Pliny the Elder, Natural History III.38-39

Praise of Italy.
Name of the author: 
Pliny the Elder
77 CE
1st CE
Literary genre: 
Title of work: 
Natural History

Naturalis Historia (Natural History) is an encyclopaedia composed of thirty-seven books reviewing all contemporary knowledge related to life, including animals, vegetables, minerals, lands, but also humans and their productions. It was dedicated by Pliny the Elder to Vespasian’s “co-regent” and designated successor, Titus. Pliny the Elder had followed an equestrian career path by fulfilling several procuratorships, leading the prefecture of the fleet at Misenum, and becoming a member of Vespasian and Titus’s concilium. Political and ideological themes or concerns outline this encyclopaedic work. For instance, Books III to VI are dedicated to the geography of the Known World, especially the area which has been subjected to the Roman peace. As Edward Bispham rightly recalls: “Pliny’s description of the world is inextricably linked with the progress of the Roman conquest, and his inventory of the lands and even the seas of the world is as much a monument to imperial power as an exercise in geographical synthesis.” Making lists or inventories of lands was thus a “corollary of conquest” and took part in “a strategy of control” (Bispham, “Pliny the Elder’s Italy,” p. 43). The whole work of the Natural History, and the text we present here in particular, have thus been interpreted as a product and a laudatory justification of Roman imperialism. In this perspective, many scholars have connected this praise of Italy and the whole Natural History with the Res Gestae. Actually, in the Res Gestae XXVI-XXXIII Augustus presents an inventory of all the regions of the world he submitted to prove that the conquest of the entire world finished with the settlement of the best political regime, the Principate. In Pliny’s work, the domination of Rome over the world is presented as a reciprocal phenomenon fully accepted by the submitted peoples. On the one hand, by establishing a universal peace, Rome ensured that many of the resources of the submitted regions were brought to Rome, a process which strengthened the centralising role of Rome in its Empire. On the other hand, the submitted regions are also presented as taking advantage of the situation because of the unifying and civilising character of Rome’s hegemony (Nicolet, Rendre à César, p. 275-276; quoted by Naas, Le Projet Encyclopédique, p. 422). This second point is largely developed in the text presented here, which is an excerpt from the beginning of Pliny’s presentation of Italy (III.38-138). More precisely, after having presented the main peoples of Italy and having given a global idea of the territory (§ 38), Pliny praises Italy. § 39 is the beginning of this eulogy and is the passage which is analysed here.

Pliny’s praise of Italy has been largely commented upon as a text exposing traditional themes of imperial ideology so as to justify Rome’s imperialism. A passage fitting in with this perspective may be one in which Pliny the Elder writes that Italy ensures its supremacy over the provinces because it has been “chosen by the divine will (numine deum)” (§ 39). In the text presented here, there is no explanation of
the reason for this divine support. However, slightly later, Pliny praises the temperate climate, the fertility, and the privileged and open geographic position of Italy (III.41). Then he quotes the exceptional nature of its “genius” (ingenia), its “customs” (ritus), and its “men” (viros), and reminds of “the nations that its languages and its might have conquered” (III.42). All these innate advantages of Italy could explain why it would have been chosen by the gods to spread its domination all over the world. It is important to remember that before Pliny, the Greek historian Strabo had already explained the success of Italy by its advantageous natural resources, but also by its geographical position, which made control of the Mediterranean area possible (Strabo, Geography VI, 4, 1). By referring to the fact that Italy is indebted to the gods for its natural advantages and supremacy, Pliny is also renewing a topos of Augustan ideology which represented the Roman Empire as the accomplishment of a divine will or providence which predestined Rome to conquer, to dominate and organise the whole world (see Nicolet, “L’Empire romain,” p. 163; quoted by Naas, Le Projet Encyclopédique, p. 425).

