Pliny’s Natural History: Autopsy of Ancient Source


The study of ancient history is a vicarious experience that can be gained through the exploration of books, texts, and documents. Historical practitioners are keenly aware of the fact that ancient sources are not always characterized by the complementary relationship between reliability and authenticity (MacNeil, 2000). Therefore, the ability to assess the trustworthiness of antiquity records is what distinguishes outstanding historians from their mediocre counterparts.

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The examination of historical documents with the aim of authentication is a salient feature of the work of a historian. In addition to satisfying the main purpose of reliable historical evidence, the evaluation of the credibility of ancient accounts helps history scholars to better understand the perspectives of those ancient authors who purported to be knowledgeable about certain events or phenomena (MacNeil, 2000). It is extremely important since multiperspective is a pivotal characteristic of history.

This paper aims to analyze a section from Pliny’s Natural History. The paper will discuss the accuracy of the content provided in the ancient source and compare it to the current state of science on the subject.


In his book, Pliny describes adult geese mating and nesting habits (Pliny, LXXIX 162). The author discusses the breeding range of geese and goes so far as to say that nettle poses a severe danger to goslings. The book also follows the mating habits of herons, eagles, kites, ravens, magpies, and swallows (Pliny, LXXIX 162). The ancient naturalist argues that herons experience pain during mating, which is evidenced by their “screams” and “blood from their eyes” (Pliny, LXXIX 165). Pliny (LXXIX 165) provides specific brooding ranges for kites, hawks, ravens, and eagles. The scholar states that hen’s brood is larger than that of other birds.

When discussing unfertile eggs or “wind eggs,” the ancient historian claims that they are produced only in spring (Pliny, LXXX 166). Pliny (LXXX 166) acknowledges the existence of the competing hypothesis that such eggs are created by wind. The author outlines his knowledge of bats and snakes in the book. Pliny (LXXXII 168) maintains that the male viper is consumed by his counterpart during copulation. The scholar discusses the process of egg incubation for snakes. When describing the mode of reproduction for crocodiles, Pliny (LXXXII 168) states that both males and females of the aquatic reptiles lay eggs.

Pliny writes at length on the subject of animal reproduction (LXXXIII 172). He argues that for humans, the first sexual intercourse is associated with repugnance, which he attributes to “regrettable source” of human existence (Pliny, LXXXIII 172). The ancient naturalist expresses his bewilderment over the insatiability of humans concerning procreation. The man claims that whereas men have invented numerous forms of sexual indulgence, women are responsible for abortion (Pliny, LXXXIII 172). The scholar quotes Hesiod who believed that women had a strong sexual desire in summer and men in winter (Pliny, LXXXIII 172).

The ancient author outlines his knowledge of genitals and mating behaviors of the following animals: elephants, camels, lions, rabbits, lynxes, and rhinoceros (Pliny, LXXXIII 173). He states that female seals, dogs, and wolves are mated against their will, which is evidenced by the movement of their heads during the process of copulation. In addition to cows, bears, hedgehogs, and cats among other animals, Pliny describes intercourse positions of lizards (Pliny, LXXXIII 173).

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Pliny the Elder is a Roman savant who is famous for the authorship of the first scientific encyclopedia—Natural History (Stannard, n.d.). The man was of noble descent, which allowed him to complete his studies in Rome. It is believed that Pliny studied law after serving in the military (Stannard, n.d.). During Nero’s reign, the ancient author served as a procurator in Spain and occupied miscellaneous official positions in Rome (Stannard, n.d.).

The man authored several texts the most important of which is Natural History. The treatise is comprised of 37 books on “the nature of things, that is, life” (Stannard, n.d., para. 5). The scholar’s comprehensive account of various creatures and their habitats influenced naturalists for more than a millennium after his death (Fleischner, 2005). In his works, St. Augustine referred to Pliny as “a man of great learning” (Asma, 2011, p. 33). Unlike his predecessors, Pliny painstakingly attributed authorship of borrowed ideas expressed in the treatise (Asma, 2011). Despite the introduction of authorship attribution in his writings, which was markedly missing in other texts of his time, the book was not remarkable in terms of credibility.

