The anecdote illustrates the wide fame which the Roman naturalist achieved in his own day. And the records of the Middle Ages show that this popularity did not abate in succeeding times. Indeed, the Natural History of Pliny is one of the comparatively few bulky writings of antiquity that the efforts of copyists have preserved to us almost entire. It is, indeed, a remarkable work and eminently typical of its time; but its author was an industrious compiler, not a creative genius. As a monument of industry it has seldom been equalled, and in this regard it seems the more remarkable inasmuch as Pliny was a practical man of affairs who occupied most of his life as a soldier fighting the battles of the empire. He compiled his book in the leisure hours stolen from sleep, often writing by the light of the camp-fire. Yet he cites or quotes from about four thousand works, most of which are known to us only by his references. Doubtless Pliny added much through his own observations. We know how keen was his desire to investigate, since he lost his life through attempting to approach the crater of Vesuvius on the occasion of that memorable eruption which buried the cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii.

Doubtless the wandering life of the soldier had given Pliny abundant opportunity for personal observation in his favorite fields of botany and zoology. But the records of his own observations are so intermingled with knowledge drawn from books that it is difficult to distinguish the one from the other. Nor does this greatly matter, for whether as closet-student or field-naturalist, Pliny's trait of mind is essentially that of the compiler. He was no philosophical thinker, no generalizer, no path-maker in science. He lived at the close of a great progressive epoch of thought; in one of those static periods when numberless observers piled up an immense mass of details which might advantageously be sorted into a kind of encyclopaedia. Such an encyclopaedia is the so-called Natural History of Pliny. It is a vast jumble of more or less uncritical statements regarding almost every field of contemporary knowledge. The descriptions of animals and plants predominate, but the work as a whole would have been immensely improved had the compiler shown a more critical spirit. As it is, he seems rather disposed to quote any interesting citation that he comes across in his omnivorous readings, shielding himself behind an equivocal "it is said," or "so and so alleges." A single illustration will suffice to show what manner of thing is thought worthy of repetition.

"It is asserted," he says, "that if the fish called a sea-star is smeared with the fox's blood and then nailed to the upper lintel of the door, or to the door itself, with a copper nail, no noxious spell will be able to obtain admittance, or, at all events, be productive of any ill effects."

It is easily comprehensible that a work fortified with such practical details as this should have gained wide popularity. Doubtless the natural histories of our own day would find readier sale were they to pander to various superstitions not altogether different from that here suggested. The man, for example, who believes that to have a black cat cross his path is a lucky omen would naturally find himself attracted by a book which took account of this and similar important details of natural history. Perhaps, therefore, it was its inclusion of absurdities, quite as much as its legitimate value, that gave vogue to the celebrated work of Pliny. But be that as it may, the most famous scientist of Rome must be remembered as a popular writer rather than as an experimental worker. In the history of the promulgation of scientific knowledge his work is important; in the history of scientific principles it may virtually be disregarded.


Almost the same thing may be said of Ptolemy, an even more celebrated writer, who was born not very long after the death of Pliny. The exact dates of Ptolemy's life are not known, but his recorded observations extend to the year 151 A.D. He was a working astronomer, and he made at least one original discovery of some significance—namely, the observation of a hitherto unrecorded irregularity of the moon's motion, which came to be spoken of as the moon's evection. This consists of periodical aberrations from the moon's regular motion in its orbit, which, as we now know, are due to the gravitation pull of the sun, but which remained unexplained until the time of Newton. Ptolemy also made original observations as to the motions of the planets. He is, therefore, entitled to a respectable place as an observing astronomer; but his chief fame rests on his writings.

His great works have to do with geography and astronomy. In the former field he makes an advance upon Strabo, citing the latitude of no fewer than five thousand places. In the field of astronomy, his great service was to have made known to the world the labors of Hipparchus. Ptolemy has been accused of taking the star-chart of his great predecessor without due credit, and indeed it seems difficult to clear him of this charge. Yet it is at least open to doubt whether be intended any impropriety, inasmuch as be all along is sedulous in his references to his predecessor. Indeed, his work might almost be called an exposition of the astronomical doctrines of Hipparchus. No one pretends that Ptolemy is to be compared with the Rhodesian observer as an original investigator, but as a popular expounder his superiority is evidenced in the fact that the writings of Ptolemy became practically the sole astronomical text-book of the Middle Ages both in the East and in the West, while the writings of Hipparchus were allowed to perish.