Monday, November 8, 2010

Of Elephants, Dragons and Expectoration

Before Wikipedia, before search engines and even before Encarta on CD (now, that's ancient!) there was a guy named Pliny. I mean, Gaius Plinius Secundus, also known as Pliny the Elder (the Younger was an incredibly boring character).

Pliny claims he was the first of the Romans to write an encyclopedia – and he probably was, the Romans, unlike the Greeks, had very little interest for a giant collection of trivia without immediate practical use.

So Pliny packed everything into his “Naturalis Historia”, which, luckily for us, provides scholars today with very useful information, such as when barbers were first introduced in Rome and which nations were wiped out by animals:

“...a town in Spain was undermined by rabbits, and one in Thessaly, by mice; that the inhabitants of a district in Gaul were driven from their country by frogs, and a place in Africa by locusts; that the inhabitants of Gyarus, one of the Cyclades, were driven away by mice; and the Amunclæ, in Italy, by serpents. There is a vast desert tract on this side of the Æthiopian Cynamolgi, the inhabitants of which were exterminated by scorpions and venomous ants. And Theophrastus informs us, that the people of Rhœteum were driven away by scolopendræ”

Scolo... what? (Apparently, some kind of venomous centipedes.)

So, throw in elephants, dragons, lions, snakes, cameleopards (they were giraffes, in case you were wondering), sphinxes and beavers, spice everything up with a manticore and a lycaon, and you've got Pliny's volume about terrestrial animals, a must-read for anybody who fancies a career as graphic artist for fantasy games.

And, while Pliny doesn't match Suetonius' genius for gossip and scandal, you might still find some really neat gems about famous Roman people here, such as

“Antonia, the wife of Drusus, was never known to expectorate; and Pomponius, the poet, a man of consular rank, was never troubled with eructation.”

Now, we all knew that Antonia was a lady, but this pretty much sums it up.

Okay, actually, I like “Naturalis Historia”. A lot. And no, I'm not the kind of person who'd take an encyclopedia as light bedtime reading, in fact, I'm more likely to type something into Google and hope my omniscient computer will be able to sort out my spelling mistakes and my chaotic thinking and will return exactly what I was looking for. But this is different.

On one hand, it's funny, because it talks so seriously about things we'd classify today as junk without a second thought. On the other hand, it's an invaluable source of information about art and technology in imperial Rome, and a taunting glimpse into the concepts and stereotypes that organized the Romans' way of thinking.

I never thought I'd recommend an encyclopedia to anyone, but go read it. Buy it from Amazon or read it online for free, nothing will bring you as close to ancient Rome as this. Just remember Pliny's own advice, and take everything with a grain of salt. And for everything you read online, this blog included, bring the whole saltshaker.