Gaius Plinius Secundus, known as Pliny the Elder to differentiate him from his nephew Pliny the Younger (62–113) [q.v.], was born in Como, Italy, and moved to Rome in his youth. He served as a military commander in Germany and was Procurator in Hispania Tarraconensis, but largely avoided politics. A scholar of considerable note, he wrote numerous works in a variety of fields, including rhetoric, history, biology, natural science, and military science. Only the Natural History remains extant. The 37 books of this work form an encyclopedia of human biology and natural science, including extensive accounts of herbal medicines.
In the year 79, Vesuvius erupted. Pliny, who was at the time commander of the fleet at Misenum on the Bay of Naples, was eager to observe the volcano at close range and attempt a rescue of people in the towns beneath the volcano; he died of exposure to poison gas while trying to do so, having collapsed and been left by his companions.
The first portion of this text presents Pliny’s well-known remark that some things are not possible for God, not even suicide, “the supreme boon that [God] has bestowed on man among all the penalties of life. . . .” This remark is often quoted out of context, an acerbic analysis of claims made about divinities, but has nevertheless intrigued many later authors, including David Hume [q.v.]. The second portion of this text provides Pliny’s account of a lethal herbal substance, probably opium or hemlock, which he argues is preferable to other means of suicide—self-starvation, jumping from a height, self-hanging, self-asphyxiation, self-drowning, and self-stabbing. What is significant here is Pliny’s apparent distinction between violent and nonviolent means of suicide and his embrace of the latter for those who are “weary of life.” This selection from Natural History also continues with his observations about the degree of pain associated with specific illnesses, in which cases sufferers sometimes seek suicide.
Pliny, The Natural History of Pliny, Book II, ch. 5, “Of God,” ch. 63, “Nature of the Earth”; Book 25, ch. 7, “What Diseases are Attended with the Greatest Pain.” John Bostock and H. T. Riley, eds. and trs., London: Taylor and Francis, 1855, available online from Perseus Digital Library at Tufts University.
from NATURAL HISTORY
I consider it, therefore, an indication of human weakness to inquire into the figure and form of God. For whatever God be, if there be any other God , and wherever he exists, he is all sense, all sight, all hearing, all life, all mind , and all within himself. To believe that there are a number of Gods, derived from the virtues and vices of man, as Chastity, Concord, Understanding, Hope, Honour, Clemency, and Fidelity; or, according to the opinion of Democritus, that there are only two, Punishment and Reward , indicates still greater folly. Human nature, weak and frail as it is, mindful of its own infirmity, has made these divisions, so that every one might have recourse to that which he supposed himself to stand more particularly in need of. Hence we find different names employed by different nations; the inferior deities are arranged in classes, and diseases and plagues are deified, in consequence of our anxious wish to propitiate them. It was from this cause that a temple was dedicated to Fever, at the public expense, on the Palatine Hill, and to Orbona , near the Temple of the Lares, and that an altar was elected to Good Fortune on the Esquiline. Hence we may understand how it comes to pass that there is a greater population of the Celestials than of human beings, since each individual makes a separate God for himself, adopting his own Juno and his own Genius. And there are nations who make Gods of certain animals, and even certain obscene things, which are not to be spoken of, swearing by stinking meats and such like. To suppose that marriages are contracted between the Gods, and that, during so long a period, there should have been no issue from them, that some of them should be old and always grey- headed and others young and like children, some of a dark complexion, winged, lame, produced from eggs, living and dying on alternate days, is sufficiently puerile and foolish. But it is the height of impudence to imagine, that adultery takes place between them, that they have contests and quarrels, and that there are Gods of theft and of various crimes. To assist man is to be a God; this is the path to eternal glory. This is the path which the Roman nobles formerly pursued, and this is the path which is now pursued by the greatest ruler of our age, Vespasian Augustus, he who has come to the relief of an exhausted empire, as well as by his sons. This was the ancient mode of remunerating those who deserved it, to regard them as Gods. For the names of all the Gods, as well as of the stars that I have mentioned above, have been derived from their services to mankind. And with respect to Jupiter and Mercury, and the rest of the celestial nomenclature, who does not admit that they have reference to certain natural phenomena? But it is ridiculous to suppose, that the great head of all things, whatever it be, pays any regard to human affairs. Can we believe, or rather can there be any doubt, that it is not polluted by such a disagreeable and complicated office?
