Extract from the Natural History of Pliny the Elder
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Extract from the Natural History of Pliny the Elder

Pliny the Elder (AD 23 - 79) was a Roman soldier and administrator. He was a tireless collector of information, to the extent that he was killed whilst trying to observe an eruption of Mt Vesuvius at close quarters. His Natural History is a compilation of over 20,000 'facts' derived from over 2,000 earlier texts, covering subjects from astronomy to zoology. This makes it one of the most important sources of ancient knowledge and beliefs. The extract below (Book 6, paragraph 37) is the most complete classical description of the Canary Islands - though its difficult to relate much of the description to any modern map ! The principal source of information is Juba II, who was king of the Roman Protectorate of Mauretania in North Africa, and sent an expedition to explore the Canary Islands.

'Some people think that beyond the islands of Mauretania lie the Isles of Bliss (Canaries), and also some others of which Sebosus before mentioned gives not only the number but also the distances, reporting that Junonia (La Palma) is 750 miles from Cadiz, and that Pluvialia (El Hierro) and Capraria (La Gomera) are the same distance west from Junonia; that in Pluvialia there is no water except what is supplied by rain; that the Isles of Bliss are 250 miles WNW from these, to the left hand of Mauretania (Morocco), and that one is called Invallis (Tenerife ?) from its undulating surface and the other Planasia (Gran Canaria ?) from its conformation, Invallis measuring 300 miles round; and that on it trees grow to a height of 140 ft. About the Isles of Bliss Juba has ascertained the following facts; they lie in a southwesterly direction, at a distance of 625 miles sail from the Purple Islands, provided that a course be laid north of due west for 250 miles, and then east for 375 miles; that the first island reached is called Ombrios (El Hierro), and there are no traces of buildings upon it, but it has a pool surrounded by mountains, and trees resembling the giant fennel, from which water is extracted, the black ones giving a bitter fluid and those of brighther colour a juice that is agreeable to drink; that the second island is called Junonia, and that there is a small temple on it built of only a single stone; and that in its neighbourhood there is a smaller island of the same name, and then Capraria, which swarms with large lizards; and that in view from these islands is Ninguaria (Tenerife ?), so named from its perpetual snow, and wrapped in cloud; and next to it one named Canaria (Gran Canaria), from its multitude of dogs of a huge size (two of these were brought back for Juba). He said that in this island there are traces of buildings; that while they all have an abundant supply of fruit and of birds of every kind, Canaria also abounds in palm-groves bearing dates and in conifers; that in addition to this there is a large supply of honey, and also papryus grows in the rivers, and sheat-fish; and that these islands are plagued with the rotting carcasses of monstrous creatures that are constantly being cast ashore by the sea.'

Translation by H. Rackham, first published 1942, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press.

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Last modified: 13 December 2010