The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Verity Platt
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
Not many features of the ancient world give me solace, I must admit! Especially as a woman. There are several works of art that give me great pleasure (such as this Hellenistic gold bee in the Yale University Art Gallery), but one text that really does give me comfort is Pliny the Elder’s Natural History.
When did you first come across this text?
Like many people I came to Pliny the Elder through his nephew, whose letters were one of my GCSE Latin set texts (my friend Lucy and I even dressed up as Pliny and Virgil for Red Nose Day, geeks that we were!). Then when I trained as a classical art historian, Uncle Pliny was always there as a source, repeatedly mined for the invaluable evidence he provides for lost works of (mostly Greek) art. I began reading the Natural History on its own terms about ten years ago, when I started working on texts about artists’ lives and wanted to understand better how the sections on painting and sculpture related to the rest of the work.
Can you tell me a bit about Pliny’s work and its context?
Written during the mid-1st century CE, the Natural History is a vast work in 37 books that encompasses the matter of the entire cosmos, focusing on geography, animals (including man, the ‘human animal’), plants, medicines, metals, earths and stones. It has been continuously read since antiquity, but most often in excerpted form or consulted as an ‘encyclopaedia’. People have tended to be very sniffy about the quality of Pliny’s Latin and have regarded him as a compiler of sources, rather than an author in his own right. But more recently, he has been read for the invaluable insights he provides into the ordering of knowledge within Flavian Rome and the relationship between imperial ideology and the natural world.
What is it about Pliny that appeals to you most?
What I appreciate most about Pliny is the sense of generosity and respect that he applies to all things, from the tiniest of insects (especially bees) to the most refined works of art. Partly this comes from a Stoic mindset that is concerned with the logic of Nature – the sense of a consistent rationality to the universe. But for Pliny this isn’t a cold kind of logic: it’s an organic and ever-surprising one that generates wonder at the connectedness yet seeming spontaneity of things. This brings along with it a sense of responsibility and an ethics of care. Pliny is complicit with the predations of empire (he was admiral of the Roman navy, after all!), yet he is also appalled by its excesses. This sense of conflict is partly what drives the Natural History, and I think it’s one that is also familiar to us today as we seek to resolve tensions between consumerism and climate crisis. Although I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that Pliny was an environmentalist, there is definitely a proto-ecological thinking at work within the NH. One phrase that I find very comforting is his comment that vita vigilia est – ‘life is wakefulness’. Partly this justifies his famously long working hours (which appeals to me as a working mum!), but also it expresses an attitude of vigilance, not just to one’s work, but to the entire world.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
I am lucky to live in the Finger Lakes region of upstate NY, where we have beautiful state parks right on our doorstep: as they say here, ‘Ithaca is Gorges’! I’m originally from Cumbria, so trail running in the woods and walks with my husband and our 8 year-old twins have been keeping me sane during lockdown (in addition to cocktail hour). Although the lack of childcare can be tricky, I’ve appreciated the chance to be more present for my sons, and we’ve been enjoying lots of reading together, including Caroline Lawrence’s Roman Mysteries (which feature Pliny himself!!!). I’ve also been thinking about just how privileged the idea of ‘comfort’ is and trying to educate myself better about the history and effects of racism in both the USA and UK. I’m about to become chair of my Classics department and we have a lot of work to do…
Verity Platt is a professor of Classics and History of Art at Cornell University. She is the author of Facing the Gods: Epiphany and Representation in Graeco-Roman Art, Literature and Religion (2011) and is trying to finish a book on Imprint and Line: Making and Mediating between Classical Art and Text, which is threatening to become as long as the Natural History. At Cornell, she helps curate the cast collection and teaches on Greek and Roman art, classical reception (including a course on ‘Statues and Public Life’ addressing the contemporary monuments crisis) and environmental humanities. She also has a big ginger cat called Tango.
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.