My history hero: Pliny the Elder (AD 23–79)

TV producer John Lloyd explains why he admires a Roman intellectual

Pliny the Elder depicted in a mid-12th century miniature, writing and giving his book to Roman emperor Vespasian. (Photo by Photo12/UIG/Getty Images)

Pliny (AD 23–79) was a Roman thinker and writer. After a career in the military, he held various official positions, such as procurator (government financial agent) of Spain. Most of his writings were lost in antiquity, but he is famous as the author of Natural History (Naturalis Historia). His work drew upon original Greek texts and was the first scientific encyclopaedia. It was for centuries an authority on topics ranging from astronomy to zoology and technology to drugs – until finally being superseded by empirical methods of scientific observation in the 17th century. Commander of the naval fleet in the Bay of Naples, Pliny died when Vesuvius erupted.

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When did you first hear about Pliny the Elder?

Pliny, or Gaius Plinius Secundus, was born in Como, one of my favourite places on earth. I first came across him during Latin O-level. At the time, he was just another triple-barrelled ancient Roman, probably stalking a gerund or something. It wasn’t until my mid-40s, when I began assembling the first A-Z QI database of interesting stuff, that I realised how much he mattered to me. For those who begin to wonder at the world, all roads lead back to Pliny and his brilliant but slightly mad Natural History – the world’s first encyclopaedia.

What kind of person was he?

Pliny was an enthusiast. He was interested in everything and driven by an incurable thirst to learn and to understand how the universe fitted together. He never stopped working. His nephew, Pliny the Younger, once spotted him sunbathing after a light lunch. But, even then, a servant was reading a book aloud to him so he could select extracts from it as he lay stretched out, apparently relaxing. No book was so bad, said Uncle Pliny, that it didn’t contain something worth recording. That’s very QI.

What made Pliny the Elder a hero?

Heroic is the only word to describe the Natural History. Its 37 books cover everything Pliny had ever read, seen or heard, from astronomy and zoology to religion and medicine. Pliny claimed that it contained at least 20,000 facts and cites 2,000 sources. As well as his masterpiece, he published 75 other books on history, grammar and military tactics and left 160 unpublished notebooks, all of which are, sadly, now lost.

What was Pliny’s finest hour?

Pliny’s death shows him at his very best – spurred on to bravery by curiosity and kindness – as he sailed to rescue friends who lived close under the erupting Vesuvius in AD 79. He saved his friends but was overcome by the fumes and died at the scene.

Is there anything about him you don’t particularly admire?

Although a wonderful writer, with an eye for the memorable detail, Pliny was far too credulous: he was a recorder, not a scientist. We used some of his marvellous medical prescriptions in a very early episode of QI. They are (unintentionally) hilarious – tying fox genitals to your forehead to cure a headache, or removing a piece of bread caught in your throat by putting another piece in your ear.

Can you see any parallels between Pliny’s life and your own?

Pliny always had a proper day job. As a successful colonial administrator (he ran Spain and Africa) and a naval commander (like my father), he had to do all his creative work outside office hours. As a TV commercials director during the 1990s, I did the same: reading insatiably and researching for the infant BBC TV show QI at night or at weekends.

If you could meet him what would you ask him?

That’s the wonderful thing about Pliny – you could ask him about anything and he’d have a view and (true or not) a fascinating fact. He once wrote that it was a sign of weakness to bother about the form of God. I’d probably press him a bit more about that. But I definitely wouldn’t ask him for a hangover cure.

John Lloyd, CBE is a writer and producer who created the BBC TV series QI. The book 1,411 QI Facts to Knock You Sideways by John Lloyd, John Mitchinson and James Harkin and the QI Elves is published by Faber

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This article was first published in the December 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine