Nature through Roman eyes

In Pliny’s time, the Roman Empire was massive; it knew many different climates, each with its own unique fauna and flora.

Nature through Roman Eyes in the Manchester Museum explores how the Roman author Pliny explored nature in his book The Natural History.

Fish bowl


Pliny the Elder

In Pliny’s time, the Roman Empire was massive; stretching from Britain in the North to Sudan and the Sahara in the South and from Spain and Morocco in the west to Syria and Iraq in the East. Rome’s political power stretched further than it’s “frontiers” and its trade routes stretched further still to sub Saharan African, India and China, Russia and Scandinavia. As a result the Roman Empire knew many different climates, each with its own unique fauna and flora.

Although the product of the elite Roman education system Pliny the Elder was a life long learner and, you could say, autodidact. His nephew Pliny the Younger said that his uncle was followed around by a slave who would to him from texts. Pliny the Elder presented himself as living a simple life and complained against Rome’s increasingly indulgent excesses.

Pliny wrote the Natural History which covers all knowledge (not just natural history). It comprises 37 books. His encyclopaedia was “a mixture of folklore, amazing facts and entertaining stories”. Pliny claimed to have consulted 2000 sources and accumulated 20,000 facts. It feels like he didn’t discriminate between facts and so old wives tails jostle with scholarship.

Yet Pliny did observe nature. He is possibly most famous today for organising the relief of Pompeii and heading to the town to witness at close hand the eruption of Vesuvius. He died in the attempt. His nephew Pliny the Younger wrote a moving account of his uncle’s death and the eruption in a letter to the historian Tacitus.

Although the recipient of many of the trappings of Roman power and able to live in luxury (which includes leisure and education, the time to read and write), he complained about luxury. Chapters in The Natural History contain information on how natural resources were or could be used and interesting stories about them. For example, he writes how Roman soldiers were ordered to gather goose feathers for senior commanders in Germany. A most unroman act.

It was this that concerned Pliny about luxury. It weakened Rome. Pliny complained about the trade deficit which saw gold leaving the Roman Empire and being returned in luxury goods like silk, which become increasingly ubiquitous. His view of Roman indolence inspired later writers like Gibbon.

The problem with luxury is of course that what is defined as luxury always shifts . The Romans experienced this too. Tigers were originally rare beasts, too expensive to be slaughtered. By the later Roman Empire several had been killed in shows. Rome continually expanded its trade network for more and more goods.


Pliny Attenborough or Pliny Froude?

The exhibition walks a strange line. It presents Pliny as an activist concerned with environmentalism and at one point likens him to David Attenborough. Can we really say this about Pliny? His focus on nature does two things. It focuses on the useful and the good  He was also a colonialist and saw the world through “Roman Eyes”. Rather than David Attenborough, Pliny could be likened to a liberal high Victorian apologist of empire such as JA Froude. To this extent, the Manchester Museum is the perfect setting for the show. To be fair, the exhibition does state Pliny’s interest in the colonial project but it never quite examines how this impacted his understanding of the world and his book.

An antidote to this problem could be found by contrasting him with other authors. Herodotus is the most obvious author. In many ways similar to Pliny in outlook and approach, there is still enough difference between the two to begin to understand what being Roman meant to Pliny. Another interesting ancient author is of course Aelian. His mystical books on animals betray an orientalising gaze to India and Egypt which would be a good contrast to Pliny.

The most obvious solution to this conflict between Pliny as enlightened author and Pliny as colonialist slave owner would be to have the Other speak back. Rome used nature and imagery of nature to portray other nations and Rome’s power over them. For example, Ebony wood was carried in a Triumph by Pompey and Roman coins often use nature.

Judaea Capta issued by Roman Emperor Vespasian depicting two slaves chained to a palm tree (a symbol of the east).

Yet how did these conquered nations use animals? If you want to find out, I would suggest looking at some Greco-Roman Egyptian figurines. Isis-Thermouthis is the perfect anecdote. In Roman Egypt she was a powerful goddess with powers over fate. She was worshipped by Greek speaking members of the elite, but was little known outside of Egypt. Numerous figurines of Egyptian gods as Roman senior officials have also been found in Egypt. Ultimately ‘nature’ was a politicised concept in the Roman world but one that needs nuance to understand.

Review of UX

The exhibition combines the museum’s ancient and natural history collections. For example, a display on perfume places plant specimens next to a Hawara portrait. It is aimed at all ages. This includes the elder generation who will enjoy the Bill Tidy cartoons and the youngsters who have space to run around and shout at the top of their lungs.

One issue I was slightly disappointed at was the angle of the lights. The show contains a lot of small finely detailed items, that  it was hard to look at.  Additionally the captions did not always include dates or provenance. Nevertheless it is an excellent show and well worth a visit.

I would also recommend visiting the Egyptian galleries and taking in the Shabti art of Zahed Taj-eddin and the display of a lifejacket found on the Greek Island of Lesbos.


By Rhakotis Magazine

Classic beyond the classics