Natural History: A Selection

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Pliny the Elder has some interesting observations about the world in first century AD. This is a simplified version of his work, and I bopped around to various sections finding bits of interest instead of reading cover to cover.

Re: wine in Book XIV. Here we find proof that wine was combined with water.

  • Homer states that Maronean wine was mixed with water in the proportion of 1:20 (Iliad, XI 639 and Odyssey, X, 235).
  • Mucianus discovered on a recent visit to Thrace that it is the practice to mix this wine with water in the proportion of 1:8, and that it is dark in colour, has a bouquet, and improves with age.

Women were not allowed to drink wine; a husband was acquitted of murdering his wife for drinking from a large jar of wine. Overindulging in wine leads to all sorts of trouble, like telling the truth (in vino veritas).

There’s a whole section on hangovers: “Even in the most favorable circumstances, the intoxicated never see the sunrise and so shorten their lives. This is the reason for pale faces, hanging jowls, sore eyes and trembling hands that spill the contents of full vessels; this the reason for swift retribution consisting of horrendous nightmares and for restless lust and pleasure in excess. The morning after, the breath reeks of the wine-jar and everything is forgotten – the memory is dead. This is what people call ‘enjoying life;’ but while other men daily lose their yesterdays, these people also lose their tomorrows.”

Book XX is about drugs obtained from the garden. He suggests that onions provide a cure for poor vision through tears caused by their smell; “even more effective is the application of some onion-juice to the eyes.” Hmm, no thanks. The praises of cabbage are sung briefly. There are several other sections on medicines made from plants and trees, magic, incantations, benefits of sex and asses’ milk. Oysters “are extremely good for bad colds.”