From the Natural History of Pliny the Elder
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The Roman Pliny the Elder set out to write a Natural History in 37 books.
"This treatise on Natural History, [I dedicate] to you, most gracious Emperor [Titus Vespasian]," he writes in his dedication.
Meet strange creatures that Pliny tells are real. Book 7 tells of a one-eyed people; a people with their feet turned backwards; a people of mixed sex (androgynous); enchanters with two pupils in one eye; people with killing perspiration; a one-legged people; a people who have merely holes in their faces instead of nostrils, and flexible feet, like the body of the serpent; people who are half man, half beast; a people that outruns horses, and so on. - TK
You may judge of my taste from my having inserted, in the beginning of my book, the names of the authors that I have consulted. For I consider it to be courteous and to indicate an ingenuous modesty, to acknowledge the sources whence we have derived assistance.
In comparing various authors with each other, I have discovered, that some of the most grave and of the latest writers have transcribed, word for word, from former works, without making any acknowledgement.
I do not regret not having given my work a more fanciful title.
An Account of the World and the Elements
It is madness to harass the mind, as some have done, with attempts to measure the world.
There are impressed on the heavens innumerable figures of animals and of all kinds of objects, and . . . its surface is not perfectly polished like the eggs of birds, as some celebrated authors assert.
Whatever God be, if there be any other God, and wherever he exists, he is all sense, all sight, all hearing, all life, all mind [etc.].
Each individual makes a separate God for himself, adopting his own Juno and his own Genius.
To assist man is to be a God; this is the path to eternal glory.
[Some there are who] thrive in their crimes . . . others torment themselves with their superstitions to no purpose.
[Animals] never think about glory, or money, or ambition, and, above all, that they never reflect on death. [How does he know?]
Our ancestors have frequently seen three suns at the same time . . . Three moons have also been seen.
The force of the stars keeps down all terrestrial things which tend towards the heavens.
There is a wild beast, named by the Egyptians Oryx, which, when the [Dog] star rises, is said to stand opposite to it, to look steadfastly at it, and then to sneeze, as if it were worshiping it.
If wind or vapour be struggling in the cloud, thunder is discharged; if it bursts out with a flame, there is a thunderbolt; if it be long in forcing out its way, it is simply a flash of lightning. By the latter the cloud is simply rent, by the former it is shattered.
A day six months long, and a night of equal length - Pytheas, of Marseilles informs us that this is the case in the island of Thule, which is six days' sail from the north of Britain.
The Thule of Pliny has been generally supposed to be the Shetland Isles. What is here asserted respecting the length of the day, as well as its distance from Britain, would apply much more correctly to Iceland. But there is great uncertainty respecting the locality of the Thule of the ancients; there was, in fact, nothing known respecting the locality or identity of any of the places approaching to the Arctic circle; the name appears to have been vaguely applied to some country lying to the north of the habitable parts of Europe.
The tide of the next day is never at the same time with that of the preceding.
It is very remarkable that fresh water should burst out close to the sea, as from pipes. But there is no end to the wonders that are connected with the nature of waters. Fresh water floats on sea water, no doubt from its being lighter.
It appears . . . that there are sudden fires both in waters and even in the human body; that the whole of Lake Thrasymenus was on fire; that when Servius Tullius, while a child, was sleeping, flame darted out from his head.
An Account of Countries, Nations, Seas, Towns, Havens, Mountains, Rivers, Distances, and Peoples Who Now Exist or Formerly Existed
The ocean [hollows] out the coast of Europe especially into numerous bays, among which there are four Gulfs that are more particularly remarkable.
Bear in mind that I am thus hastening on for the purpose of giving a general description of everything that is known to exist throughout the whole earth.
[The towns and nations mentioned are 1248. Some bear different names today, and others are no more found.]
An Account of Countries, Nations, Seas, Towns, Havens, Mountains, Rivers, Distances, and Peoples Who Now Exist or Formerly Existed
We then come to the Riphaean [Ural?] mountains, and the region known by the name of Pterophoros ["wing-bearing" or "feather-bearing"], because of the perpetual fall of snow there, the flakes of which resemble feathers; a part of the world which has been condemned by the decree of nature to lie immersed in thick darkness; suited for nothing but the generation of cold, and to be the asylum of the chilling blasts of the northern winds.
Behind these mountains, and beyond the region of the northern winds, there dwells, if we choose to believe it, a happy race, known as the Hyperborei, a race that lives to an extreme old age, and which has been the subject of many marvellous stories. At this spot are supposed to be the hinges upon which the world revolves, and the extreme limits of the revolutions of the stars. Here we find light for six months together, given by the sun in one continuous day, who does not, however, as some ignorant persons have asserted, conceal himself from the vernal equinox to autumn. On the contrary, to these people there is but one rising of the sun for the year, and that at the summer solstice, and but one setting, at the winter solstice. This region, warmed by the rays of the sun, is of a most delightful temperature, and exempt from every noxious blast. The abodes of the natives are the woods and groves; the gods receive their worship singly and in groups, while all discord and every kind of sickness are things utterly unknown. Death comes upon them only when satiated with life; after a career of feasting, in an old age sated with every luxury, they leap from a certain rock there into the sea; and this they deem the most desirable mode of ending existence. Some writers have placed these people, not in Europe, but at the very verge of the shores of Asia, because we find there a people called the Attacori, who greatly resemble them and occupy a very similar locality. Other writers again have placed them midway between the two suns, at the spot where it sets to the Antipodes and rises to us; a thing however that cannot possibly be, in consequence of the vast tract of sea which there intervenes. Those writers who place them nowhere but under a day which lasts for six months, state that in the morning they sow, at mid-day they reap, at sunset they gather in the fruits of the trees, and during the night hide themselves in caves. Nor are we at liberty to entertain any doubts as to the existence of this race; so many authors are there who assert that they were in the habit of sending their first-fruits to Delos to present them to Apollo, whom in especial they worship. Virgins used to carry them, who for many years were held in high veneration, and received the rites of hospitality from the nations that lay on the route; until at last, in consequence of repeated violations of good faith, the Hyperboreans came to the determination to deposit these offerings upon the frontiers of the people who adjoined them, and they in their turn were to convey them on to their neighbours, and so from one to the other, till they should have arrived at Delos. However, this custom, even, in time fell into disuse.
. . . I am of opinion, however, that in this part of the earth all estimates of measurement are exceedingly doubtful.
This legendary race was said to dwell in the regions beyond Boreas, the northern wind, which issued from the Riphaean mountains, the name of which was derived from ripai or "hurricanes "issuing from a cavern, and which these heights warded off from the Hyperboreans and sent to more southern nations. Hence they never felt the northern blasts, and enjoyed a life of supreme happiness and undisturbed repose. "Here," says Humboldt, "are the first views of a natural science which explains the distribution of heat and the difference of climates by local causes--by the direction of the winds--the proximity of the sun, and the action of a moist or saline principle."
The most remote of all that we find mentioned is Thule, in which, as we have previously stated, there is no night at the summer solstice, when the sun is passing through the sign of Cancer . . . There are writers also who make mention of some other islands, Scandia namely, Dumna, Bergos, and, greater than all, Nerigos, from which persons embark for Thule. At one day's sail from Thule is the frozen ocean, which by some is called the Cronian Sea.
One opinion is that Thule is the island of Iceland. Brotier, with many other writers, takes these names here to refer to various parts of the coast of Norway.
An Account of Countries, Nations, Seas, Towns, Havens, Mountains, Rivers, Distances, and Peoples Who Now Exist or Formerly Existed
[About] Mount Atlas, the most fabulous locality even in Africa:
It is from the midst of the sands, according to the story, that this mountain raises its head to the heavens; rugged and craggy on the side which looks toward the shores of the ocean . . . and the country [behind is] quite unknown.
The sources of the Nile are unascertained, and, travelling as it does for an immense distance through deserts and burning sands, it is only known to us by common report.
During certain days of the year, however, the volume of [the Nile's] waters is greatly increased, and as it traverses the whole of Egypt, it inundates the earth, and, by so doing, greatly promotes its fertility.
The country has reason to make careful note of either extreme. When the water rises to only twelve cubits, it experiences the horrors of famine; when it attains thirteen, hunger is still the result; a rise of fourteen cubits is productive of gladness; a rise of fifteen sets all anxieties at rest; while an increase of sixteen is productive of unbounded transports of joy.
Egypt, besides its boast of extreme antiquity, asserts that it contained, in the reign of King Amasis, 20,000 inhabited cities.
With the greatest justice . . . we may lavish our praises on Alexandria.
The Phoenician people enjoy the glory of having been the inventors of letters [not true].
Joppe, a city of the Phoenicians, . . . existed, it is said, before the deluge of the earth.
The river Jordanes . . . is a delightful stream, and, so far as the situation of the localities will allow of, winds along in its course and lingers among the dwellers upon its banks. With the greatest reluctance, as it were, it moves onward towards Asphaltites, a lake of a gloomy and unpropitious nature.
Asphaltites produces nothing whatever except bitumen, to which indeed it owes its name. The bodies of animals will not sink in its waters.
