UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Summa absolutaque naturae rerum contemplatio : a close study of Pliny the Elder's Naturalis Historia 37 Brown, Emily Claire


The focus of modern scholarship on Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia tends towards two primary goals: the placement of the work and the author within the cultural context of late 1st century CE Rome and, secondly, the acknowledgement of the purposeful and designed nature of Pliny’s text. Following this trend, the purpose of this study is to approach Book 37, in which Pliny lists and categorizes the gems of the world, as a deliberatly structure text that is informed by its cultural context. The methodology for this project involved careful readings of the book, with special attention paid to the patterns hidden under the surface of Pliny’s occasionally convoluted prose; particular interest was paid to structural patterns and linguistic choices that reveal hierarchies. Of particular concern were several areas that appealed to the most prominent areas of concern in the book: the structure and form of the book; the colour terminology by which Pliny himself categorizes the gems; the identification of gems as objects of mirabilia and luxuria; and the identification of gems as objects of magia and medicina. These topics are all iterations of the basic question of whether gems represent to Pliny positive growth on the part of the Roman Empire, or detrimental decline. The results show the text is deliberately written and structured according to a contradictory narrative that defines gems as both beneficial and detrimental, agents of cure and contamination, expressions of expansion and decline. Pliny’s final purpose in Book 37, then, is to acknowledge gems as the embodiment of diuina Natura and to describe their usefulness to humankind, while simultaneously cautioning the Roman audience against the corruption and destructive power of the outside world.

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