Patrick J. Burns

Research Associate at Harvard Human Evolutionary Biology | Formerly Quantitative Criticism Lab, ISAW Library | Fordham PhD, Classics | CLTK contributor

Review of P.L. Chambers’s The Natural Histories of Pliny the Elder

Book review for Classical Outlook 89.2


Latin students eager to move from textbooks to literature are adequately supplied with readers from the canonical authors. Increasingly, however, we are seeing books designed to stretch the canon a bit. P. L. Chambers pursued this strategy with The Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius (Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 2009), and here she offers another alternative with The Natural Histories of Pliny the Elder, a reader which presents 25 excerpts from Pliny’s encyclopedia. The topics are well chosen, and Chambers supplements the material with an ample review of grammar. The book is a good option for instructors looking to broaden their students’ exposure to Latin literature in an upper-level reading course.

Chambers writes that she selected passages that are “entertaining, enlightening, and revealing of Roman thought, character, philosophy, and prejudice” (ix). She succeeds here: we get choice excerpts which demonstrate Pliny’s range and cover geography, zoology, precious metals and gems, art, magic, and Roman social history among other topics. With this something-for-everyone approach, a teacher could easily pick and choose readings based on his or her own needs. Some of my favorites included “Cases of and Roman Respect for Intellectual Eminence,” “Pearls; Cleopatra’s Pearls and Her Wager with Antony,” and “Wolves and Werewolves.” [469 more words in complete review available here.]

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