So Many Fires

Sometimes a phrase and its translation are so beautiful it stops the reading eye in its tracks. In bed last night, whispering Pliny aloud, I ran across one such happy marriage.

Tot locis, tot incendis rerum natura terras cremat. Natural History, book 2

The translation? “In so many places and by so many fires does Nature burn the countries of the earth.”

That’s fucking gorgeous, the Latin rolls off the tongue, the English is fantastic too, and it’s also a perfect epigraph for the epic fantasy I’m working on now. The deep abiding satisfaction of coming across something so lovely stayed all through my dreams and is still here in mornlight.

Latin, man. Latin.

Two Sentences

I read Pliny before bed every night. Every once in a while, I get to wishing it was Caesar instead, because the ol’ dictator really had quite the winning literary style. But then I roll across some of the crazy-ass shit Pliny writes about, and it makes me out-and-out gleeful.

Colophone in Apollinis Clari specu lacuna est cuius potu mira redduntur oracula, bibentium breviore vita. Amnes retro fluere et nostria vidit aetas Neronis principus supremis, sicut in rebus eius retulimas. (Loeb Classical, translated by H. Rackham.)

The first sentence deals with an oracular shrine where drinking from the river shortens your life but gives you powers of prophecy, which is a story idea if I ever heard one. The second is a mention of Nero’s death, and of rivers running backward to mark the occasion. “Even our generation has seen,” he says, and adds, “as we have recorded.” Of course this Pliny, being the Elder, survived Nero and was a personal friend of Vespasian, so it would be de rigeur for him to add a subtle jibe at Terrible Nero since it was impolitic, to say the least, to do otherwise. (Much as it was impolitic to refer to Mary Queen of Scots’s legitimacy in Elizabeth I’s time.)

One of the fascinating things about Pliny is that he had a scientific bent, and he wrote down what seemed reasonable and verifiable to him. It was perfectly possible for the Mephitic Caves to be the work of a god taking sacrifices without requiring human agents to kill said sacrifice. Stranger things happened. Of particular interest is Pliny’s listing of “what is known” about earthquakes and the like.

Anyway, those two sentences in juxtaposition delighted the hell out of me a couple nights ago.

Pliny, man. *shakes head*

Swearing at Caesar

Roll out of bed, do yoga, feed cavy and dogs, down my breakfast while Duolingo-ing French and Spanish, make coffee. Retreat to office, do Rosetta Stone Latin. End with pacing around my office swearing at Caesar, as one does. Latin is fun, and it stretches the brain to wait for the absolute end of the sentence before everything else makes sense. I have to find the right bookmark for the Loeb edition I’m using to work my way through, now.

Bookmarks are important. There are some that grow into my experience of reading a book so fully that I keep them perpetually with the volume, the connection deepening each time I reread or pick up a book for reference. Others remind me of particular things in my life while reading a certain book. When one opens a paper book, one doesn’t just dive into the bare story, there’s a whole collage of inner and outer events, references, and emotions that surround one again. Or maybe it’s just me, but any ephemera in my library holds a specific meaning to me. I don’t just stick a receipt in for a marker, it has to be a receipt with some connection.

Yes, I know, I’m strange. I’ve made my peace with it.

Anyway, my swearing at Caesar isn’t because the Latin is bad. Far from. I just swear because I started out with Pliny, whose rhythm is completely different, so it’s like learning to read all over again. When I attempt Ovid there will no doubt be much swears, many angst. Plus I’m sure some of Caesar’s assumptions will be incredibly eyeroll-worthy. Not that some of Pliny’s aren’t, far from. Let’s face it, Roman records are heavily skewed towards sexist, racist asshats as a matter of course.

Speaking of Pliny, I just ran across his assertion that earthquakes are the result of air trapped in the earth, which gives flatus an entirely new dimension. This led to me in bed, giggling hysterically at the notion, imagining the ribald jests at Roman dinners. I’m absolutely certain one or two of Pliny’s friends read this and made fart jokes at him for YEARS.

Anyway, excelsior, onward, and all that. I took a semi-holiday yesterday, filled with errands and volunteering, so now I have to look at the reshuffle and see if I want to write the bakery witch story OR the vampire smut novelette next. Choices, choices.

But for now, I’ll brush my teeth, knock off another page of Caesar, and go for a run.

Over and out.


The Size of Sol
The Size of Sol
We’ve gone out past the Moon in Pliny’s universe. He regards the Moon as being on the edge between atmosphere (though I’m not sure he would understand that term in the sense we use it) and into the “regions of clear light” he imagines the other heavenly bodies reside in. He’s more concerned, however, with what he can state definitively about the Sun. He spends a careful few paragraphs laying out why one can say with absolute certainty that the Sun is EFFING GINORMOUS. (Note: not his words.)