Lying on the west of Asphaltites, and sufficiently distant to escape its noxious exhalations, are the Essenes, a people that live apart from the world . . . they have no women among them . . . the palm-trees are their only companions.
An Account of Countries, Nations, Seas, Towns, Havens, Mountains, Rivers, Distances, and Peoples Who Now Exist, or Formerly Existed
India . . . borders not only on the Eastern sea, but on the Southern as well . . . In this region, the appearance of the heavens is totally changed, and quite different is the rising of the stars; there are two summers in the year, and two harvests.
Greek writers who resided at the courts of Indian kings, such, for instance, as Megasthenes, and by Dionysius, who was sent thither by Philadelphus, expressly for the purpose: all of whom have enlarged upon the power and vast resources of these nations [of India].
The followers of Alexander the Great have stated in their writings, that there were no less than five thousand cities in that portion of India which they vanquished by force of arms, not one of which was smaller than that of Cos; that its nations were eight in number, that India forms one-third of the whole earth, and that its populations are innumerablea thing which is certainly far from improbable, seeing that the Indians are nearly the only race of people who have never migrated from their own territories. Seneca . . . has given [India's] rivers as sixty-five in number, and its nations as one hundred and eighteen.
The people of the more civilized nations of India are divided into several classes. One of these classes tills the earth, another attends to military affairs, others again are occupied in mercantile pursuits, while the wisest and the most wealthy among them have the management of the affairs of stateact as judges, and give counsel to the king. The fifth class, entirely devoting themselves to the pursuit of wisdom.
In the regions which lie to the south of the Ganges, the people are tinted by the heat of the sun, so much so as to be quite coloured, but yet not burnt black, like the Aethiopians.
As to those wonderful and almost fabulous stories which are related about the fertility of the soil, and the various kinds of fruits and trees, as well as wild beasts, and birds, and other sorts of animals, they shall be mentioned each in its proper place, in a future portion of this work.
Oncsicritus who commanded the fleet of Alexander, sailed from India into the heart of Persia. The journal of the voyage of Onesicritus and Nearchus tells they set out from Xylenepolis a place founded by Alexander. Many places on the trip were mentioned by them. They also came to the Promontory of Carmania, and then to three islands, of which that of Oracla is alone inhabited, being the only one supplied with fresh water; it is distant from the mainland twenty-five miles; quite in the Gulf, and facing Persia, there are four other islands. About these islands sea-serpents were seen swimming towards them, twenty cubits in length, which struck the fleet with great alarm. [Abr.]
Man, His Birth, His organization, and the Invention of the Arts
As for laughter, why, by Hercules!to laugh, if but for an instant only, has never been granted to man before the fortieth day from his birth.
Not to speak of peacocks, the spotted skins of tigers and panthers, and the rich colours of so many animals, a trifling thing apparently to speak of, but of inestimable importance, when we give it due consideration, is the existence of so many languages among the various nations.
There are certain tribes of the Scythians, and, indeed, many other nations, which feed upon human flesh.
In Italy and Sicily nations formerly existed the Cyclopes and the Læstrygones, for example.
Very recently, on the other side of the Alps, it was the custom to offer human sacrifices, after the manner of those nations; and the difference is but small between sacrificing human beings and eating them. [Ch 2]
In the vicinity also of those who dwell in the northern regions, and not far from the spot from which the north wind arises, and the place which is called its cave, and is known by the name of Geskleithron, the Arimaspi are said to exist . . . a nation remarkable for having but one eye, and that placed in the middle of the forehead. This race is said to carry on a perpetual warfare with the Griffins, a kind of monster, with wings, as they are commonly represented, for the gold which they dig out of the mines, and which these wild beasts retain and keep watch over with a singular degree of cupidity, while the Arimaspi are equally desirous to get possession of it. Many authors have stated to this effect, among the most illustrious of whom are Herodotus and Aristeas of Proconnesus.
Beyond the other Scythian Anthropophagi, there is a country called Abarimon, situate in a certain great valley of Mount Imaus, the inhabitants of which are a savage race, whose feet are turned backwards, relatively to their legs: they possess wonderful velocity, and wander about indiscriminately with the wild beasts. We learn from Bæton, whose duty it was to take the measurements of the routes of Alexander the Great, that this people cannot breathe in any climate except their own, for which reason it is impossible to take them before any of the neighbouring kings; nor could any of them be brought before Alexander himself.
The Anthropophagi, whom we have previously mentioned as dwelling ten days' journey beyond the Borysthenes, according to the account of Isigonus of Nicæa, were in the habit of drinking out of human skulls, and placing the scalps, with the hair attached, upon their breasts, like so many napkins.
