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Pliny the Elder

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.

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Back in the 1st Century AD, Pliny the Elder correctly identified that Amber was made from the fossilised resin of pine trees.


Pliny the Elder thought nothing was more intensely green than Emerald, and correctly identified it as part of the Beryl family.