Herald of Opera asks:

So, it’s been nearly five years now, but I hope it’s not too late to remind you to tell us all about the centaur preserved in honey. You never told us about the centaur preserved in honey, and I don’t feel like looking up translations of Pliny the Elder’s work.

It’s never too late to ask me about Pliny the Elder.

So, in book 7, chapter 3 of the Natural History, Pliny is talking about unusual or miraculous births, beginning from twins and triplets, moving up to more… dubious reports.  He then says the following (my translation):

“It is written that Eutyche of Tralles was laid on her funeral pyre by 20 of her children, having borne 30, and Alcippe gave birth to an elephant.  However, this must be counted as a portent [i.e. the result of divine intervention; in Roman culture the gods were thought to convey their will or displeasure through miraculous or ominous events], just like when a slave girl gave birth to a snake at the beginning of the Marsian War; and there are a wide range of creatures born with multiform bodies that should also be considered omens.  Claudius Caesar [who, in addition to being Emperor, was a prolific historian] writes that a horse-centaur was born in Thessaly and died on the same day, and during his reign I myself saw one, brought to him from Egypt in honey.”

And, well, he could be making this up, but I don’t think that’s his style.  If Pliny says that he saw this centaur, I believe that he believes it.  I think it’s more likely that he was taken in by a hoax.  I think that some Roman bastard in Egypt, looking to curry favour with the Emperor, stitched together parts à la Fiji Mermaid from the dead bodies of a horse and a human (probably either a condemned criminal, whose bodies were sometimes used for medical experiments in Alexandria, or a slave, whom I can only hope died of natural causes) and Fed-Exed the awful thing to Claudius in Rome.  The honey would have kept it “fresh,” because – as the Romans apparently knew, on the basis of this passage – honey has antibacterial properties.  There are jars of honey found in Egyptian tombs of the New Kingdom that are still recognisable as honey and theoretically still edible, although I don’t think anyone has dared to try it.  It was probably the best substance readily available at the time for preserving biological specimens.

I want to imagine a sort of fish-tank setup with big transparent panes of glass and clear golden honey so you could actually see the alleged centaur floating inside.  Sadly, as a Roman glass nerd I know that in Claudius’ time even the Emperor would probably not have been able to get hold of large glass panes of high enough quality to create a setup like that.  More likely, it was sent to Claudius stuffed into a big terracotta jar, and he kept it there and had someone fish it out for Pliny to take a look.

The Romans were weird people.

One thought on “Herald of Opera asks:

  1. Yeah, I’ve actually heard of the ancient Egyptian tomb honey before. I feel like someone must have tried to eat it during the days when they’d powder and snort mummies (we’re not any less weird than the Romans, and someone who studies history for a living should know that).

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s