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Titus Lucretius Carus

Lucretius (artist's impression)
Full name Titus Lucretius Carus
Born ca. 99 BCE
Died ca. 55 BCE
Era Hellenistic philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
School Epicureanism
Main interests ethics, metaphysics

Titus Lucretius Carus (ca. 99 BC- ca. 55 BC) was a Roman poet and philosopher. His only known work is the epic philosophical poem on Epicureanism De rerum natura, translated into English as On the Nature of Things or "On the Nature of the Universe".


Life of Lucretius

Very little is known about Lucretius's life; the only certain fact is that he was either a friend or a client of Gaius Memmius, to whom he dedicated De Rerum Natura.

Another piece of information is found in a letter Cicero wrote to his brother Quintus in February 54 BCE. Cicero writes: "The poems of Lucretius are as you write: they exhibit many flashes of genius, and yet show great mastership." Apparently, by February 54 BCE both Cicero and his brother had read De Rerum Natura. However, internal evidence from the poem suggests that it was published without a final revision, possibly due to its author's untimely death. If this is true, Lucretius must have been dead by February 54 BCE.

Virgil writes in the second book of his Georgics, clearly referencing Lucretius,[1] "Happy is he who has discovered the causes of things and has cast beneath his feet [subiecit pedibus; cf. Lucretius 1.78, religio pedibus subiecta, "religion lies cast beneath our feet"] all fears, unavoidable fate, and the din of the devouring Underworld."

A brief biographical notice is found in Aelius Donatus's Life of Virgil, which seems to be derived from an earlier work by Suetonius.[2] The statement runs as follows: "The first years of his life Virgil spent in Cremona, right until the assumption of his toga virilis, which he accepted on his 17th birthday, when the same two men held the consulate, as when he was born, and it so happened that on the very same day Lucretius the poet passed away." The information in this testimony is internally inconsistent. Virgil was born in 70 BCE, and his 17th birthday therefore took place in 53 BCE. However, the two consuls of 70 BCE, Pompey and Crassus, stood together as consuls again in 55, not 53. So which year should we take as the year of Lucretius's death?

A yet more brief notice is found in the Chronicon of Donatus's pupil, Jerome. Writing 4 centuries after Lucretius's death, he enters under the 171st Olympiad, the following line: "Titus Lucretius the poet is born. Later he was driven mad by a love potion, and when, during the intervals of his insanity, he had written a number of books, which were later emended by Cicero, he killed himself by his own hand in the 44th year of his life." The claim that he was driven mad by a love potion, although defended by some,[3] is often dismissed as the result of historical confusion,[4] or anti-Epicurean slander.[5] Similarly, the statement that Cicero emended (Latin: emendavit) the work prior to publication is doubtful.[6] The exact date of his birth varies by manuscript; in most it is tallied under 94 BCE, but in others under 93 or 96.

It is impossible to know how credible the accounts of Donatus and Jerome are, since they wrote long after the poet's death and we do not know the sources of their off-hand comments. However, if we have to pick one of the dates mentioned above, 55 BCE would be Lucretius's most likely year of death, and if Jerome is accurate about Lucretius's age (43) when he died, we can then conclude he was born in 99 or 98 BCE.[7] These are a lot of ifs, and it may be wisest to simply say that Lucretius was born in the 90s and died in the 50s BCE.[8] This ties in well with the poem's many allusions to the tumultuous state of political affairs in Rome and its civil strife.

Purpose of the poem

According to Lucretius's frequent statements in his poem, the main purpose of the work was to free Gaius Memmius's (and presumably all of mankind's) mind of superstition and the fear of death. He attempts this by expounding the philosophical system of Epicurus, whom Lucretius apotheosizes as the hero of his epic poem.

Lucretius identifies superstition (religio in the Latin) with the notion that the gods/supernatural powers created our world or interfere with its operations in any way. He argues against fear of such gods by demonstrating through observations and logical argument that the operations of the world can be accounted for entirely in terms of natural phenomena—the regular but purposeless motions and interactions of tiny atoms in empty space—instead of in terms of the will of the gods.

