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On comparing his extracts with such originals as we still have, and in particular with Aristotle, we find that he was by no means accustomed to select the parts that were most important or most correct. In general, he fixes upon the singular or marvellous; upon those circumstances which answer best for the contrasts which he is fond of making, or for the reproaches which he so often prefers against Providence. He certainly does not place the same confidence in all that he relates; but his doubts and affirmations are made at random, and the most childish stories are not those that most excite his incredulity. For example, there are none of the fables of the Grecian travellers, about headless and mouthless men, men with only one foot, or men with large ears, that he does not place in his seventh book, and with so much confidence in their truth, that he concludes his enumeration with this remark: Hæc atque talia ex hominum genere, ludibria sibi, nobis miracula, ingeniosa fecit natura: "See how nature is disposed for the nones to devise full wittily in this and such like pastimes to play with mankind, thereby not onely to make herselfe merrie, but to set us a wondering at such strange miracles." Any one may judge, from this credulity in respect to the absurd fables about the human species, of the little discernment which he must have exercised in selecting testimonies respecting exotic or little-known animals. Accordingly, the most fabulous creatures, manticores, with the head of a man and the tail of a scorpion, winged horses, catoblepas, the mere sight of which caused death, occupy[Pg 83] their station by the side of the elephant and lion. However, all is not false even in those articles which are most replete with falsehoods. We can sometimes come at the truths which have given rise to them, by recollecting that they are extracts from travellers, and supposing that the ignorance of the ancient tourists, and their love of the marvellous, betrayed them into the same exaggerations, and dictated the same vague and superficial descriptions, with which we are shocked in so many of their modern successors. It may likewise be said of Pliny, that he does not always give the true sense of the authors whom he translates, especially when treating of the designation of species. Although we have now very few means of judging with certainty respecting errors of this kind, it is easy to prove, that on several occasions he has substituted for the Greek word which denoted a particular animal in Aristotle, a Latin word which belongs to another species. It is true that one of the great difficulties experienced by the ancients was that of fixing a nomenclature; and the defects of their systems are more perceptible in Pliny than in any other writer. The descriptions, or rather the imperfect indications, which he gives, are almost always insufficient for recognising the species, when tradition has not preserved the names; and there is even a very great number, of which he mentions the names without joining to them any character, or affording any means by which they may be distinguished. Could there be any longer a doubt as to the advantages of the systems invented by the moderns, it would be dissipated by finding that all that the ancients have said of the virtues of their plants is lost to us, from[Pg 84] our not being able to distinguish the species to which they assigned them.—Were we to give credit to all that he says in the part of his work devoted to Materia Medica, there is not a disease incident to humanity for which nature has not provided twenty remedies; and unfortunately, during two centuries after the revival of letters, all these absurdities were confidently repeated by physicians. It must therefore be admitted, that with reference to facts the volume of Pliny is of no real interest, excepting in regard to the manners and customs of the ancients, the processes which they followed in the arts, and some particulars respecting geography, of which we should otherwise be ignorant.[F]
The Historia Naturalis was the last work which Pliny wrote, and is the only one that has come down to us. It is not a treatise on natural history, as that term is at present limited; but, besides relating all that he knew of animals, plants, and minerals, it embraces astronomy, geography, agriculture, commerce, medicine, and the arts; so that it may be considered as a cyclopædia rather than a publication on any particular subject. It is divided into thirty-seven books.
The first contains a dedication to the Emperor Titus Vespasian, together with a summary of the following sections, and the names of the authors who contributed to them.
In the second book, he treats of the universe, the elements, and the stars. The world and the heavens, which he says are God, are infinite, without beginning and without end; the form of the latter is spherical, the motion circular, and they are impressed with[Pg 85] innumerable forms of animals and other objects. The elements are four; namely, fire, air, earth, and water. There are seven planets, or wandering stars, in the midst of which moves the sun, the ruler of all things. As to God, if indeed there be any Existence distinct from the world, it were absurd, says he, to assign him any form or image, He being all in all; for which reason the gods that the nations worship are mere fancies. It is absurd to imagine that He should have regard to the human race, for by interfering with their affairs he would necessarily be polluted. Men, he observes, are wretchedly prone to superstition of all kinds; however, it is beneficial, he admits, to believe that the gods take care of them, and punish malefactors. The nature of the planets, the moon, eclipses, comets, lightning, winds, clouds, meteoric stones, land, water, earthquakes, and many other subjects, are discussed in this book.
The third, fourth, fifth, and sixth, treat of geography; and the seventh of the different races of men, monsters, great characters, human inventions, longevity, and other matters relating to the human race, disposed without order, and selected without discrimination.
The eighth book, which is devoted to land-animals, contains notices respecting the elephant, dragons, serpents, lions, panthers, tigers, the camel, the camelopard, the rhinoceros, and a multitude of other mammalia, and reptiles. As a specimen of our author's manner of discussing these subjects, we give his account of the wolf:—
It in commonly believed, says he, in Italy, that the sight of wolves is hurtful, and that when they see a man before he observes them, they cause him to lose[Pg 86] his voice for the time. Those which are produced in Africa and Egypt are small and sluggish; but in the colder climates they are fierce and cruel. That men are changed into wolves, and afterwards restored to their proper shape, we must either believe to be false, or else at once admit all those tales which have for so many ages been proved to be fabulous. But how this opinion came to be so firmly fixed, that when we would apply the most opprobrious term to one, we call him versipellis (or turn-skin), I shall shew. Euanthes, a respectable Greek writer, reports that he found among the records of the Arcadians, that a person is chosen by lot from the family of Anthus. Being led to a certain pool in that country, he relinquishes his clothes, which are hung up on an oak, swims over, proceeds into the deserts, is transformed into a wolf, and for nine years herds with the wild animals of that race. This period being completed, if he has refrained from eating human flesh, he returns to the same pool, and, recrossing it, is restored to his original form, only looking nine years older than before. Fabius adds, that he finds his clothes again. It is strange to see how far the credulity of the Greeks goes; for there is no lie so shameless that it does not find one of them to vouch for it. Thus, Agriopas, who wrote of the conquerors at the Olympic games, relates that Demœnetus of Parrhasia, at a sacrifice, ate of the entrails of a child that had been offered as a victim (for the Arcadians at that time offered human sacrifices to Lycean Jupiter), and turned himself into a wolf; and that the same person, ten years after, having been restored to his proper shape, fought at the Olympian games, and was proclaimed victor. Besides, it is commonly[Pg 87] believed that in the tail of this animal there is a minute hair possessing a power over love, and that the wolf casts it when he is taken; but that it has no efficacy unless it be plucked from him when alive. Wolves pair only during twelve days in the whole year. When famished, they eat earth. With respect to auguries, when one meets a wolf, and the latter turns to the right hand, especially if he have a full mouth, there could not be a better presage. There are some of this kind that are called stag-wolves, such as the one mentioned by us as having been seen in the circus of Pompey the Great. They say that this animal, however hungry he may be, should he happen to look back, forgets the food which he had, and goes to look for some elsewhere.