Painting is a perishable art. Pigment fades and flakes with the centuries; and the passage of millennia leaves us nothing of painting but dust and memories. From antiquity have survived statues, tombs, mosaics, some murals here and there, artifacts of all kinds, and the sublime monuments of architecture; but of the great Greek and Roman painters, we have no original works.Continue reading
Of all the cereal grains I like barley the most. It has a smooth consistency and a nourishing quality that one does not find in other grains, such as rice or oats. One reads of its ubiquity in ancient Rome, when it was a true food staple, and found its way into the bowls of gladiators, soldiers, scholars, scribes, and aristocrats. It could be pounded into a porridge, baked into a bread, and fermented; added to soups or stews, it acted as a fortifying agent.
Pliny’s Natural History (XXV.47) contains a passage that discusses hellebore, a medicinal plant that in ancient times was used to treat insanity. One variety of hellebore, he says, is called melampodion, a name acquired from a shepherd named Melampus, who noticed that the plant had a purgative effect on his female goats (capras purgari pasto illo animadvertentem) once they had eaten it. This milk, we are told, cured “the daughters of Proetus of madness.” Pliny even describes a detailed ritual supposedly used to collect the plant. But who were the daughters of Proetus? What story is being referenced?
Pliny the Younger described in one of his letters a story noted both for its sadness and its revelatory quality on a characteristic of human nature. The letter was written to the poet Caninius Rufus (IX.33), and in it Pliny recounts extraordinary interactions between a boy and a dolphin. I am not quite sure whether the word “friendship” would be appropriate in this context, but one could say that the relations between the two looked very much like this.Continue reading
In a letter to Titinius Capito, the Roman official and career lawyer Pliny discusses the idea of writing a book of history. Of particular concern to him was the choice of topic: he was uncertain whether he should treat an ancient or a modern subject. Valid arguments existed for both options. An older subject might allow for a more considered perspective, far removed from the passions of immediate memory; whereas the treatment of a current subject might inflame unreasonable emotions in his readers. Pliny has serious doubts about choosing a subject that might be within the living memory of his readers. He summarizes his feelings with this sentence:
The phenomenon known as St. Elmo’s Fire has always fascinated man. To witness it is an unsettling experience, to which I can personally testify. Aboard a military ship in 1992 traveling from Okinawa to Pohang, South Korea, it appeared for a brief period of time in the superstructure of the ship. And then it was gone.