Europeans, Africans, and Asians: Pliny the Elder on the framework for his ethnographic survey and on the superiority of Europeans (first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Europeans, Africans, and Asians: Pliny the Elder on the framework for his ethnographic survey and on the superiority of Europeans (first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified June 20, 2023,

Ancient author: Pliny the Elder, Natural History 3.1-6 (link).

Comments: Books three to six of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History (a work that was finished in the final years before his death in 79 CE) are devoted almost entirely to a geographical survey of what he considers the three divisions of the known world: Europe (books 3-4), Africa or Libya in Greek terms (first part of book 5), and Asia (books 5-6). He focusses much of his attention on displaying his knowledge of geographical features and the previous literature (primarily by Greek authors) on that. But he also has an ongoing interest in peoples in these areas, on ethnography. At the outset (presented below), Pliny offers an introduction to the entire section which indicates his hegemonic, Eurocentric approach. It is important to remember that this equestrian began his Roman military career in fending off Germanic peoples on the Rhine (with one of his lost works being precisely on Germanic Wars) and also filled important procuratorships later in life (see Syme 1969). For Pliny, Europe possesses a superior position in terms of land and environment and, therefore, produces a people that is meant to control all other peoples of the known world. It seems clear that Pliny has Italy and Rome specifically in mind, then.

Pliny will then go on to survey each of these three geographical divisions, starting with Europe with considerable attention to Italy and Greece. While he makes reference to many peoples throughout this entire part of the work, not all sections are substantial in their ethnographic detail and often Pliny resorts to merely listing peoples, seemingly to overwhelm the reader in the breadth (though not depth) of his knowledge. So the posts on this site will deal with only the more substantial or significant passages and will not always include those passages where Pliny merely lists peoples. With some regions and peoples, Pliny is among the more important sources of information, however, even if merely skimming the surface. So those cases will be noteworthy.

Works consulted: Ronald Syme, “Pliny the Procurator,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 73 (1969): 201–36 (link).

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.


[Introduction to Pliny’s section on geography and peoples]

So much as to the situation and the marvels of land and water and of the stars, and the plan and dimensions of the universe [i.e. the topics covered in Pliny’s previous sections].

Now to describe the universe’s parts. However, this is considered an endless task, not lightly undertaken without some adverse criticism. Nonetheless, in no field does inquiry more fairly claim indulgence, only granting it to be by no means wonderful that one born a human being should not possess all human knowledge. For this reason I will not follow any single authority. Rather, I will decide who I judge most reliable in their several departments, since I have found it a characteristic common to virtually all of them that each gave the most careful description of the particular region in which he personally was writing. So I will neither blame nor criticise anyone. I will simply set down the bare names of places. With the greatest brevity possible, I will discuss their renown and supply the reasons in their proper sections. For right now my topic is the world as a whole. Therefore, I would like it to be understood that I specify the bare names of the places without their record, as they were in the beginning before they had achieved any history. Although their names are mentioned, it is only as forming a portion of the world and of the natural universe.

[Three parts of the world: Europe, Asia, Africa]

The whole circuit of the earth is divided into three parts: Europe, Asia and Africa. The starting point is in the west, at the Gaditanian straits [Straits of Gibraltar, near Cadiz, Spain], where the Atlantic ocean bursts in and spreads out into the inland seas. On the right as you enter from the ocean is Africa and on the left Europe, with Asia between them. The boundaries of Asia are the river Tanais [Don, now in Russia] and the river Nile [in Egypt]. The ocean straits [of Gibralter] mentioned are fifteen miles long and five miles broad, from the village of Mellaria in Spain to the white cape in Africa, as given by Turranius Gracilis, a native of the neighbourhood while Livy and Cornelius Nepos state the breadth at the narrowest point as seven miles and at the widest as ten miles. The mouth through which all this boundless water pours is narrow. Nor is it of any great depth, so as to lessen the marvel, for recurring streaks of whitening shoal-water terrify passing keels, and consequently many have called this place the threshold of the Mediterranean. At the narrowest part of the straits stand mountains on either side, enclosing the channel, Abyla [Jebel-el-Mina] in Africa and Calpe [Gibraltar] in Europe. These were the limits of the labours of Herakles (Hercules). So the inhabitants call them the “pillars” of that deity. They believe that he cut the channel through them and thereby let in the sea which had up till then been shut out, so altering the face of nature.

[Europe: Europeans (i.e. Romans) as a superior descent group with a superior land that conquered all peoples]

To begin then with Europe, which is nurse of the descent group (gens) that has conquered all populations (populi) and by far the loveliest portion of the earth, most authorities (not without reason) have considered it to be not a third portion but a half of the world, dividing the whole circle into two portions by a line drawn from the river Tanais to the straits of Caple. The ocean, pouring the Atlantic sea through the passage I have described, and in its eager progress overwhelming all the lands that shrank in awe before its coming, washes also those that offer resistance with a winding and broken coastline. The ocean especially hollows out Europe with a succession of bays, but into four main gulfs. The first gulf bends in a vast curve from Calpe [Rock of Gibraltar], which, as I have said, is the extremity of Spain, right to Lokri on cape of Bruttium [Cape of Spartivento].

The first land situated on this gulf is called Further [Ulterior] Spain or Baetica . . . [omitted following section int his post].

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