Shagi / Steps the Journal of the SASH


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Pliny and the classical tradition of the description of Britain

S. G. Mereminskiy
The Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (Russia, Moscow)

DOI: 10.22394/2412-9410-2020-6-1-146-157

Keywords: Britain, England, classical geography, geographical imagination, Pliny, Orosius, Gildas, Bede the Venerable, Matthew Paris

Abstract: The paper deals with the description of Britain in the Natural History of Pliny the Elder. The author traces the sources of Pliny and the place of his description in the classical geographical tradition. The Roman author had the opportunity to rely on a number of predecessors, starting with the semi-legendary Pitheas of Massalia (fourth century BCE) who allegedly navigated to the north along the western coast of Europe. Though by the time Pliny wrote Britain had already been a Roman province, the author of the Natural History mostly uses scholarly tradition rather than eyewitness accounts. The Natural History became the basis for most of the Late Antique and medieval descriptions of Britain (by Solinus, Orosius, Gildas, Bede etc.). It included several of the usual topoi: Britain is an island in the Ocean, it is situated at the edge of the known world, it is remote and hard to reach, but is also fertile and rich in nature resources. For Roman authors, the conquest of Britain was a natural end to the spread of the power of the Eternal City to the remotest limits of the world. The last part of the article is devoted to an analysis of Plinian influences on medieval views on the geography of Britain. It is demonstrated that at least some 12th and 13th-century writers (including the chronicler Matthew Paris) drew information directly from Natural History and sometimes compared various sources, noting their discrepancy.

To cite this article: Mereminskiy, S. G. (2020). Pliny and the classical tradition of the description of Britain. Shagi/Steps, 6(1), 146157. DOI: 10.22394/2412-9410-2020-6-1-146-157.