by BD Mitchell
One hundred facts that are interesting but ultimately useless.
Pliny the Elder
- history / literature -
Gaius Plinius Secundus (a.k.a. "Pliny the Elder") was a Roman philosopher and naturalist most famous for his authorship of the world's oldest surviving encyclopedia, the Naturalis Historia. Pliny's family was a wealthy one, which afforded him a varied and thorough education. During a reasonably successful military career -- during which he met and was befriended by two future Roman emperors, Vespasian and Titus -- Pliny wrote books on many subjects.
The Historia was first completed in 77 AD, when Pliny was stationed as a naval commander in the port city of Misenum. Consisting of thirty-seven books, Pliny's encyclopedia included a wide array of subjects -- including astronomy, geography, physiology, biology, medicine, mineralogy, and more -- as well as extensive source citations and even personal editorial opinions. Pliny would continue to revise and amend his Historia for the remainder of his lifetime.
In 79 AD, across the bay from Pliny's post at Misenum, the volcano Vesuvius erupted. Pliny prepared a fast ship -- at first with the intention of observing the phenomenon. When the disaster quickly worsened, Pliny the Elder launched his entire fleet to evacuate civilians fleeing the eruption. While the rescue mission was successful to a degree, Pliny died during the effort, succumbing to a combination of toxic fumes and complications from his poor health.
Pliny the Elder was survived by his nephew -- Pliny the Younger, who witnessed the Vesuvius disaster from Misenum and provided the only first-hand written accounts -- and by his many scholarly writings. The Naturalis Historia in particular became greatly influential on the methods and formats of later encyclopediae.