Pliny’s Moon

Pliny's Lunacy
Pliny’s Lunacy
We’ve been chugging along slowly here aboard the Pliny Train, for various reasons. Sorry about that.

Just like we’ve built a lot of our culture on Rome, Hebrew holy books, and Shakespeare, the Romans built a lot of theirs on Etruscan and (more to the point) Greek culture. I was reminded of this during Pliny’s passages on the Moon, where he asserts Endymion was the first human being to observe facts about her and further remarks this accounts for Endymion’s “traditional love of Her.”

…quae singula in ea deprehendit hominum primus Endymion, ob id amor eius fama traditor.p194

The translator, as an aside, notes that an eclipse, whether of sun or moon, was often called labor.

Pliny goes on to list the things the Moon taught humanity, like dividing the year into twelve spaces (months, or more properly, moonths) and, most intriguing, that she is “governed by the sun’s radiance.” He notes that she is full “only when opposite to the Sun.” Furthermore:

VIII. quippe manifestum est solem intervenu lunae occultari lunamque terrae obiectu…p196

Which translates out to: “It is in fact obvious that the sun is hidden by the passage of it across the moon, and the moon by the interposition of the earth.”p197 Later, when Copernicus and Galileo advocated heliocentrism, I like to think Pliny’s shade was nodding thoughtfully and saying “Well, okay, that makes sense.” Yes, Pliny ascribed to geocentrism, but he does so for lack of a better option, and one rather thinks the Romans wouldn’t have burned anyone at the stake for advocating for Helios instead. I often think polytheism is better for science than monotheism, but that’s (say it with me) another blog post.

Pliny notes that the earth’s shadow, when it passes across the moon, is conical; he goes on further to state that shadows are “made to disappear by distance,” as a bird’s shadow disappears when it flies high enough. The conclusion he draws from this is that the Moon resides where the “air” ends and the “aether” begins and that all the space beyond the Moon is “clear and filled with continual light.” His explanation of the waning and waxing is interesting:

And these are the reasons why the moon wanes in the night-time; but both if her wanings are irregular and not monthly, because the slant of the zodiac and the widely varying curves of the moon’s course, as has been stated, the motion of the heavenly bodies not always tallying in minute fractional quantities.p199

I love that bit– “flexus, non semper in scripulis partium congruente siderum motu.” Not always tallying in minute fractional quantities is as good an observation about the world as any I’ve ever come across. Roman education and native common sense both allowed for slippage–in other words, things not proceeding in exact clockwork. Not only the observation of daily life but also Roman military doctrine allowed for fog; one could also make a case for the idea of gods with petty human foibles relieving the psychological pressure of noting that the world is big, dangerous, and doesn’t obey easy and simple laws 100% of the damn time. There’s a lot of flexibility and curiousity about the world on display in both Roman and Greek philosophy and science.

The Moon naturally leads one to the Sun–in Latin, you put what you want to accent most at the end of a sentence, which explains a lot. (Carthago delenda est, anyone?) Pliny’s saved the Sun for last among the heavenly bodies, and that will be where we pause next. Please keep your all your limbs inside the train, it’s cold and depressurised out there…

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the idea of gods with petty human foibles

..which is why shit happens..


Pretty accurate reasoning given the knowledge available at the time. I’d never heard of the “slippage” concept before, and I like it a lot.