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Pliny the Elder
Relevant Non-Istrians
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Pliny's Natural History, Book 3
(C. Plinii Secundi Naturalis Historiæ, Liber III)

Editions and translations: English (ed. John Bostock, M.D., F.R.S., H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A.) | Latin (ed. Karl Friedrich Theodor Mayhoff)



Thus far have I treated of the position and the wonders of the earth, of the waters, the stars, and the proportion of the universe and its dimensions. I shall now proceed to describe its individual parts; although indeed we may with reason look upon the task as of an infinite nature, and one not to be rashly commenced upon without incurring censure. And yet, on the other hand, there is nothing which ought less to require an apology, if it is only considered how far from surprising it is that a mere mortal cannot be acquainted with everything. I shall therefore not follow any single author, but shall employ, in relation to each subject, such writers as I shall look upon as most worthy of credit. For, indeed, it is the characteristic of nearly all of them, that they display the greatest care and accuracy in the description of the countries in which they respectively flourished; so that by doing this, I shall neither have to blame nor contradict any one.

The names of the different places will here be simply given, and as briefly as possible; the account of their celebrity, and the events which have given rise thereto, being deferred to a more appropriate occasion; for it must be remembered that I am here speaking of the earth as a whole, and I wish to be understood as using the names without any reference whatever to their celebrity, and as though the places themselves were in their infancy, and had not as yet acquired any fame through great events. The name is men- tioned, it is true, but only as forming a part of the world and the system of the universe.

The whole globe is divided into three parts, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Our description commences where the sun sets and at the Straits of Gades1 , where the Atlantic ocean, bursting [p. 1152] in, is poured forth into the inland seas. As it makes its entrance from that side, Africa is on the right hand and Europe on the left; Asia lies between them2 ; the boundaries being the rivers Tanais3 and Nile. The Straits of the ocean, of which I have just spoken, extend fifteen miles in length and five4 in breadth, measured from the village of Mellaria5 in Spain to the Album Promontorium6 or White Promontory in Africa, as we learn from Turranius Gracilis, who was born in that vicinity. Titus Livius and Cornelius Nepos however have stated the breadth, where it is least, to be seven miles, and where greatest, ten; from so small a mouth as this does so immense an expanse of water open upon us! Nor is our astonishment diminished by the fact of its being of great depth; for, instead of that, there are numerous breakers and shoals, white with foam, to strike the mariner with alarm. From this circumstance it is, that many have called this spot the threshold of The Inland Sea.

At the narrowest part of the Straits, there are mountains placed to form barriers to the entrance on either side, Abyla7 in Africa, and Calpe8 in Europe, the boundaries formerly of the labours of Hercules9 . Hence it is that the inhabitants have called them the Columns of that god; they [p. 1153] also believe that they were dug through by him; upon which the sea, which was before excluded, gained admission, and so changed the face of nature.


I shall first then speak of Europe, the foster-mother of that people which has conquered all other nations, and itself by far the most beauteous portion of the earth. Indeed, many persons have, not without reason10 , considered it, not as a third part only of the earth, but as equal to all the rest, looking upon the whole of our globe as divided into two parts only, by a line drawn from the river Tanais to the Straits of Gades. The ocean, after pouring the waters of the Atlantic through the inlet which I have here described, and, in its eager progress, overwhelming all the lands which have had to dread its approach, skirts with its winding course the shores of those parts which offer a more effectual resistance, hollowing out the coast of Europe especially into numerous bays, among which there are four Gulfs that are more particularly remarkable. The first of these begins at Calpe, which I have previously mentioned, the most distant mountain of Spain; and bends, describing an immense curve, as far as Locri and the Promontory of Bruttium11 .

Editor's notes:

  1. Now the Straits of Gibraltar.
  2. This is said more especially in reference to the western parts of Asia, the only portion which was perfectly known to the ancients. His meaning is, that Asia as a portion of the globe does not lie so far north as Europe, nor so far south as Africa.
  3. Now the Don. It was usually looked upon as the boundary between Europe and Asia. Pliny's meaning seems to be, that the Tanais divides Asia from Europe, and the Nile, Asia from Africa, the more especially as the part to the west of the Nile was sometimes considered as belonging to Asia. It has been however suggested that he intends to assign these rivers as the extreme eastern boundaries of the internal or Mediterranean sea.
  4. At no spot are the Straits less than ten miles in width; although D'Anville makes the width to be little less than five miles. This passage of our author is probably in a corrupt state.
  5. This probably stood near the site of the town of Tarifa of the present day.
  6. Probably the point called 'Punta del Sainar' at the present day.
  7. Now called Ximiera, Jebel-el-Mina, or Monte del Hacho.
  8. The Rock of Gibraltar.
  9. The fable was that they originally formed one mountain, which was torn asunder by Hercules, or as Pliny says, "dug through."
  10. This was the opinion of Herodotus, but it had been so strenuously combated by Polybius and other writers before the time of Pliny, that it is difficult to imagine how he should countenance it.
  11. He probably alludes to Leucopetra, now called Capo dell' Armi. Locri Epizephyrii was a town of Bruttium, situate north of the promontory of Zephyrium, now called Capo di Bruzzano.

[Chapters 2 through 22 are here omitted.]

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