Judeans: Pliny the Elder and Julius Solinus on the Essenes beside the Dead Sea (first / third centuries CE)

Authors: Pliny the Elder, Natural History 5.70-73 (link to Latin text and full translation); Gaius Julius Solinus, Collection of Curiosities, or The Polyhistor 35.9-11 (link to Latin text; link to alternative translation of full work)

Comments: Pliny the Elder’s description of Judea is quite uneventful with the exception of his excitement for the one-of-a-kind group of Essenes settled on the shores of the Dead Sea (Asphalt lake). Pliny seems playful in calling them a “descent group” (gens) since he emphasizes that they have no actual common descent due to their lack of marriage and therefore lack of regular family life. This description has the feel of paradoxography, writing about paradoxes or amazing things you would never believe. The somewhat bland and negative talk about the Dead Sea sets up for an amazing discovery in this way. Pliny’s Roman perspective can be compared and contrasted with the more detailed descriptions of the Essenes by Philo of Alexandria, a Judean author (link).

The second selection below is by Gaius Julius Solinus, whose dates are uncertain but he is usually placed in the early third century. It seems that Solinus knew and used Pliny at various points in his overall work, but in this case there are differences which suggest he may also be drawing on a separate source, so it is worth including this altenative description of Essenes as well.

Source of the translation: J. Bostock, The Natural History of Pliny (London. Taylor and Francis, 1855), public domain, adapted by Harland. Solinus translated by Harland.

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Pliny, Natural History

book 5

[Geographical setting and the Dead Sea]

15 (70) Beyond Idumea and Samaria, Judea extends far and wide. That part of it which joins up with Syria is called Galilee, while that which is closest to Arabia and Egypt bears the name of Perea. Perea is thickly covered with rugged mountains and is separated from the rest of Judea by the river Jordan. The remaining part of Judea is divided into ten districts (toparchia) in the following order: the district of Jericho, which is covered with groves of palm-trees and watered by numerous springs; those of Emmaus, Lydda, Joppa, Acrabatena, Gophnah, Timnath-Serah, Beth-lebaoth; the Hills which formerly contained Jerusalem, by far the most famous city, not of Judea only but of the East; and, Herodium, with a celebrated town of the same name.

(71) The river Jordan, about which we will now speak, rises from the spring of Panias, which has given a second name to Caesarea. This is a delightful stream, winding along in its course as much as the arrangement of the localities allows, and lingering among those who live on its banks. With the greatest reluctance, as it were, it moves on towards Asphalt lake [the Dead Sea], a gloomy and unpropitious lake by which it is at last swallowed up and its much praised waters are mingled with the pestilential streams of the lake and no longer visible. For this reason, whenever the valleys through which it runs provide an opportunity, the Jordan discharges itself into a lake called Genesaret [a.k.a. lake Tiberias or sea of Galilee] by many writers, which is sixteen miles in length and six miles wide. It is skirted by the pleasant towns of Julias [Bethsaida] and Hippo on the east, the town of Tarichea on the south (a name which is by many persons given to the lake itself), and the town of Tiberias on the west. The hot springs at Tiberias are very conducive to the restoration of health.

16 (72) Asphalt lake [the Dead Sea] produces nothing at all except bitumen, to which obviously owes its name. The bodies of animals will not sink in its waters, and even those of bulls and camels float there. It exceeds one hundred miles in length, being twenty-five miles at its greatest width and six miles at its narrowest. Arabia of the Nomads faces it on the east, and Machaerus on the south, at one time next to Jerusalem, the most strongly fortified place in Judea. On the same side lies Kallirrhoe, a warm spring, remarkable for its medicinal qualities, and which, by its name, indicates the celebrity its waters have gained.

[Essenes]

17 (73) Lying on the west of Asphalt lake, and sufficiently distant to escape its noxious fumes, are the Essenes. This is a “descent group” (gens) that lives apart from the world and that is amazing beyond all others throughout the whole world. For they have no women among them, they are strangers to sexual desire, they have no money, and they only have palm-trees as companions. Day after day, however, their numbers are fully recruited by numerous strangers that come to them, driven there by storms of fortune to adopt their way of life and tired from the miseries of life. In this way, through thousands of ages (incredible to relate) this “descent group” sustains its existence forever without a single birth taking place there. The weariness of others’ lives is a very fruitful source of its population.

Below this settlement was formerly the town of Engedi, second only to Jerusalem in the fertility of its soil and its groves of palm-trees. At this point, like Jerusalem, Engedi is another heap of ashes. Next to it we come to Masada, a fortress on a rock, not far from lake Asphalt. That is all about Judea.

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Julius Solinus, Collection of Curiosities

[Essenes]

35 (9) The inner part of western Judea is occupied by the Essenes who, gifted with noteworthy discipline, have departed from the customs of all descent groups (gentes). I believe they hold fast to their way of life by the providence of majesty. There are no women there: they have utterly rejected sexual appetite. They know nothing about money. They live on dates. (10) Nobody is born there, but they do not lack a large number of men. The place is devoted to chastity. Although many men from peoples all around hurry there, no one is admitted unless he is worthy, accompanied by true faith and innocence. (11) On the other hand, anyone who is guilty of even a minor crime, no matter how much he wants to gain entry with the highest influence, is removed by the god. So, it is incredible to say, this descent group continues forever even though they do not have children.

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