Scene: Pliny the Elder’s open atrium podcast studio in Misenum, Bay of Naples, August 24th, 79 CE
Pliny E: Welcome listeners & toga wearers. This is again, Gaius Plinius Secundus coming to you direct from Misenum on this lovely August day for another edition of Semper Esurientem (“Always Hungry”). Today we’re going to explore a bit of natural history and talk about a lovely new fruit we’ve seen gain in popularity in Italy in the last 30 years. You’ll be joining me on an agricultural exploration. Welcome. . .
Jaunty pan flute and harp intro music
Pliny E: Let’s talk about the Perscia, also called the Persian Apple or Peach. I wrote about this lovely fruit in Book 15 of my Natural History series that was published two years ago. I’d like to read a bit from chapters 11 and 13 to you today.
“Among the peaches the palm must be awarded to the duracinus:136 the Gallic and the Asiatic peach are distinguished respectively by the names of the countries of their origin. They ripen at the end of autumn, though some of the early 137 kinds are ripe in the summer. It is only within the last thirty years that these last have been introduced; originally they were sold at the price of a denarius a piece. Those known as the “supernatia”138 come from the country of the Sabines, but the “popularia” grow everywhere.
This is a very harmless fruit, and a particular favorite with invalids: some, in fact, have sold before this as high as thirty sesterces apiece, a price that has never been exceeded by any other fruit. This, too, is the more to be wondered at, as there is none that is a worse keeper: for, when it is once plucked, the longest time that it will keep is a couple of days; and so sold it must be, fetch what it may.”
Pliny the Younger, age 17, enters podcast studio.
Pliny Y: Uncle, it’s really not very frigus of you to use the word “invalids.” Perhaps you could just say it’s good for people who are feeling sick. As you said yourself in Chapter 8 of Book 18, about that maxim of Cato’s: that it is both profitable and humane to “Always act in such a way as to secure the love of your neighbors.”
Pliny E: “Oh, young man. Yes. Yes. Did you feel the earth tremor earlier?
Ok. So, the Persian Apple. Here’s what I say in Chapter 13, again from Book 15 of my Natural History series, available at your local taberna librarii.
Pliny the Elder looks up at a plume of smoke rising from the top of Mt. Vesuvius across the Bay and thinks perhaps rain is brewing. He goes back to reading from his Natural History.
“As to the peach-tree, it has been only introduced of late years, and with considerable difficulty; so much so, that it is perfectly barren in the Isle of Rhodes, the first resting-place 2 that it found after leaving Egypt.
It is quite untrue that the peach which grows in Persia is poisonous, and produces dreadful tortures, or that the kings of that country, from motives of revenge, had it transplanted in Egypt, where, through the nature of the soil, it lost all its evil properties—for we find that it is of the “persea”3 that the more careful writers have stated all this, 4 a totally different tree, the fruit of which resembles the red myxa, and, indeed, cannot be successfully cultivated anywhere but in the East. The learned have also maintained that it was not introduced from Persis into Egypt with the view of inflicting punishment, but say that it was planted at Memphis by Perseus; for which reason it was that Alexander gave orders that the victors should be crowned with it in the games which he instituted there in honour of his 5 ancestor: indeed, this tree has always leaves and fruit upon it, growing immediately upon the others.”
A large and growing plume of smoke and ash rises high above Vesuvius. Both Plinys, Elder and Younger, get up and stare. Pliny turns back to his microphone.
Pliny E: “Well my loyal listeners and natural history explorers, we may have a natural history event on our hands that needs further investigation. This is Gaius Plinius Secundus, signing off and wishing you a happy August. Enjoy the end of the summer fruit season and remember, carpe diem!
The Naturalist & the Volcano
Pliny the Elder is credited with writing the first Encyclopedia of Natural History which was published in 77 CE. While it is not necessarily always accurate by modern standards, it is fascinating to read as a view into the perspective of his time about fruit and other produce that we still enjoy today. You can also read Pliny the Younger’s letters describing the eruption of Mt. Vesivus and his uncle Pliny the Elder’s attempt to rescue people and his subsequent death from poisonous volcanic gasses.
Don’t Fear the Fuzz
Peaches have a natural fuzz on their skin that protects them from excess moisture and insects. It is edible and a great source of fiber. Modern peaches are bred and brushed to have less fuzz, which some people don’t like. Heirloom peaches from small farms and farmers markets often will have more fuzz than other varieties.