Mediterranean peoples: Pliny the Elder on inventors around the world (first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Mediterranean peoples: Pliny the Elder on inventors around the world (first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 18, 2024,

Ancient authors: Numerous Greek authors and a couple of Latin authors as cited in Pliny the Elder, Natural History 7.191-215 (link).

Comments: Among ethnographically inclined Greek intellectuals, producing a work devoted to inventions and discoveries was an option (on which see the remains of Ephoros’ mid-fourth century BCE work at this link). This comes through clearly in this passage by Pliny the Elder as well, as he cites many authors (mostly Greek, but there is a prominent place for Gnaeus Gellius too). Pliny surveys numerous inventions or discoveries, some of which are credited to “barbarian” peoples. This is largely presented as a list of other people’s claims regarding inventors, and rarely does Pliny fully commit on any specific item regarding inventions by non-Greeks or non-Romans. Nonetheless, the numerous instances of “barbarian” inventors in the view of other authors make this fit well within the category of foreign wisdom.


[Inventions of deities]

Before we move on from the subject of man’s nature it seems suitable to point out the various inventions (inventa) of different persons. The god Father Liber instituted buying and selling, and also invented the emblem of royalty, the crown, and the triumphal procession. The goddess Ceres [i.e. Demeter] discovered grain, men having hitherto lived on acorns. She also invented grinding grain and making flour in Attica (or, as others say, in Sicily), and for this was considered a goddess. Also she first gave laws, though others have thought this was done by Rhadamanthus.

[Invention of writing]

I am of opinion that the Assyrians have always had writing. Yet others, including Gellius, hold that it was invented in Egypt by Mercury [i.e. Thoth], while others think it was discovered in Syria. Both schools of thought believe that Kadmos [a Phoenician] imported an alphabet of sixteen letters into Greece from Phoenicia and that to these Palamedes at the time of the Trojan war added the four characters zeta (Ζ), psi (Ψ), phi (Φ), and chi (Χ), and after him Simonides the lyric poet added another four upsilon (Υ), xi (Ξ), omega (Ω), and theta (Θ), all representing sounds recognized in the Roman alphabet as well. Aristotle holds that the primitive alphabet contained eighteen letters, and that psi (Ψ) and zeta (Ζ) were added by Epicharmos more probably than Palamedes. Antiklides records that a person named Menos invented the alphabet in Egypt fifteen thousand years before Phoroneus, the most ancient king of Greece, and he attempts to prove this with reference to monuments. On the other side Epigenes, an authority of the first rank, teaches that the Babylonians had astronomical observations for seven hundred and thirty thousand years inscribed on baked bricks; and those who give the shortest period, Berossos and Kritodemos, make it four hundred and ninety thousand years. From this it appears that the alphabet has been in use from very ancient times. It was brought to Latium by the Pelasgians.

[Invention of bricks, houses, and many other materials]

Brick-kilns and houses were first introduced by the brothers Euryalos and Hyperbios at Athens; previously caves had served for dwellings. Gellius accepts Toxeus son of Ouranos as the inventor of building with clay, the example having been taken from swallows’ nests. Kekrops named after himself the first town, Kekropia, which is now the Acropolis at Athens. Yet some hold that Argos had been founded before by king Phoroneus, and certain authorities say Sikyon also, but the Egyptians hold that Diospolis was founded in their country long before. Tiles were invented by Kinyra, son of Agriopa, as well as mining for copper, both in the island of Cyprus, and also the tongs, hammer, crowbar and anvil. Wells were inveted by Danaos who came from Egypt to Greece to the region that used to be called Dry Argos. Stone quarrying was invented by Kadmos at Thebes or, according to Theophrastos, in Phoenicia. Walls were introduced by Thrason, towers by the Kyklopes according to Aristotle but according to Theophrastos by the Tirynthians. Woven fabrics were invented by the Egyptians, dyeing woollen stuffs by the Lydians at Sardis, the use of the spindle in the manufacture of woollen by Kloster son of Arachne, linen and nets by Arachne, the fuller’s craft by Nikias of Megara, the shoemaker’s by Tychius of Boeotia. According to the Egyptians, medicine was discovered among them, but according to others through the agency of Arabos son of Babylon and Apollo. Knowledge of herbs and drugs was discovered by Chiron the son of Saturn and Philyra. Aristotle thinks that Lydos the Scythian showed how to melt and work copper, but Theophrastos holds that it was the Phrygian Delas. Some ascribe the invention of manufacturing with bronze to the Chalybes and others to the Kyklopes. The forging of iron Hesiod ascribes to the people called Idaian Dactyles in Crete. Erichthonios of Athens, or according to others Aiakos, discovered silver. Mining and smelting gold was invented by Kadmos the Phoenician at mount Pangaios, or according to others by Thoas or Aiakos in Panchaia, or by the Sun, son of Oceanos, to whom Gellius also assigns the discovery of medicine derived from minerals. Tin was first imported by Midakritos from the island of Kassiteris. Working in iron was invented by the Kyklopes. Potteries were invented by Koroibos of Athens, the potter’s wheel by the Scythian Anacharsis or, according to others, by Hyperbios of Corinth. Carpentry was invented by Daidalos, and with it the saw, axe, plumb-line, gimlet, glue, isinglass. However, the square, the plummet, the lathe and the lever were invented by Theodoros of Samos, measures and weights by Phidon of Argos, or, as Gellius preferred, Palamedes. Fire from flint was discovered by Pyrodes son of Kilix, the storing of fire in a fennel-stalk by Prometheus. The Phrygians invented a vehicle with four wheels and Phoenicians invented trade. Viticulture and arboriculture were invented by Eumolpos of Athens, diluting wine with water by Staphylos son of Silenos, oil and oil-mills by Aristaios of Athens, honey by the same. The ox and the plough were invented by Bouzygesa of Athens, or, as others say, by Triptolemos. Monarchical government was invented by the Egyptians and republican by the Athenians after Theseus. The first tyrant was Phalaris at Girgenti. Slavery was invented by the Spartans. Capital trials were first carried on in the Areopagos [at Athens].

