The Brockhaus of Antiquity

The title page of the Pliny edition of 1548.

G. Plinius Secundus the Elder, Historiae Mundi Libri Triginta Septem

Printed by the brothers Gottfried and Marcellinus Beringen in Lyon 1548

The entire knowledge of our times between two book covers? Unthinkable in times of Wikipedia. Even in antiquity this undertaking was ambitious, but Gaius Plinius Secundus was by no means ridiculed as a madman. And yet he delivered just such a work: the “Naturalis historia”, the “natural history”. A Lyon edition of the Latin text from 1548 presents it as “Historiae Mundi”, i.e. “world history”. One cannot blame the editors. After all, this monumental work is by no means limited to the natural sciences. Its author was far too curious for that. He was concerned with the relationship between nature and man, with the big picture. He delivered a one-man Brockhaus that remained the reference for questions of knowledge for a millennium and a half.


A “History of Nature”? By No Means!

In thirty-six books, Pliny presents the knowledge of his time, the time around 50 A.D. This is preceded by an introductory book which is quite a feat. It contains not only the usual preface, but also a detailed table of contents and a reference list. In the latter, the author lists the works he used for his research. Something that seems self-evident to us today in an age of footnotes (and after the Guttenberg plagiarism affair in Germany) was absolutely exceptional during Roman Antiquity. His literature seems to cover several human lives: Pliny quotes over 400 authors and the keyword index of the table of contents contains about 40,000 entries! So when Pliny speaks of natura, he refers to the natural environment of humankind, in short: the entire world.

If we look at the table of contents, topics such as cosmology, zoology, botany, medicine, pharmacology, metallurgy and geography jump out. But in order to prevent the work from turning into a dusty textbook, Pliny entertains his readers with cleverly inserted anecdotes that breathe life into the dry material – even though we will deny any historical content to many a fable narrative today. Just how colourful these keywords are can be seen by taking a glance at the entries on the subject of “Animalia”, i.e. animals:

  • The dexterity of animals
  • Wonders of animals
  • Animal omens
  • Reproductive methods of various animals
  • Animals giving birth to blind offspring and so on and so forth


But besides natural history subjects in the strict sense of the word, Pliny also deals with very practical matters: horticulture, poisons and remedies. Even the fine arts made it into his encyclopaedia. After all, Pliny puts everything into context. When one learns about the substances from which colours are gained or where certain stones can be found, the author also quotes important works of art in which these materials were used. Had Pliny been able to create hyperlinks, he would have built up Wikipedia by himself!

As fleet captain of Misenum, Pliny set off with his warships to the crisis region around Vesuvius to save people. MapMaster / CC BY-SA 3.0

Pliny the Elder: Writer, Politician, Military Officer

What kind of person was the author of this natural history? Today we would call him a workaholic with an insatiable thirst for knowledge. Pliny was born in 23 or 24 A.D. in Como in northern Italy as the son of a knight, i.e. a lower aristocrat. As befitted his social rank, he underwent a career as an officer and administrator. Although he performed these duties very conscientiously, he devoted all remaining hours of the day and night to his studies. Of course Pliny did not read himself, as was customary at the time, but there were trained slaves to read aloud. And they were constantly being employed: at meals, on journeys in the sedan chair, even when he dried himself after bathing. And Pliny was incessantly taking notes. He also dictated his own remarks to a stenographer.

Although the “Naturalis historia” is Pliny’s only surviving work, he also wrote many other books: about the art of javelin throwing, biographies, historical treatises and a language review…

This is how the Russian painter Karl Brullov imagined the fall of Pompeii around 1830.

His last assignment was the command over the Roman fleet in Misenum, in the Gulf of Naples. In 79 A.D. the attentive observer became eyewitness of the eruption of the Vesuvius, which shortly afterwards was to destroy the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. At first, however, people were not even aware of the danger. Curious as he was, Pliny also wanted to observe and describe the natural phenomenon up close. When he realised that the local people were in mortal danger, Pliny set out with warships to evacuate the inhabitants of the Gulf. But unfavourable winds held him back there and he died on the beach in the midst of the inferno.

A Work as Colourful as Life

The major work of Pliny, his great encyclopaedia, was so well received from the beginning that it has been preserved in its entirety until today. Considering how many minor publications have only fragmentarily survived, one can only marvel at this! But people were interested in its practical value. In the Middle Ages, the “natural history” was considered the authority par excellence for many fields of knowledge. Anyone who wanted to know how diseases could be cured or what needed to be considered in mining, turned to their Plinius. After all, it contained keywords for just about everything. Or, as his nephew put it: the work is “no less varied than nature itself”.

Sigismundus Gelenius (1497-1554) was one of the most important Bohemian scholars of his time and provided our edition with numerous text-critical annotations.

Reception in Modern Times

In 1469, the Latin first print was published in Venice. At this time, Renaissance scholars were already critically examining the text of the “Naturalis historia”. In 1543, the first German translation was published in Strasbourg. Our Latin edition, which looks so modest in a simple white leather cover, also dates from around this time. It was procured by two German printers who had settled in one of the printing metropolises of their time, in Lyon, France. The brothers Gottfried and Marcellinus Bering published the complete “Natural History” in one volume.

In addition, the reader receives text-critical remarks by Sigismund Gelenius, which are called “castigations” in Latin, i.e. “rebukes”, unflatteringly referring to the allegedly less precise earlier editions. In these notes, the philologist explains why the interpretation of a particular manuscript is correct in one passage, while the interpretation of another passage is incorrect. This man, Gelenius, was one of the most important Bohemian scholars of his time. Back then he worked in Basel as an editor at the Froben printing works. Already in 1539, an edition of Pliny had been published there, for which Gelenius was able to win over one of his friends to write a preface: Erasmus of Rotterdam.

This edition was dedicated to the Bohemian Bishop of Olomouc, Stanislaus Thurzo, who was a great patron of the humanistic scholars, and who had died a few years before.

The edition was dedicated to a fellow countryman of Gelenius, namely the Bishop of Olomouc, Stanislaus Thurzo. He was a great patron of the humanists and probably appreciated the dedication. Thurzo died the following year, in 1540, but our 1548 edition also contains the preface of Erasmus, the dedication and the annotations of Gelenius.

Meanwhile we are in a transitional period. Early modern research began to detach itself from the ancient sources and to move beyond them. Pliny’s “Natural History” turned from a respected reference work into a philological object of research, a historical source. But the admiration remained. After all, Pliny had achieved what in modern times Diderot needed a whole staff of scientists for: to condense the knowledge of an epoch between two book covers.


Unfortunately, you will not find this print from 1548 on the Internet. But the University of Düsseldorf offers the Froben edition of 1539 in digital form.

The Deutsche Biographie provides information about the German printers in Lyon under the headline of the printer Wilhelm König.

Here you will find the (almost) complete Latin text of the “Naturalis historia” and here you will find various historical editions of the individual books.