Lives of Eminent Zoologists, from Aristotle to Linnus

Page 19 of 79

Bees, silkworms, spiders, scorpions, locusts, grashoppers and a few other animals of a similar nature, are briefly treated of in the eleventh book, which, moreover, contains an anatomical description of the human body, and of various parts of animals, not[Pg 98] remarkable for its accuracy, but not the less interesting to the historian of science. The greater part is derived from Aristotle.

Then follow seventeen books on plants, their cultivation and uses in domestic economy and the arts, and the remedies that are obtained from them. These subjects form the most extensive portion of Pliny's writings, but they are discussed in so irregular and injudicious a manner, that it is impossible, in most cases, to determine the species of which he speaks; and as to the cures alleged to be accomplished by means of herbs, it is obvious that no confidence can be placed in his details. The culture of many of the more important species, such as the vine, the mulberry, the olive, wheat, and other cereal plants, is described at length; as are the processes of making bread, wine, olive-oil, and other substances obtained from vegetables.

The twenty-eighth book treats of dietetics, remedies derived from various animals, and the nature and cure of certain diseases. These subjects are continued to the end of the thirty-second book, and give occasion to the discussion of numerous topics, such as water, magic, medicine, &c.

The metals are considered in the two next books; colours and painting in the thirty-fifth; stones and minerals are mingled in the thirty-sixth with obelisks, temples, and statues; and the last book contains an account of precious stones, the descriptions of some of which, amber and beryl, for example, are as good as those of many of our modern mineralogists.

It is not our object to present a detailed account of the contents of any of these books, it being sufficient[Pg 99] for our purpose to indicate the general nature of the work, and to point out a few of the subjects discussed. It affords a magazine of curious information on most subjects connected with natural history and the arts; but it is obvious that this information could not be useful to the student unless he were furnished with a correct commentary. Pliny's volumes have been translated into various modern languages, and there is an English version by Dr Philemon Holland, published at London in 1601. This performance, although generally accurate, fails in the nomenclature of the plants and animals; so that a good translation is a desideratum at the present day, which, however, is not likely to be soon supplied,—an extensive acquaintance with Greek and Roman literature, and a critical knowledge of the various branches of natural history, being essentially requisite in him who should undertake it.

Although Pliny cannot be depended upon as a naturalist, his writings are important as a source of pure Latinity. His style is generally simple, sometimes harsh, usually laconic, although when he enters upon philosophical reflections it becomes animated, energetic, and copious. His morality is more pure than we could have expected, considering his doubts respecting the existence of a Deity, his disbelief in the immortality of the human soul, and the absence of those motives by which mankind are commonly influenced. He never ceases to censure vice of every kind; and as to the examples of cruelty, luxury, and effeminacy, which he has occasion to relate, his remarks are not less accordant with reason than with the soundest principles of Christian ethics.

The first editions of Pliny appeared at Venice in[Pg 100] 1469, and at Rome in 1470. The most useful and convenient is that of Franzius, in ten volumes 8vo, published at Leipsic in 1791.

From what has been said above it will appear, that down to the time of Pliny naturalists had not succeeded in forming any system of zoology. In the writings of that author, the animals of which he treats are so disposed, that the absence of all arrangement is very obvious; nor is it even possible to guess upon what principle he makes the species succeed each other. In his chapter on land-animals, he places the elephant first; and as mice come last, we might imagine that he had intended to proceed on the principle of size. The bison, the wild-horse, the elk, the bonasus, the lion, the panther, the tiger, the camel, and the camelopard, of which the first individual seen at Rome was exhibited by Julius Cæsar at the Circensian games, follow in order. Then come the rhinoceros, the lynx, apes and monkeys, wolves, serpents, the ichneumon, the crocodile, the skink, the hippopotamus, first shown at Rome by Marcus Scaurus, lizards, tortoises, hyenas, frogs and seals, deer, porcupines, bears, marmots, squirrels, vipers, snails, dogs, horses, asses, and mules, and the other principal domestic animals. His arrangement of birds is equally unsystematic. The fabulous phœnix occupies the first rank, and is followed by eagles, hawks, birds of evil omen, as ravens and owls, woodpeckers, peacocks, the domestic fowl, geese, cranes, swans, thrushes, doves, the ibis, the nightingale, and the kingfisher. With these are mingled various heterogeneous elements. The same may be said of all the other departments. Were the knowledge of animals which we[Pg 101] possess at the present day not regularly methodized, it would be utterly impossible for an individual to distinguish half the number of mammalia and birds, which are among the least extensive classes. The first inventor of a system, however imperfect, has therefore the strongest claims upon our gratitude. Aristotle may be said to have laid the foundation for one, or at least to have made an attempt; Ray was the first who sketched a rude classification, in which he partly adopted that of the Stagirite: it is to Linnæus, however, that we owe a system, which is at least methodical and perspicuous; and if succeeding zoologists have produced more perfect arrangements, they can only be said to have improved upon his.


[E] Buffon, Histoire Naturelle, tome i. p. 54, edit. 1785.

[F] See Life of Pliny, by Cuvier, in the Biographie Universelle, tome xxxv. p. 70.

[Pg 102]


Zoologists of the Sixteenth Century.

Conrad Gesner—Account of his Life and Writings, preceded by Remarks on those of Ælian, Oppian, Albertus Magnus, Paolo Giovio, and Hieronymus Bock—Pierre Belon—Hippolito Salviani—Guillaume Rondelet—Ulysses Aldrovandi—General Remarks on their Writings, and the State of Science at the Close of the Sixteenth Century.


From the time of Pliny to the commencement of the sixteenth century, zoology, like the other sciences, made little progress. The only naturalists during the earlier portion of this interval at all deserving of notice are Ælian and Oppian. The former was born at Præneste in the year 160, and wrote in Greek a History of Animals, which, like that of the philosopher of Comum, is disfigured by numerous errors and fables. The latter was a poet, a native of Cilicia, who lived under the Emperor Caracalla in the beginning of the third century. Two only of his productions are now extant, his Halieuticon and Cynægeticon; the one containing five books on fishing, the other, four on hunting. These works are still occasionally consulted, though they afford little useful information, and might without any loss to science be consigned to oblivion.[Pg 103]

Free Learning Resources