Recovering a Late-Antique Edition of Pliny’s <i>Natural History</i>

by Paul T. Keyser (Author)
©2020 Monographs XII, 282 Pages


Half a dozen authors quote a total of over forty extracts from Pliny’s Natural History that are absent from our manuscripts of Pliny. These extracts have been virtually ignored by scholars, and never studied systematically. This book demonstrates that the half-dozen sources, Latin writers of the fifth to thirteenth centuries CE, are reliable, and argues that their extracts should be received as good evidence of a hitherto unsuspected augmented edition of Pliny, probably produced around 300 to 350 CE. Greek writers of the same era produced augmented versions of scientific texts to update, expand, and "complete" the work of the original authors. Pliny’s own work is composed in such a way as to invite augmentation. Paul T. Keyser’s efforts to recover the augmented Natural History suggest that late-antique Latin writers were also renovators of their scientific literature. The unknown augmentor, Keyser argues, was aiming to "complete" Pliny with new data, and to organize Pliny’s sometimes scattered presentations, all with the aim of making Pliny’s work more useful. The evidence shows that even in unfavorable times, some Latin writers were able to continue practicing science.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Tables
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1 Pliny—Augments and Epitomes
  • 2 Augmented Editions in Late Antiquity
  • 3 The Nature of the Natural History and Its Fitness for Augmentation
  • 4 Recorders of the Augmented Pliny
  • Edition and Commentary
  • Pliny, Segment I (Cosmos & Earth, books 2–6)
  • Pliny, Segment II (Animals, books 7–11)
  • Pliny, Segment III (Plants, books 12–19)
  • Pliny, Segment IIII (Botanicals, books 20–27)
  • Pliny, Segment V (Zoologicals, books 28–32)
  • Pliny, Segment VI (Minerals, books 33–37)
  • Epilogue and Prospect
  • Abbreviations
  • Bibliography
  • Index of Quotations of Plinius Auctus
  • Topic Index
  • Passages Cited


This work began when I investigated the quotation practice of Servius for my dissertation at the University of Colorado, Boulder, under the direction of Christoph F. Konrad (completed 1991, on Sallust). I first published the observation in Keyser (1994) 632–633, n. 45. That observation evolved into a long paper on recovering a Late-Antique edition of Pliny (given at the History of Science Society meeting in Chicago, 2014 November 8th), and became in the end this book, which studies how Pliny’s Natural History was augmented in Late Antiquity.

The resources of six libraries were important for the composition of this work, namely (in chronological order): the University of Colorado, Boulder; the University of Chicago; the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh; the University of Durham, England; the University of Wisconsin, Madison; and the Newberry Library, Chicago. The bibliographic closing date of this work was 2019 June 30.

I have benefitted, in matters great and small, from the advice of two anonymous readers for the press, as well as of these dozen colleagues: Clara Bosak-Schroeder; Kathryn Chew; Lisa Cooper; Chris Faraone; Nicholas Horsfall; Bob Kaster, whose comments were especially extensive and helpful; Rick Keyser; Carsten ←xi | xii→Lange; Michèle Lowrie; David Paniagua; John T. Ramsey; and Richard Westall; as well as the two anonymous referees of the press. I presented an “epitome” of this work at the History of Science Society meeting in Chicago, 2014 November 08, and received useful commentary from the five other panelists (James C. Evans, Jacqueline Feke, Zoë Misiewicz, Courtney Ann Roby, and Allen Shotwell), as well as from the audience.

Pliny—Augments and Epitomes

We know Pliny, or we think we do. Pliny’s Natural History is one of the largest works to survive from Greco-Roman antiquity, and, because of its grand scale, was also one of the most often epitomized. Some epitomes are by named authors, such as the geographical epitome by Iulius Solinus. Others, mostly excerpting the medical books 20–32, are anonymous, with multiple versions: e.g., the “Medicina Plinii” of the early third century and “Physica Plinii” of the fifth. Despite all these epitomes, or maybe because of them, Pliny’s work as a whole also survived, essentially intact. The existence of the epitomes shows that Pliny’s Natural History, despite its bulk, continued to be copied and used in Late Antiquity.

