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Surpassing Giants: Human Labor as Spectacle in Pliny’s Natural History

Molly M Schaub

University of Pennsylvania

In the Natural History, it is clear that, in addition to his passion for inquiry and documentation of nature, Pliny the Elder has a moralizing program. He distinguishes between the acceptable use of nature’s bounty and the excessive exploitation of her resources for luxury. In fact, he places nature and luxury in direct opposition: “paria nunc componuntur et natura atque luxuria depugnant” (“now the match is arranged, and nature and luxury fight it out” NH 21.46). Nevertheless, between natura, the subject of Pliny’s fascination, and luxuria, the conspicuous consumption in Rome that he criticizes, there is the actual undertaking of extracting these resources and the often overlooked human agents – the workmen who did the difficult and dangerous labor to supply theses luxuries. The bulk of Pliny’s Natural History, in fact, is concerned with describing the exploitation, processing, and use of nature’s resources by man, and it is, therefore, worth asking whether his moralizing program can extend to these descriptions of human labor when he himself is so fascinated by them.

In order to discern where human laborers fit in Pliny’s agenda, this paper will reexamine one of the most famous passages on human labor in antiquity, Pliny’s description of the gold mines in Spain. This passage has traditionally been mined, so to speak, for its rich description of the technology used in ancient mining practices (Lewis and Jones 1970, Edmondson 1989, and more recently Ruiz del Árbol Moro et al. 2014). It is, nevertheless, deeply entrenched in Pliny’s moral program. Pliny criticizes aristocratic Romans explicitly for their gold adornments, and the unnaturalness of this luxuria is emphasized by the violence of the process of its extraction. At odds with this moralizing perspective is that Pliny characterizes the work of the miners as something wonderous to behold – a work that surpasses the mythic giants – and as a spectacle – a gladiator fight pitting man against nature, in which the miner emerges from danger as the victor.

To make sense of this, this paper will compare other references in the Natural History to mining and quarrying, both processes that Pliny considers a violation of nature, in order to show that workmen play a valuable role in Pliny’s Natural History as a source of information. They do this in two ways. First, nature’s true character can be more fully assessed through observing the labor-intensive processes of mining, even (and especially) if they are destructive. Secondly, Pliny’s citation of the workers as a source of knowledge lends a credibility to his account that his more scholarly sources lack – firsthand experience. Pliny may condemn the extraction of precious resources in order to critique the culture of luxury at Rome, but he cannot hide his fascination with the knowledge that can only come from the process of exploitation, the most spectacular interaction between man and nature.

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Natural History and Pliny's Natural History

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