Admittedly, I just skimmed most of Book I, which is Pliny’s dedication and the table of contents, each with a list of sources afterward.
What strikes me going through here (albeit at a fast clip) is the burning urge to organise what knowledge he had. The fact that portents and signs and hyperbole were so common in the scientific literature of classical antiquity shouldn’t detract from the fact that these were smart people trying to understand their world. I’ve read a lot of history books that come across as nastily paternalistic, laughing up their sleeve at how silly and stupid people “used to be.” I always want to point out two things:
1. People are still stupid, for God’s sake, just look at Fox News.
2. People in ancient Rome, or in medieval times, had theories that stuck around because they seemed to work. Frex: bleeding, purging, bad humors were all attempts to figure out what made someone sick and how to fix it. Surviving such things made you tougher, no doubt, but medical professionals kept doing these things because they seemed to do better than just throwing up their hands and saying “Sorry, you’re gonna die or pull through, we don’t know. Nothing we can do.” It may have been true, but by and large people didn’t accept it, they kept chugging along trying to figure things out, even when doing so carried a high social cost.
In other words: no matter how idiotic we can be, we still do really well at trying to figure out the world around us and explaining it to each other.
Yes, Pliny’s list of sources was really just the Roman equivalent of “old, privileged white men.” Yes, Roman culture was pretty misogynist and xenophobic–as is our own. As the Pliny Train gathers speed and moves ahead–we’re just going through suburbia now, please keep your hands and feet inside–we’re going to keep this in mind, and also keep in mind that two thousand years of (sometimes slow) technological and cultural steps forward really haven’t changed basic human nature or the drive to gain and organise knowledge.
Pliny was working in an age without internet, without combustion engines, without a great deal of complex machinery first-worlders nowadays largely take for granted. A world in which cloth and other things were handmade, a massive investment of time and labor. (I could go into Roman agriculture, but this is just a blog post and you don’t need to hear me geek TOO badly.) Slavery was incredibly widespread, in one form or another. (As it is today.) To survive was an achievement, to have the luxury of literacy, spare time, and education meant you were lucky as shit but it could still all vanish tomorrow, as Marcus Aurelius kept pointing out. If war or disease didn’t get you, a sudden change in the political situation could.
So, let’s read Pliny while trying to understand the world he lived in. It’s still our world–the culture and society I live in right now has significant roots in Rome, as does the very language I’m using to share this train ride with you. People are still born, they still die, they still have eyes and hands and brains and get older and think the damn kids are ruining everything and worry about food and health and home and their families. We’ll come across some things that seem patently idiotic that Pliny took as accepted or verified truth. When we do, let’s remember that two thousand years from now, someone else might be doing the same to us.
Thank you! Enjoy the scenery while we gather speed and head into Book II, the world and its nature.