Natural History, Bk. II

Author: Pliny the Elder

An Account of the World and the Elements

Pliny the Elder

CHAP. I. WHETHER THE WORLD BE FINITE, AND WHETHER THERE BE MORE THAN ONE WORLD

The world, and whatever that be which we otherwise call the heavens, by the vault of which all things are enclosed, we must conceive to be a deity, to be eternal, without bounds, neither created, nor subject, at any time, to destruction. To inquire what is beyond it is no concern of man, nor can the human mind form any conjecture respecting it. It is sacred, eternal, and without bounds, all in all; indeed including everything in itself; finite, yet like what is infinite; the most certain of all things, yet like what is uncertain, externally and internally embracing all things in itself; it is the work of nature, and itself constitutes nature.

It is madness to harass the mind, as some have done, with attempts to measure the world, and to publish these attempts; or, like others, to argue from what they have made out, that there are innumerable other worlds, and that we must believe there to be so many other natures, or that, if only one nature produce the whole, there will be so many suns and so many moons, and that each of them will have immense trains of other heavenly bodies. As if the same question would not recur at every step of our inquiry, anxious as we must be to arrive at some termination; or, as if this infinity, which we ascribe to nature, the former of all things, cannot be more easily comprehended by one single formation, especially when that is so extensive. It is madness, perfect madness, to go out of this world and to search for what is beyond it, as if one who is ignorant of his own dimensions could ascertain the measure of any thing else, or as if the human mind could see what the world itself cannot contain.

CHAP. 2. OF THE FORM OF THE WORLD

That it has the form of a perfect globe we learn from the name which has been uniformly given to it, as well as from numerous natural arguments. For not only does a figure of this kind return everywhere into itself and sustain itself, also including itself, requiring no adjustments, not sensible of either end or beginning in any of its parts, and is best fitted for that motion, with which, as will appear hereafter, it is continually turning round; but still more, because we perceive it by the evidence of the sight, to be, in every part, convex and central, which could not be the case were it of any other figure.

CHAP. 3. OF ITS NATURE; WHENCE THE NAME IS DERIVED

The rising and the setting of the sun clearly prove, that this globe is carried round in the space of twenty-four hours, in an eternal and never-ceasing circuit, and with incredible swiftness. I am not able to say, whether the sound caused by the whirling about of so great a mass be excessive, and, therefore, far beyond what our ears can perceive, nor, indeed, whether the resounding of so many stars, all carried along at the same time and revolving in their orbits, may not produce a kind of delightful harmony of incredible sweetness. To us, who are in the interior, the world appears to glide silently along, both by day and by night.

Various circumstances in nature prove to us, that there are impressed on the heavens innumerable figures of animals and of all kinds of objects, and that its surface is not perfectly polished like the eggs of birds, as some celebrated authors assert. For we find that the seeds of all bodies fall down from it, principally into the ocean, and, being mixed together, that a variety of monstrous forms are in this way frequently produced. And, indeed, this is evident to the eye; for, in one part, we have the figure of a wain, in another of a bear, of a bull, and of a letter; while, in the middle of them, over our heads, there is a white circle.

With respect to the name of it, I am influenced by the unanimous opinions of all nations. For what the Greeks, from its being ornamented, have termed kosmos, we, from its perfect and complete elegance, have termed mundus. The name caelum, no doubt, refers to its being engraven, as it were, with the stars, as Varro suggests. In confirmation of this idea we may adduce the Zodiac, in which are twelve figures of animals; through them it is that the sun has continued its course for so many ages.

CHAP. 4. OF THE ELEMENTS AND THE PLANETS

I do not find that any one has doubted that there are four elements. The highest of these is supposed to be fire, and hence proceed the eyes of so many glittering stars. The next is that spirit, which both the Greeks and ourselves call by the same name, air. It is by the force of this vital principle, pervading all things and mingling with all, that the earth, together with the fourth element, water, is balanced in the middle of space. These are mutually bound together, the lighter being restrained by the heavier, so that they cannot fly off; while, on the contrary, from the lighter tending upwards, the heavier are so suspended, that they cannot fall down. Thus, by an equal tendency in an opposite direction, each of them remains in its appropriate place, bound together by the never-ceasing revolution of the world, which always turning on itself, the earth falls to the lowest part and is in the middle of the whole, while it remains suspended in the center, and, as it were, balancing this center in which it is suspended. So that it alone remains immovable, whilst all things revolve round it, being connected with every other part, whilst they all rest upon it.

