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Re: orion-list Pliny HN 5.73, Agrippa, Nicolaus, 'nocent'
Stephen Goranson conjectured that the Essene passage in Pliny may have
derived from Agrippa's lost Autobiography. When queried as to the date of
the Autobiography in secondary literature, he quoted M. Reinhold, _Marcus
Agrippa: A Biography_ (New York, 1933) 142:
"...the autobiography of Agrippa... the date of whose composition we do
Goranson neglected to quote the footnote to this very passage which cites
three secondary sources that date the time of composition to Agrippa's stay
at Mytilene in 23-21 BCE. Augustus' autobiography came out in 23 BCE.
Agrippa had asked Horace (the literary protege of Agrippa's rival Maecenas,
son-in-law of Augustus) to compose "an epic poem immortalizing his
[Agrippa's] victories on land and on sea" (Reinhold, 67). Horace declined
the request, but among his Odes, also published in 23 BCE, the first two of
which were dedicated to Maecenas and Augustus, Horace included a poem (ode 6)
on Agrippa. It would seem probable that Agrippa, left to his own literary
resouces, wrote his own memoirs in semi-exile in 23-21 BCE, in what was
essentially a hiatus of his career as a statesman. All surviving fragments
of the Autobiography deal with events prior to 23 BCE. This being the case,
there is no sound basis for suggesting the Autobiography included an account
of Agrippa's trip to Judea in 15 BCE or of the Essenes, as Goranson suggested.
Goranson has also proposed that the Essene passage derived from Agrippa's
commentarii, i.e. his notes for the World Map commission by Augustus. But
surviving fragments are of a decidedly non-literary nature, namely distances
between cities and boundaries and dimensions of provinces (including the
Dimensuratio Provinciarum and Divisio Orbis Terrarum preserved by Hieronymus
the Presbyter, widely considered to derive from Agrippa's comentarii). The
sources for the comentarii were Roman road-surveys supplemented by Roman
Peripluses (i.e. coastal surveys for use by sailors) in the more remote
regions. Goranson points to two fragments of the commentarii that contained
extra comments as significant.
(1) At Pliny 5.9-10 Agrippa is quoted as saying that the river Daret has
crocodiles and the river Bambotus has crocodiles and hippopotami. Both
details come from the second century BCE periplus by Polybius, as Pliny makes
clear; and Polybius lifts the reference to "crocodiles and hippopotami" from
an earlier periplus describing the voyage of Hanno the Carthaginian.
(2) At Pliny 6.39 Agrippa is quoted as saying the (western?) shore of the
Caspian, having "very high rocks, has no access [for boats] for 425 miles."
Agrippa's conception of the Caspian as connected to the northern [Skythian]
outer Ocean corresponds with ideas prevalent in the time of Alexander. It's
likely that Agrippa's source was a partial periplus of the Caspian Sea
commissioned by Alexander, who had longboats built to explore the shores
(Arrian, Anabasis 7.16.1-4) that evidently retuirned without having
successfully completed the task (perhaps in part to the lack of harbors noted
Thus the two passages in Agrippa with extra details are traceable to older
peripluses used by Agrippa. Now the passage on Essenes clearly does not
derive from a periplus! Hence there is no sound basis for suggesting the
Essene excursus in Pliny derives from Agrippa's commentarii.
I have previously suggested that the Essene passage, which uses phrases
common from paradoxographical writings [on marvels], derives from a work by
Nicolas of Damascus by way of Isigonus (whom Pliny quotes in book 7).
Isigonus appears to be the only known paradoxographer between the time of
Nicolaus of Damascus and Pliny. That Isigonus drew on Nicolaus of Damascus
is certain. At Natural History 7.2.12, Pliny quotes Isigonus as saying that
"the Sauromatae, thirteen days journey beyond the Borysthenes, always take
food once every two days." This tradition comes from Nicolaus of Damascus,
Collection of Strange Customs, FGrH 80 F 103f. Pliny also quotes Isigonus on
Scythian cannibalism at 7.2.12. Both traditions on Scythians and
Sauromatians also appear in the Paradoxographus Vaticanus Rhodii 49-50, which
is thought to be by Isigonus. In this latter work, no less that 17 of 67
units are excerpts from Nicolas of Damascus. So Isigonus as an intermediary
between Nicolaus of Damascus and Pliny seems very likely.
On paradoxographers see generally A. Westermann, _Paradoxographi_ (1839);
O. Keller, _Rerum naturalium scriptores graecae minores_ (1877); Pauly's
Real-Encyclopedia s.v. paradoxographers.
Finally, let me take note of Isidorus' interesting recent suggestion that
"nocent" in Pliny N.H. 5.73 derives from the Greek phrase nekra thalassa,
"dead sea". At Pseudo-Aristotle, _De Plantis_ 2.2.25 we read, "So it is
natural that nothing can sink or be born in the Dead Sea [nekra thalassa]."
In 1923 an Arabic manuscript of _De Plantis_ was discovered with the title,
"The book of Plants by Aristotle, the commentary by Nicolaus, translated by
Ishak ibn Hurayn, with the corrections of Thabit ibn Kurra [died c. 900
C.E.]." Since that time the authorship of this work by Nicolas, long
suspected, has been regarded as a certainty (Wacholder, _Nicolas of
Damascus_, 3). Isidorus' suggestion on the Greek behind "nocent" is thus
certainly consistent with authorship by Nicolaus. However, his own thoughts
on the authorship of the Essene passage are welcome.
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