Pliny the Elder : Natural History (Excerpts) 

Many people imagine that the ancients believed in a flat-earth.  These extracts are from Book 2 of the "Natural History" of Pliny the Elder.  First on the shape of the world:

LXIV. Est autem figura
prima de qua consensus iudicat. Orbem certe dicimus
terrae, globumque verticibus includi fatemur.
Neque enim absoluti orbis est forma in tanta montium
excelsitate, tanta camporum planitie, sed cuius
amplexus, si capita cunctarum liniarum conprehendantur
ambitu, figuram absoluti orbis efficiat -
id quod ipsa rerum natura cogit, non eisdem causis
quas attulimus in caelo. Namque in illo cava in se
convexitas vergit et cardini suo, hoc est terrae, undique
incumbit, haec ut solida ac conferta adsurgit
intumescenti similis extraque protenditur. Mundus
in centrum vergit, at terra exit a centro, inmensum
eius globum in formam orbis adsidua circa eam mundi
volubilitate cogente.

LXV. Ingens hic pugna litterarum contraque
volgi: circumfundi terrae undique homines conversisque
inter se pedibus stare, et cunctis similem
esse caeli verticem, simili modo ex quacumque parte
mediam terram calcari, illo quaerente, cur non
decidant contra siti, tamquam non ratio praesto sit
ut nos non decidere mirentur illi. Intervenit sententia
quamvis indocili probabilis turbae, inaequali globo,
ut si sit figura pineae nucis, nihilominus terram
undique incoli.  Sed quid hoc refert alio miraculo
exoriente, pendere ipsam ac non cadere nobiscum?

64.  But her shape is the first fact about which
men's judgement agrees, We do undoubtedly
speak of the earth's sphere, and admit that the globe
is shut in between poles, Nor yet in fact do all these
lofty mountains and widely spreading plains comprise
the outline of a perfect sphere, but a figure whose
circuit would produce a perfect sphere if the ends of
all the lines were enclosed in a circumference. This
is the consequence of the very nature of things, it is
not due to the same causes as those we have adduced
in the case of the heaven ; for in the heaven the
convex hollow converges on itself and from all sides
rests upon its pivot, the earth, whereas the earth
being a solid dense mass rises like an object swelling,
and expands outward. The world converges to its
centre, whereas the earth radiates outward from its
centre, the ceaseless revolution of the world around
her forcing her immense globe into the shape of a

65. Here there is a mighty battle between Earth
learning on one side and the common herd on the
other: the theory being that human beings are
distributed all round the earth and stand with their
feet pointing towards each other, and that the top of
the sky is alike for them all and the earth trodden
under foot at the centre in the same way from any
direction, while ordinary people enquire why the
persons on the opposite side don't fall off—just as
if it were not reasonable that the people on the
other side wonder that we do not fall off. There is
an intermediate theory that is acceptable even to
the unlearned crowd—that the earth is of the shape
of an irregular globe, resembling a pine cone, yet
nevertheless is inhabited all round. But what is the
good of this theory when there arises another marvel,
that the earth herself hangs suspended and does not
fall and carry us with it?

Also on the shape of the heavens:



I. MUNDUM et hoc—quocumque nomine alio
caelum appellare libuit cuius circumflexu teguntur 
cuncta, numen esse credi par est, aeternum, inmen-
sum, neque genitum neque interiturum umquam.
huius extera indagare nee interest hominum nec
capit humanae coniectura mentis, sacer est, ae-
ternus, inmensus, totus in toto, immo vero ipse
totum, finitus et infinito similis, omnium rerum
certus et similis incerto, extra intra cuncta conplexus
in se, idemque rerum naturae opus et rerum ipsa

Furor est mensuram eius animo quosdam agitasse
atque prodere ausos, alios rursus occasione hinc
sumpta aut ab 3 his data innumerabiles tradidisse
mundos, ut totidem rerum naturas credi oporteret,
aut, si una omnes incubaret, totidem tamen soles
totidemque lunas et cetera ut iam in uno ot inmensa
et innumerabilia sidera, quasi non eadem quaestione
semper in termino cogitationis occursura desiderio
finis alicuius aut, si haec infmitas naturae omnium
artifici possit adsignari, non idem illud in uno facilius
sit intellegi, tanto praesertim opere. furor est,
profecto furor, egredi ex eo et, tamquam interna
eius cuncta plane iam nota sint, ita scrutari extera,
quasi vero mensuram ullius rei possit agere qui sui
nesciat, aut mens hominis possit videre quae
mundus ipse non capiat.

II. Formam eius in speciem orbis absoluti
globatam esse nomen in primis et consensus in eo
mortalium orbem appellantium, sed et argumenta
rerum docent, non solum quia talis figura omnibus
sui partibus vergit in sese ac sibi ipsa toleranda est
seque includit et continet nullarum egens compagium
nee finem aut initium ullis sui partibus sentiens, nee
quia ad motum, quo subinde verti mox adparebit,
talis aptissima est, sed oculorum quoque probatione,
quod convexus mediusque quacumque cernatur, cum
id accidere in alia non possit figura.

III. Hanc ergo formam eius aeterno et inrequieto
ambitu, inenarrabili celeritate, viginti quattuor
horarum spatio circumagi solis exortus et occasus
haut dubium reliquere. an sit inmensus et ideo
sensum aurium excedens tantae molis rotatae
vertigine adsidua sonitus non equidem facile dixerim
—non Hercule magis quam circumactorum simul
tinnitus siderum suosque volventium orbes—an
dulcis quidam et incredibili suavitate concentus.
nobis qui intus agimus iuxta diebus noctibusque
tacitus labitur mundus. esse innumeras ei effigies
animalium rerumque cunctarum inpressas nee, ut in
volucrum notamus ovis, levitate continua lubricum
corpus, quod clarissimi auctores dixere, rerum
argumentis indicatur, quoniam inde deciduis rerum
omnium seminibus innumeris,1 in mari praecipue,
ac plerumque confusis monstrificae gignantur effigies,
praeterea visus probatione, alibi ursi, tauri alibi,
alibi plaustri,2 alibi litterae figura, candidiore medio
per verticem circulo.

Equidem et consensu gentium moveor. namque
et Graeci nomine ornamenti appellavere eum et
nos a perfecta absolutaque elegantia mundum.
caelum quidem haut dubie caelati argumento dici-


I. THE world and this—whatever other name 
men have chosen to designate the sky whose vaulted 
roof encircles the universe, is fitly believed to be a
deity, eternal, immeasurable, a being that never
began to exist and never will perish. What is out-
side it does not concern men to explore and is not
within the grasp of the human mind to guess. It is
sacred, eternal, immeasurable, wholly within the
whole, nay rather itself the whole, finite and
resembling the infinite, certain of all things and
resembling the uncertain, holding in its embrace all
things that are without and within, at once the work
of nature and nature herself.

That certain persons have studied, and have dared 
to publish, its dimensions, is mere madness;. and
again that others, taking or receiving occasion from
the former, have taught the existence of a countless
number of worlds, involving the belief in as many
systems of nature, or, if a single nature embraces
all the worlds, nevertheless the same number of
suns, moons and other unmeasurable and innumer-
able heavenly bodies, as already in a single world;
just as if owing to our craving for some End the
same problem would not always encounter us at
the termination of this process of thought, or as if,
assuming it possible to attribute this infinity of
nature to the artificer of the universe, that same
property would not be easier to understand in a single
world, especially one that is so vast a structure.
It is madness, downright madness, to go out of that
world, and to investigate what lies outside it just as
if the whole of what is within it were already clearly
known ; as though, forsooth, the measure of anything
could be taken by him that knows not the measure
of himself, or as if the mind of man could see things
that the world itself does not contain.

II. Its shape has the rounded appearance of a
perfect sphere. This is shown first of all by the name
of ' orb ' which is bestowed upon it by the general
consent of mankind. It is also shown by the evidence
of the facts : not only does such a figure in all its
parts converge upon itself; not only must it sustain
itself, enclosing and holding itself together without
the need of any fastenings, and without experiencing
an end or a beginning at any part of itself; not only
is that shape the one best fitted for the motion with
which, as will shortly appear, it must repeatedly 
revolve, but our eyesight also confirms this belief,
because the firmament presents the aspect of a
concave  hemisphere equidistant  in every direction,
which would be impossible in the case of any other

III. The world thus shaped then is not at rest 
but eternally revolves with indescribable velocity,
each revolution occupying the space of 24 hours :
the rising and setting of the sun have left this not
doubtful. Whether the sound of this vast mass
whirling in unceasing rotation is of enormous
volume and consequently beyond the capacity of
our ears to perceive, for my own part I cannot easily
say—any more in fact than whether this is true of the
tinkling of the stars that travel round with it,
revolving in their own orbits; or whether it emits a
sweet harmonious music that is beyond belief
charming. To us who live within it the world
glides silently alike by day and night. Stamped
upon it are countless figures of animals and objects
of all kinds—it is not the case, as has been stated by
very famous authors, that its structure has an even
surface of unbroken smoothness, like that which we
observe in birds' eggs: this is proved by the evidence
of the facts, since from seeds of all these objects,
falling from the sky in countless numbers, particularly
in the sea, and usually mixed together, monstrous
shapes are generated; and also by the testimony
of sight—in one place the figure of a bear, in another
of a bull, in another a wain, in another a letter of the
alphabet," the middle of the circle across the pole
being more radiant.

For my own part I am also influenced by the
agreement of the nations. The Greeks have desig-
nated the world by a word that means ' ornament
and we have given it the name of mundus because
of its perfect finish and grace! As for our word
caelum, it undoubtedly has the signification
' engraved,' as is explained by Marcus Varro.
Further assistance is contributed by its orderly



Note: I've taken no pains with the Latin to proof it - it's enough for the purpose of dealing with this myth.

Constructive feedback is welcomed to Roger Pearse.

Written 14th June 2002. Updated with extract from chapters 64-5 on 9th November 2020.

This page has been online since 14th June 2002.

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