Pliny the Elder’s History: Recording the past in the Naturalis Historia

Pliny the Elder’s History: Recording the past in the Naturalis Historia

By Arnoldus van Roessel

Master’s Thesis, University of Victoria, 2018

Abstract: Pliny’s Naturalis Historia is remarkable for its references to its sources throughout the text. There is little space between citations in the text, and Pliny provides much information in indirect statements. As a result, scholarship previously treated the work as a compilation. Pliny appeared to echo his sources, and so he provided a treasury of literary fragments which scholars attempted to extract.

More recent scholarship has observed that Pliny’s use of the auctores is more involved than mere repetition. He criticizes, questions, compares, contrasts, and denies their statements. Similarly, recent scholarship, notably Doody, has demonstrated that identifying the Naturalis Historia as an encyclopedia is anachronistic, but both Doody and Naas make only passing remarks about the text being a historia.

I argue in this thesis that the Naturalis Historia is a Roman historia and that Pliny’s references to his sources function within this historical project. Pliny’s moral exempla, attempts to perpetuate mos maiorum, and self-professed obligation to the past all reflect the Roman historiographic project of his work. According to this perspective, the Naturalis Historia re-envisions Roman history intellectually. Thereby, Pliny’s work tries to preserve and disseminate knowledge, encourage intellectual pursuits, and hopes for their persistence in posterity.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Victoria

The Natural History of Pliny in a mid-12th-century manuscript from the Abbaye de Saint Vincent, Le Mans, France – photo by PHGCOM / Wikimedia Commons

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