I. What We Didn’t Know About Pliny

But there is something important that we did not know about Pliny. I argue that there is evidence for an augmented version of Pliny’s work, which added significant material in many places, and that I shall refer to as Plinius Auctus. The evidence is found in citations or quotations by four authors of late antiquity, as well as by three medieval writers. Those are Beda of Wearmouth (“the Venerable Bede”), Thomas of Cantimpré, and Albert von Lauingen (“the Great”). The four ←1 | 2→Late Antique writers are Isidore and three commentaries on Vergil, that by Seruius, that by Filagrius, and that known as Seruius Auctus. These sources attribute material to Pliny, and in many cases explicitly to his Natural History, that is not found in any extant manuscript of Pliny.1 Although there is evidence in antiquity for “second editions” by various authors, from Aristophanes to Solinus,2 it is very unlikely that the “extra” material attributed to Pliny derives from an alternate edition by Pliny himself.3 On the other hand, I will argue in Chapter 4, “Recorders of the Augmented Pliny,” that these sources are generally reliable, when quoting other ancient authors and also when quoting Pliny. So there is little likelihood that any of the sources themselves are responsible for the augments to the Natural History, either by quoting from memory, with augments, or else by quoting from some other work misidentified as Pliny’s Natural History. An alternate hypothesis,4 that all extant manuscripts of Pliny descend from an abbreviated archetype, is not impossible, but seems very unlikely—the hypothetical abbreviator not only had to remove material, they also had to disperse some material to separate sites within the abbreviated text. The hypothesis of an independently-existing augmented edition of Pliny, however unexpected, is actually the simplest hypothesis to explain this extra material.5

The content in these passages corresponds with the overall program of Pliny’s Natural History. That rules out the possibility that these quotations derive from some other work by Pliny, in particular his grammatical work Dubius Sermo (which only Seruius among our sources also cites). Likewise, there is no reason to believe that there was an otherwise unknown work that covered the same material as Pliny, and that all these sources would have cited such a work falsely as “Pliny.” The only evidence that might point to the use of such a work is a single citation of material from “physiologers” (physiologici), as an anonymous group, by Seruius Auctus.6 Finally, it seems highly improbable that the passages quoted or cited just happen to be missing from all extant manuscripts of Pliny’s Natural History. It is not the weight of any one piece of this puzzle that tips the balance: it is the cumulative effect of the pattern of the citations that supports the case that there was an augmented edition of Pliny.

So, I am arguing that these passages are in fact augments, and provide evidence that the six sources (Seruius et al.) had access to an augmented edition of Pliny. Given that about two-thirds of all the citations of Pliny by Seruius and Seruius Auctus are to the expanded edition, the augments must have been extensive. Indeed, the augmented edition might have been much longer than the current Pliny, perhaps corresponding to as many as fifty or sixty books (there is no ←2 | 3→evidence that the augmentor renumbered the books), which although staggering is paralleled or exceeded by other scholarly works from both the Greco-Roman period and late antiquity, most of which do not survive.7

To set this newly identified Plinius Auctus into his context, I will first briefly describe the known Plinian epitomes of late antiquity (below). In the following two chapters, I will survey augmented editions in Late Antiquity, and then I will show how Pliny’s work invites augmenting. Chapter 4 explores the sources who record augments and finds that they are reliable sources. That is, augmented works existed; the Natural History opens itself to becoming a work of this kind; and the sources who quote Pliny provide reliable evidence that the Natural History in fact became a work of this kind. Finally, I will describe and comment upon the surviving augmented material. Almost half of the augmented content is effectively unique, but some of it is paralleled in other sources, typically of the third century ce and later.

II. Epitomes of Pliny

First, the epitomes. Pliny’s huge Natural History became the basis for a handful of extant epitomes in late antiquity. Their focus varied, but included primarily geography (Solinus) and medicine. So far as we can now tell, the earliest of these works originated around 200 ce; they continued to be produced through the end of antiquity.8 One of the earliest is the medical poem of the North African writer Q. Serenus Sammonicus (ca 210 ce). Around the same time, an author now unknown produced the Medicina Plinii, which came to be treated simply as “Pliny” (e.g., by Marcellus of Bordeaux in his recipe book, below). Another North African writer, Q. Gargilius Martialis, took a similar direction around the middle of the third century ce, and produced a work on horticulture that included prescriptions based on garden products. A third epitome from the third century is the geographical compendium of Iulius Solinus, intended to make Pliny’s geography more accessible.