Nature of the Earth
Next comes the earth, on which alone of all parts of nature we have bestowed the name that implies maternal veneration. It is appropriated to man as the heavens are to God. She receives us at our birth, nourishes us when born, and ever afterwards supports us; lastly, embracing us in her bosom when we are rejected by the rest of nature, she then covers us with especial tenderness; rendered sacred to us, inasmuch as she renders us sacred, bearing our monuments and titles, continuing our names, and extending our memory, in opposition to the shortness of life. In our anger we imprecate her on those who are now no more, as if we were ignorant that she is the only being who can never be angry with man. The water passes into showers, is concreted into hail, swells into rivers, is precipitated in torrents; the air is condensed into clouds, rages in squalls; but the earth, kind, mild, and indulgent as she is, and always ministering to the wants of mortals, how many things do we compel her to produce spontaneously! What odours and flowers, nutritive juices, forms and colours! With what good faith does she render back all that has been entrusted to her! It is the vital spirit which must bear the blame of producing noxious animals; for the earth is constrained to receive the seeds of them, and to support them when they are produced. The fault lies in the evil nature which generates them. The earth will no longer harbour a serpent after it has attacked any one, and thus she even demands punishment in the name of those who are indifferent about it themselves. She pours forth a profusion of medicinal plants, and is always producing something for the use of man. We may even suppose, that it is out of compassion to us that she has ordained certain substances to be poisonous, in order that when we are weary of life, hunger, a mode of death the most foreign to the kind disposition of the earth, might not consume us by a slow decay, that precipices might not lacerate our mangled bodies, that the unseemly punishment of the halter may not torture us, by stopping the breath of one who seeks his own destruction, or that we may not seek our death in the ocean, and become food for our graves, or that our bodies may not be gashed by steel. On this account it is that nature has produced a substance which is very easily taken, and by which life is extinguished, the body remaining undefiled and retaining all its blood, and only causing a degree of thirst. And when it is destroyed by this means, neither bird nor beast will touch the body, but he who has perished by his own hands is reserved for the earth.
What Diseases are Attended with the Greatest Pain
It would seem almost an act of folly to attempt to determine which of these diseases is attended with the most excruciating pain, seeing that everyone is of the opinion that the malady with which for the moment he himself is afflicted, is the most excruciating and insupportable. The general experience, however, of the present age has come to the conclusion, that the most agonizing torments are those attendant upon strangury, resulting from calculi in the bladder; next to them, those arising from maladies of the stomach; and in the third place, those caused by pains and affections of the head; for it is more generally in these cases, we find, and not in others, that patients are tempted to commit suicide.
For my own part, I am surprised that the Greek authors have gone so far as to give a description of noxious plants even; in using which term, I wish it to be understood that I do not mean the poisonous plants merely; for such is our tenure of life that death is often a port of refuge to even the best of men. We meet too, with one case of a somewhat similar nature, where M. Varro speaks of Servius Clodius, a member of the Equestrian order, being so dreadfully tormented with gout, that he had his legs rubbed all over with poisons, the result of which was, that from that time forward all sensation, equally with all pain, was deadened in those parts of his body. But what excuse, I say, can there be for making the world acquainted with plants, the only result of the use of which is to derange the intellect, to produce abortion, and to cause numerous other effects equally pernicious? So far as I am concerned, I shall describe neither abortives nor philtres, bearing in mind, as I do, that Lucullus, that most celebrated general, died of the effects of a philtre. Nor shall I speak of other ill-omened devices of magic, unless it be to give warning against them, or to expose them, for I most emphatically condemn all faith and belief in them. It will suffice for me, and I shall have abundantly done my duty, if I point out those plants which were made for the benefit of mankind, and the properties of which have been discovered in the lapse of time.