Gaius Plinius Secundus - military commander, encylopaedist, natural philosopher. 23 CE - 79 CE

Pliny was born in Novum Comum (now Como), in Northern Italy. Because of his wealthy family, he was able to study in Rome, and later, at age 23, he began a military career which took him to many places, including Gaul, Germany and Spain. On returning to Rome, he continued his studies, and during his quieter moments, devoted himself to research and writing. He was assigned as procurator in Spain, and returned to Rome again in 69 CE to serve under Vespasian in a variety of official positions, both political and military.

His last military assignment was to command the fleet in the Bay of Naples to control pirates working in the area. Investigating reports of unusual cloud formations, he made his way to Vesuvius to discover the aftermath of the volcanic eruption, and offered support to the citizens. (His nephew Pliny the Younger, also observed this famous eruption of 79 CE, and gave the first detailed description of a volcanic eruption, one still referred to today.) Sadly, Pliny was overcome by the fumes, and, according to his nephew, died on 24th August, 79 CE at Stabiae.

The Natural History

Pliny is best remembered for his many books, including a biography of his teacher Pomponius Secundus, a Roman history, a treatise on grammar and some military manuals. Little remains of these works, other than fragments, but his opus major, the famed Natural History is preserved. This series of writings, 37 books in all, was completed in 77 CE.

Natural History covers an enormous range of topics, from astronomy through horticulture to zoology. His researches took him years to complete, and he drew on many earlier writings, drawing the work together in a well-organised but simple style. Whether he wrote on economics or science, he was thorough in his treatment of the subject, although nowadays, the accuracy of some of the work is dubious, it was nonetheless, the most important work available at that time, and many parts of it, particularly the botanical, medical and zoological, were main reference sources until the Middle Ages.

Pliny's impact on the world cannot be underestimated. His scholarly approach, described in detail by his nephew, formed the basis for study and research for many centuries, as he connected facts not previously linked, and made sense of a broad range of material in a way that was easily accessible.

This is not to say that the work was perfect - his grasp of the sciences was coloured sometimes by superstition and misunderstanding. As the scientific method developed and improved, his work became of lesser importance. In other areas, his work may have had a negative impact - for example, his ideas on the "doctrine of signatures" led to the later abuse of his work by pseudoscientists. (In addition, the modern belief in homeopathy is based, in part, on some of his superstitious beliefs.)

Following Niccolò Leoniceno's attack on his errors, in 1492, his influence declined, and although later scientists and researchers improved dramatically on his work, the fact remains that Pliny changed the world with his work. It is still used, however as source material for those studying the 1st century world and it's impact on our own. His comments on such matters as the environment, however, are frequently as true and fresh today as they were 2000 years ago.

If Pliny were an E2 noder, would we say that he had noded for the ages? Certainly, his careful research and linking together of topics thereto unconnected are to be admired - the only fault we might find is that his sources were themselves flawed, and he did not realise it.

N.B. I have used "CE" (Common Era) to refer to dates here, rather than "AD"

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