At The Station

Choo choo, mothafuckas
Get your tickets now!

The Pliny Train is now boarding.

*long low whistle*

I’m working from Loeb Classical Library’s editions, and starting at Books 1-2 of Pliny’s Natural History. (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, direct from Harvard, Indiebound) As we check our luggage and visit the restroom one last time, climb aboard and find a congenial seat (since this is an imaginary train, we can all travel in seperate cars if we so wish) and hand your ticket to the conductor–yes, thank you, sir or ma’am, and there will be someone along in just a bit to offer you a drink, a meal, a hot towel or a pillow, or anything else you shall require.

The Pliny Train believes in comfort.

Anyway. Let’s take a look at our route, shall we?

Gaius Plinius Secundus, as I’ve previously noted, was kind of a BAMF. Born in AD 23, he had several successes in the military before he returned to Rome and studied law. Perhaps wisely, he retreated from public life under Nero[1], and when Vespasian took the purple Elder Pliny must have heaved a sigh of relief, because he and Vespasian went waaaaaay back together–they both fought tribesmen in what is now Germany. (Incidentally, it was ol’ Vespasian who put down one of the big rebellions in Judea. My thoughts on the present-day reverberations of Roman policy in the Middle East must, alas, wait for another time.) Pliny (called the Elder, to distinguish him from his nephew, from whom we get a lot of glimpses of the older man) died in his 56th year, the story goes, trying to get closer to an erupting volcano so he could make geological observations.

In short, this guy saw Vesuvius erupting, and instead of deciding to wait until things calmed down, immediately strapped on his goggles and went in for Science. And, you know, got asphyxiated by poison gases. (Well, he was also going to evacuate people, and might have had an asthma attack…but still.)

The introduction to Rackham’s[2] translation of the Natural History gives us a few telling details about Elder Pliny the BAMF. He read nothing without making a lot of notes and extracts, was a bit of a pedant, and chided his nephew for any “wasted time” away from his studies. (Said “wasted time” was sometimes his nephew walking around Rome instead of being carried in a chair, reading, so…yeah, that tells us a lot about him.) In his dedication–for he dedicated the Natural History to Vespasian–you get the idea that he was more comfortable in a library or a military camp than anywhere else.

Pliny the Elder never married and had no children; he adopted his sister’s son to leave his estate in the family. After reading the dedication–full of in-jokes for Vespasian, learned digs at other authors, and not a few mentions of Cicero–I received the distinct impression that all Pliny’s love was saved for his books and his fellow soldiers. I know, it’s hard to tell after thousands of years, and I’m probably assuming too much, but I think Pliny was more than a little in love with “his” Emperor. He also explains a little of his motivation for engaging on such a huge project:

It is a difficult task to give novelty to what is old, authority to what is new, brilliance to the commonplace, light to the obscure, attraction to the stale, credibility to the doubtful, but nature to all things and all her properties to nature. Accordingly, even if we have not succeeded, it is honourable and glorious in the fullest measure to have resolved on the attempt. (p.11)


He also explains that in order to make things easier for people who don’t want to read the whole damn 37-book series, he’s going to give us a Table of Contents, and that’s where we’ll start next week. In the meantime, please enjoy your beverages, and feel free to read ahead.


[1] I won’t go into who had an axe to grind in making Nero out to be a complete asshole. At least, not right now.
[2] I suppose I should admit that I had a moment of confusing the translator with Arthur Rackham, and having a fit of giggles.