Beginning in the late fifth century ce, the Medicina Plinii was further abridged and amended to produce a sheaf of variants all named Physica Plinii. A more complex case is the Herbarius (wrongly attributed to Apuleius of Madauros), which existed in many versions, most of them dependent on Pliny or one of the epitomes already cited, and dating perhaps from the third century ce through ca 600 ce. Meanwhile, in the first half of the fifth century ce, a book on remedies ←3 | 4→from animals appeared, based on Pliny at some remove, whose author is known as Sextus Placitus Papyriensis. Finally, around 410 ce, the aristocrat and amateur pharmacist Marcellus of Bordeaux composed a work of handy remedies, all said to be verified by experience, based mainly on the Medicina Plinii and also directly on Pliny’s Natural History; Marcellus explains that he cites uterque Plinius (“each Pliny”).9

These works seem to have been written in response to a perceived need for a convenient digest of the useful portions of Pliny’s grand compendium. Solinus says so explicitly (praef.2, liber est ad conpendium praeparatus), as does Marcellus (libellum hunc … conscripsi … sparsum inconditumque collegi et in unum corpus … conposui),10 but even if they did not, the structure and content of these works would make this hypothesis tenable. Furthermore, the repeated editions and updates demonstrate the responsiveness of the tradition to the needs of its readership. Most of the epitomes are pharmaceutical, i.e., derive from Pliny’s books on useful things from plants and animals (books 20–32), although Solinus is geographical, deriving chiefly from books 2–6. All the epitomes provide a modicum of new data, e.g., Solinus adds data from Pomponius Mela,11 and adds data to many of his extracts from Pliny. Gargilius cites Galen,12 and Dioscorides,13 and several other Greeks,14 and mainly exploits Pliny, though he only actually cites Pliny twice.15 However, the main focus of these late antique epitomes of Pliny is to make Pliny’s material more accessible, or to provide ready remedies decorated with the authority of Pliny.16 The Herbarius is likewise replete with Plinian material,17 as is also the later work of “Sextus Placitus Papyriensis”.18

III. Summary

As mentioned, these epitomes were probably composed to fill a perceived need for a convenient digest of some useful portions of Pliny’s grand compendium. Their existence, and ascription to “Pliny”, show that his text remained a living work that engaged the attention of writers and readers. Some of those engaged readers treated Pliny’s work as raw material for their own efforts at rendering Pliny more relevant. Scribes moreover, some of them at least, treated the outcome of those efforts as being works by “Pliny” (recall Marcellus’ citation of “both Plinies”). In the next chapter, we will consider a common practice in Late Antiquity, in which ancient texts were not epitomized, but instead were reworked and even expanded, and yet considered to be the text of the original author.

←4 | 5→ ←5 | 6→ ←6 | 7→


1 1. Although there is the tantalizing palimpsest described by Chatelain (1900), Autun, Grand Seminary, #24, of ca 400 ce, with text from book VIII at least; see the Epilogue and Prospect.

2 2. Six examples are: (a) Aristophanes, Clouds: see Emonds (1941) 277–290; Dover (1970) LXXXII–XCII; and Hubbard (1986). (b) Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica: see Emonds (1941) 290–305. (c) Apollonius of Pergē, Konika: see 1.7–17, and Hypsicles, Euclidean Elements 14.7–15. (d) Cicero, Academici Libri: see Emonds (1941) 265–277; Hunt (1998) 9–13, 260–261. (e) Ovid, Amores: Emonds (1941) 236–248; Martelli (2013). (f) Solinus: see Schmidt (1995). Emonds (1941) also discusses: Ausonius, 82–108; Columella, 108–135; Ovid’s Metamorphoses, 188–233; and others 1–23 and 306–384. For further examples, see also Pasquali (1952) 16–20 and 398–465.

3 3. Pliny published his encyclopedia in 77 ce, and was killed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 ce, so there was hardly enough time for a second edition.

4 4. Suggested to me by Robert Kaster (per litteras, 2018 October 20).

5 5. For the fate of the augmented edition, see the “Epilogue and Prospect.”

6 6. On Aeneid 10.273: they say that Sirius is hot because the dog is hot (animal igneam uim habet), and the dog drinks little water, so that those bitten by a rabid dog (qui rabidi canis morsu continguntur) flee water, and suffer like a hot dog (similiter in corpore humano saeuiat).

7 7. Pliny’s 36 books (plus index) are paralleled, e.g., by the approximately 40 books each that were written by the four historians Timaios, Polybius, Diodorus of Sicily, and Pompeius Trogus (in the third through first centuries bce). Far exceeding that, in the first century bce, Livy produced 142 books of Roman history (of which only 35 are extant), and Nikolaos of Damaskos 144 books of “universal” history. Later, Pamphilos of Alexandria (ca 70 ce) produced a dictionary in 95 books; Oribasius (in the early fourth century ce) composed 70 or more books of medical excerpts; the poet Nonnos around 400 ce composed 48 books of Dionysiaca; and Stephanos of Byzantium (in the mid-sixth century ce) composed 55 or more books of geography.

