You are here

An finitus sit mundus et an unus: Reading Pliny’s Lists of Nature

Stephanie Frampton

The Trophy at La Turbie stands with a panoptic view across the Ligurian coast and the southern Alps. As a marker of Augustus’s triumph over the local tribes, set up in the wake of his campaigns of 25-9 BC, it is a powerful reminder even today of the vastness of Rome’s influence. The trophy makes this claim not only in its disposition, set high on an outcropping above the local port, “legible” in the round by land and sea, but also in the text it presented to the contemporary “reader,” a monumental inscription facing anyone approaching Rome along the newly-laid via Julia Augusta.

The inscription was known from Pliny the Elder (HN 3.136-7, cf. CIL V.7817) long before the text was restored in situ by Formigé after his excavations of the 1940’s. The 1955 restoration, like Mommsen’s speculative 1877 edition, was possible largely on the authority of Pliny’s testimony. Nevertheless, comparison of the two texts reveals several variants between literary and epigraphic versions, confirming a reader’s natural suspicion that Pliny copied this text—like many others—not from the monument itself, but from one of his “auctores.” Still, its most distinctive feature in either format is the list of gentes Alpinae omnes, the names of forty-five tribes—many of them otherwise unknown—subjected to Roman imperium by Augustus, a relationship literalized by the textual mise en place, which places the giant letters of the dedication (up to 36 cm. tall) above the smaller text naming those gentes (as few as 18 cm.).

This paper reads Pliny’s encyclopedism in the HN through the logic of this inscription, with its mutual claims to hierarchy and completeness. In thinking about the transmedial relationship between the epigraphic and literary versions of the text, I focus not on the differences between them, as much recent scholarship has done, but on their structural similarities, a mode of analysis already suggested by Carey and others, who read the HN as a totalizing map and monument of empire. Where the HN codifies Rome’s conquest of the orbis terrarum by listing all that is known and knowable about its peoples, places, and things, the Tropaeum inscription celebrates Augustus’s earlier victory over a corner of that territory by naming all of the tribes conquered there. As an object lesson, the text reveals the fractal-like structure of the HN that resembles itself at every level from the general to the particular. Moreover, as lists that both make claims to comprehensiveness and take as their object the obscure and unfamiliar (cf. HN praef. 13-14), both Pliny and the Tropaeum have been difficult to restore independently. Paradoxically, in their density of unknown information, these lists demonstrate the superfluity of accurate reading and rather the importance of their symbolic force as lists.

Even more, I suggest, it is impossible fully to appreciate the self-similar structure of the HN in the absence of Pliny’s “table of contents” (Bk 1), itself one of our most important surviving literary lists, offered as a tool allowing the reader of the HN, paradoxically, not to read the text (praef. 33). As a list that interprets a large set of unruly information, the book-length index participates in the synecdochal relationship with its contents, hierarchically guaranteeing the completeness of imperial knowledge and standing for the encyclopedia itself. Yet, unlike the catalogue of Borges’s Library of Babel, the preface and the table of contents are not listed among the contents of Book 1. The final section of the paper turns to the notion of completeness and unity suggested by my title—the first entry in Pliny’s list of contents—asking to what extent their absence from the total list implies that these paraliterary materials are meant, in fact, to be read or unread.

 
Session/Panel Title:

The List as Genre

Session/Paper Number

6.2

Share This Page

© 2019, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy