Wednesday, May 23, 2012


P. L. Chambers, The Natural Histories of Pliny the Elder: an Advanced Reader and Grammar Review. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012. Pp. xiv, 156. ISBN 9780806142159. $24.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Valérie Naas, Université Paris-Sorbonne (

Version at BMCR home site

Based on her long and solid experience as an instructor in Latin at the University of Oklahoma, P. L. Chambers offers here "a student-friendly text," in the words of the editor. This statement reveals, on the one hand, that Latin texts have become dense and difficult to grasp for beginners, who arrive at university with less preparation than in the past, and on the other hand, how hard it is for teachers to find original texts convenient for translation in the classroom.

The author has already published two books aimed at beginners in Latin: a textbook for learning Latin (see BMCR 2007.08.52) and a Latin reader based on a compilation of texts by Aulus Gellius (see BMCR 2009.09.14). The present book follows the same logic as her Aulus Gellius textbook. The two books aim at guiding the students in their analysis and understanding of the original texts by giving them several convenient tools for the translation of selected extracts.

This pedagogical guidance in the analysis of original texts is remarkable. P. L. Chambers has chosen tricky authors rarely used in intermediate courses. Pliny the Elder is not usually included in textbooks for beginners. Indeed, many students learn about the existence of this author (and about his death in the eruption of the Vesuvius in 79 A.D.) through the letters of his nephew Pliny the Younger. We must also point out that Pliny the Elder and Aulus Gellius are authors who have been disregarded for quite some time but who have regained a certain interest in the last decade (see BMCR 2012.01.39 on Pliny).

In a short foreword, the author concisely presents Pliny the Elder and cites in an English translation a large extract from the letter 5.3 by Pliny the Younger on the life and works of his uncle. Explanatory notes aimed at students and at teachers follow, which emphasize the book's pedagogical features. A map of the Roman Empire at the time of Augustus' death is included afterwards. The author has then selected 25 short texts that cover the different subjects found in the 37 volumes that constitute the Naturalis Historia. The choice is based on their entertainment value as well as on their relevance as examples of Roman thinking, philosophy, and prejudice (see p. ix).

Each text is preceded by a grammatical introduction which includes: i) a review of the grammar of the text, which refers to the charts compiled at the end of the book; ii) new grammatical elements, which are explained and employed in a translated passage of the text; iii) simplified sentences for translation, taken from the original text, that constitute applications of the grammar. Each text is also followed by an extensive vocabulary section; all the vocabulary entries and translations are also gathered in a single appendix at the end of the book. The typography of the Latin text itself renders the student's tasks easier to accomplish: the line spacing and the margins of the original text are large, which allows notes to be written around the text if the need arises.

The book is not supposed to be used by students on their own, but in the classroom, under the guidance of a teacher. The teacher may usefully complement each text with an introduction, comments and bibliographical references on Pliny the Elder; a teacher's key is available on request. This manual will contribute to rendering the reading and interpretation of texts from the Naturalis Historia easier and more pleasant. P. L. Chambers certifies (p. xiii) that her method "has proved highly successful in the classroom and is popular with students".

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