8 8. In the following, see the entries in the EANS (listed in order of subject): Scarborough, “Apuleius, pseudo, Herbarius”, 120–121; Rodgers, “Gargilius Martialis”, 343; Lozovsky, “Iulius Solinus”, 455–456; Stok, “Marcellus of Bordeaux”, 527–530; Scarborough, “Medicina Plinii”, 536–537; Scarborough, “Physica Plinii”, 664–665; Touwaide, “Placitus Papyriensis”, 666–667; and Scarborough, “Serenus Sammonicus,” 734.

9 9. Letter to His Sons §2, CML 5 (1916) 3 = (1968) 2; he also says he uses “Apuleius Celsus, Apollinaris, and (Largius) Designatianus,” as well as some contemporaries. Niedermann’s “Conspectus Fontium et Testimoniorum” shows how greatly Marcellus depended on the various Plinii: CML 5 (1916) 350–364 = (1968) 824–850.

10 10. Letter to His Sons §1, CML 5 (1916) 3 = (1968) 2.

11 11. Mommsen (1864) XI = (1895) X; and (1864) XXIV–XXV = (1895) XX–XXII, showing Mela 2.1.10–13 ≈ Solinus 15.2–4; cf. also Mommsen’s index (1864, 249 = 1895, 238), among which, for example: Mela 2.2.4 ≈ Solinus 10.3–5; Mela 2.2.8 ≈ Solinus 10.7–8; and Mela 2.2.10 ≈ Solinus 11.33.

12 12. Gargilius cites “Galen” 13 times, mainly from the Simples (Kühn, vols. 11–12), for example, Gargilius §4 cites Simples 7.10.43 (Kühn 12.36); Gargilius §30 cites Simples 7.10.48 (Kühn 12.42); and Gargilius §52 cites Simples 7.10.19 (Kühn 12.22–23).

13 13. Gargilius cites “Dioscorides” 16 times, never books 4–5 (Maire 2002, LII); for example: Gargilius §11.5 cites Dioscorides, Materia Medica 2.136.1; Gargilius §27.2 cites Dioscorides, Materia Medica 2.151.1; Gargilius §30.23 cites Dioscorides, Materia Medica 2.120.2; and Gargilius §46.3 cites Dioscorides, Materia Medica 1.121.

14 14. Most of the 17 citations of Greeks (other than Galen and Dioscorides) seem to be derived from Pliny (Maire 2002, LIII, n. 186), such as: Gargilius §4.8–9 cites Xenocrates of Ephesus from Pliny 20.218; Gargilius §18.10–14 cites Hippocrates, Diocles, and Praxagoras from Pliny 20.51–52; and Gargilius §27.4–6 cites Asclepiades of Bithynia on the onion from Pliny 20.42.

15 15. Gargilius §29 cites “Pliny” on sinapi (mustard), probably intending 20.240; and §41 cites “Pliny” on the pomegranate, i.e., 23.110. Gargilius §30.1–6 cites “Cato” on cabbage, as in Pliny 20.80.

16 16. Önnerfors (1975) 169–173, and see the Physica Plinii Bambergenses 1.8 (p. 21, malæ semen ex uino nigro contritum gargarizato tepidum: pituitas capitis extrahit) from Pliny 20.225 (semen [maluae] in uino nigro potum pituita et nauseis liberat); 1.19 (p. 23, betæ rubee radix contusa linteo tenero exprimitur et sucum inaribus trahitur et mirifice purgat) from Pliny 20.71 (sucus eius [betae radicis] cum melle naribus inditus caput purgat); etc.

17 17. All citations from Howald and Sigerist (1927): see 1.12 (p. 23) ~ Pliny 26.115 (plantago); 1.13 (p. 24) ~ Pliny 26.101 (plantago); 29.6 (p. 71) ~ Pliny 25.21 (brittanica); 86.1, 3, 4 (pp. 154–155) ~ Pliny 24.102 (sabina); 90.5, 7, 8, 14 (pp. 162–163) ~ Pliny 20.133, 135, 142 (ruta); 100.1 (p. 180) ~ Pliny 20.246 (serpullum); etc.


XII, 282
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (September)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. XII, 282 pp., 13 tables.

Biographical notes

Paul T. Keyser (Author)

Paul T. Keyser studied physics and classics at St. Andrew’s School, Duke University, and the University of Colorado at Boulder (where he obtained a Ph.D. in physics and another in classics). He taught at Edmonton, Cornell, and Tuscaloosa before becoming a software engineer at IBM and Google. He now works as a site-reliability engineer and publishes on ancient Greco-Roman science and technology. He has co-edited three books: Greek Science (2002); Encyclopedia of Ancient Natural Scientists (2008); and the Oxford Handbook of Science and Medicine in the Classical World (2018).


Title: Recovering a Late-Antique Edition of Pliny’s <i>Natural History</i>
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
296 pages