The same author relates, that there is, in Albania, a certain race of men, whose eyes are of a sea-green colour, and who have white hair from their earliest childhood, and that these people see better in the night than in the day.
He states also that the Sauromatae, who dwell ten days' journey beyond the Borysthenes, only take food every other day.
Above the Nasamones, and the Machlytae, who border upon them, are found, as we learn from Calliphanes, the nation of the Androgyni, a people who unite the two sexes in the same individual, and alternately perform the functions of each. Aristotle also states, that their right breast is that of a male, the left that of a female.
Isigonus and Nymphodorus inform us that there are in Africa certain families of enchanters, who, by means of their charms, in the form of commendations, can cause cattle to perish, trees to wither, and infants to die. Isigonus adds, that there are among the Triballi and the Illyrii, some persons of this description, who also have the power of fascination with the eyes, and can even kill those on whom they fix their gaze for any length of time . . . these persons have two pupils in each eye.
Apollonides says, that there are certain females of this description in Scythia, who are known as Bythiae, and Phylarchus states that a tribe of the Thibii in Pontus, and many other persons as well, have a double pupil in one eye, and in the other the figure of a horse.
He also remarks, that the bodies of these persons will not sink in water, even though weighed down by their garments.
Damon gives an account of a race of people, not very much unlike them, the Pharnaces of Aethiopia, whose perspiration is productive of consumption to the body of every person that it touches.
Not far from the city of Rome, in the territory of the Falisci, a few families are found, who are known by the name of Hirpi. These people perform a yearly sacrifice to Apollo, on Mount Soracte, on which occasion they walk over a burning pile of wood, without being scorched even. On this account, by virtue of a decree of the senate, they are always exempted from military service, and from all other public duties.
Some individuals, again, are born with certain parts of the body endowed with properties of a marvellous nature. Such was the case with King Pyrrhus, the great toe of whose right foot cured diseases of the spleen, merely by touching the patient. We are also informed, that this toe could not be reduced to ashes together with the other portions of his body; upon which it was placed in a coffer, and preserved in a temple.
In India the largest of animals are produced . . . The trees, too, are said to be of such vast height, that it is impossible to send an arrow over them. This is the result of the singular fertility of the soil, the equable temperature of the atmosphere, and the abundance of water; which, if we are to believe what is said, are such, that a single fig-tree is capable of affording shelter to a whole troop of horse.
The reeds here [in India] are also of such enormous length, that each portion of them, between the joints, forms a tube, of which a boat is made that is capable of holding three men.
It is a well-known fact, that many of the people here are more than five cubits in height. These people never expectorate, are subject to no pains, either in the head, the teeth, or the eyes, and rarely in any other parts of the body; so well is the heat of the sun calculated to strengthen the constitution. Their philosophers, who are called Gymnosophists, remain in one posture, with their eyes immovably fixed upon the sun, from its rising to its setting, and, during the whole of the day, they are accustomed to stand in the burning sands on one foot, first one and then the other.
According to the account of Megasthenes, dwelling upon a mountain called Nulo, there is a race of men who have their feet turned backwards, with eight toes on each foot.
On many of the mountains again, there is a tribe of men who have the heads of dogs, and clothe themselves with the skins of wild beasts. Instead of speaking, they bark; and, furnished with claws, they live by hunting and catching birds. According to the story, as given by Ctesias, the number of these people is more than a hundred and twenty thousand.
Ctesias tells us, that there is a certain race in India, of which the females are pregnant once only in the course of their lives, and that the hair of the children becomes white the instant they are born. He speaks also of another race of men, who are known as Monocoli, who have only one leg, but are able to leap with surprising agility. The same people are also called Sciapodæ,: because they are in the habit of lying on their backs, during the time of the extreme heat, and protect themselves from the sun by the shade of their feet. These people, he says, dwell not very far from the Troglodytæ; to the west of whom again there is a tribe who are without necks, and have eyes in their shoulders. [p. 2131]
Among the mountainous districts of the eastern parts of India, in what is called the country of the Catharcludi, we find the Satyr, an animal of extraordinary swiftness. These go sometimes on four feet, and sometimes walk erect; they have also the features of a human being. On account of their swiftness, these creatures are never to be caught, except when they are either aged or sickly.
Tauron gives the name of Choromandæ to a nation which dwell in the woods and have no proper voice. These people screech in a frightful manner; their bodies are covered with hair, their eyes are of a sea-green colour, and their teeth like those of the dog.
Eudoxus tells us, that in the southern parts of India, the men have feet a cubit in length; while those of the women are so remarkably small, that they are called Struthopodes.