Between this body and the heavens there are suspended, in this aerial spirit, seven stars, separated by determinate spaces, which, on accounts of their motion, we call wandering, although, in reality, none are less so. The sun is carried along in the midst of these, a body of great size and power, the ruler, not only of the seasons and of the different climates, but also of the stars themselves and of the heavens. When we consider his operations, we must regard him as the life, or rather the mind of the universe, the chief regulator and the god of nature; he also lends his light to the other stars. He is most illustrious and excellent, beholding all things and hearing all things, which, I perceive, is ascribed to him exclusively by the prince of poets, Homer.

CHAP. 5. OF GOD

I consider it, therefore, an indication of human weakness to inquire into the figure and form of God. For 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, and all within himself. To believe that there are a number of gods, derived from the virtues, and vices of man, as Chastity, Concord, Understanding, Hope, Honor, Clemency, and Fidelity; or, according to the opinion of Democritus, that there are only two, Punishment and Reward, indicates still greater folly. Human nature, weak and frail as it is, mindful of its own infirmity, has made these divisions, so that every one might have recourse to that which he supposed himself to stand more particularly in need of. Hence we find different names employed by different nations; the inferior deities are arranged in classes, and diseases and plagues are deified, in consequence of our anxious wish to propitiate them. It was from this cause that a temple was dedicated to Fever, at the public expense, on the Palatine Hill, and to Orbona, near the temple of the Lares, and that an altar was elected to Good Fortune on the Esquiline. Hence, we may understand how it comes to pass that there is a greater population of the Celestials than of human beings, since each individual makes a separate god for himself, adopting his own Juno and his own Genius. And there are nations who make gods of certain animals, and even certain obscene things, which are not to be spoken of, swearing by stinking meats and such like. To suppose that marriages are contracted between the gods, and that, during so long a period, there should have been no issue from them, that some of them should be old and always grey-headed and others young and like children, some of a dark complexion, winged, lame, produced from eggs, living and dying on alternate days, is sufficiently puerile and foolish. But it is the height of impudence to imagine, that adultery takes place between them, that they have contests and quarrels, and that there are gods of theft and of various crimes. To assist man is to be a god; this is the path to eternal glory. This is the path which the Roman nobles formerly pursued, and this is the path which is now pursued by the greatest ruler of our age, Vespasian Augustus, he who has come to the relief of an exhausted empire, as well as by his sons. This was the ancient mode of remunerating those who deserved it, to regard them as gods. For the names of all the gods, as well as of the stars that I have mentioned above, have been derived from their services to mankind. And with respect to Jupiter and Mercury, and the rest of the celestial nomenclature, who does not admit that they have reference to certain natural phaenomena?

But it is ridiculous to suppose, that the great head of all things, whatever it be, pays any regard to human affairs. Can we believe, or rather can there be any doubt, that it is not polluted by such a disagreeable and complicated office? It is not easy to determine which opinion would be most for the advantage of mankind, since we observe some who have no respect for the gods, and others who carry it to a scandalous excess. They are slaves to foreign ceremonies; they carry on their fingers the gods and the monsters whom they worship; they condemn and they lay great stress on certain kinds of food; they impose on themselves dreadful ordinances, not even sleeping quietly. They do not marry or adopt children, or indeed do anything else, without the sanction of their sacred rites. There are others, on the contrary, who will cheat in the very capitol, and will forswear themselves even by Jupiter Tonans, and while these thrive in their crimes, the others torment themselves with their superstitions to no purpose.

Among these discordant opinions mankind have discovered for themselves a kind of intermediate deity, by which our scepticism concerning God is still increased. For all over the world, in all places, and at all times, Fortune is the only god whom every one invokes; she alone is spoken of, she alone is accused and is supposed to be guilty; she alone is in our thoughts, is praised and blamed, and is loaded with reproaches; wavering as she is, conceived by the generality of mankind to be blind, wandering, inconstant, uncertain, variable, and often favoring the unworthy. To her are referred all our losses and all our gains, and in casting up the accounts of mortals she alone balances the two pages of our sheet. We are so much in the power of chance, that change itself is considered as a god, and the existence of God becomes doubtful.