[Invention of weapons]

The Africans first fought with clubs (called poles) in a war against the Egyptians. Shields were invented by Proitos and Akrisios in making war against each other, or else by Chalcos son of Athamas. The breastplate was invented by Midias of Messene, the helmet, sword and spear by the Spartans, greaves and helmetplumes by the Carians. The bow and arrow is said by some to have been invented by Scythes son of Jove; others say that arrows were invented by Perses son of Perseus, lances by the Aitolians, the spear slung with a thong by Aitolos son of Mars, spears for skirmishing by Tyrrhenos, the javelin by the same, the battle-axe by Penthesilea the Amazon, hunting-spears and among missile engines the scorpion by Pisaios, the catapult by the Cretans, the ballista and the sling by the Syrophoenicians, the bronze trumpet by Pysaeus son of Tyrrhenus, tortoise-screens by Artemo of Klazomenai, and among siege-engines the horse (now called the ram) by Epios at Troy. Horse-riding was invented by Bellerophon, reins and saddles by Pelethronios, fighting on horseback by the Thessalians called Centaurs, who dwelt along mount Pelion. The Phrygian people (natio) first harnessed pairs of horses, Erichthonios four-in-hands. Military formation, the use of pass-words, tokens and sentries were invented by Palamedes in the Trojan war, signalling from watch-towers by Sinon in the same war, truces by Lykaon, treaties by Theseus.

[Invention of divination, astrology, and related techniques]

Auguries from birds were invented by Car, from whom Caria got its name. Orpheus added divining (auspices) of other animals, Delphos divination from victims, Amphiaraos divination from fire, Tiresias of Thebes divination by inspecting birds’ entrails, and Amphiktyon the interpretation of portents and dreams. Atlans son of Libya, or as others say the Egyptians and others the Assyrians, invented astronomy. Anaximander of Miletos invented the use of a globe in astronomy, Aiolos son of Hellen the theory of winds.

[Inventions related to music, poetry, and prose]

Amphion invented music, Pan son of Mercury the pipe and single flute, Midas in Phrygia the slanting flute, Marsyas in the same nation the double flute, Amphion the Lydian modes, the Thracian Thamyras the Dorian mode, Marsyas of Phrygia the Phrygian mode, Amphion – or others say Orpheus and others Linus – the harp. Terpander first sang with seven strings, adding three to the original four, Simonides added an eighth, Timotheus a ninth. Thamyris first played the harp without using the voice, Amphion – or according to others Linus – accompanied the harp with singing. Terpander composed songs for harp and voice. Ardalos of Troizen instituted singing to the flute. The Kouretes taught dancing in armour and Pyrrhus the Pyrrhic dance. Both of them were in Crete. Hexameter verse we owe to the Pythian oracle, but as to the origin of poetry there is much debate, though it is proved to have existed before the Trojan War. Pherekydes of Syria instituted prose composition in the period of king Cyrus, Kadmos of Miletos invented history.

[Inventions related to athletic competitions]

Gymnastic games were started by Lykaon in Arcadia, funeral games by Akastos in Iolkos, and subsequently by Theseus at the Isthmus and by Hercules at Olympia. Wrestling by Pytheus, the sport of ball-throwing by Gyges of Lydia. Painting was invented by the Egyptians, and in Greece by Euchir the kinsman of Daidalos according to Aristotle, but according to Theophrastos by Polygnotos of Athens.

