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Empire and Invention: The Elder Pliny’s Heurematography (NH 7.191-215)

Marco Romani Mistretta

Harvard University

Devoted to the human species, book 7 of Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia is concluded by a catalog of inventions and inventors. In keeping with Pliny’s encyclopedic ambition (cf. Naas 2002; Doody 2009), the list aims at completeness and reliability, constituting a repository of the ‘extreme’ achievements performed by humanity in any given field. No wonder that Italo Calvino (1982:xii) compared Pliny’s seventh book to the Guinness Book of World Records. Yet the literary and intellectual-historical importance of Pliny’s heurematography has, to date, rarely been appreciated for its own merits. Although Plinian specialists have subjected NH7 to careful scrutiny of the sources or taken it as a springboard for studying Pliny’s relationship with ancient science and material culture (cf. Citroni Marchetti 1991; Healy 1999; Fögen 2013), the heurematographic finale of the book still awaits full scholarly treatment. I argue that, despite the seemingly disorganic character of the list of inventions, structure and order can be detected in Pliny’s heurematography, and that such an order allows Pliny’s enumeration to become a teleological narrative.

Bracketing the issue of Pliny’s sources and the question of whether he ‘believed in his own myths’ (Naas 2008), this paper is the first English-language analysis of NH7.191-215 qua heurematographic literature. At a macrostructural level, Pliny’s catalog is divided into four uneven parts: a) divine inventions (191); b) writing (192-193); c) artisanal crafts and other cornerstones of human civilization (194-209); d) inventions universally adopted throughout the Greco-Roman world (210-215). At a closer look, the lengthy c) section can be further subdivided into fairly well-delimited subgroups of crafts and crafted objects: for example, metallurgy (197-198), ballistic devices (201), and divination (203). The transitions between different subsections are often significant in their own right: at 199-200, for instance, the juxtaposition of agriculture with the art of government suggests that the invention of the latter was triggered by the emergence of sedentary, farming communities. Thus, Pliny’s heurematography appears to be governed by an inner structural logic.

In examining this inner logic, I highlight the main tensions with which it grapples. As I argue, the list of inventions carefully alternates between polar opposites, such as inventions contributing to war vs. inventions fostering peace, or typically employed in a conflict-free context (cf. the section on trading vessels and warships at 206-209). Quite strikingly, Pliny also alternates between Greek and non-Greek inventors (cf. 199-200), and does not mention any Roman primi inventores, attributing most discoveries to Greek and Near-Eastern culture-bringers. His catalog, however, ends with a parade of the first Roman users of universally available technologies. Such technologies, particularly writing and time-keeping devices, are crucial to the empire’s administration. Romans are ‘latecomers’ (212): yet, precisely in its ‘Roman’ section, the catalog seems to overcome ethnical oppositions in favor of a totalizing, ‘anthropological’ approach. While inventiveness is shown to be part of human nature, Rome’s empire comes to coincide with humankind itself.

Pliny’s practice of ‘domesticating’ foreign inventions certainly mirrors the Greek heurematographic tradition of appropriating Oriental discoveries, which played a major role in the power struggles between cities and kingdoms from the Hellenistic age onwards (Thraede 1962; Kleingünther 19762; Vasunia 2001). Yet I show that, far from being merely a tralatician legacy of his sources, Pliny’s ‘domesticating’ strategy is functional to a teleological narrative construing the catalog of inventions as a monument to Rome’s imperial ambition. By adopting and appropriating an all-encompassing range of Greek and Near-Eastern discoveries —Pliny suggests—, the Romans have surpassed their predecessors in the arts of both war and peace, finally globalizing the known world through a shared technological and cultural platform. Rather than a “postscript” or “afterthought” (Beagon 2005:416), I argue, Pliny’s heurematography is entirely functional to the political framework informing the encyclopedic project of the Natural History. In conclusion, by exploring the spatial and temporal boundaries of human inventiveness, Pliny grounds the authority of Roman imperial civilization and that of his own totalizing endeavor at once.

Session/Panel Title

Use and Power of Rhetoric

Session/Paper Number

50.5

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