Lucretius(?–c. 55 BCE)

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(?c. 55 BCE)

Little is known of Lucretius (d. ca. 55 BCE [Donatus, Life of Virgil ] or perhaps a few years later; cf. Hutchinson 2001) apart from his poem in six books, On the Nature of Things (De rerum natura ), an exposition in Latin hexameters of the doctrines of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who lived two centuries earlier. Saint Jerome, in his Chronicle (Olympiad 171.3), claims that he committed suicide as a result of taking a love potion, and that he wrote his poem "in intervals of insanity," presumably meaning between, rather than during, such episodes. Jerome also asserts that Cicero "emended" Lucretius' text, that is, corrected it for publication, after his death (as Jerome gives it) in 51/50. It is possible that this is an inference from a letter of Cicero's to his brother (2.9, February 54 BCE), in which he praises Lucretius' poem, though Cicero himself had translated the Greek poet Aratus into Latin hexameters, and might well have taken an interest in a fellow poet's work.

Internal evidence reveals some repetitions and inconsistencies (e.g., the doublet at 4.4553 and 4.2644), which Lucretius would doubtless have eliminated in a final version; Lucretius also states that he will treat in greater detail the nature and habitation of the gods (5.155), but no such passage survives. Some scholars have supposed that he planned to include it in a seventh or even later book, and that accordingly the poem as we have it is radically incomplete; in particular, Lucretius did not intend to conclude with the depressing spectacle of the Athenian plague (summary of views in Boyancé 1963: 7983). But there are good justifications for this ending, and Lucretius could have changed his mind about the theological section, or treated it briefly within the compass of the poem as we have it. In the proem to Book 6 (9194) he indicates plainly that he is approaching the end of the poem.

The Pre-Socratic philosophers Parmenides and Empedocles had written treatises in verse, and Empedocles' poem, which Lucretius regarded highly enough to deem its author "godlike" (1.716741), may have borne the same title (Peri phuseôs, or perhaps the even closer Peri phuseôs tôn ontôn : Sedley 1998: 2122; the title may not have been Empedocles' own: Schmalzriedt 1970), and may have extended to several thousand lines (Diogenes Laertius 8.77). Empedocles' proem was likely a model for Lucretius' own (Gale 1994: 5974; Sedley 1998: 134). Later, the medium for philosophy was decidedly prose, and Epicurus himself was suspicious of poetry (fr. 229 Usener; cf. Gale 1994: 1418). In the Hellenistic period (thirdfirst centuries BCE), didactic poetry was composed on a variety of topics, from astronomy and farming to poisonous snakes, but these genre pieces were not usually intended to provide serious instruction; Lucretius' poem was. He succeeds remarkably in conveying rigorous arguments concerning such matters as the constitution of the universe, which for the Epicureans was composed solely of atomic matter and empty space (Books 12), the materialist basis of perception and cognition (Books 34), and the evolution of the earth and of human civilization (Book 5), along with such special topics as the nature of magnetism (Book 6), even as he struggles with the relative poverty of the Latin philosophical vocabulary, as opposed to Greek (1.13639, 832, 3.260; cf. Cicero De finibus 3.51).

Given the mainly fragmentary or hostile character of our sources concerning Epicurus' doctrines (three short essays by Epicurus in the form of letters are reproduced by Diogenes Laertius, Book 10), Lucretius provides the single extended exposition of Epicurean physics that survives by a follower of the school. Doubtless, the medium of verse imposed some limitations, and Lucretius' understanding of certain points was perhaps faulty, but the poem is immensely valuable for the history of philosophy. It is also a magnificent work of literature, shot through with a moral passion that brightens even the most painstaking arguments about atoms and void.