However, Myles Lavan has rightly noticed that Pliny’s representation of the Roman imperial project is not only a repertoire of commonplaces, but that it presents some interesting particularities (Lavan, Slaves to Rome, p. 207-208).
The first of these is that it is Italy and not Rome which embodies here the imperial power (Lavan, Slaves to Rome, p. 208). The second comes from the expression used by Pliny when he speaks about Italy terra omnium terrarum alumna eadem et parens; “a land which is both the nursling and the parent of all other lands.” The word alumna has been translated both by “nurse” or “nursling.” However, Pliny might have used the conjunction et to create a nuance of opposition between the two terms, meaning that alumna refers to “nursling” (see Lavan, Slaves to Rome, p. 208, n. 88). If such a translation is correct,the opposition between alumna and parens would fit in with the principle of reciprocity between centre and periphery, which, according to Pliny, is the basis of Rome’s relationships with all the peoples she has submitted (Lavan, Slaves to Rome, p. 208). Italy is compared with a nursling because all the resources from the provinces of its empire are brought to it, but it is also said to be the parens because it is the supreme authority which protects and rules all the provinces. By insisting upon the centralising aspect of the Roman imperial system and its dependence upon the periphery, Pliny’s praise of Italy appears thus quite atypical. It has to be noted that a poet from the fifth century, Rutilius Namatianus, uses an image which, in a way, could echo that of Pliny: “Let the world with his produce give nurture to his nurse” altricemque suam fertilis orbis alat (Rutilius Namatianus, On his Return I.145, mentioned in Rutilius Namatianus, On his Return I.43-92). Following Rutilius’s words in his exhortation to Rome, Rome was the nurse – in the sense of a benefactor –, but it becomes in its turn the nursling thanks to the participation of its provinces.
The other element of Pliny’s metaphor, namely the assimilation of Italy with a parens, seems to be a more common feature, but can be discussed further. In the concluding text of the Natural History, Pliny assimilates once more Italy with “the ruler and second parent of the world” (Italia rectrix parensque mundi altera; XXXVII.201). In this sentence, Italy appears along with Nature, which is here implicitly presented as the first parent, both as the guide (rectrix) and the parent (parens) of an Empire which has reached a universal, even cosmic, dimension (Naas, Le Projet Encyclopédique, p. 428-429). As Myles Lavan has recalled, Pliny is of course not the first one who associates this parental imagery with Italy. Before him,
authors such as Varro, Virgil, Propertius, Vitruvius or Denys of Halicarnassus had written various praises of Italy, and dealt more or less explicitly with its maternal nature. For instance, Virgil assimilates Italy with a “mighty mother of men,” namely of men who played an important role in Rome’s history (for the references see Lavan, Slaves to Rome, p. 208, n. 87; see in particular Virgil, Georgic II.172-173). However, the originality of Pliny the Elder is that he extends “the scope of Italy’s maternal care from her inhabitants to the empire at large” (Lavan, Slaves to Rome, p. 208). Actually, Roman rule over the provinces – with the exception of Italy and its peoples – was most often represented in textual accounts in terms of the relationships between masters and slaves, or sometimes between patrons and clients, rather than between parents and children (Lavan, Slaves to Rome, p. 205-206). Myles Lavan notes that in other passages of his Natural History, Pliny also represents the conditions of some provincials, such as the Jews, in “terms of enslavement” (Lavan, Slaves to Rome, p. 208). About the balsam tree (balsamum), embodying the inhabitants of Iudaea, Pliny writes: “It is now a slave, and it pays tribute together with the nation to which it belongs…” (Servit nunc haec ac tributa pendit cum sua gente…;Pliny the Elder, Natural History XII.112). Such language is not surprising, as Judea had been submitted a few years ago. Nevertheless, compared to other authors of the Republican period or of the High Empire, the originality of Pliny the Elder’s use of this “maternal language” is that it serves to assert the “privileged position of Italy within the broader empire,” a use which became widespread during Late Antiquity (for the quotations, see Lavan, Slaves to Rome, p. 207; for the most numerous references to Roma mater in Late Antiquity, see Lavan, Slaves to Rome, p. 208-209).

Moreover, in this passage Pliny also highlights the unifying nature of the Roman Empire, as he writes that Italy was chosen by the gods “to unite scattered empires.” Contrary to some historians who present the settlement of Rome’s world empire as being the last one in a succession of world empires which fought against each other to establish their hegemony on earth (see the theories of the five empires exposed by Aemilius Sura in Velleius Paterculus, The Roman History I.6; and by Trogus Pompeius in Justin, Epitome of the Philippic Histories of Pompeius Trogus XLI.1.1-9), Pliny gives the impression that the conquest of the world by Rome was a peaceful, natural, nearly consensual process. Considering this theme of geographical unification with the other elements given by Pliny in the rest of the sentence – elements which are supposed to prove that the settlement of Rome’s domination led also to some kind of ‘civilising process’ from the point of view of the civility or of the culture (see below) –, it is obvious that Pliny’s aim is to defend the idea that imperial Rome was made to gather peoples together and to achieve some kind of synthesis of the world.

