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Encyclopedia vs. volcano

The eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which destroyed the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, also killed the famous author of one of the earliest encyclopedias.

The encyclopedia is a form of writing close to my heart – it’s made with the generalist in mind, you might say. The modern encyclopedia didn’t kick off until the 18th century, but collections of systematically organised knowledge have been around for a long time.

Many of the earliest reference works blur the boundaries between encyclopedia, dictionary, glossary, anthology, and thesaurus: see, for example, Erya, written in China about 2300 years ago – and the Babylonian text Urra=Hubullu – written maybe 2000 years earlier. The Roman writer Marcus Terentius Varro put together a work called The Nine Books of Disciplines in the first century BCE that organised knowledge into (surprise surprise) nine categories:

  • grammar
  • rhetoric
  • logic
  • arithmetic
  • geometry
  • astronomy
  • musical theory
  • medicine
  • architecture

(I wonder if I should add an architecture category to this blog?)

This work is now lost, as is almost all of Varro’s work, but it influenced a much more famous proto-encyclopedia: the Naturalis Historia by Pliny the Elder. To Varro’s nine categories, this encyclopedia added zoology, agriculture, geography, and many more. It still survives today, and is one of the longest works of the Roman Empire to do so.

The work is notable for many reasons: it’s long; it’s systematic; it cites its sources (my old university lecturers would be so pleased!); and it’s thorough (there’s a whole chapter on whether insects breathe and have blood). Pliny the Elder wrote the whole thing, driven by his relentless curiosity and scholarship.

And it was Pliny’s curiosity that was his undoing. In 79 CE, he was a commander in the Roman navy stationed in the Gulf of Naples, and observed a large umbrella-like cloud rising from Mount Vesuvius. It was, of course, erupting. He drew close, and discovered that friends of his (including a senator) were stranded on the shore.

Pliny the Elder proclaimed “fortune favours the bold!”, jumped into a small boat, and set off to rescue them. The winds were blowing hard towards shore, so he got there in plenty of time. Just one problem: the winds prevented the boat from leaving. Trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea, they did what any good Romans would, and had a bit of a party. They hoped that the winds would improve by morning.

The winds did improve, and the company was about to set off, but Pliny the Elder would not – could not – move. Historians are divided over why this might be the case: poisonous gasses from the eruption? Asthma? A heart attack? Whatever the cause, he remained behind and was buried under pumice. His nephew (Pliny the Younger) had the encyclopedia published, and the rest is history.

Categories: Ancient history Arts & recreation Earth & sky Education Europe History Literature Places Sciences

The Generalist

I live in Auckland, New Zealand, and am curious about most things.

2 replies

  1. I got very confused about how Varro’s work in the first century CE influenced Pliny if he died in 79CE. I guess Varro should have been first century BC?

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