Sources and Originality

This said, it is obviously important to determine what sources Lucretius himself employed, and over this question there is considerable controversy. It is in principle possible that Lucretius relied on no particular text but composed an independent poetical treatise based on his immersion in Epicureanism (Clay 1983: 31). David Sedley (1998), in turn, has argued forcefully that Lucretius adhered principally to a single treatise by EpicurusOn Nature and was almost completely indifferent to or unaware of more recent currents in Epicureanism, or of ongoing debates with other schools, above all the Stoics (he dubs Lucretius a "fundamentalist" in this respect; cf. Furley 1967). Other scholars have seen clear indications of later influences in Lucretius' poem, for example in his attack on skepticism (Vander Waerdt 1989, Lévy 1997), his account of socio-political evolution (Schrijvers 1996 detects the influence of Polybius' theory of constitutions), and his arguments against teleology (Schmidt 1990: 152160). Some have found it implausible that Lucretius should have been wholly isolated from the contemporary revival of Epicureanism in Italy, and have sought to demonstrate parallels between Lucretius' poem and the treatises of Philodemus (Kleve 1997), burned and buried in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE, but still partly legible. Evidence that Lucretius' poem was among the scrolls in Philodemus' library remains inconclusive.

No one denies that Lucretius composed more freely in the proems with which he prefaced each of the six books, where, for example, he speaks of Venus as the ancestress of the Romans (1.1), and often too in the conclusions, or that he sometimes resorted to other sources than Epicurus (e.g., the description of the plague, based closely on Thucydides 2.4754; cf. the analysis of passionate love at the end of Book 4, esp. vv. 11211191, and the personification of Nature scolding the man who fears death at 3.931977, both indebted to Greek styles of diatribe [Wallach 1976, Reinhardt 2002]). So too, his choice of imagery in technical passages is frequently his own, for instance his illustration of the flow of thin membranes or simulacra from the surface of objects by reference to the colors cast on the audience by the awnings stretched above a Roman amphitheater (4.7583). Some passages are more difficult to decide. When Lucretius explains the drive to accumulate wealth as a function of the fear of death, he says that poverty is imagined the "antechamber to hell" (3.6569). Is this a Lucretian metaphor, or a piece of Epicurean doctrine? So too, Lucretius affirms that the legendary torments in the underworld, like Tantalus' perpetual hunger and the Danaids' task of carrying water in leaky pails, are really images of the forever frustrated pursuit of wealth and power in this world (3.9781023). This may be a poetical flourish, but conceivably it reflects a genuine Epicurean explanation of the fear of punishment in the afterlife (Konstan 1973: 1327).

Apart from such passages, in its broad outline Lucretius' poem conforms to the subjects that we know Epicurus treated in his principal statement of his views, above all his On Nature (Peri phuseôs ), of which some substantial, though lacunose, fragments have been recovered on papyrus (see Sedley 1998: 133 for a possible reconstruction). To all appearances, Lucretius set about to versify a treatise on the atomic theory, and its implications for human psychology and society. He did not incorporate into his poem substantial arguments from Epicurus' ethical writings (for example, On Lives or On the End ; cf. Diogenes Laertius 10.30). What is more, he shows no interest in many of the issues with which Philodemus was concerned, such as rhetoric, literary theory, virtues and vices, governance, semiotics, or the right methods for training disciples, which became central concerns of the school after the founder's death. Nor does he engage systematically and polemically with later opponents of Epicureanism, or with dissident views within the school, as Philodemus does (cf. the debates that Cicero stages between Epicureans, Stoics, and Academics); if indeed there are traces of such controversies in his poem, it is nonetheless remarkable that the philosophers whom he refutes explicitly and at length are Empedocles, Heraclitus, Anaxagoras, and Democritus: no mention of later thinkers. His poem purports to present classical Epicureanism in a palatable but accurate form to a Roman publicsweetening the spoon of medicine, in Lucretius' image (1.936950, 4.1125). He describes himself as planting his feet in Epicurus' footprints (3.34, 5.5556), and this seems a fair statement of his intentions.

This fidelity to Epicurus' major exposition of his doctrine need not be taken as a sign of intellectual narrowness or a quasi-religious commitment to the word of the Master (Sedley 1998: 93). It was the custom of Hellenistic didactic poets to take as their source a scientific treatise, as Aratus, for example, did in his Phaenomena or Constellations, where he followed Eudoxus' work of the same name (fr. 3a Lasserre), even as he modelled his style on that of the archaic poet Hesiod. The Roman poet Ennius, whom Lucretius praises extravagantly despite his mistaken belief in the underworld (1.117126), did something similar when he rendered into prose the pseudo-scientific narrative of Euhemerus. Lucretius was writing as much in the sophisticated Alexandrian tradition as in that of the pre-Socratic poet-philosophers.

It is a separate question whether Lucretius sometimes altered Epicurus' order of presentation, and with this his chain of reasoning, and whether he added to or modified the arguments of the Master here and there, either independently or by mining other works of Epicurus or early Epicureans. He seems to claim some responsibility for the sequence in which he presents a series of proofs (1.52, 3.419420; cf. Clay 1983: 38). Sedley (1998: 148152) speculates that Lucretius planned a more extensive rearrangement of topics, but did not live to finish revising the entire poem. Lucretius may have been influenced also by the order of subjects in standard collections of doctrines, whether doxographies or rhetorical disquisitions (Runia 1997; on rhetoric, Classen 1986: 371).

Lucretius and Epicurean Doctrine

No doubt, Lucretius' vivid analogies and images are not without philosophical interest, though some will have had antecedents in Epicurus' works or elsewhere; for example, the proof of atomic motion from the visible vibration of dust motes in a sunbeam (2.114141), comparable to Brownian motion, was evidently already proposed by Democritus (cf. Aristotle De anima 404a34). The image of a flock of sheep on a distant hillside (2.317322), by which Lucretius illustrates how a compound may be seen as proceeding slowly although its constituent particles are moving rapidly, was likely Lucretius' own. Epicureanism tended, more than other ancient schools, to admit proof by analogya principal means of inferring the properties of the invisible atomic world from perceptible eventsand this favored the probative value of similes (cf. 2.112113). Isolating philosophically significant innovations in Lucretius, however, is a delicate task, given the scrappy condition of his principal source or sources (even where he composed freely rather than drawing on specific texts), and a novel comparison does not necessarily constitute a new argument.

In the circumstances, there are several ways to proceed. First, one may identify arguments in Lucretius that have no known parallel in Epicurus' own writings or those of later Epicureans; these at least are possible candidates for Lucretian innovation. Second, one may demonstrate Lucretius' dependence on some other, non-Epicurean source, e.g., Polybius or Thucydides, bearing in mind that Lucretius' references to early writers may have been filtered through Epicurus. Third, one may note specifically Roman or personal nuances of the sort that alter or affect in some measure orthodox Epicurean doctrine. Finally, one may discover places where Lucretius seems to disagree with what we know to have been Epicurus' view. The last is certainly the most dramatic, and indeed there is one apparent case of such a discrepancy: Lucretius speaks of four components of the soul (3.231245)air, ether, fire, and an unnamed, superfine elementwhereas Epicurus, in the Letter to Herodotus (63), mentions just three, and in somewhat different terms. It is hardly likely that Lucretius is silently introducing here a modification of Epicurean doctrine. Conceivably, he was simply mistaken; alternatively, and more probable, Epicurus' account in the Letter is compressed, and he elaborated the fuller view in the relevant, now lost, passage in On Nature (Sedley 1998: 71n47).

Given the state of Epicurean texts, Lucretius is often our best guide to Epicurean doctrine, especially since there is not sufficient reason to suppose that his treatment is original. For example, Lucretius appeals to the so-called swerve of atoms, by which they shift by a minimal amount in their downward course at no determinate time or place (2.216293), to account for free will and also for the initial interaction of atoms, which could not have collided had they maintained their natural downward motion at uniform speed. The latter argument seems particularly weak, since there is no beginning to the Epicurean universe, but it may nevertheless have been broached by Epicurus himself (cf. Fowler 2002: 301309). Lucretius' account of the development of human civilization departs from parallel treatments known from other writers (Cole 1967), among other ways by inserting passages on the origin of religion and of language; again, this sequence may very well go back to Epicurus himself (Konstan 1973: 4455; Campbell 2003: 1518, 283293). But Lucretius inclines to multiplying argumentsfor example, he offers 28 or 29 different proofs for the mortality of the soul (3.417614)and it is plausible that he may have added several to the common Epicurean stock, especially since only one or two are attested in Epicurus (Boyancé 1986: 141142).

Epicurus discouraged active participation in politics because it produced the kinds of psychological tensions that his teachings were designed to eliminate. Lucretius, however, expresses a desire for peace (1.2149) so that Memmius, the Roman aristocrat to whom he addresses his poem, will not have to engage in public service (perhaps an allusion to his praetorship in 58 BCE; Hutchinson (2001) sees a reference to the civil war that began in 49 BCE, and dates the poem to this period); in this way, Memmius will be free to dedicate himself to philosophy and achieve the tranquillity that Epicureanism held to be the goal of life. Epicureanism had a certain vogue among Roman nobles who had no intention of giving up their political status and activitiesJulius Caesar himself is said to have been an adherentand Lucretius was no doubt adapting his advice here to the outlook and social realities of his time (as did Philodemus). Whether this represents a change of principle or simply a tactical shift of rhetoric is difficult to say (cf. Fowler 1989).

Epicurus affirmed that sex should be avoided, since it has never done any good and is often harmful (Diogenes Laertius 10.118, fr. 62 Usener; VS 51); he also discouraged marriage (Diogenes Laertius 10.119 [textually corrupt], Epictetus Discourses 3.7.1920, etc.). Lucretius' attitude toward love and sex is not inconsistent with Epicurus' own, though Epicurus' surviving writings are not so fervent on the subject, but he appears, at the end of Book IV (12781287), to introduce a newly positive view of matrimony and parenthood (Nussbaum 1994: 185187; Brown 1987: 8791, 118122 sees no discrepancy here between Epicurus and Lucretius). Again, the fear of death, and of punishment in the afterlife, was the central cause of mental perturbation, according to Epicurus, and here too Lucretius is wholly in agreement; but his approach seems "more personal and emotional" than Epicurus' (Segal: 1990: 6; cf. 2733, 5154, 113; for the arguments, see Warren 2004); indeed, the Roman poet Statius spoke of the "burning passion of learned Lucretius" (Silvae 2.7.76). Further, Lucretius' anguished distress at the needless suffering of his fellow men (2.1419) lends his poetry a proselytizing fervor, and this, like the shuddering pleasure (3.2530) he experiences at the vision of a world without a hell, may seem to admit into Epicureanism a passion at odds with its goal of quietude.

Why did Lucretius end his poem with the grisly description of the plague that struck Athens in 429 BCE? Some scholars have supposed that it serves as a "final exam" in Lucretius' course on Epicureanism, testing whether readers have learned the lesson that death holds no terrors. This seems an adequate explanation (cf. Commager 1957, Bright 1971), even without an explicit moral to point the message. The plague is an accelerated image of life itself, which invariably terminates in death. Since Epicurus taught that pleasure does not increase with length of time (Principal Doctrines 1820; Lucretius 3.944945, 10801081), a life cut short by illness is not cause for apprehension.

Lucretius' poem immediately became famous: Virgil (Georgics 2.490492) wrote, "Blessed is he who is able to know the causes of things," with obvious reference to Lucretius (Ovid Amores 1.15.2324). Its rediscovery in the Renaissance inspired philosophical didactic poetry down through the eighteenth century, when the genre came to an end.

See also Empedocles; Epicurus.


texts and translations

Bailey, Cyril. Titi Lucreti Cari De Rerum Natura Libri Sex. 3 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1947.

Humphries, Rolfe. The Way Things Are: The De Rerum Natura of Titus Lucretius Carus. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1969.

Melville, Sir Ronald. Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe. With introduction and notes by D. and P. Fowler. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

Smith, Martin Ferguson. Lucretius: De Rerum Natura. With English translation by W. H. D. Rouse, revised with new text, introduction, and notes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (Loeb Classical Library), 1975.


Algra, Keimpe A., Pieter W. van der Horst, and David T. Runia, eds. Polyhistor: Studies in the History and Historiography of Ancient Philosophy. Presented to Jaap Mansfeld on his Sixtieth Birthday. Leiden: E. J. Brill, Philosophia Antiqua 72, 1996.

Algra, K.A., M.H. Koenen and P. H. Schrijvers, eds. Lucretius and his Intellectual Background. Amsterdam: Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1997.

Boyancé, Pierre. "La théorie de l'âme chez Lucrèce." In Probleme der Lukrezforschung, edited by Carl Joachim Classen, 131150. Hildesheim: Olms, 1986 (orig. 1958).

Boyancé, Pierre. Lucrèce et L'Épicurisme. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1963.

Bright, David F. "The Plague and the Structure of the De rerum natura." Latomus 30 (1971): 607632.

Brown, Robert D., ed. Lucretius on Love and Sex. A Commentary on De Rerum Natura IV, 10301287. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1987.

Campbell, Gordon. Lucretius on Creation and Evolution: A Commentary on De Rerum Natura Book Five Lines 7721104. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Classen, Carl Joachim. "Poetry and Rhetoric in Lucretius." In Probleme der Lukrezforschung, 331373. Hildesheim: Olms, 1986.

Classen, Carl Joachim, ed. Probleme der Lukrezforschung. Hildesheim: Olms, 1986.

Clay, Diskin. Lucretius and Epicurus. Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1983.

Cole, Thomas. Democritus and the Sources of Greek Anthropology. Cleveland: Press of Western Reserve University, 1967.

Commager, Henry Steele, Jr. "Lucretius' Interpretation of the Plague." Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 62 (1957): 105121.

Fowler, Don P. "Lucretius and Politics." In Philosophia Togata: Essays on Philosophy and Roman Society, edited by Miriam Griffin and Jonathan Barnes, 120150. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.

Fowler, Don. Lucretius on Atomic Motion. A Commentary on De Rerum Natura 2.1332. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Furley, David J. Two Studies in the Greek Atomists. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967.

Gale, Monica. Myth and Poetry in Lucretius. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Hutchinson, G. O. "The Date of De rerum natura." Classical Quarterly 51 (2001): 150162.

Kleve, Knut. "Lucretius and Philodemus." In Lucretius and his Intellectual Background, edited by Algra et al., 4966. Amsterdam: Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1997.

Konstan, David. Some Aspects of Epicurean Psychology. Leiden: E. J. Brill, Philosophia Antiqua 25, 1973.

Lévy, Carlos. "Lucrèce avaitil lu Enésideme?" In Lucretius and his Intellectual Background, edited by Algra et al. 115124. Amsterdam: Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1997.

Nussbaum, Martha C. The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Reinhardt, Tobias. 2002. "The Speech of Nature in Lucretius' De Rerum Natura 3.93171." Classical Quarterly 52: 291304.

Runia, David T. "Lucretius and Doxography." In Lucretius and his Intellectual Background, edited by Algra et al., 93103. Amsterdam: Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1997.

Schmalzriedt, Egidius. Peri physeos: Zur frühgeschichte der Buchtitel. Munich: Fink Verlag, 1970.

Schmidt, Jürgen. Lucrez, der Kepos, und die Stoiker. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, Studien zur klassischen Philologie 53, 1990.

Schrijvers, Piet H. "Lucretius on the Origin and Development of Political Life (De Rerum Natura 5.11051160)." In Polyhistor: Studies in the History and Historiography of Ancient Philosophy, 220230. Presented to Jaap Mansfeld on his sixtieth birthday. Leiden: E. J. Brill, Philosophia Antiqua 72, 1996.

Schrijvers, Piet H. Lucrèce et les sciences de la vie. Leiden: Brill, Mnemosyne Supplement 186, 1999.

Sedley, David. Lucretius and the Transformation of Greek Wisdom. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Segal, Charles. Lucretius on Death and Anxiety. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.

Vander Waerdt. "Colotes and the Epicurean Refutation of Skepticism." Greek Roman and Byzantine Studies 30 (1989): 225267.

Wallach, Barbara Price. Lucretius and the Diatribe against the Fear of Death. Leiden: Brill, Mnemosyne Supplement 40, 1976.

Warren, James. Facing Death: Epicurus and His Critics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

David Konstan (2005)