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In the preceding chapter, we met at the end of Lucretius' proem his famous apology on behalf of the Latin language (1136–45), in which helaments the linguistic struggle that he faces (1136–9):
nec me animi fallit Graiorum obscura reperta
difficile inlustrare Latinis versibus esse,
multa novis verbis praesertim cum sit agendum
propter egestatem linguae et rerum novitatem.
Nor do I fail to appreciate that it is difficult to illuminate in Latin
verse the dark discoveries of the Greeks, especially because much use must be made of new words, given the poverty of our language and the newness of the subject matter.
In §§2–7 of this chapter I shall be considering how he handles this task of Latinising the technical terms of Epicurean philosophy. In §§8–13 Ishall turn to his own poetic use of Greek loan-words and idioms. The two practices will come out looking antithetical to each other. At the end I shall suggest how we are meant to interpret this antithesis. What may start out looking like an issue of linguistic mechanics will turn out, if I am right, to reveal a fundamental tension in Lucretius' evaluation of his own poetic and philosophical task.
The cataclysmic eruption of Vesuvius in ad 79 buried the town of Herculaneum in a torrent of boiling mud. Streams of lava from subsequent eruptions increased its depth to some hundred feet below the surface. Not surprisingly, the teams of excavators assigned to the site from 1709 onwards by the Bourbon rulers of Naples did not consider uncovering the buildings from above, but chose instead to plunder their contents by means of underground tunnels. The most spectacular discovery was made during the 1750s – a vast suburban villa containing an art collection of unrivalled magnicence. The excavation of the villa proceeded, room by room, over a period of many years. Towards the end of the second year, workmen excavating the tablinum began to happen upon black lumps which they mistook for charcoal. Many they threw away or took home to kindle their fires, and it was only when the fragments of one which had been dropped were seen to contain writing that they were recognised as rolls of papyrus.
The tablinum was a pleasant room looking out onto the garden on one side and onto a portico on the other, with a mosaic floor and, down the centre, a row of eight bronze busts. The papyrus scrolls were found strewn around the room, together with a few wax tablets.
Lucreti poemata ut scribis ita sunt, multis luminibus ingeni, multae tamen artis. sed cum veneris, virum te putabo si Sallusti Empedoclea legeris, hominem non putabo.
Writing to his brother in 54 bc, Cicero supplies two unique testimonies (Ad Q. fr. II 9.4). In the first sentence he echoes Quintus' admiration for Lucretius' poem, thus providing the sole allusion to the De rerum natura likely to be more or less contemporary with its publication. In the second, he attests the publication of an Empedoclea by a certain Sallustius, presumably a Latin translation or imitation of Empedocles (compare Cicero's own near-contemporary use of the title Aratea for his translation of Aratus).
But even more striking than the two individual testimonies is their juxtaposition. Modern editors have taken to printing a full stop after sed cum veneris, understanding ‘But when you come … (sc. we will discuss it).’ This suppresses any overt link between the two literary judgements: the first breaks off abruptly with an aposiopesis, and the second, juxtaposed, is to all appearances a quite independent observation. On the equally natural and more uent reading that can be obtained simply by reverting to the older punctuation, as printed above, with a comma instead of the full stop, the letter is an explicit comparison between the DRN and the Empedoclea:
Lucretius' poetry shows, as you say in your letter, many flashes of genius, yet also much craftsmanship. On the other hand, when you come, I shall consider you a man if you have read Sallustius' Empedoclea, though I won't consider you human.
The old quarrel between poetry and philosophy may have simmered down, but in Lucretian studies the two do not always manage to be as willing allies as they ought to be. Lucretius used poetry to illuminate philosophy. My aim in this book is to use philosophy to illuminate poetry.
Lucretius' achievements as a poet to a large extent lie in his genius for transforming Epicurean philosophy to t a language, a culture and a literary medium for which it was never intended. In order to understand how he has brought about this transformation, we need to know all we can about what he was transforming and how he set about his task.
