Pliny the Elder (AD 23–AD 79)
Above an astronomical illustration from a 1582 Latin edition of Pliny’s Historia Naturalis
Plinius Secundus Gaius, Pliny the Elder (AD 23–AD 79), was a Roman army and navy officer, natural historian, and author of the word’s first encyclopedia, which included information about lands and people which he had acquired during his travels. The first printed edition, in Latin, was published in Venice in 1469. The Smithsonian Library owns a copy of this edition of the Historia Naturalis, from which an illuminated initial is shown
I was one of many contributors to the LibriVox reading of the 4 volumes of the Natural History, in an English translation by John Bostock (1773-1846) and Henry Thomas Riley (1816-1878). This was my first forray into Pliny, and I was amazed at the detail and vigor of his writing. One of my selections was on lions: “The tail of the lion gives indication of the state of his feelings, just as the ears do in the horse. Hence it is that, when pleased, the tail is without motion, and the animal fawns upon those who caress him, a thing however, that very rarely happens, for his most frequent state is that of rage. He begins by beating the earth with his tail; and as he becomes more furious, he lashes his sides, as if trying to excite himself.” Pliny then goes on to say that Cesar staged an exhibition fight between gladiators and lions which featured 400 lions. I can imagine the spectators witnessed a lot of furious tail lashing then.
We know the actual date of Pliny the Elder’s death (August 25, AD 79), because he died after trying to evacuate, by ship, of some of the Romans trapped at the base of Mount Vesuvius by the eruption of the volcano. A good and noble death in my opinion.