But there are others who reject this principle and assign events to the influence of the stars, and to the laws of our nativity; they suppose that God, once for all, issues his decrees and never afterwards interferes. This opinion begins to gain ground, and both the learned and the unlearned vulgar are filling into it. Hence we have the admonitions of thunder, the warnings of oracles, the predictions of sooth-sayers, and things too trifling to be mentioned, as sneezing and stumbling with the feet reckoned among omens. The late Emperor Augustus relates, that he put the left shoe on the wrong foot, the day when he was near being assaulted by his soldiers. And such things as these so embarrass improvident mortals, that among all of them this alone is certain, that there is nothing certain, and that there is nothing more proud or more wretched than man. For other animals have no care but to provide for their subsistence, for which the spontaneous kindness of nature is all-sufficient; and this one circumstance renders their lot more especially preferable, that they never think about glory, or money, or ambition, and, above all, that they never reflect on death.

The belief, however, that on these points the gods superintend human affairs is useful to us, as well as that the punishment of crimes, although sometimes tardy, from the deity being occupied with such a mass of business, is never entirely remitted, and that the human race was not made the next in rank to himself, in order that they might be degraded like brutes. And, indeed, this constitutes the great comfort in this imperfect state of man, that even the deity cannot do everything. For he cannot procure death for himself, even if he wished it, which, so numerous are the evils of life, has been granted to man as our chief good. Nor can he make mortals immortal, or recall to life those who are dead; nor can he effect, that he who has once lived shall not have lived, or that he who has enjoyed honors shall not have enjoyed them; nor has he any influence over past events but to cause them to be forgotten. And, if we illustrate the nature of our connexion with God by a less serious argument, he cannot make twice ten not to be twenty, and many other things of this kind. By these considerations the power of nature is clearly proved, and is shown to be what we call God. It is not foreign to the subject to have digressed into these matters, familiar as they are to every one, from the continual discussions that take place respecting God.

CHAP. 6. OF THE NATURE OF THE STARS; OF THE MOTION OF THE PLANETS

Let us return from this digression to the other parts of nature. The stars which are described as fixed in the heavens, are not, as the vulgar suppose, attached each of them to different individuals, the brighter to the rich, those that are less so to the poor, and the dim to the aged, shining according to the lot of the individual, and separately assigned to mortals; for they have neither come into existence, nor do they perish in connexion with particular persons, nor does a falling star indicate that any one is dead. We are not so closely connected with the heavens as that the shining of the stars is affected by our death. When they are supposed to shoot or fall, they throw out, by the force of their fire, as if from an excess of nutriment, the superabundance of the humor which they have absorbed, as we observe to take place from the oil in our lamps, when they are burning. The nature of the celestial bodies is eternal, being interwoven, as it were, with the world, and, by this union, rendering it solid; but they exert their most powerful influence on the earth. This, notwithstanding its subtilty, may be known by the clearness and the magnitude of the effect, as we shall point out in the proper place. The account of the circles of the heavens will be better understood when we come to speak of the earth, since they have all a reference to it; except what has been discovered respecting the Zodiac, which I shall now detail.

Anaximander, the Milesian, in the 58th olympiad, is said to have been the first who understood its obliquity, and thus opened the road to a correct knowledge of the subject. Afterwards Cleostratus made the signs in it, first marking those of Aries and Sagittarius; Atlas had formed the sphere long before this time. But now, leaving the further consideration of this subject, we must treat of the bodies that are situated between the earth and the heavens.

