Friday 19 April 2019

The Curious Roman By L.J. Trafford

Given that my last two History Girls posts have concerned the very bloody assassinations of Roman emperors, I thought that this month I might tackle a more cheery subject. If only for my Mum who complained that part two of The Terminators was a tad on the gruesome side. I think it was Commodus decapitating ostriches that pushed her over the edge.
So here we are! Something more cheerful: Pliny the Elder's Natural History.

The Natural History is a treasure trove of facts, strange facts and ‘are you sure that’s right, Pliny?’ facts. A book that has given me hours of gleeful delight and probably most of the material for my new book. Frankly any book that has a chapter heading entitled: “About Cabbage” is worth devoting your time to.
I thought in this month's post I would extract all my favourite bits from Pliny and share them with you.

Pliny and Roman Knowledge Gathering 
The author's rather battered copy of Pliny's Natural History

Gaius Plinius Secundas was born in 23AD in northern Italy. Of equestrian class he served in the Roman army in Germany and held the procuratorships of Gallia Narbonensis, Africa, Hispania Tarraconensis and Belgica. We know of seven works that he wrote thanks to the letters of his nephew Pliny the younger, but the only one to survive to modern times is The Natural History.
The Natural History is in essence an encyclopaedia of 1st Century Roman knowledge. A glance over subject headings gives you a clue of the breadth of what Pliny was trying to achieve:
  • The Universe and the World
  • Zoology 
  • Botany 
  • Medicine 
  • Mining and Minerals 
Pliny is unequivocal in his statement that the Earth is a sphere. Of the planets he names Mars, Venus, Mercury Saturn and Jupiter. He states that Saturn is cold and frozen (which it is). That Mars only rotates every two years (which is correct, Mars has a 687 day orbit). That Saturn has a 30 year orbit (which is so nearly right as to be considered right, it has a 29 year orbit). That Jupiter has a 12 year orbit (another one we will let him have. Jupiter has an 11 year orbit). 
Elsewhere he cites Britain as being 800 miles long (sooooo close. It’s 874 miles). He also talks about the weather as being thoroughly divorced from the Gods. In fact Pliny is not at all God minded: “To believe in either an infinite number of deities corresponding to men’s virtues_ plumbs an even greater depth of foolishness”

All this makes it all the more surprising when Pliny comes out with ‘knowledge’ such as this on Indians: “it is known that many inhabitants exceed seven feet in height.”
He sees no reason to doubt the accounts of previous travellers’ tales on this sub-continent: “On many mountains there are men with Dogs’ heads who are covered with wild beast skins; they bark instead of speaking.”
In the mountains of Eastern India, Pliny tells us, there are satyrs (though my translation has a footnote that suggests these might actually be monkeys). Near the source of the Ganges were a tribe who had no mouths and who were all completely covered in hair. Apparently most Indians lived to between 130 and 200 years.

Yes, India is very far away. And no, Pliny had never been there. He’s relying on past sources which, to his credit, he quotes extensively. But it’s worth remembering that trade between India and Rome was fairly busy. Particularly since sailors had discovered how to use the monsoon winds to make sea crossings to India rather than travel the long arduous silk road.
Therefore there must have been traders knocking about the docks in Rome who were current travellers to India and who surely, at a bare minimum, could have sorted out the satyr/monkey confusion. 

Indian/Roman Trade routes

Pliny does use personal first hand information when it comes to India’s neighbour, Sri Lanka (known to the Romans as Tarpobane):
During the principal of Claudius, however more accurate information became available to us when an embassy came from Tarpobane.”

This embassy had come about following the adventures of a certain tax collector’s freedman. Pliny declines to name the freedman, instead naming his master (who did not have the adventures and was not there) as Annius Plocamus. This unfairly anonymous freedman was sailing around the coast of Arabia when his ship was caught in a terrible storm. Hopelessly thrown off course he was shipwrecked on the island of Tarpobane.
Here he somehow managed to ingratiate himself enough with the king for the ruler to offer him hospitality. Stuck for 6 months waiting for the monsoon winds to change direction and thus get him home, this anonymous freedman shows us something of his character by learning to speak the language thoroughly. The charming tongue that had sweet talked his way into a royal residence is clearly in full flow. The Tarpobanian king is so impressed by what the freedman tells him that he is moved to: ‘adopt a friendly attitude to the Romans and sent four envoys to Rome, led by Rachias.’

Rachias is Pliny’s source for his list of facts surrounding Tarpobane. Clearly a better one than the 300 year old Greek accounts that Pliny relies on for other sections. Or is he? For Rachias tells the Romans about the Chinese, whom his father had personally met.
They: “are above average height, have golden coloured hair, blue eyes and harsh voices.” 

Chapter Headings.
Aside from “On Cabbage” there are so many other great chapter headings that I defy anyone not to read further on. Such as:

The evil eye.
A short but glorious paragraph on the Illyrians amongst who can ‘kill those they stare at for a longer time, especially if it is with a look of anger.’  I’m picturing a Paddington hard stare.

