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‘Extra-Ordinary Knowledge’. Epistemic Forms of Representation in Roman Nature and Science Writing

25.11.2022 - 26.11.2022

Internationaler Workshop des latinistischen SFB-Teilprojekts „Die Anekdote als Medium des Wissenstransfers“ unter der Leitung von Prof. Dr. Melanie Möller

Miracula and mirabilia, both as material of collection and category in order to describe the effects of the material collected, play a crucial role in Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis historia. Due to this quality of content and form, one may assume, the epistemic status of the multifaceted topics and stocks of knowledge, ranging from cosmogony or geography to history, or from anthropology to zoology, botany, and medicine, is highly at stake: On the one hand, these miraculous facts and ‘para’-normal contents may lack credibility and validity; on the other hand, the very same ‘extra-ordinariness’ of these bits of knowledge and its touch of precariousness, excess, and oddity (cf. ‘para’-dox – according to Cicero the Greek equivalent of the Latin mirabile) can also show the seductive and captivating and thus epistemically convincing side of wonderous knowledge. One of the main aims of this workshop is to discuss the role of ‘extra-ordinary knowledge’ in Pliny’s work and to ask by which forms and strategies of representation it is implemented in the text.

‘Extra-ordinary knowledge’, as we suggest, frequently is represented through or combined with anecdotes (even if this term comes into being only in modern times) and other miniature narrative forms (such as apophthegmata, chriae, facetiae, or exempla). It seems reasonable to ask whether beyond these conventional forms even miraculum and mirabile per se can assume the role of a distinct miniature genre in Pliny. How do these forms – taking the anecdote, for instance, as an allegedly ‘ordinary’ (in the sense of being drawn from everyday life) and thus very accessible form – generally relate to the ‘extra-ordinariness’ of the knowledge conveyed by them? However, the generic diversity of small narratives may be essential when talking about Pliny’s encyclopedia as a whole: Whereas the tales of book 35, for example, commonly considered as anecdotes look back to a corresponding tradition of reception which has been lasting for centuries, we also want to take a glance at the less studied books of the colossal work. Particularly when considering the anecdote as a rather ‘anthropocentric’ genre – i.e. a genre which focuses on human actors, actions, and sayings in historic constellations – one might feel dubious about the use of one and the same narrative form both in art history or anthropology and zoology or botany. Is there a genuine place of the anecdote and other narrative devices in certain parts of the Naturalis Historia? Do Pliny’s frequent ‘animal tales’ require a less anthropocentric form – or, putting it the other way round, does the common form of the anecdote still match the animal actors inasmuch as anecdotes contribute to the anthropomorphism of Pliny’s animals? Is, therefore, Pliny’s representation of the animal world and the knowledge about it mostly dependent on and influenced by the generic implications of the anecdote?

Especially here, one of the core questions of our collaborative research center comes into play: How do knowledge and its representation reciprocally interfere? To what extent transfer and mediation of knowledge are shaped in correspondence with different narrative forms? What about the lack of narrativity, on the contrary? Due to Pliny’s encyclopedic project – when he excuses himself for being selective, rather descriptive than amusingly narrative, or even merely listing and obeying to a certain brevitas – we find a huge amount of passages which seem to be quite the opposite of narrativity. Particularly in those cases where we can detect a radical shift of representation – which might also be connected with a modulation of a certain ‘speed’ of the text and thus with different modes of reception by its readers – we can also steal a glance on the change of knowledge. This encyclopedic gesture, furthermore, involves questions about the ordering and structuration of knowledge which in Pliny’s case is partly echoed by markers which guide the continuous reader through the text and partly by a rich paratextual apparatus. How does this peculiar mode of representation apply to knowledge transfer?

Pliny’s initial paratext and regular statements throughout the text also admit the frequent use of both Roman and foreign sources. This brings in a first comparative component to our workshop which allows an intertextual and diachronic view of knowledge transfer: How do processes of restructuration and re-contextualization of topics and texts influence the transfer of knowledge? It might be interesting to ask whether also narrative forms or even concrete tales beyond the relevant topics take part in this process. So, what special role do small narrative units play in all this? Is there a constant stock of recurring narratives, and in what way does Pliny’s reuse of such stories mean a mere stabilization or rather a challenge of knowledge qua iteration? These questions of the recurrence of narrative structures and different microgenres are also relevant when tracing the reception of Pliny’s Naturalis Historia from Antiquity through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance up to the Early Modern Period. To what extent Pliny’s narrative and non-narrative strategies of representing knowledge are singular or rather exemplary within the greater genre of nature or science writing?

In order to broaden our perspective on the peculiarities of Roman specialist literature, a second comparative component shall complement and counterpoint our focus on Pliny’s Naturalis Historia. Amongst texts that share the analysis of natural phenomena a good piece of comparison can be Seneca’s Naturales Quaestiones which match a lot of particular topics treated contemporarily by Pliny such as climate, earthquakes, or the annual inundation of the Nile. Seneca’s work is relatively poor in anecdotes, but rich in moral exempla, narrative digressions, and other rhetorical features. Are these texts comparable at all? What can we learn by the comparison of their different modes of representation and how do they interfere with the knowledge that is to be transmitted? What role, again, do narrative or non-narrative strategies play in all this, and what role the different goals their authors envisage (the stoic viewpoint vs. the allegedly phenomenological approach to the wonders of nature) in connection with the character of the episteme constructed by them? What is Seneca’s literary answer in the view of the ‘extra-ordinariness’ of the world?


Friday, 25 November

Panel 1:
Prof. Dr. Melanie Möller, FU Berlin

Introduction by Prof. Dr. Melanie Möller and Dr. Matthias Grandl, FU Berlin

“Curiouser and Curiouser” … Pliny’s Naturalis Historia as ‘Enchantment’ of the World
by Dr. Matthias Grandl, FU Berlin

Coffee break

Panel 2:
Dr. Matthias Grandl, FU Berlin

Pliny’s Indices, Display of an Epistemic Architecture
by Prof. Dr. Anja Wolkenhauer, Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen

Coffee break

Styles of Knowledge: Some Thoughts on Language, Literary Form, and the Traffic of Ideas in the Younger Seneca and the Elder Pliny
by Prof. Dr. Gareth Williams, Columbia University New York

Conference dinner

Saturday, 26 November

Panel 3:
Dr. Christian Badura, FU Berlin

The Hail’s Watchers: Doxography and Superstition in Sen. Nat. 4b
by Prof. Dr. Francesca Romana Berno, Sapienza Università di Roma

Coffee break

Stories of Nature. On the Anecdotal Narration of Pliny’s Natural History
by Prof. Dr. Ágnes Darab, University of Miskolc


Panel 4:
Fabian Zuppke, FU Berlin

The Importance of Being Tiny: Pliny the Elder and the Knowledge of Nature Through Tiny Entities
by Prof. Dr. Pedro Duarte, Université d’Aix-Marseille



To register, please send an email to: magrandl@zedat.fu-berlin.de

Zeit & Ort

25.11.2022 - 26.11.2022

Freie Universität Berlin
SFB 980 Episteme in Bewegung
Schwendenerstraße 8
14195 Berlin