It is certain that the star called Saturn is the highest, and therefore appears the smallest, that he passes through the largest circuit, and that he is at least thirty years in completing it. The course of all the planets, and among others of the Sun, and the Moon, is in the contrary direction to that of the heavens, that is towards the left, while the heavens are rapidly carried about to the right. And although, by the stars constantly revolving with immense velocity, they are raised up, and hurried on to the part where they set, yet they are all forced, by a motion of their own, in an opposite direction; and this is so ordered, lest the air, being always moved in the same direction, by the constant whirling of the heavens, should accumulate into one mass, whereas now it is divided and separated and beaten into small pieces, by the opposite motion of the different stars. Saturn is a star of a cold and rigid nature, while the orbit of Jupiter is much lower, and is carried round in twelve years. The next star, Mars, which some persons call Hercules, is of a fiery and burning nature, and from its nearness to the sun is carried round in little less than two years. In consequence of the excessive heat of this star and the rigidity of Saturn, Jupiter, which is interposed between the two, is tempered by both of them, and is thus rendered salutary. The path of the Sun consists of 360 degrees; but, in order that the shadow may return to the same point of the dial, we are obliged to add, in each year, five days and the fourth part of a day. On this account an intercalary day is given to every fifth year, that the period of the seasons may agree with that of the Sun.

Below the Sun revolves the great star called Venus, wandering with an alternate motion, and, even in its surnames, rivalling the Sun and the Moon. For when it precedes the day and rises in the morning, it receives the name of Lucifer, as if it were another sun, hastening on the day. On the contrary, when it shines in the west, it is named Vesper, as prolonging the light, and performing the office of the moon. Pythagoras, the Samian, was the first who discovered its nature, about the 62nd olympiad, in the 222nd year of the City. It excels all the other stars in size, and its brilliancy is so considerable, that it is the only star which produces a shadow by its rays. There has, consequently, been great interest made for its name; some have called it the star of Juno, others of Iris, and others of the Mother of the Gods. By its influence everything in the earth is generated. For, as it rises in either direction, it sprinkles everything with its genial dew, and not only matures the productions of the earth, but stimulates all living things. It completes the circuit of the zodiac in 348 days, never receding from the sun more than 46 degrees, according to Timaeus.

Similarly circumstanced, but by no means equal in size and in power, next to it, is the star Mercury, by some called Apollo; it is carried in a lower orbit, and moves in a course which is quicker by nine days, shining sometimes before the rising of the sun, and at other times after its setting, but never going farther from it than 23 degrees, as we learn from Timaeus and Sosigenes. The nature of these two stars is peculiar, and is not the same with those mentioned above, for those are seen to recede from the sun through one-third or one-fourth part of the heavens, and are often seen opposite to it. They have also other larger circuits, in which they make their complete revolutions, as will be described in the account of the great year.

But the Moon, which is the last of the stars, and the one the most connected with the earth, the remedy provided by nature for darkness, excels all the others in its admirable qualities. By the variety of appearances which it assumes, it puzzles the observers, mortified that they should be the most ignorant concerning that star which is the nearest to them. She is always either waxing or waning; sometimes her disc is curved into horns, sometimes it is divided into two equal portions, and at other times it is swelled out into a full orb; sometimes she appears spotted and suddenly becomes very bright; she appears very large with her full orb and suddenly becomes invisible; now continuing during all the night, now rising late, and now aiding the light of the sun during a part of the day; becoming eclipsed and yet being visible while she is eclipsed; concealing herself at the end of the month and yet not supposed to be eclipsed. Sometimes she is low down, sometimes she is high up, and that not according to one uniform course, being at one time raised up to the heavens, at other times almost contiguous to the mountains; now elevated in the north, now depressed in the south; all which circumstances having been noticed by Endymion, a report was spread about, that he was in love with the moon. We are not indeed sufficiently grateful to those, who, with so much labor and care, have enlightened us with this light; while, so diseased is the human mind, that we take pleasure in writing the annals of blood and slaughter, in order that the crimes of men may be made known to those who are ignorant of the constitution of the world itself.

