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Translation as Conquest: Mago, Mithridates, and the Origins of Roman Science in Pliny’s Natural History

Alexandra Schultz

Harvard University

Two curious anecdotes in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History describe the translation of foreign scientific works into Latin. According to Pliny, after Rome defeated Carthage in 146 BCE, the senate decreed that a 28-volume agricultural treatise by a Carthaginian writer named Mago be saved from the city’s libraries and translated into Latin (18.22–23). In the second anecdote, Pliny reports that the first Latin treatise on medicinal plants was in fact a translation of Mithridates’ medicinal writings, plundered by Pompey the Great after his victory and later translated into Latin (25.5–7). Scholars have interpreted these anecdotes as historical evidence for Carthaginian libraries and literature (Matthews 1972, Heurgon 1976, Baurain 1992, Greene and Kehoe 1995), Mithridates’ pharmacological research (Totelin 2004, Mayor 2009), and recently the emergence of Latin literature through translation as Rome conquered the Mediterranean (Erskine 2013, McElduff 2013, Feeney 2016).

In this paper I argue that Pliny is rewriting, rather than reproducing, Roman history by linking plundered libraries and Latin translations to major military conquests. Each story takes place at the moment when Rome finally defeated one of the greatest enemies she ever faced, and in both stories Roman generals plunder the enemy’s library and commission a Latin translation. Pliny’s content thus appears to stem from a narrative blueprint, in which translation functions as the symbolic conquest of foreign knowledge.

First, I compare Pliny’s anecdote about the Carthaginian writer Mago’s translation to what is known from other ancient sources. Although Greek and Latin translations of Mago’s treatise were popular in late Republican Rome, Pliny is the only ancient author who describes Mago as a “general” (dux) and links the Latin translation to the end of the Punic Wars. Rather than interpreting this story as historical evidence for the relationship between translation and power, I argue that Pliny reconfigured Roman history to illustrate the politics of knowledge: the fall of Carthage formed a potent backdrop for the translation of Carthaginian science into a Roman possession.

Next, I turn to the Latin translation of Mithridates’ medicinal tracts. A formidable and romantic figure in his lifetime, Mithridates was mythologized in first century CE Rome as a pharmacological genius. Nevertheless, Pliny uniquely describes Mithridates as the author of scientific treatises that were translated into Latin. Following Jones-Lewis 2012, I argue that the Latin translation of Mithridates’ work epitomizes Rome’s victory over Pontus, an exotic land of magic and poison, a kingdom that fell with its last great king.

At the end of this paper I situate these anecdotes within the broader concerns of Pliny’s Natural History. Building on recent studies of the relationship between imperialism and encyclopedism (e.g. Carey 2003, Murphy 2004, Beagon 2007, Riggsby 2007, Doody 2009, Laehn 2013), I conclude that Pliny rescripted the relationship between Rome and conquered peoples by inventing new histories of scientific literature. Rather than approaching the NH as a repository of data, we should interrogate how Pliny used his encyclopedic framework to unite the histories of science and conquest under the Roman empire.

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Natural History and Pliny's Natural History

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