Pliny describes a number of exotic trees. 
Yes, he does. I like something that delivers on what it promises. It’s satisfying.

Pliny gives a brief but entertaining description of apes.
Yes he does give a brief but entertaining description of apes. Best line: they “look like persons who understand they are being congratulated.”

The decay of morality is caused by the produce of the sea.
A political treatise that demands an instant read. It’s the sea sponges, isn’t it? I’ve always harboured suspicions about them. 

A sponge waiting silently to decay your morals. 

Famous wines of antiquity.
Which is followed by:
The physiological effects of wine - much in the manner of a disclaimer.

Mistaken ideas about olive trees.
I wasn’t aware I had any ideas floating about in my brain about olive trees. Yet I felt personally accused by this chapter heading and read on to see where I'd been mistaken in not thinking about olive trees.

Unrelated people sometimes look alike.
Yes, Pliny they do. But I suddenly have an overwhelming need to hear your take on the obvious.

The shortness of active life and the signs of impending death. 
OK. I might skip this one.

Pliny’s People

Amongst these fabulous chapter titles are some great stories relating to named people. Some are very famous, such as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. Julius Caesar, Pliny tells us, "used to dictate to his secretaries four letters at once when dealing with important matters, or, if not busy with anything else, seven letters at a time."
If that makes you feel inadequate treat it as a warning against multi tasking. Had Caesar not been writing seven letters at once he might well have noticed that his best mates all loathed him and were plotting his murder. 
The assassination of Julius Caesar, painted by William Holmes Sullivan, c. 1888

Most people in The Natural History you will have never have heard of, and never would have heard of, had Pliny not immortalised them for history. And not always for a reason they would have liked.

  • First up Cornelius Gallus and Titus Hetereius, who Pliny records for all time as two men who died whilst having sexual intercourse with women. I’m presuming Pliny has in his head men who died whilst having sexual intercourse with men, else why distinguish it? Clearly he thought better of recording that, for it is never mentioned and we shall never know who they were. A thing that I never knew would annoy me. But it does.
  • A Praetorian Guard named Vinnius Valens who was able to hold up a cart loaded with wine-skins until the cart was emptied. He could also stop a wagon by grabbing it one hand whilst it’s horses pulled and pulled to go forward. Which is the kind of showing off that clearly indicates he had far too much time on his hands during guard duty.
  • The orator Marcus Corvinus who, in a chapter devoted to feats of memory, Pliny cruelly singles out as a man who could not remember his own name.
  • Marcus Sergius who was wounded 23 times in two campaigns, including a wound that severed his right hand. No matter. He had a replacement hand fitted made of iron and in his next campaign captured twelve enemy camps in Gaul.
  • Marcus Salvius Otho who taught the Emperor Nero to perfume his feet. Not to be outdone on the beauty treatment front, Nero’s wife Poppaea bathed in asses milk to aid with wrinkle reduction. “For this purpose she was always accompanied by a string of asses.” Pliny tells us, unforgivably failing to make a joke about this.
  • Sergius Orata, as well as being the first to introduce oyster farming, made his financial fortune from being the inventor of the “shower-bath, and then from selling country houses fitted with showers.” 

What Pliny likes
Bees. He really like bees. He writes more on bees than any other creature in his section on the animal kingdom. 
Photo by John Severns.
“What sinews or muscles can we compare with enormous efficiency and industry shown by bees? What men in heaven’s name can we set alongside these insects which are superior to men when it comes to reasoning?” 
“Their hygiene is amazing!” he cries.
“They note the idleness of slackers, reprove them and later even punish them with death.
” He repeats with admiration.
“After such considerations let us evaluate their natural intelligence.”
Err alright Pliny we’ll do that, if we must.
And just when you think there is nothing further to learn about bees, here comes another chapter heading: Further Observations about bees.

Conclusion. Pliny likes bees.
We might expect a similar appreciation of ants. After all ants have a similarly industrious life and organisational structure as bees. Ants get no mention. Probably because they don’t make “the sweetest, finest, most health-promoting liquid.” Lazy ants.

What Pliny doesn’t like.
Unnecessary expenditure and luxury. It is of a recurrent annoyance to him. He is annoyed that the extravagant colour purple is now the standard covering for dining-room couches.
He’s furious that, “Men have not been ashamed to adopt silk clothing in summer because of it’s lightness.”
He’s disgusted that people are spending money on perfume: “Perfumes are the most pointless of all luxuries.” He fumes of the story of someone, “with no Imperial connections [who] gave instructions for the walls of his bathroom to be sprinkled with perfume.”
And raving mad that:  “This extravagant behaviour has found it’s way even into our military camps!”
He simply cannot contain himself on the subject of perfumes and I’m afraid begins a sentence with a rather strong expletive. “But heaven’s alive – at the present time some people add perfume to their drinks and consider the bitterness worth it so that their body can enjoy the strong scent inside and out.”