Being nearest to the axis, and there having the smallest orbit, the Moon passes it twenty-seven days and the one-third part of a day, through the same space for which Saturn, the highest of the planets, as was stated above, requires thirty years. After remaining for two days in conjunction with the sun, on the thirtieth day she again very slowly emerges to pursue her accustomed course. I know not whether she ought not to be considered as our instructress in everything that can be known respecting the heavens; as that the year is divided into the twelve divisions of the months, since she follows the sun for the same number of times, until he returns to his starting point; and that her brightness, as well as that of the other stars, is regulated by that of the sun, if indeed they all of them shine by light borrowed from him, such as we see floating about, when it is reflected from the surface of water. On this account it is that she dissolves so much moisture, by a gentle and less perfect force, and adds to the quantity of that which the rays of the sun consume. On this account she appears with an unequal light, because being full only when she is in opposition, on all the remaining days she shows only so much of herself to the earth as she receives light from the sun. She is not seen in conjunction, because, at that time, she sends back the whole stream of light to the source whence she has derived it. That the stars generally are nourished by the terrestrial moisture is evident, because, when the moon is only half visible she is sometimes seen spotted, her power of absorbing moisture not having been powerful enough; for the spots are nothing else than the dregs of the earth drawn up along with the moisture. (10.) But her eclipses and those of the sun, the most wonderful of all the phaenomena of nature, and which are like prodigies, serve to indicate the magnitude of these bodies and the shadow which they cast.

CHAP. 7. OF THE ECLIPSES OF THE SUN AND THE MOON

For it is evident that the sun is hid by the intervention of the moon, and the moon by the opposition of the earth, and that these changes are mutual, the moon, by her interposition, taking the rays of the sun from the earth, and the earth from the moon. As she advances darkness is suddenly produced, and again the sun is obscured by her shade; for night is nothing more than the shade of the earth. The figure of this shade is like that of a pyramid or an inverted top; and the moon enters it only near its point, and it does not exceed the height of the moon, for there is no other star which is obscured in the same manner, while a figure of this kind always terminates in a point. The flight of birds, when very lofty, shows that shadows do not extend beyond a certain distance; their limit appears to be the termination of the air and the commencement of the aether. Above the moon everything is pare and full of an eternal light. The stars are visible to us in the night, in the same way that other luminous bodies are seen in the dark. It is from these causes that the moon is eclipsed during the night. The two kinds of eclipses are not, however, at the stated monthly periods, on account of the obliquity of the zodiac, and the irregularly wandering course of the moon, as stated above; besides that the motions of these stars do not always occur exactly at the same points.

CHAP. 8. (II.). OF THE MAGNITUDE OF THE STARS

This kind of reasoning carries the human mind to the heavens, and by contemplating the world as it were from thence, it discloses to us the magnitude of the three greatest bodies in nature. For the sun could not be entirely concealed from the earth, by the intervention of the moon, if the earth were greater than the moon. And the vast size of the third body, the sun, is manifest from that of the other two, so that it is not necessary to scrutinize its size, by arguing from its visible appearance, or from any conjectures of the mind; it must be immense, because the shadows of rows of trees, extending for any number of miles, are disposed in right lines, as if the sun were in the middle of space. Also, because, at the equinox, he is vertical to all the inhabitants of the southern districts at the same time; also, because the shadows of all the people who live on this side of the tropic fall, at noon, towards the north, and, at sunrise, point to the west. But this could not be the case unless the sun were much greater than the earth; nor, unless it much exceeded Mount Ida in breadth, could he be seen when he rises, passing considerably beyond it to the right and to the left, especially, considering that it is separated by so great an interval.

The eclipse of the moon affords an undoubted argument of the sun’s magnitude, as it also does of the small size of the earth. For there are shadows of three figures, and it is evident, that if the body which produces the shadow be equal to the light, then it will be thrown off in the form of a pillar, and have no termination. If the body be greater than the light, the shadow will be in the form of an inverted cone, the bottom being the narrowest part, and being, at the same time, of an infinite length. If the body be less than the light, then we shall have the figure of a pyramid, terminating in a point. Now of this last kind is the shadow which produces the eclipse of the moon, and this is so manifest that there can be no doubt remaining that the earth is exceeded in magnitude by the sun, a circumstance which is indeed indicated by the silent declaration of nature herself. For why does he recede from us at the winter half of the year? That by the darkness of the nights the earth may be refreshed, which otherwise would be burned up, as indeed it is in certain parts, so great is his size.