Megasthenes places among the Nomades of India, a people who are called Scyritæ. These have merely holes in their faces instead of nostrils, and flexible feet, like the body of the serpent.
At the very extremity of India, on the eastern side, near the source of the river Ganges, there is the nation of the Astomi, a people who have no mouths; their bodies are rough and hairy, and they cover themselves with a down plucked from the leaves of trees. These people subsist only by breathing and by the odours which they inhale through the [p. 2132] nostrils. They support themselves upon neither meat nor drink; when they go upon a long journey they only carry with them various odoriferous roots and flowers, and wild apples, that they may not be without something to smell at. But an odour, which is a little more powerful than usual, easily destroys them.
Beyond these people, and at the very extremity of the mountains, the Trispithami and the Pygmies are said to exist; two races which are but three spans in height, that is to say, twenty-seven inches only. They enjoy a salubrious atmosphere, and a perpetual spring, being sheltered by the mountains from the northern blasts; it is these people that Homer has mentioned as being waged war upon by cranes. It is said, that they are in the habit of going down every spring to the sea-shore, in a large body, seated on the backs of rams and goats, and armed with arrows, and there destroy the eggs and the young of those birds; that this expedition occupies them for the space of three months, and that otherwise it would be impossible for them to withstand the increasing multitudes of the cranes. Their cabins, it is said, are built of mud, mixed with feathers and egg-shells. Aristotle, indeed, says, that they dwell in caves; but, in all other respects, he gives the same details as other writers.
Isigonus informs us, that the Cyrni, a people of India, live to their four hundredth year; and he is of opinion that the same is the case also with the Æthiopian Macrobii, the Seræ, and the inhabitants of Mount Athos. In the case of these [p. 2133] last, it is supposed to be owing to the flesh of vipers, which they use as food; in consequence of which, they are free also from all noxious animals, both in their hair and their garments.
According to Onesicritus, in those parts of India where there is no shadow, the bodies of men attain a height of five cubits and two palms, and their life is prolonged to one hundred and thirty years; they die without any symptoms of old age, and just as if they were in the middle period of life. Crates of Pergamus calls the Indians, whose age exceeds one hundred years, by the name of Gymnetæ; but not a few authors style them Macrobii. Ctesias mentions a tribe of them, known by the name of Pandore, whose locality is in the valleys, and who live to their two hundredth year; their hair is white in youth, and becomes black in old age. On the other hand, there are some people joining up to the country of the Macrobii, who never live beyond their fortieth year, and their females have children once only during their lives. This circumstance is also mentioned by Agatharchides, who states, in addition, that they live on locusts, and are very swift of foot. Clitarchus and Megasthenes give these people the name of Mandi, and enumerate as many as three hundred villages which belong to them. Their women are capable of bearing children in the seventh year of their age, and become old at forty. [p. 2134]
Artemidorus states that in the island of Taprobane, life is prolonged to an extreme length, while, at the same time, the body is exempt from weakness.
According to Durisis, some of the Indians have connection with beasts, and from this union a mixture of half man, half beast, is produced.
Among the Calingæ, a nation also of India, the women conceive at five years of age, and do not live beyond their eighth year. In other places again, there are men born with long hairy tails, and of remarkable swiftness of foot; while there are others that have ears so large as to cover the whole body.
The Oritæ are divided from the Indians by the river Arabis; they are acquainted with no food whatever except fish, which they are in the habit of tearing to pieces with their nails, and drying in the sun.
Crates of Pergamus states, that the Troglodytæ, who dwell beyond Æthiopia, are able to outrun the horse; and that a tribe of the Æthiopians, who are known as the Syrbotæ, exceed eight cubits in height.
There is a tribe of Æthiopian nomads dwelling on the banks of the river Astragus, towards the north, and about [p. 2135] twenty days' journey from the ocean. These people are called Menismini; they live on the milk of the animal which we call cynocephalus, and rear large flocks of these creatures, taking care to kill the males, except such as they may preserve for the purpose of breeding.
In the deserts of Africa, men are frequently seen to all appearance, and then vanish in an instant. Nature, in her ingenuity, has created all these marvels in the human race, with others of a similar nature, as so many amusements to herself, though they appear miraculous to us. But who is there that can enumerate all the things that she brings to pass each day, I may almost say each hour? As a striking evidence of her power, let it be sufficient for me to have cited whole nations in the list of her prodigies. Let us now proceed to mention some other particulars connected with Man, the truth of which is universally admitted.
Nha: Pliny the Elder. Natural History: A Selection. Translated by John Healy. London: Penguin, 1991.
Tnh: Pliny the Elder. The Natural History. Trs. John Bostock and H. T. Riley. London: Taylor and Francis, 1855. On-line
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