Gaius Plinius Secundus was born 23AD in Northern Italy, at Novum Comum (later simply renamed Como), which is located 28 miles north of Milan; today he is known as Pliny the Elder.
Born to a wealthy family, he was the son of a Roman equestrian. His father took him to Rome in 35AD where he was educated, served in the military and later studied botany. His scientific curiosity was overwhelming and his writings documented many subjects throughout his life. During his time in the Roman navy he must have travelled considerably as he documents gold mining in Britain, as well as the continents of Africa and Asia.
Pliny the Elder wrote many books, and as a keen student of philosophy and rhetoric he began practising as an advocate. His book “Natural History” (Naturalis Historia) is a phenomenal work which covers subjects such as astronomy, zoology, botany, medical drugs and mineralogy. The book is an encyclopaedia of ancient knowledge which originally filled 37 volumes, and has been used for centuries by countless scholars.
Pliny documented many minerals used by the Romans for personal adornment and for ornamental use too. He lists Rock Crystal, Amber, Diamonds, Emeralds, Beryls and Sapphires among many other gemstones.
Although born to a wealthy family, as part of the equestrian rank they tended to frown upon lavishness and luxury; in his Natural History he states, “Next among items of luxury comes Amber, although as yet it is exclusively an adornment for women. Not even luxury has been able to invent a reason for its use.” That said, he correctly identified Amber as the fossilised resin of pine trees. Another of Pliny’s obsessions was with fraud and forgery, where he stated that “other gems can be made from other stones, indeed there is no more lucrative fraud against society”.
Pliny opens his writings on gemstones with, “The only topic that remains that I set out to cover is that of precious stones. Therein Nature reaches its utmost concentration and in no department does she arouse more wonder. So much store do men set by the variety, colour, texture and elegance of gems that they consider it criminal to tamper with precious stones by engraving them as signets. Some they consider beyond price on any human scale of valuation. Consequently, for very many people a single precious stone can provide a matchless and perfect view of Nature”.
It is astonishing that even in the first century AD, Pliny accurately detailed the crystal structure of a Diamond and discussed how non gem-quality could be used for industry. When referring to Emerald he recorded that, “no colour is more delightful in appearance. For although we enjoy looking at plants and leaves, we regard Emeralds with all the more pleasure because compared with them there is nothing that is more intensely green”. Although not a believer in myths, Pliny did go on to say, “And after straining our eyes by looking at another object, we can restore our vision to normal by gazing at an Emerald”. He also correctly identified Emeralds as part of the Beryl family.
The Natural History also reveals to us the personality and character of Pliny the Elder which complements what has been learnt from the letters of his nephew, Pliny the Younger. Pliny the Younger reveals how Pliny the Elder’s scientific curiosity led to his death at Pompeii. On August 24, 79AD he was in charge of a Roman fleet at Misenum. Having witnessed the eruption of Vesuvius, he had a desire to observe the phenomenon directly, and also to rescue some of his friends from the Bay of Naples. Having lingered too long studying and observing the volcanic eruption he was engulfed by ash and poisonous gases and was found dead on the 26th August after the plume had dispersed. The account of Pliny the Elder’s last hours were documented by Pliny the Younger and were sent in a letter to Tacitus 27 years after the event.
Interestingly, Pliny is still remembered in volcanology where the term Plinian refers to a very violent eruption of a volcano.