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orion "shore of the Essenes"

Pliny the Elder begins section 5.15.73 of his Natural History, with the
following sentence (in the Loeb text): 

Ab occidente litora Esseni fugiunt usque qua nocent, gens sola et in toto
orbe praeter ceteras mira, sine ulla femina, omni venere abdicata, sine
pecunia, socia palmarum.  

Rackham's relatively free translation in the Loeb edition is, 

"On the west side of the Dead Sea, but out of range of the noxious
exhalations of the coast, is the solitary tribe of the Essenes, which is
remarkable beyond all the other tribes in the whole world, as it has no
women and has renounced all sexual desire, has no money, and has only
palm-trees for company." 

Recently on Orion, Sigrid Peterson offered the following rendering of the
first two clauses: 

"(73) Towards the West is the shore of the Essenes, those who flee from
(or abhor) everything that is polluted/noxious." 

Stephen Goranson was polite when he said he was unpersuaded by Sigrid's
translation.  I will be more direct.  Her rendering is unsupported,
inaccurate, and misleading.  No conclusions should be drawn from it. 

Because the nominative "gens" is in apposition to "Esseni," we see that
"Esseni" is nominative (nominative plural rather than genitive singular). 
Since "Esseni" is nominative, "litora" would be accusative (accusative
plural of "litus, litoris" rather than nominative plural).  Therefore, a
wooden translation of the Latin would be, "On the western side [i.e., of
the Dead Sea], the Essenes avoid the shores wherever they do harm -- a
solitary tribe and one more extraordinary than others in the whole world: 
without any woman, having given up all sex, without money, companion to

Sigrid's rendering suffers from a number of mistakes, of which the
following seem most significant. 

1.  There is nothing in the Latin that corresponds to Sigrid's "shore of
the Essenes".  The Essenes are the subject of the first clause; the
"shores" are the object of the verb; and "Essenes" is not genitive (as in
"shore of the Essenes"). Pliny is not saying that the Western shore of the
Dead Sea is the shore that belongs to the Essenes; he is saying that the
Essenes avoid the western shores to the extent that they are harmful.

2.  The verb "fugiunt" ("flee, avoid, shun") finds its object in the
accusative noun "litora".  The word "qua" is not an accusative relative
and therefore not the object of "fugiunt".  "Qua" is an adverb, "where, as
far as, to what extent". 

3.  The verb "noceo" means "to do harm, inflict injury."  Can Sigrid
support her contention that the Latin verb "noceo" can mean "be polluted"?
If so, which was polluted -- the Essenes or the shores? 

What Pliny meant by this vague sentence has long required a gloss.  Who
was doing harm -- the shores or the Essenes?  The difficulties of the
wording have begotten variant readings (Ab occidente litora Esseni
habitant. Hos fugitant usquequaque nocentes. "On the West, the Essenes
inhabit the shores.  They flee everywhere doing harm.") and conjectural
emendations (Ab occidente litora Esseni habitant usquequaque. "On the
West, the Essenes inhabit the shores everywhere.") 

The notion and even the wording of the "noxious exhalations" of the Dead
Sea predates Rackham many years.  F. Ansart's edition and commentary
(Paris: 1828) already refers to the lethal airs that the Dead Sea breathes
out.  Ansart in turn refers to Salmasius for this opinion, and he credits
Tacitus, History, 5 with the notion of the pestilential lake. 

In short, avoid "the shore of the Essenes." 


Jay C. Treat
440 Williams Hall                   voice:  (215) 898-9892
The University of Pennsylvania      email:  treat@ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Philadelphia PA  19104-6305         www:    http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/jtreat/