After having mentioned that thanks to the will of the gods Italy had gathered all the scattered empires in the world, leading thus to the conclusion that Italy became the head of an uncontested empire and ruled over a coherent spatial area, Pliny goes further in the characterisation of the diffusion of Roman domination. He states that Italy is “… chosen by the divine will (...) to soothe customs, to bring together into dialogue, by the use of a common language, the discordant and wild tongues of so many peoples, to bring civilisation (humanitas) to man; in a word, to become the single fatherland of all peoples throughout the whole world.” The particularity of Pliny’s presentation of the spread of Rome’s influence is that he chose not to focus on the political or legal effects of this phenomenon, but to highlight the linguistic and civilising effects.

The first positive effect listed by Pliny is relative to the fact that Rome is said to “soothe customs” (rituusque molliret). The encyclopaedist refers here to the fact that for what concerns the traditions, customs, and way of life (in Latin ritus, mores, cultus), Rome’s influence has a positive effect, as it is supposed to bring civility (in Latin civilitas, urbanitas) to barbarians (Inglebert, Histoire de la civilisation romaine, p. 20-21). This reference to customs shows that Pliny may have deliberately wanted to dissociate this reference to civility from the last element of his enumeration, namely that Italy has been “… chosen by the divine will (...) to bring humanitas to man.” The word humanitas has been commonly understoodas referring to the idea of civilisation (civilisation in the sense of a superior degree of development in the economic, political, ethical, and/or cultural fields). By analysing the evolution of the meaning of the concept of humanitas, Valérie Naas recalls that during the Republican period, the humanitas included both the notion of
φιλανθρωπία (benevolence) and παιδεία (general culture). However, its meaning becamemore exclusive under the imperial period onwards, as it did not refer to the cultural aspect (παιδεία) anymore. For her, Pliny the Elder was the only author of this period who used the word humanitas to refer to a civilising process composed of a clear cultural dimension (Naas, Le Projet Encyclopédique, p. 29-31; for another similar use of humanitas in this work, see Natural History XIII.68).

