Pliny’s Stars

Look up, old man.
Look up, old man.
Having disposed of the gods, Pliny moves on to something much nearer and dearer his heart: the stars. I can’t shake the image of a wide-eyed little Roman boy staring at the night sky and wondering, his soul afire with wonder. It’s sort of like the image I get when I see pictures of Carl Sagan’s smile, only with more toga.

Even though Pliny knew the world was round, he couldn’t quite compass that it wasn’t the centre of the universe. Neither could anyone else, really, and a lot of my interest in the Natural History is to see how smart people in classical antiquity set about solving problems and hypothesizing. Pliny loves the stars, and he’s thought long and deeply about them. He has no trouble believing the geocentric model at all, because every bit of observation he can make bears it out.

He begins by scoffing at the widespread belief that each human being has a star in the firmament, and those stars “rise and fall” with great lives or even ordinary ones. His explanation of meteorites–stars falling–is that they are overfed with a stream of liquid and discharge it in a flash, like, he says, a stream of oil when an oil lamp is refilled. Educated Romans knew the earth was round and that the lights in the sky had a regular schedule, and kept trying to explain it, refining their theories over time.

Pliny mentions Anaximander of Miletus while talking about the zodiac; in the process, he says Anaximander “opened the portals of science.”

Anaximander Milesius traditur primus Olympiae quinquagesima octava, signa deinde in eo Cleostratus, et prima arietus ac sagittari, sphaerum ipsam ante multo Altas.p189.

This brings home just how much the Romans felt a debt to Greek culture. Philosophy was indistinguishable from “science” and largely from “Greek” in those corners of the world for a long, long time. (I had a long rant about philosophy and science both standing on the backs of female and poverty-level labor in the ancient world, but that’s another blog post.)

Pliny had no telescope, so Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, and the moon were the “wandering stars,” or planets. His observations on how they move, and what their natures must be (frex, Jupiter’s influence is healthy because it’s balanced halfway between the “cold” of Saturn and the “hot” of Mars) tell us volumes about not only current medical thinking (hello, humorism!) but also about the nature of time in the Roman world.

Next, the sun’s course is divided into 360 parts, but in order than an observation taken of the shadows that it casts may come round to the starting-point, five and a quarter days per annum are added; consequently to every fourth year an intercalary day is added to make our chronology tally with the course of the sun. p191

In the absence of Greenwich Mean Time or atomic clocks, time depended on the sun’s shadow; since the irregularity of Earth’s orbit was unthinkable in a geocentric universe, they simply added days to make everything regular, as we still do in Leap Years. It’s a pretty elegant solution, but I think the real revolution lies a bit deeper here: our time doesn’t match what the sun says, so we’re going to alter our calculations to take account of the evidence instead of tailoring the evidence to fit the theory–at least, as far as we are humanly able. The approach fights against (and hence, takes into account) human nature and confirmation bias, even two thousand plus years ago. (I’m thinking now of the ancient tablets from Sumeria lamenting how kids in those days didn’t listen to their elders and the world was going to shit as a result. Humans don’t change much over the millennia, it seems.)

Another neat little detail, linguistic instead of strictly scientific, concerns Venus.

Below the sun revolves a very large star named Venus, which varies its course alternately, and whose alternative names in themselves indicate its rivalry with the sun and moon–when in advance and rising before dawn it receives the name of Lucifer, as being another sun and bringing the dawn, whereas when it shines after sunset it is named Vesper, as prolonging the daylight, or as being a deputy for the moon.pp192-193

Lucifer, of course, means “light-bringer[1],” and the gnostic, linguist, and student of religion pieces of me all sent up meeping little cries of joy upon reading this. That’s the thing about Latin–so much of our own language is built on it, and so much of Western culture is a direct descendant of Rome. As Anne Rice once had a character–probably Marius–say, Latin was a language that made it easier to think. Its peculiarities lent itself very well to this manner of inquiry, this manner of thinking about the world. Other languages do so too, of course, but my mother tongue is English, and English’s mother is Latin. (Her other mother is Anglo-Saxon, but that’s, say it with me, another blog post.)

Next up, Pliny talks about the moon, and things get a little, ha ha, loony…

[1]For example, matches were once called lucifers.

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Interesting that Pliny was of the equestrian or Middle class. That he should rise to such power as well as being honored in Philosophy and Science seems quite an achievement. It would be nice if we could have such accomplished leaders in today’s political arena. It’s interesting that you should mention that humans don’t change over the millenia. I’m a firm believer in that and find it easy to identify characters in stories from thousands of years ago with individuals that I know today. Our nature doesn’t change much, just the stage on which we act. I too recall reading… Read more »