The Natural History of Pliny

November 1, 2020

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Distributed Proofreaders is very proud to have completed all six volumes of a 19th-Century English translation of The Natural History of Pliny.

Pliny the Elder (23/24-79 CE) was, if one may use the expression of an ancient Roman, quite a Renaissance man. Born in Northern Italy, he came from a family of “equestrians” – an upper-crust social rank just under the Senators. His father took him to Rome to be educated in the law. Pliny instead joined the Roman army as a junior officer. He took a keen interest in literature and hobnobbed with other officers with similar interests, enabling him to rise through the ranks and, later, to assume high-ranking positions in government. In quiet times between military campaigns in Germany, he wrote some histories, now lost. He eventually retired from the army and became a practicing lawyer, studying, writing, and generally lying low during the dangerous reign of the insane emperor Nero.

After Nero committed suicide, Vespasian – an equestrian like Pliny – came to power in 69 CE. Pliny’s star was now in the ascendant. He was appointed procurator (or governor) of various imperial provinces in what are now Africa, Spain, and Belgium. These posts gave him numerous opportunities to observe the natural world in what were then exotic places.

Pliny’s observations formed the basis for his magnum opus and only surviving work, Naturalis Historia (Natural History). One of the largest works to survive from ancient Rome, it is comprised of 37 books in 10 volumes. Pliny published the first 10 books in 77 CE. In 79 CE, Mount Vesuvius erupted, destroying Pompeii and Herculaneum. During the disaster, Pliny, who was then commander of the Roman naval fleet at nearby Misenum, received a plea for help from a friend at Stabiae, across the bay. Shrugging off warnings of danger, he is said to have declared, “Fortune favours the brave.” He made it to Stabiae, but died there. His nephew and namesake, Pliny the Younger, inherited his uncle’s estate and published the remainder of the Natural History.

The Natural History is a sweeping work that attempts to gather in one place all knowledge of the natural world. It served as a model for the modern encyclopaedia, and, though it is not arranged in entries like a modern encyclopaedia, it does cite to sources and contains a comprehensive index. Its far-ranging coverage includes sciences such as astronomy, mathematics, geography, anthropology, physiology, zoology, botany, pharmacology, and mineralogy; practical pursuits such as agriculture, horticulture, and mining; and the visual arts of painting and sculpture.

The six-volume version that Distributed Proofreaders put together for Project Gutenberg is a complete English translation by physician John Bostock (who had died by the time of publication) and translator H.T. Riley, published between 1855 and 1857. As promised by the title page, it contains “copious notes and illustrations.” Each volume contains literally thousands of footnotes. Some of those footnotes seem overly critical of Pliny’s efforts at times, and may not themselves be accurate in light of modern knowledge, but there is no doubt that the translators put in a huge amount of sincere scholarship and labour in annotating the work.

A number of Distributed Proofreaders volunteers also put in a huge amount of labour on these volumes. The first to enter the preparation process was Volume 5, which was physically scanned from a hard copy by a volunteer in 2005. Later, the remaining volumes were harvested from The Internet Archive by Turgut Dincer, who took over managing the project. In addition to the many proofreaders and formatters who worked on this challenging endeavour, two resident experts helped with the ancient Greek passages, and one of them, Stephen Rowland, smooth-read all six volumes (i.e., read them as if for pleasure and noted any errors) before post-processor Brian Wilcox stitched each one together into a final e-book. The last volume was posted to Project Gutenberg in July 2020.

While working on the project, Brian experienced a couple of odd dizzy spells. Was it the 20,832 footnotes…? No, it was the need for coronary artery bypass surgery, which soon had Brian back to post-processing as good as new. That is why his cardiac surgeon, Mr. Franco Sogliani, is mentioned in the credits to Volume 6.

This post was contributed by Distributed Proofreaders volunteers Brian Wilcox (who post-processed all six volumes of The Natural History of Pliny) and Linda Cantoni.


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