[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]

orion Pliny's statements reconsidered

All these claims and counterclaims have caused me to take a closer look at
the Latin of Pliny's passage about the Essenes to see if it really says
all that is claimed for it. This reassessment will need some input from
those better versed in Latin than I am, but for what it is worth here are
some comments for discussion:

Pliny (the elder), Natural History 5.73 [Stern]:

Ab occidente [Pliny has already described the Mediterranean coastal areas
from Egypt to Syria, and has moved on inland to Idumea, Samaria, Galilee,
Judea proper, and Perea -- pointing out along the way that Jericho has
lots of water and palm groves (70); he then traces the Jordan from Panias
in the north through the Genesara lake (Galilee) to the Dead Sea (71);
then he locates the Dead Sea in relation to nomadic Arabia (to the east =
ab oriente) and to Machaerus and the spring of Callirhoe (south = a
meridie); so now there remains the area west of the Dead Sea]

litora Esseni fugiunt usque qua nocent [literally something like "Essenes
flee the banks/shores (usually of lakes and rivers) to the point that they
harm" -- Pliny is not explicit about why they flee (elsewhere, Pliny
sometimes talks of people fleeing odors, fumes, snakes, etc. -- but not
here), nor is it clear to me how to read the "usque qua nocent" -- are the
banks/shores considered harmful, and if so why? Commerce? Socialization?
Fumes? It is an awkward (to me) sequence of words, and does not
necessarily mean what Rackham takes it to mean in the Loeb edition. My
suspicion is that it doesn't have anything to do with fumes, and that
perhaps Pliny didn't have a clear idea of what it meant in his source]

gens sola et in toto orbe praeter ceteras mira [this is pretty
straightforward, "a race/group set apart (isolated) and in the entire
world beyond all others extraordinary/unique"]

sine ulla femina, omni venere abdicata,
sine pecunia, socia palmarum [mostly straightforward -- this "gens" is
"without any women, stifling every urge, without money, consort of palms";
I would doubt that the "socia palmarum" requires literal palm trees in
Pliny's understanding -- it may simply be an idiom describing the
solitariness and lack of social contamination of this people].

[From here, Pliny talks about flocks of adherents who have tired of their
lifestyles joining the Essenes and thus keeping their numbers full]

Ita per saeculorum milia -- incredibile dictu -- gens aeterna est 
in qua nemo nascitur! [Pliny's amazement that "through thousands of
years/ages a race/group is eternal in which noone is born"]

Infra hos Engada oppidum fuit [next in Pliny's survey, moving towards the
south (at least) as we shall see -- perhaps note the problem above with
the significance of the "shores/banks" from which  the Essenes fled? --
"there had been a town Engada"]

secundum ab Hierosolymis fertilitate palmetorumque nemoribus, nunc alterum
bustum ["second to Jerusalem in fertility and the forests of palm-groves,
but now another (a second) killing-field/graveyard"]

Inde Masada castellum in rupe, et ipsum haut procul Asphaltite ["then
comes Masada, a cliff fortress, and itself not very far from the Asphalt

Et hactenus Iudaea est ["Thusfar Judea"].

Note that Pliny does not refer to the Essenes as being at a named place,
but sees them as a "gens" identified with an area to the (north-?) west of
the Dead Sea, for some reason avoiding the nearby banks (of Jordan and/or
Dead Sea?), and distinct from Jericho. He does not claim that they were
obliterated in the recent catastrophe that demolished Jerusalem and
Engedi, but suggests that they live on as a "gens aeterna"! He does not
necessarily claim that they had palm trees of their own, or for that
matter, anything of their own. That Pliny had any first hand knowledge of
this rather "romantic" Essene presence is doubtful to me, but that the
blurry/muddled tradition he reports is not completely irrelevant for
discussions about ancient Qumran and its environs also seems to me
reasonable. But I wouldn't want to build much on this part of Pliny's

Robert A. Kraft, Religious Studies, University of Pennsylvania