Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus) was born in 23 BC. He came from a wealthy Roman family and had a career in the army as well as filling various legal and public office positions. He found time, though, to research and write a number of books but the only one of these to survive is his Natural History, an encyclopedia which comprises 37 books, and which was published in 77AD, two years before he allegedly died from ash fumes near Mt Vesuvius. To write his History, Pliny trawled through previous writings on history and nature, particularly Greek works, and he listed numerous works as references. As well, he drew on his own observations of travels around the Roman Empire and his interactions with people from other cultures. There are many inaccuracies in the National History and a lot of it draws upon hearsay and local myths but it does provide a picture of 1st century Roman life and the current state of natural and scientific knowledge at the time he was writing. Natural History remained a key educational and scientific resource for almost 1300 years, until new scientific discoveries meant that criticisms of it began to be published.

Roman gold ring with deer agate intaglio

Pliny wrote on an extraordinary range of topics. Book 37 deals with gemstones. Its structure is a bit complex as he organises gemstones into different categories and rankings, some of which overlap. He starts by talking about rings worn by mythical and actual male historical figures, including signet rings with intaglios.

Then, in Part 9, he writes about some less valuable gemstones. One such gem is rock crystal which he states ‘is hardened by excessively intense freezing. At any rate, it is found only in places where the winter snows freeze most thoroughly’. He describes places where it has been located and states: ‘The inevitable conclusion is that rock-crystal is formed of moisture from the sky falling as pure snow’. He includes as support for this conclusion the fact that the name ‘crystal’ comes from the Greek for cold or ice ‘krystallos’.

Roman intaglio in rock crystal

Then Pliny moves on to amber where he states that he is going to expose the falsehoods of the Greeks.  He refers to Phaethon who is killed by a thunderbolt. His sisters die as a result of their grief and are transformed into poplar trees. They shed tears of amber known as ‘electrum’ on the banks of the River Eridanus (the River Po to Romans) and these tears are carried down the river. Pliny talks about other misguided Greek views on the origins of amber, including one by Demostratus who claimed that amber was formed from the urine of wild beasts called lynxes and one by Pytheas that amber was carried by sarubassea currents and was an excretion consisting of solidified brine. Nicias claimed that amber was moisture from the sun’s rays. Asarubas said that amber came from the mud of Lake Cephis and, being heated by the sun’s rays, rose to the surface where it floated, while Sophocles claimed amber was tears shed by large birds.

Amber bead with tiny insect

Pliny sets the record straight by stating that amber is ‘formed of a liquid seeping from the interior of a species of pine’ located in islands in Germany. It is hardened by frost or by falling into the sea. He also explained that we know it is liquid exudation because of ‘the presence of certain objects, such as ants, gnats, and lizards, that are visible inside it. These must certainly have stuck to the fresh sap and have remained trapped inside it as it hardened’.

His next sections in the book focus on more valuable gemstones, organized according to the preferences of men and of women, then organized by colour, alphabetically, source of names and so on. I will discuss them next week. I won’t go through every grouping in detail but do want to identify which gemstones were well known to the Romans and which ones were correctly identified at that time.