In Chapter 1, ‘The Empedoclean opening’, I try to show how he denes the pedigree of his literary medium. It is the poetic genre of the hexameter poem on physics, pioneered by Empedocles. Lucretius' way of proclaiming this, I argue, is to write a proem which emphasises the nature and extent of his debt to Empedocles.
In Chapter 2, ‘Two languages, two worlds’, I turn to a neglected linguistic aspect of Lucretius' enterprise, his ambiguous relationship with the Greek language. The transition from Epicurus' technical Greek prose to Lucretius' largely untechnical Latin verse is not merely a formidable task of conversion, it is also an opportunity for Lucretius to map out an interrelation between two cultures.
I argued in Chapter 5 that Lucretius, for reasons perhaps connected with the enormous size of his Greek source text, initially drew large quantities of material from it en bloc, following its order of exposition fairly mechanically. In a second phase, he set about reorganising it into the carefully structured six-book poem that we know. But he did not live to complete the task. By the time of his death he had got as far as reversing books III and IV into their present numbered order; and he had, as far as I can tell, fully reworked the contents of books I–III. However, he had plans for the reorganisation of books IV–VI which can be recovered from his proems, but which he did not live to put into effect. In their present state, books IV–VI to a large extent simply reproduce the sequence of the corresponding books of On nature. It is likely that the same was true of the opening books in the first phase of composition.
In this chapter I want to give an idea of what the completed reorganisation of his material in books I–III may have involved. But I shall select for the purpose the contents of book I only. Even here I shall largely pass over the proem, which I have dealt with separately in Chapter 1.
This book is designed to appeal both to those interested in Roman poetry and to specialists in ancient philosophy. In it David Sedley explores Lucretius' complex relationship with Greek culture, in particular with Empedocles, whose poetry was the model for his own, with Epicurus, the source of his philosophical inspiration, and with the Greek language itself. He includes a detailed reconstruction of Epicurus' great treatise On Nature, and seeks to show how Lucretius worked with this as his sole philosophical source, but gradually emancipated himself from its structure, transforming its raw contents into something radically new. By pursuing these themes, the book uncovers many unrecognised aspects of Lucretius' methods and achievements as a poetic craftsman.
In Chapter 3, I built my case for regarding Lucretius as an Epicurean fundamentalist, feeding directly on the writings of his school's founder, and uninterested in pursuing the history of philosophy beyond the zenith which Epicurus himself represented. In Chapter 4, I have put together a dossier on Epicurus' major physical treatise, On nature, seeking to understand why it was at once the most demanding and the most valued of all Epicurus' texts. Drawing on these findings, the present chapter will defend the following account of Lucretius' procedure when composing the De rerum natura.
Lucretius' sole Epicurean source, I shall argue, was Epicurus' On nature, and, of that, mainly the first fifteen of its thirty-seven books. Initially he followed its sequence of topics very closely, indeed almost mechanically. But to some extent as he proceeded, and to a greater extent during a phase of rewriting, he developed a radically revised structure for the whole. At his death, the reorganisation of DRN I–II was (so far as I can judge) complete. For books IV–VI, however, he had plans which can still to some extent be discerned from his proems, but which he did not live to put into operation.
The Lucretian material of which I am speaking is the physical exposition in the main body of all six books.
The aim of this chapter is to consolidate a picture, which has been growing in the preceding two chapters, of the vital role of Theophrastus in Lucretius' poem.
I shall start with a close look at one particular text, Theophrastus, fr. 184 FHS&G, which I shall argue lies directly behind a series of arguments in Lucretius book V.
Philo (ll. 1–4, De aeternitate mundi 117) reports as follows:
Theophrastus, however, says that those who assert that the world is subject to coming-to-be and passing away were led astray by four principal considerations: (1) the unevenness of the land, (2) the withdrawal of the sea, (3) the dissolution of each of the parts of the whole, (4) the perishing of whole kinds of land animals.
The text then goes on to amplify these four arguments (ll. 4–89, Aet. 118–31). Finally comes a refutation of each of the four in turn.