Carefully, logically, he lays out that the shadows of a miles-and-miles-long row of trees are the same size, that the sun reaches the vertical on the equinox at the same time for everyone in the “southern regions,” and something about the Tropic of Cancer. I confess I can’t parse that bit of Latin quite as well.

…item qua circa solstitialem circulum habitantum meridie ad septentrionem umbrae cadent, orto vero ad occasum, quae fieri nullo modo possent nisi multo quam terra maior esset…p200

“Meridie ad septentrionem” is Tropic of Cancer, right? And not the Henry Miller version. One rather thinks Pliny would think Henry Miller a bit debauched. (Gee, you think?) Then again, there were Ovid and Catullus, and either of them could blow the doors off Miller in style.

Ahem. Anyway. Catullus is for another day.

Pliny goes on to detail why the eclipse of the moon proves that the sun is OMGHUGE. At the very end, he waxes a bit rhetorical and informs us that the sun retreats in winter when:

“…otherwise it would unquestionably scorch up the earth, and even as it is does so in a certain part, so great is its magnitude.p203

I rather like that bit of the translation–“scorch up the earth” for “exusturus haut dubie, et sic quoque exurens quadam in partep202” A good translation obeys the spirit as well as the letter, I think, and Rackham does pretty well.

Our stop here at the Sun is a short one (rather uncomfortably warm, isn’t it? Just a moment longer…) and please do keep your arms and legs inside the Train. Ice and various drinks are being dispensed, and the lights are about to go down as we speed from the celestial realms back to the more human country of History. Next, Pliny is going to tell us about eclipses and war.

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…

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.

Pliny and God

Pliny Train It’s telling that Pliny deals with the earth and sun first, and whatever gods there are next. It makes me want to set him down with a deist or two and listen to the conversation, though Pliny is definitely not a deist by any stretch of the imagination.

Instead, he takes aim at his contemporary gods:

To believe even in marriages taking place between gods, without anybody at all through the long ages of time being born as a result of them, and that some are always old and gray, others youths and boys, and gods with dusky complexions, winged, lame, born from eggs, living and dying on alternate days–this almost ranks with the fancies of children…For mortal to aid mortal–this is god; and this is the road to eternal glory. p181

He has some other choice words, which makes me wonder what he’d make of the various stories Christianity is built on. I can just see him tilting his gray Roman head and saying, “Really? A petty tribal god who requires such constant adoration and propitiation, and in whom you must profess love or suffer an eternity of torment? What a revolting notion.”

To Pliny, Nature is the only god, and the failure of a divine being, however imagined by man, to logically be able to commit suicide (the bit about living and dying on alternate days above is rather a large barrier to Pliny ever believing in Christianity, one can imagine) is one of the surest proofs that such a divine being as imagined by man is a folly not worth spending much time on.

The only other divinity Pliny considers worthwhile is Fortune herself, which is very Roman of him. One thinks Boethius and Marcus Aurelius would agree. Being Pliny, though, he’s a little ungracious about it.

Nevertheless mortality has rendered our guesses about God even more obscure by inventing for itself a deity intermediate between these two conceptions. Everywhere in the whole world at every hour by all men’s voices Fortune alone is invoked and named, alone accused, alone impeached, alone pondered, alone applauded, alone rebuked and visited with reproaches; deemed volatile and indeed by most men blind as well…p183

Still, after disposing of the gods thus, Pliny can’t shake a belief in Fortune or eventual justice.

“…punishment for wickedness, though sometimes tardy, as God is occupied in so vast a mass of things, yet is never frustrated.”p185

Which is altogether more optimistic than I expected of him. It reminds me of Stephen King’s IT, where the hero/authorial insertion of Bill Denbrough realizes, during the childhood version of the climactic battle, that things really do work out ridiculously well most of the time, and takes that as proof that he can believe and strike down the thing from Outside.

In short, Pliny is an intelligent man who scoffs at sacrifices, omens, and gods who obsess over anything humans do. Nature is the only thing worthy of the homage paid to divinity, and it is to Nature he returns after he makes one final jab, pointing out that even God can’t make twice ten to be other than twenty–Orwell notwithstanding, and I think dear old George was rather using his classical education in the service of a deeper pessimism than Pliny ever dreamed of.

Anyway, we shall return to Nature anon, starting with how the stars are attached in the firmament. To Pliny, the stars aren’t gods–they are flames he didn’t have the capacity to observe more closely but could make educated guesses about.

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose