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Pliny's world: All the facts and then some

In A.D. 77 a workaholic called Pliny the Elder published the first encyclopedia, Natural History. Headless people were among the many marvels

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Gaius Plinius Secundus, the man we know as Pliny the Elder, was born in Como, Italy, in A.D. 23. By the time he died 56 years later, he had been a cavalry officer, an adviser to emperors and the author of at least 75 books, not to mention another 160 volumes of unpublished notebooks. He is remembered today for just one of those works, his 37-volume Natural History, in which he planned to "set forth in detail all the contents of the entire world."

It is a wonderful melange of the real and the fantastic, the never was and the never could be. He wrote of dog-headed people who communicated by barking, and people with no heads at all, their eyes in their shoulders. He wrote of snakes that launch themselves skyward to catch high-flying birds, and of the "basilisk serpent" of Africa, which kills bushes on contact, bursts rocks with its breath and is so venomous that when one was killed by a man on horseback, "the infection rising through the spear killed not only the rider but also the horse."

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