CHAP. 9. (12.) AN ACCOUNT OF THE OBSERVATION’S THAT HAVE BEEN MADE ON THE HEAVENS BY DIFFERENT INDIVIDUALS

The first among the Romans, who explained to the people at large the cause of the two kinds of eclipses, was Sulpicius Gallus, who was consul along with Marcellus; and when he was only a military tribune he relieved the army from great anxiety the day before King Perseus was conquered by Paulus; for he was brought by the general into a public assembly, in order to predict the eclipse, of which he afterwards gave an account in a separate treatise. Among the Greeks, Thales the Milesian first investigated the subject, in the fourth year of the forty-eighth olympiad, predicting the eclipse of the sun which took place in the reign of Alyattes, in the 170th year of the City. After them Hipparchus calculated the course of both these stars for the term of 600 years, including the months, days, and hours, the situation of the different places and the aspects adapted to each of them; all this has been confirmed by experience, and could only be acquired by partaking, as it were, in the councils of nature. These were indeed great men, superior to ordinary mortals, who having discovered the laws of these divine bodies, relieved the miserable mind of man from the fear which he had of eclipses, as foretelling some dreadful events or the destruction of the stars. This alarm is freely acknowledged in the sublime strains of Stesichorus and Pindar, as being produced by an eclipse of the sun. And with respect to the eclipse of the moon, mortals impute it to witchcraft, and therefore endeavor to aid her by producing discordant sounds. In consequence of this kind of terror it was that Nicias, the general of the Athenians, being ignorant of the cause, was afraid to lead out the fleet, and brought great distress on his troops. Hail to your genius, ye interpreters of heaven! ye who comprehend the nature of things, and who have discovered a mode of reasoning by which ye have conquered both gods and men! For who is there, in observing these things and seeing the labors which the stars are compelled to undergo (since we have chosen to apply this term to them), that would not cheerfully submit to his fate, as one born to die? I shall now, in a brief and summary manner, touch on those points in which we are agreed, giving the reasons where it is necessary to do so; for this is not a work of profound argument, nor is it less wonderful to be able to suggest a probable cause for everything, than to give a complete account of a few of them only.

CHAP. 10. (13.) ON THE RECURRENCES OF THE ECLIPSES OF THE SUN AND THE MOON

It is ascertained that the eclipses complete their whole revolution in the space of 223 months, that the eclipse of the sun takes place only at the conclusion or the commencement of a lunation, which is termed conjunction, while an eclipse of the moon takes place only when she is at the full, and is always a little farther advanced than the preceding eclipse. Now there are eclipses of both these stars in every year, which take place below the earth, at stated days and hours; and when they are above it they are not always visible, sometimes on account of the clouds, but more frequently, from the globe of the earth being opposed to the vault of the heavens. It was discovered two hundred years ago, by the sagacity of Hipparchus, that the moon is sometimes eclipsed after an interval of five months, and the sun after an interval of seven; also, that he becomes invisible, while above the horizon, twice in every thirty days, but that this is seen in different places at different times. But the most wonderful circumstance is, that while it is admitted that the moon is darkened by the shadow of the earth, this occurs at one time on its western, and at another time on its eastern side. And farther, that although, after the rising of the sun, that darkening shadow ought to ,be below the earth, yet it has once happened, that the moon has been eclipsed in the west, while both the luminaries have been above the horizon. And as to their both being invisible in the space of fifteen days, this very thing happened while the Vespasians were emperors, the father being consul for the third time, and the son for the second.—Natural History, Bk. II.

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Chicago: Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Bk. II in The Library of Original Sources, ed. Oliver J. Thatcher (Milwaukee, WI: University Research Extension Co., 1907), 294–305. Original Sources, accessed February 21, 2024, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=IXGF7T3N53CGGZY.

MLA: Pliny the Elder. Natural History, Bk. II, in The Library of Original Sources, edited by Oliver J. Thatcher, Vol. 3, Milwaukee, WI, University Research Extension Co., 1907, pp. 294–305. Original Sources. 21 Feb. 2024. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=IXGF7T3N53CGGZY.

Harvard: Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Bk. II. cited in 1907, The Library of Original Sources, ed. , University Research Extension Co., Milwaukee, WI, pp.294–305. Original Sources, retrieved 21 February 2024, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=IXGF7T3N53CGGZY.