The second element of Pliny’s enumeration, the linguistic motif, serves his general thesis according to which the spread of Rome’s influence will led eventually to the unification of the whole world: “… [Italy has been] chosen by the divine will (...) to bring together into dialogue, by the use of a common language, the discordant and wild tongues of so many peoples.” First it has to be recalled that, if the Romans understood their civilisation through Greek cultural concepts, they adapted them to the specificities of their model. Among the specificities of the “Roman civilisation” we can identify: the preponderance of law, the specificities of the Roman religio (especially the justification of Rome’s domination by the superior pietas of the Romans), the use of Latin both as the official language of the Roman power used in legal and administrative frameworks and a language of culture, and, probably most importantly, the specificities of the Roman citizenship, which for a Greek, was so particular because of its fundamental unequal nature (Inglebert, Histoire de la civilisation romaine, p. 22-26). However, by saying that Rome will unite the whole world by imposing one common language, Pliny’s description seems to be a bit exaggerated. Actually, Rome had progressively brought its new common language in Western regions only, leaving Greek as the main official and cultural language in the East. Despise this shortcut, there is a real coherence in Pliny’s argumentation, as the use of a “common language,” namely Latin, is of course an indispensable means to uniting peoples – or at least their elites – by facilitating their communication. This also brings “civilisation,” in the Roman conception of the term, because Latin was an unavoidable element of participation in Roman civic institutions and urban life. If Polybius concluded that Rome unified the world because it succeeded in dominating it on political and military levels, Strabo pursued this reasoning by saying that Rome implemented its unification of the world by civilising it; this could be by promoting the creation of cities and the use of a common
language. It is however probable that Strabo did not approve that such a process concerned Greek cities; and he may thus speak about Rome’s civilising action in Western regions. The most famous excerpt of Strabo’s Geography dealing with this process is probably his reference to the Spanish tribe of the Turdetanians: “The Turdetanians, however, and particularly those that live about the Baetis, have completely changed over to the Roman mode of life, not even remembering their own language any more. And most of them have become Latins, and they have received Romans as colonists, so that they are not far from being all Romans” (Strabo, Geography III.2.15). In his praise of Italy, by highlighting the linguistic criteria and connecting it with the unifying and civilising imperatives of Italy, Pliny fits perfectly with Strabo’s perspective – even.
Moreover, it has to be recalled that Pliny the Elder was not the only author of the Flavian period dealing with the plurilingualism existing in the imperium. In 80 or 81 CE, for the inauguration of the Flavian amphitheatre, Martial composed an epigram in which he describes the cosmopolitan audience, gathering peoples from very remote regions of theoikoumenè, who came to Rome to attend the event. This audience embodies the fact that Rome had become a kind of miniature earth. The most interesting part of the epigram is in Martial’s last sentence: Vox diversa sonat populorum, tum tamen una est, cum verus patriae diceris esse pater: “The speech of the peoples sounds different, and yet it is one when you are acclaimed as the true father of the fatherland” (Martial, Liber Spectaculorum III.11-12). Like Pliny the Elder, Martial presents this audience of foreigners as being originally clearly polyglot, and the fact that they speak as one while they acclaim the emperor as pater patriae, “father of the fatherland,” echoes one point further developed by Pliny, namely that under the influence of Rome, multilingualism disappears. However, one major difference between the approaches of Pliny and Martial must be noted. Whereas in Martial the foreign peoples come to Rome so as to celebrate the emperor, in Pliny’s text it seems that it is Rome which takes the initiative to institute the use of this “common language.” The argument that the establishment of Rome’s domination over the Earth led to some kind of linguistic standardisation, and contributed to strengthening the pax Romana by suppressing the conflicting motivations of plurilinguistic peoples, is also developed later by Augustine. However, the position of the Christian bishop is slightly different than that of Pliny, as for him, if the imposition of Latin put an end to the conflicts between peoples which did not speak the same language, it should not be forgotten than the imposition of the Roman language itself was the result of conquests, and thus of numerous bloody wars (Augustine, The City of God XIX.7; passage mentioned in Ando, Imperial Ideology, p. 53-54).

To conclude, this text which has been often interpreted as exposing traditional themes of imperial ideology so as to justify Rome’s imperialism, presents some interesting particularities. The images symbolizing the dependence between Italy – the centre of the Empire – and the peripheries, and the maternal care of Italy-Rome towards the other territories are significant. Moreover, the most interesting feature may be the way Pliny depicts Rome’s unifying and civilising role so as to justify its policy of conquests. However, as Hervé Inglebert remarks, Pliny’s reference to the fact that Italy had been chosen by the gods to give humanitas to all men fits in well with a Hellenistic use and understanding of the concept of civilisation, such as we find, for instance, in Strabo (Inglebert, Histoire de la civilisation romaine, p. 22). Actually, the unifying nature of the Roman civilisation is here essentially defined through Greek cultural or ethical concepts, even if Latin has replaced Greek. There is no explicit reference to legal criteria, such as the spread of Roman citizenship or the diffusion of Roman law, which were yet so essential in the definition of the “Roman civilisation.” Pliny’s perspective in his praise of Italy is thus largely different from that of the Aeneid where Virgil writes: “Remember, O Roman, to rule the nations with your sway—these shall be your arts—to crown Peace with Law, to spare the humbled, and to tame in war the proud!”; Virgil, Aeneid VI.851-853). Domination by arms and by the law were not the criteria that Pliny chose to highlight in his praise of Italy. Influenced by Greek conceptions, he develops the theme according to which Italy would seek to unify the peoples of the oikoumenē by “civilising” them.

Bibliographical references: 

“Pliny the Elder’s Italy”

Bispham, Edwardarticle-in-a-bookVita Vigilia Est. Essays in Honour of Barbara Levick Edward Bispham, Greg Rome , Elaine Matthews41-67“Pliny the Elder’s Italy”LondonInstitute of Classical Studies2007
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