Roman perfume bottle.
The Cesnola Collection, Purchased by subscription, 1874–76
Though actually I’m with Pliny on this one. You what? Drinking perfume? What is wrong with you?

He also holds strong views on drinkers. “Careful investigation reveals that no activity takes up more of a man’s life than wine-making, as if Nature had not given us a perfectly healthy liquid to drink – namely, water – of which all other animals avail themselves!”
Much like the perfume rant above, this seems just a personal dislike of other people’s pleasures. But then it has another kicker of a final line. “We compel even our beasts of burden to drink wine!”
Do we? Or rather who does? Who is inebriating their pet dog or chicken? In the context of a city of animals keeling over in the street, vomiting into shop doorways and generally being a pest, Pliny’s dislike of drinking seems justified.

“Because of wine thousands of crimes have been committed, and drinking occasions so much pleasure that a huge section of mankind knows no other reward in life.” 
There we were thinking of the Romans as industrious, conquering types. When in reality Pliny knows them to be pissed half the time and the other half getting their pets pissed.

Strange but true?
These are all bits I’d file under a miscellaneous of, are you sure that’s right Pliny?

Such as, “That women have changed into men is not a myth.”
Which might elicit an instant shake of your head but Pliny has eye witnesses. He does. And one of those eye witnesses is himself:  “In Africa, I myself saw someone who became a man on his wedding-day.".
A line that for anyone else would be the starting point of one great anecdote. The sort that gets you drinks brought in the pub. Not Pliny though. No, that’s it. No further explanation offered. YOU CAN WRITE 14 CHAPTERS ON BEES BUT.... words fail me

Onions... “When used as a suppository they disperse haemorrhoids.” There is but one question here: sliced or whole onions? This is not something you want to get wrong. 
Photo by Jon Sullivan
*Do not try this at home*

“All other animals derive satisfaction from having mated: man gets almost none.” Which does make you wonder whether Pliny is doing it right.

There’s also this, “Man is the only animal whose first experience of mating is accompanied by regret.”
Now we know that Pliny has clearly spent a lot of time happily watching bees, gathering fourteen chapters worth of material. I can only assume he has dedicated a similar amount of time observing a variety of animals at it in order to reach such a firm conclusion.

Pliny is very clear that Rome is the most perfectly situated city. Particularly because of the climate which is a perfect mix of what is needed. “In the middle earth, because of a healthy mixture of fire and water, there are tracts that are fertile for all things_they are able to comprehend the whole of Nature.” 
And they have governments. Unlike those, “white, frosty skins with flaxen-coloured hair that hangs straight.” who have never had government because ”they are detached and solitary in keeping with the savagery of Nature that oppresses them.”
Which is as good a way of describing Britain as any.

The End
No piece on Pliny the Elder is complete without some mention of how he died, because it is the most well known thing about him. He was killed during the most famous volcanic eruption of all time, that of Vesuvius in 79 AD. How he came to die is so very Pliny. Fascinated by the strange plumes of smoke he witnessed from his villa, he ordered a boat to be launched so he could get nearer and see it for himself:

"He was entirely fearless, describing each new movement and phase of the portent to be noted down exactly as he observed them." 

Pliny the Younger

Cut off in a bay and unable to escape by sea, Pliny overcome by sulphur fumes and smoke, collapsed and died.
Good old Pliny, curious to the end. Let us raise a glass (or water) to him. What a gent.

Further Reading
Read Pliny the Elder's Natural History. Do. I promise you won't regret it. Though your nearest and dearest might, as you repeat your favourite Pliny facts to them every ten minutes.

L.J. Trafford is the author of The Emperors Series of books. Available from all good book retailers and Amazon.


Susan Price said...

It probably says something about me that the first chapter I'll read (when I get my copy) is 'The shortness of active life and the signs of impending death.' I want to be ready.
Another great blog -- thanks.

LJ Trafford said...

Thanks Sue. This was so much fun to research and write

abigail brieson said...

Brilliant, but how could he be be correct on planetary environments and orbits, and mistaken on dog-men and the dangers of volcanoes?

I suspect it's the oysters and country houses fitted with showers that leads to decay of morality; but of course one never knows what a sponge may be thinking.

Kaite Fink said...

Only a purple couch? Slackers. Pliny would have a heart attack if it were possible, to know I have my bedroom done in purple. Purple paint, purple bedding... Yeah. Also, I bought alcohol at the store today, so I'm extra naughty. I do, however, agree with the perfume thing. Some people are really coating themselves in it.

Jenny said...

I can't help but wonder if those fair haired, blue eyed Chinese he mentions might be relatives of the Caucasoid people whose mummies are found in the Tarim basin around his time period. If not them, it could be a reference some of the central Asian peoples who at this time period carried the red hair gene. If you are in India or Ceylon, You might well think of the far western reaches of China as China.