The four arguments attacked by Theophrastus were identied by Zeller as belonging to Zeno of Citium. As a result, the first part of the same text became Zeno fr. 56 in Pearson's collection, and Zeno fr. 106 in vol. I of von Arnim's Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta. They are still often regarded as Zenonian, despite the reservations that have been voiced from time to time about the passage's credentials. Zeller's proposal is chronologically hard to sustain, and I shall be maintaining that a better explanation of the arguments' origin is available.
Virtually no facts about Lucretius' life have been determined by modern scholarship, beyond a consensus that it was spent mainly if not entirely in Italy, and that it terminated in the 50s bc. But for a Roman with philosophical leanings those two facts in themselves ought to speak volumes. He could hardly have chosen a better time to be alive. The last fifty years of the Roman Republic were a period of unsurpassed philosophical upheaval in the Graeco-Roman world. And for the first time ever the philosophical centre of gravity was shifting away from Athens, with Italy capturing more than its share of the action. The events of the Mithridatic War (91–86 bc) – in particular, by a curious historical irony, the regime of the Epicurean tyrant Aristion (88–86) – had driven many philosophers out of the city. The Athenian schools were no longer guaranteed the status of international headquarters for their respective movements. And in the resultant diaspora, many philosophers found their way to Italy. Here a ready-made audience awaited them, including plenty of Romans who had already trained at Athens in one or more of the philosophical schools.
The leading gures of the Academy, Philo of Larissa and Antiochus of Ascalon, conducted their well advertised rift over the true nature of their Platonic legacy not in Athens but from bases in Rome and Alexandria respectively. And both became important figures at Rome, where their influence on leading public figures was considerable.
This book is the partial repayment of a debt. It was my desire to understand Lucretius better that led me into postgraduate research on Epicureanism. And, even more than the philosophy component of my Greats course at Oxford, it was that postgraduate research on Epicureanism that emboldened me to pursue the study of ancient philosophy as a career. It would therefore be only a small exaggeration to say that I learnt ancient philosophy in order to understand Lucretius. Until recently I have ventured little about Lucretius in print, but I have been thinking about him throughout my teaching career at Cambridge. This book is the outcome, and my way of thanking its eponymous hero.
My fascination with Lucretius was fuelled when as an Oxford undergraduate I had the good fortune, in 1966–7, to attend the wonderful lectures on Lucretius by the then Corpus Professor of Latin, Sir Roger Mynors. Mynors told us that he had himself in his early days been enthralled by Cyril Bailey's Lucretius lectures, none of whose brilliance, he remarked, showed through into Bailey's later monumental edition of the poet (‘He had gone o the boil’). I like to think that some excitement from the real Bailey ltered through to me in those lectures.
Another debt is to David Furley, whose book Two Studies in the Greek Atomists I came across in Blackwell's while studying Aristotle for Greats.
The quotation from Cicero with which I began Chapter 1 remains as acute an evaluation of Lucretius as any. His is indeed a poem which displays many ashes of genius but also much craftsmanship. If I have had more to say about the craftsmanship, my excuse is that genius is best left to speak for itself.
Lucretius' artistry was expended upon the creation of a most remarkable poem. Its main lling is fteen books' worth of technical physics from Epicurus' On nature, painstakingly assembled and systematically reshaped into a poetic masterpiece. The upshot was a dazzlingly delivered message of salvation designed to whet the intellectual appetites of a Roman audience, and to satisfy their emotional needs, without once asking them to compromise their own Romanness.
This filling is sandwiched between two antithetical yet curiously complementary descriptive passages. One is an Empedoclean hymn to birth and life, which, while laying Lucretius' chosen theme of nature before us in all its glory, also locates the poem by reference to fixed coordinates on the map of Graeco-Roman poetry. The other is the Thucydidean tableau of pestilence and death, which establishes a further set of co-ordinates, this time chronological: it shows why even in Athens, the cradle of civilisation, it was only the advent of Epicurus' philosophy that could successfully fortify the human spirit against everything that fortune might cast its way.
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