The book is a confluence of both verifiable, empirical data, and fiction. Regrettably, the author’s superstitious beliefs shaped the development of medicine and science in the following centuries (Knox & McKeow, 2013). The sage was not squeamish about introducing even the most unbelievable stories into his books. For example, Pliny provides an account of three hundred feet long eels habituating the Ganges River (Asma, 2011).

The gullibility of the author is also revealed in his description of a manticore, which is a mythical creature with “a triple row of teeth like a comb, the face and ears of a man, grey eyes, a blood-red color, and a lion’s body” (Asma, 2011, p. 33). The lack of a scientific perspective is evident in virtually all writings of the naturalist (Knox & McKeow, 2013). All leading natural scientists rejected the book as a credible source by the end of the 17th century (Stannard, n.d.). Therefore, one has to be keenly aware of the fact that antiquity records are not characterized by a high level of credibility.

When describing mating habits of birds and mammals, Pliny does not seem to be engaged. On the contrary, he discusses his knowledge and observation of the natural world with a measurable degree of boredom, which is not characteristic of his other writings. It can be argued that the author was interested more in human reproduction that of animals. It is evident by his value judgments on the subject. For example, in his discussion of sex, Pliny (LXXXIII 170) states that people are guilty of sexual depravities and “every out-of-the-way form of sexual indulgence.” Furthermore, the savant goes so far as to call abortion and sexual deviancy “crimes against nature” (Pliny, LXXXIII 170).


The section of Pliny’s book under discussion provides only one source of information—Hesiod (Pliny, LXXXIII 172). Hesiod was an ancient Greek poet whose fame was perpetuated by his extant works—Theogony and Works and Days (Solmsen, n.d.). Taking into consideration the fact that the authorship of information on people’s sexual preferences is provided by the poet, one can dispute the credibility of the source.

Pliny is extremely specific about the purported facts he presents in the book. When discussing the brooding habits of birds, he states that geese lay up to 40 eggs twice a year (Pliny, LXXIX 162). Modern egg production specialists, on the other hand, argue that geese lay 15 eggs on average (Ashton, 2015). It follows that the scholar is extremely inaccurate in his description of even the most mundane facts.

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The ancient savant maintains that hens sit on their eggs 30 days at a time and adds that goslings are vulnerable to “the touch of a nettle” (Pliny, LXXIX 162). However, it is another instance of unverified data being presented as a fact in the author’s text. Instead of being harmful to goslings, nettle is a source of nourishment for the birds (Ashton, 2015). It follows that the primary sources of information in Pliny’s writing are his beliefs and experiences, which were notoriously misleading.

One would be remiss not to mention that Piny was extremely effective in furthering a learned discussion on a wide range of topics (Stannard, n.d.). His methodical approach to assembling a large number of unrelated facts and topics has shaped the scientific inquiry of the following centuries (Stannard, n.d.). However, the ancient scholar was not familiar with the principles of the rational justification of empirical data. Therefore, he created a collection of miscellaneous facts the majority of which is universally recognized as absurd. One has to bear in mind, however, that the attempt to create the first encyclopedia is a deed deserving acclaim.


The paper has analyzed the section in Pliny’s most famous text—Natural History. The accuracy of the text has been critically discussed and verified with the help of modern credible sources. It has been argued that antiquity records, in general, and the Pliny’s text, in particular, are not characterized by a high level of trustworthiness.


Ashton, C. (2015). Keeping geese: Breeds and management. Ramsbury, England: Crowood.

Asma, S. (2011). On monsters: An unnatural history of our worst fears. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Fleischner, T. (2005). Natural history and the deep roots of resource management. Natural Resources Journal, 39(1), 1-12.

Knox, P., & McKeow, J. (2013). The Oxford anthology of Roman literature. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

MacNeil, H. (2000). Trusting records: Legal, historical and diplomatic perspectives. New York, NY: Springer.

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Pliny. (2005). Natural History. London, England: Penguin.

Solmsen, F. (n.d.). Hesiod. Web.

Stannard, J. (n.d.). Pliny the Elder. Web.

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StudyCorgi. 2021. "Pliny’s Natural History: Autopsy of Ancient Source." February 22, 2021.


StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Pliny’s Natural History: Autopsy of Ancient Source'. 22 February.

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