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Pliny the Elder: Crime and slaughter and warfare. Humanity’s war against its mother

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Greek and Roman writers on war and peace

Pliny the Elder: Curious disease of the sublunary, sanguinary human mind

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Pliny the Elder
From Natural History
Translated by H. Rackham

Next comes the earth, the one division of the natural world on which for its merits we have bestowed the venerable title of mother. She belongs to men as the sky belongs to God: she receives us at birth, and gives us nurture after birth, and when once brought forth she upholds us always, and at the last when we have now been disinherited by the rest of nature she embraces us in her bosom and at that very time gives us her maternal shelter; sanctified by no service more than that whereby she makes us also sacred, even bearing our monuments and epitaphs and prolonging our name and extending our memory against the shortness of time…[W]hat earth has produced as a cure for our ills, we have made into a deadly poison; why, do we not also put her indispensable gift of iron to a similar use? Nor yet should we have any right to complain even if she had engendered poison to serve the purpose of crime. In fact in regard to one of nature’s elements we have no gratitude. For what luxuries and for what outrageous uses does she not subserve mankind? She is flung into the sea, or dug away to allow us to let in the channels. Water, iron, wood, fire, stone, growing crops, are employed to torture her at all hours, and much more to make her minister to our luxuries than our sustenance. Yet in order to make the sufferings inflicted on her surface and mere outer skin seem endurable, we probe her entrails, digging into her veins of gold and silver and mines of copper and lead; we actually drive shafts down into the depth to search for gems and certain tiny stones; we drag out her entrails, we seek a jewel merely to be worn upon a finger! How many hands are worn away with toil that a single knuckle may shine resplendent! If any beings of the nether world existed, assuredly even they would have been dug up ere now by the burrowings of avarice and luxury! And can we wonder if earth has also generated some creatures for our harm? since the wild animals, I well believe, are her guardians, and protect her from sacrilegious hands; do not serpents infest our mines, do we not handle veins of gold mingled with the roots of poison? Yet that shows the goddess all the kinder towards us, because all these avenues from which wealth issues lead but to crime and slaughter and warfare, and her whom we besprinkle with our blood we cover with unburied bones, over which nevertheless, when at length our madness has been finally discharged, she draws herself as a veil, and hides even the crimes of mortals.

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The extent of the trespass of ocean is unascertained; but even the one portion left to us suffers perhaps an even greater loss, inasmuch as the same ocean, spreading out, as we shall describe, into a number of bays, advances with its threatening roar so close to the inner seas that there is only a distance of 115 miles between the Arabian Gulf and the Egyptian Sea and of between the Caspian and the Black Sea; and also with its inner channels through so many seas whereby it sunders Africa, Europe and Asia, it occupies – what area of the land? Calculate moreover the dimensions of all those rivers and vast swamps, add also the lakes and pools, and next the ridges too that rise into the heaven and are precipitous even to the eye, next the forests and steep glens, and the deserts and areas for a thousand reasons left deserted; subtract all these portions from the earth or rather from this pin-prick, as the majority of thinkers have taught, in the world – for in the whole universe the earth is nothing else: and this is the substance of our glory, this is its habitation, here it is that we fill positions of power and covet wealth, and throw mankind into an uproar, and launch even civil wars and slaughter one another to make the land more spacious! And to pass over the collective insanities of the nations, this is the land in which we expel the tenants next to us and add a spade-full of turf to our own estate by stealing from our neighbour’s – to the end that he who has marked out his acres most widely and banished his neighbours beyond all record may rejoice in owning – how small a fraction of the earth’s surface? or, when he has stretched his boundaries to the full measure of his avarice, may still retain – what portion, pray, of his estate when he is dead?

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For let earthquakes not be mentioned, and every case where at least the tombs of cities survive, and at the same time let us tell of the marvels of the earth rather than the crimes of nature. And, I will swear, not even the heavenly phenomena could have been more difficult to recount: the wealth of mines so varied, so opulent, so prolific, brought to the surface in so many ages, although every day all over the world so much devastation is wrought by fires, collapse of buildings, shipwrecks, wars, frauds, and so great is the consumption of luxury…

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