[Inventions related to navigation and travel]

Danaos first came from Egypt to Greece by ship. Before that time rafts were used for navigation, having been invented by king Erythras for use between the islands in the Red sea [also known as the Erythraian sea]. Persons are found who think that vessels were devised earlier on the Hellespont by the Mysians and Trojans when they crossed to war against the Thracians. Even now in the ocean of Britannia coracles are made of wicker with hide sown around it, and on the Nile canoes are made of papyrus, rushes and reeds. The first voyage made in a long ship is attributed by Philostephanos to Jason, by Hegesias to Parhalos, by Ktesias to Semiramis, and by Archemachos to Aigaio.

Other advances were as follows:

Vessel, Inventor, Authority

  • double-banked galley, the Erythraeans, Damastes;
  • trireme, Aminocles of Corinth, Thucydides;
  • quadrireme, the Carthaginians, Aristotle;
  • quinquereme, the Salaminians, Mnesigiton;
  • galleys of six banks, the Syracusans, Xenagoras;
  • up to ten banks, Alexander the Great, Mnesigiton;
  • up to twelve banks, Ptolemy Soter, Philostephanos;
  • up to fifteen banks, Demetrios son of Antigonos, Philostephanos;
  • up to thirty banks, Ptolemy Philadelphos, Philostephanos; and,
  • up to forty banks, Ptolemy Philopator surnamed Tryphon, Philostephanos.

The freight-ship was invented by Hippus of Tyre, the cutter by the Cyreneans, the skiff by the Phoenicians, the yacht by the Rhodians, the yawl by the Cyprians. The Phoenicians invented observing the stars in sailing, the town of Kopai invented the oar, the city of Plataia the oar-blade, Ikaros sails, Daidalos mast and yard, the Samians or Perikles of Athens the cavalry transport, and the Thasians decked longships—previously the marines had fought from the bows and stern only. Pisaios son of Tyrrenos added beaks, Eupalamos the anchor, Anacharsis the double-fluked anchor, Perikles of Athens grappling-irons and claws, and Tiphys the tiller. Minos was the first who fought a battle with a fleet.

Hyperbios son of Mars first killed an animal, Prometheus an ox.

[Inventions related to a shared alphabet]

The first of all cases of tacit agreement between peoples was the convention to employ the alphabet of the Ionians. The practical identity of the old Greek alphabet with the present Latin one will be proved by an ancient Delphic tablet of bronze (at the present day in the Palace, a gift of the emperors) dedicated to Minerva, with the following inscription: Tithe dedicated by Nausicrates to the Daughter of Zeus. . . [text missing in manuscript].

[Inventions related to hair]

The next agreement between peoples was in the matter of shaving the beard, but with the Romans this was later. Barbers came to Rome from Sicily in year 454 [300 BCE]. According to Varro this was brought there by Publius Titinius Mena. Before that, the Romans had been unshaved. The second Africanus first introduced a daily shave. The divine Augustus never neglected the razor.

[Inventions related to measuring time]

The third agreement was in the observation of the hours (this now being an addition made by  theory), the date and inventor of which we have stated in Book two [2.187]. This also happened later at Rome: in the Twelve Tables only sunrise and sunset are specified. A few years later noon was also added, the consuls’ apparitor announcing it when from the senate-house he saw the sun between the Beaks and the Greek Lodging. When the sun sloped from the Maenian Column to the Prison he announced the last hour, but this only on clear days, down to the first Punic war. We have it on the authority of Fabios Vestalis that the first sundial was erected eleven years before the war with Pyrrhus at the Temple of Quirinus by Lucius Papirius Cursor when dedicating that temple, which had been vowed by his father. But Fabios does not indicate the principle of the sundial’s construction or the maker, nor where it was brought from or the name of the writer who is his authority for the statement. Marcus Varro records that the first public sundial was set up on a column along by the Beaks during the first Punic war after Catania in Sicily had been taken by the consul Manius Valerius Messala, and that it was brought from Sicily thirty years later than the traditional date of Papirius’s sundial in the year 491 [264 BCE]. The lines of this sundial did not agree with the hours, but all the same they followed it for ninety-nine years, till Quintus Marcius Philippus who was Censor with Lucius Paulus placed a more carefully designed one next to it, and this gift was received as one of the most welcome of the censor’s undertakings. Even then however the hours were uncertain in cloudy weather, until the next lustrum, when Scipio Nasica the colleague of Laenas instituted the first water-clock dividing the hours of the nights and the days equally, and dedicated this time-piece in a roofed building in the year 595 [159 BCE]. For so long a period the divisions of daylight had not been marked for the Roman public.

We will now turn to the rest of the animals, beginning with land-animals.


Source of the translation: H. Rackham, W.H.S. Jones, and D.E. Eichholz, Pliny: Natural History, 10 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1938-1962), public domain (Rackham passed away in 1944, Jones passed away in 1963, copyright not renewed as well), adapted by Harland.

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