About PlinyBy Sharon Brown (Sharran)
August 10, 2010
"True glory consists in doing what deserves to be written; in writing what deserves to be read"...Pliny, the Elder
His name was Caius, or Gaius Plinius Secundus, probably named for his father, if history is correct. He grew up to be a lawyer and an administrator. He was a naval and military commander of some importance, and if that was not enough he completed writing a 37-volume of Natural History. He was only about 56 years old when he died, and to have mastered all that he did in such a short time puts him right up there at the top of my important people list. Of course, I have Elvis up near the top of that list, too, but for different reasons.
What I find interesting about Pliny the Elder is his lifelong study of plants. That interest is probably what killed him at such an early age. Being a top military commander as well as naturalist, he had traveled across the waters to see the damage caused by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius near the city of Pompeii. We don't know how long he stayed there, but we do know that the eruption of the volcano could have taken place over a period of time, longer than the two days that were earlier attributed to it. It was possibly the fumes from a later eruption, possibly as much as a month later, that caused his death. He was born in 25 AD, and died with the eruption in 79 AD.
Pliny claimed in his book preface to have drawn upon 100 previous authors, and to have extracted from their works 20,000 noteworthy facts. If that's true, in today's world he would have needed an extra volume just to hold his footnotes and resource credits. A lot of the information that Pliny presented in his Natural History is not fact at all, but legend and superstition. That, too, is very interesting because there is nothing I like more than to learn of such things as they relate to plants. Considering that he lived at a time when mythology was the prevailing belief, it is not surprising that superstition was thought to contain logic. One such superstition concerns amber, the fossil resin prized by the ancients as a gem. He devotes two chapters of his book to the lore of amber, mentioning all the falsehoods that the Greeks had told about it. From his account, we can learn that those before Pliny believed amber to be the tears shed by exotic birds, or by the daughters of the sun. And though Pliny did correctly identify amber as an exudation from trees, he also gave it many properties that it truly did not have. If worn at the neck, he wrote, amber wards off tonsillitis and goiter. He also wrote that it makes fever go away. Included in his amber writings, he stated that amber amulets were meant to benefit babies in some way and to protect people of all ages from "attacks of wild distraction." I am not sure what he meant by that term, but I have had some attacks of wild distraction myself at times, most often when reading a boring book or watching a mindless movie, and have given some thought to wearing a necklace of amber to see if it might help me concentrate.
Pliny's own account of the source of amber is, however, almost entirely accurate and in line with modern standards of objectivity. In that way, misinformation is mixed with kernels of fact here and there throughout the many journals that he left for future historians to peruse. There are many such "facts", and I thought it might be fun if we took a look at them, all the time wondering what will be said about us and what we leave behind by the time the next millennium rolls around.
Here are some of the facts that Pliny left behind: Spiked loosestrife when woven into a garland and hung around oxen's necks, will make the beasts pull together as a team.
Thunder causes truffles to grow.
Silphium, a member of the composite family that Pliny describes as a purge, first sprang up after the ground had been soaked with black rain.
Cucumbers creep toward water but away from oil.
Grapevines abhor radishes.
Turnips provoke lust.
Actually his work contains a great deal about the medicinal uses of all plants that were known at the time, it covers much that is genuinely scientific. It also includes many curious practices formed from superstition. An example of this: if a man afflicted with a boil would take nine grains of barley, trace a circle around the boil three times with each grain, and then throw the barley into a fire with his left hand, he would be cured at once.
Toxicology was also covered in Pliny's writings. Eating mushrooms, the book warned, could be risky because many were poisonous. Even the non-poisonous ones, if breathed upon by a venomous snake, would turn toxic, he said. Also in his book, he gave instructions for rubbing radishes on the skin to stop venomous creatures from biting. He also recommended plants for healing if one was bitten anyway.
He had some plant sorceries, most of them difficult to imagine. If you drink bull's blood, a cabbage seed would provide an antidote. He also recommended an asparagus based talisman against beestings. I wonder if any of these teachings really worked, but I really don't want to risk bee sting while walking through clover wearing an amulet of asparagus, and I truly do not want to drink the blood of a bull or anything else. Did basil really reinforce the procreative urge of donkeys and horses as he claimed? He also mentioned that the carrot had aphrodisiac properties.
Reading of these beliefs, I have to remember that he lived in an age when people believed in witchcraft. Even among philosophers and learned men, Romans still believed witchcraft to be valid. Pliny was a learned author, a successful businessman, a naval officer. He had studied with the best. There was no one of that day and age who would question anything he wrote or said. None of his teachings were ignored, and as a result, many evil spells were avoided by placing a bunch of squill in the doorway. We might laugh at that image, but I am sure those who never had spells cast upon them, swore it was because they made use of the magic of sea quill.
I remember my mother saying: "Wear your coat, so you don't catch a cold." Yet we are told now that common colds are caused by a virus, and there is no real cure for them. Even a coat doesn't seem to help. Some of the things that we believe today are facts, might be proved to be fiction by the time our grandchildren are our age.
That's why I keep Pliny near the top of my important people list along with Elvis, and many others who have contributed to my knowledge in some way. Actually my list is quite long, and I add to it daily, since I think all of life is an education. And that reminds me of a friend who just mentioned that same thought to me today in a little note. I will add her to my list, too.
Did you notice the quote at the top of this article? Here it is in its entirety:
"True glory consists in doing what deserves to be written; in writing what deserves to be read; and in so living as to make the world happier for our living in it." Pliny the Elder
Thanks to Pliny the Elder, those words are written at the top of my list.
The thumbnail image of the Pompeii ruins with Mt. Vesuvius visible behind comes from Wikipedia Public Domain.
From Plant Files, these photos, with thanks to the photographers: Turnips: Farmerdill; Loosestrife: Poppysue; Cup Plant: Mystic; and the scorpion: Kennedyh.