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Wormwood as a Programmatic Device in Pliny the Elder and Lucretius

Nathaniel Fleury Solley (University of Pennsylvania)

In this paper I argue that Pliny creates a dialog with Lucretius’ poetry through allusion to his programmatic wormwood simile. Significant similarities between Pliny the Elder’s Historia Naturalis and Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura have been recognized (Wallace-Hadrill, 1990; Conte, 1994), and both writers shape their style to mirror their concept of nature (Carey, 2003). However, it has not been supposed that Pliny actively engaged with the work of Lucretius. I suggest that Pliny’s discussion of wormwood and other medicinal medicinal plants showcases the difference of his encyclopedic project from Lucretius’ philosophic endeavor of the previous century. Through this passage Pliny asserts his understanding of nature as an abundance of resources drawn from all corners of the world. Whereas philosophy acts as an agent of conquest in Lucretius’ writing (Taylor, 2020), for Pliny the Roman Empire fills this role, supplying the fruits of nature along with the knowledge of their uses.

Lucretius famously describes his poetry through a comparison to the sweet honey that doctors use to trick children into drinking bitter wormwood (DRN 1.933-950). This imagery shows that the measure of the work’s success lies in its reader’s ingestion of the philosophy of nature set forth. It suggests that the workings of nature are capable of being swallowed, and thus internalized. Pliny, on the other hand, makes no demand that his reader internalize the knowledge contained in the Historia Naturalis, instead organizing the massive work around a table of contents to spare his reader from reading and digesting each book (HN Preface 33). For Pliny, nature is too vast to be neatly contained; it is its very abundance that elicits wonder.

Pliny’s own discussion of wormwood (HN 27.45-53) touches on several of the distinguishing features of Lucretius’ simile, yet the many uses he attributes to wormwood undermine the ostensibly simple remedy Lucretius offers. Pliny’s initial remarks that there are several types of wormwood which are very easily found goes against Lucretius’ conviction that he is introducing a new and unique medicine to the Roman world, imported from the Greek work of Epicurus. Pliny instead emphasizes wormwood’s deep Italian roots and its role within traditional Roman religion, the very institution Lucretius seeks to discredit. Moreover, Pliny complicates Lucretius’ simile by providing detail about the effects of wormwood and its combination with various substances, including honey. Though Pliny mentions honey several times in the passage, he conspicuously avoids recommending it to mask the flavor of the wormwood, instead emphasizing its various other uses. Pliny’s preferred method of administering wormwood to a child is inside a fig.

For Pliny, wormwood represents just one of the myriad plants with beneficial properties for humans; in order to harness the power of nature, one must have recourse to the accumulated knowledge of the full variety of its expressions and uses. Through allusion to Lucretius’ simile, Pliny subverts Lucretius’ implicit claim that wormwood acts as a panacea, offering mastery over life through the internalization of nature’s hidden structure.

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Flavian Literature and its Readers

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