ancient historians, folklorists, environmentalists and historians of science. It is the first in-depth examination of Pliny's science since the 1920s. Healy has searched out new scientific experiments and archaeological discoveries to confirm Pliny's information. Confusions over terminology (for example, words for various forms of sulphur, emeralds, petroleum, arsenic) and Pliny's technical vocabulary are clarified, and earlier commentators' mistakes are corrected. There are enlightening appendices on amber, hydrocarbons, meteorites and dyes. Chapters on Pliny's career, research, sources, writing style, special interests (bizarre phenomena, applied science and the preservation of natural resources) and his credulity and scepticism are followed by chapters on science in antiquity and Pliny's contributions.

Some historians of science maintain a definition of scientific enterprise that excludes the unsophisticated observations described by Pliny. (We learn that similar criticism first arose in the 15th century.) But Healy makes a convincing case that "Pliny may be described as a scientist... however unsophisticated". "Observation and accurate recording of physical and other phenomena... even if their underlying principles were not fully understood, is surely part of scientific inquiry." Pliny's compilation of what was known in his day about matter and energy, crystallisation and chemical processes such as solubility and precipitation, and minerals and metals, would, centuries later, be incorporated into physics, chemistry and the earth sciences.

Healy's detailed commentaries make for fascinating reading. He demonstrates the accuracy of Pliny's formulas and anticipations of modern discoveries, as well as his errors. The chapter on technology focuses on glass manufacturing, paper making and time measurement. In the chapter on metals, the sections on gold mining, refining and plating are outstanding. Commenting that "many legends in the ancient world have their origin in fact", Healy resolves several ancient mysteries. For example, Cleopatra's notorious banquet consisting of one fabulous pearl dissolved in vinegar turns out to be scientifically unfeasible and Nero's emerald "sunglasses" are disputed. But Hannibal's fabled use of fire and vinegar to clear Alpine rockfalls is vindicated. Many popular beliefs recounted by Pliny receive detailed explanations (the regeneration of precious ores in previously mined rock, the origins of glass, gold-mining ants). Others (Medea's use of naphtha to kill a rival, the centaur and sea monster viewed by Pliny, griffins) are mentioned without analysis.

Some might frown at the spate of exclamation marks, but they reflect Healy's passionate engagement with Pliny and ancient ingenuity. Scientific milestones abound: the first description of industrial diamonds, the forerunner of napalm, the earliest (inadvertent) fluoride dental treatment, the original harvesting machine, the earliest accounts of crystal systems, the first chemical tests, are just a few.

In the chapter on earth sciences, Pliny's fossil phenomena might have been acknowledged as another first. Healy has excellent discussions of Pliny's understanding of amber and petrifactions of plants. But he relates Pliny's observation that in caves where selenite is mined, the bone marrow of petrified animals crystallises, without noting that this may be the first scientific notice of skeletal mineralisation.

Pliny's references to marine fossils, and to fossil ivory and stone bones buried in the earth are omitted. Taken together, these passages reveal ideas about fossilisation long before the birth of palaeontology.

The chapter on Pliny's environmentalism is a fascinating comparison of modern ecological concerns with Pliny's moral criticism of industrial hazards, pollution and destruction of nature, all driven by Rome's lifestyle of luxury and profit. As Healy points out, Pliny was an original "Friend of the Earth", and his anti-consumerism and reverence for nature "strikes a chord of immediate... relevance to our own society".

Healy's illuminating work increases our appreciation of ancient knowledge and invention, as well as Pliny's prodigious accomplishment.

Adrienne Mayor is an independent scholar of classical folklore and author of The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times .

Pliny the Elder on Science and Technology

Author - John F. Healy
ISBN - 0 19 814687 6
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £65.00
Pages - 467

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.