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PLINY THE ELDER.
Account of his Life and Works.
Introductory Remarks—Notice respecting Pliny by SuetoniusAccount of his Habits, as given by his Nephew, Pliny the Younger
- Various Particulars of his Life, His Death occasioned by an Eruption of Vesuvius–Buffon's Opinion of the Writings of Pliny -Judgment of Cuvier on the same Subject_Brief Account of the Historia Naturalis, including Extracts respecting the Wolf, the Lion, and other Animals_Cleopatra's Pearls—History of a Raven-Domestic Fowls General Remarks.
BETWEEN the death of Aristotle and the birth of the celebrated naturalist whose life and writings we now proceed to delineate, there elapsed nearly three centuries and a half. It was in the reign of Tiberius, in the 774th year of Rome and the 20th of the Christian era, that Pliny was born. Some assert that he was a native of Verona; others maintain that Comum was his birthplace ; while Hardouin labours to prove that the honour belongs to Rome. Of his history little, except the circumstances of his death, is known that could afford any interest to those who look into biographies for marvellous adventures, although it would appear that he had travelled extensively, having visited Germany, Spain, the coast of Africa, and perhaps Britain, Egypt, and Judea. There are only two brief notices respecting him to be found among the ancient writers, besides those contained in the works of his nephew, Pliny the Younger, and the incidental remarks that occur in his own books on natural history. From these, together with a few casual observations by other authors, have been elaborated all the lives of this illustrious naturalist that are to be found in our dictionaries and cyclopædias. The first authentic account is contained in the book of Suetonius, De Viris Illustribus, and is to the following effect :
Caius Plinius Secundus was a native of New Comum. When young he served with distinction in the cavalry. He was intrusted with the most important procuratorships, and on all occasions discharged his office with the greatest integrity. At the same time he engaged with so much assiduity in the study of literature, that hardly any one, though entirely free from public occupations, wrote so many works. Among these was an account of all the wars that had been carried on between his countrymen and the Germans, which he comprehended in twenty volumes. He also compiled thirtysix volumes of natural history.
From his nephew we learn the following interesting particulars respecting his habits :-In summer he usually began his studies about sunset, and in winter generally at one in the morning, never later than two, bestowing very little time on sleep. Before it was day he went to the Emperor Vespasian, who, like himself, was in the practice of using the hours of darkness for philosophy or business. He then proceeded to discharge the duties of his office, and, on returning home, spent the remainder of the morning in reading or contemplation. In summer, when he happened to have any leisure, he often lay in the sunshine, having a book
read to him, from which he carefully took notes. It was a saying of his, that no treatise was so meagre but that some part of it might afford instruction. Afterwards he usually took a cold bath, ate a little, and slept a very short time. He then resumed his labours till the hour of dinner. These were his ordinary habits while occupied with his public duties, and amid the tumult of the city. In retirement his studies were still more constant. When travelling, he seemed to set all other cares aside, and employ himself in literary occupations. He had a secretary by his side with a book and tablets, his hands in winter protected by gloves, so that even the inclemency of the weather should not cause any loss of time. For the same reason, when at Rome, he was carried in a sedan chair. By this continued application he accumulated an almost incredible mass of materials, insomuch that his works, had they been preserved, would have formed a library of themselves.
But it is very obvious that the study of books, to which alone he seems to have been addicted, cannot impart all the information necessary to constitute a naturalist; and accordingly the writings of Pliny contain less a description of the objects of which they treat than a compilation of all that had been recorded by observers regarding them. As such, however, they are of considerable value.
At an early age he went to Rome, where he studied under Appion. It does not appear that he could have seen Tiberius, who by this time had retired to Capreæ; but it is probable that he was admitted to the court of Caligula. When twenty-two years of age, he resided some time on the coast of Africa, and afterwards served in the cavalry under Lucius Pomponius, when he had an opportunity of traversing Germany from one extremity to the other. At this time he wrote a treatise, De Jaculatione Equestri, on the art of casting the javelin on horseback; and afterwards composed an historical work, in which he detailed all the wars carried on by the Romans beyond the Rhine. Returning to Rome at the age of thirty, he pled several causes, and became a member of the college of augurs. Part of his time was spent at Comum in superintending the education of his nephew, for whom, it is probable, he composed his three books entitled Studiosus, in which he described the progress of an orator in the various steps towards perfection. During the greater part of the reign of Nero he seems to have been without any public employment; but towards the end of it he was appointed procurator in Spain, where, it is presumed, he remained pending the civil wars of Galba, Otho, and Vitellius. On revisiting the capital he was favourably received by Vespasian, on whom he had the privilege of waiting every morning before sunrise, as already mentioned. It is probable that at this period he wrote the History of his own Times, which consisted of thirtyone books, and completed the work which Aufidius Bassus had left unfinished. His Natural History, which he dedicated to Titus, appears to have been finished about the 78th year of our era.
He was at Misenum, where he commanded the fleet which protected all that part of the Mediterranean comprised between Italy, the Gauls, Spain, and Africa, when a great eruption of Vesuvius took place. His sister and her son, the latter of whom was then about eighteen years of age, were with him. He had just retired to his study, when he was apprized of the appearance of a cloud of the most extraordinary form and size. It resembled a pinetree, having an excessively elongated trunk, from which some branches shot forth at the top, and appeared sometimes white, sometimes dark and spotted, according as the smoke was more or less mixed with earth and cinders. Anxious to discover the cause of this singular appearance, he ordered a light vessel to be got ready, and was proceeding on board, when he met the mariners belonging to the galleys stationed at Retina, who had just escaped from the danger. They conjured him not to advance and expose his life to imminent peril ; but he ordered the fleet immediately to put to sea, for the purpose of rendering aid to such as might require it; and so devoid of fear was he, that he noted all the variations and forms which the cloud assumed. By this time the vessels were covered with ashes, which every moment became hotter and more dense, while fragments of white pumice and stones blackened and split with the heat threatened the lives of the men. They were likewise in great danger of being left aground by a sudden retreat of the sea. He stopped for a moment to consider whether, he should return; but to the pilot who urged to this expedient, he replied, “ Fortune helps the brave -steer to Pomponianus.” That officer was at Stabiæ, and being in sight of the danger, which, although still distant, seemed always coming nearer, had put his baggage on board, and was waiting a more favourable wind to carry him out. Pliny finding him alarmed, endeavoured to recall his firmness. In the mean time the flames were burst