He argues against the fear of death by arguing that death is the dissipation of a being's material mind. Lucretius uses the analogy of a vessel, stating that the physical body is the vessel that holds both the mind (mens) and spirit (anima) of a human being. Neither the mind nor spirit can survive independent of the body. Thus Lucretius states that once the vessel (the body) shatters (dies) its contents (mind and spirit) can, logically, no longer exist. So, as a simple ceasing-to-be, death can be neither good nor bad for this being. Being completely devoid of sensation and thought, a dead person cannot miss being alive. According to Lucretius, fear of death is a projection of terrors experienced in life, of pain that only a living (intact) mind can feel. Lucretius also puts forward the 'symmetry argument' against the fear of death. In it, he says that people who fear the prospect of eternal non-existence after death should think back to the eternity of non-existence before their birth, which they probably do not fear.

Structure of the poem

The structure of the poem over the six books falls into two main parts. The first three books provide a fundamental account of being and nothingness, matter and space, the atoms and their movement, the infinity of the universe both as regards time and space, the regularity of reproduction (no prodigies, everything in its proper habitat), the nature of mind (animus, directing thought) and spirit (anima, sentience) as material bodily entities, and their mortality, since they and their functions (consciousness, pain) end with the bodies that contain them and with which they are interwoven. The last three books give an atomic and materialist explanation of phenomena preoccupying human reflection, such as vision and the senses, sex and reproduction, natural forces and agriculture, the heavens, and disease.

Style of the poem

His poem De Rerum Natura (usually translated as"On the Nature of Things" or "On the Nature of the Universe") transmits the ideas of Epicurean physics, which includes Atomism, and psychology. Lucretius was one of the first Epicureans to write in Latin.

Lucretius compares his work in this poem to that of a doctor healing a child: just as the doctor may put honey on the rim of a cup containing bitter wormwood (most likely Absinth Wormwood) believed to have healing properties, the patient is "tricked" into accepting something beneficial but difficult to swallow, "but not deceived" by the doctor (Book IV lines 12-19). The meaning of this refrain found throughout the poem is debatable.

Stylistically, most scholars attribute the full blossoming of Latin hexameter to Virgil. De Rerum Natura however, is of indisputable importance for the part it played in naturalizing Greek philosophical ideas and discourse in the Latin language and its influence on Virgil and other later poets. Lucretius's hexameter is very distinct from the smooth urbanity of Virgil or Ovid. His use of heterodynes, assonance, and vigorously syncopated Latin forms create a harsh acoustic to some ears, although this is probably merely an impression created by contrast with later poets and general unfamiliarity with Latin poetry recited by skilled readers. John Donne has a similar reputation in English poetry because of his powerful and thought-laden discourse. The sustained energy of Lucretius's poetry (even when treating highly technical particularities, such as the movement of atoms through space or the films which give rise to vision when they strike the eye) is virtually unparalleled in Latin literature, with the possible exception of parts of Tacitus's Annals, or perhaps Books II and IV of the Aeneid. The six books contain many formulaic elements such as deliberately repeated lines, refrains, and regularized emotional peaks.

Among many poetic high points a few should be mentioned. The introduction to Book I (the invocation to Venus and Spring) is unsurpassed, both in its initial ecstatic address to the life-force and regeneration, and in the celebration of the courage and clear-sightedness of Epicurus and the vitriolic polemic against superstition (Latin: "religio") which provide the bridge to the main didactic body of the poem. The opening sections of the various books emphasize the novelty of the undertaking Lucretius has set himself and the gratitude mankind owes to Epicurus for delivering it from unfounded terrors and an empty, joyless and servile life. And the great conclusions to Book III (on death and why it holds no terrors) and Book VI (on disease, especially the plague) are as graphic as anything in literature, as are various accounts throughout the poem of storms, battles, fire and flood.

Appreciation of Lucretius' work

Cornelius Nepos, in his Life Of Atticus, mentions Lucretius as one of the greatest poets of his times.

Ovid, in his Amores, writes: Carmina sublimis tunc sunt peritura Lucreti / exitio terras cum dabit una dies (which means the verses of the sublime Lucretius will perish only when a day will bring the end of the world).

Vitruvius (in the De Architectura), Quintilian (in his Institutiones Oratoriae) and Statius (in the Silvae) also show great admiration for the De Rerum Natura.

Michel de Montaigne, in one of his Essays, On Books, lists Lucretius among Virgil, Horace, and Catullus as his four top poets.

Lucretius has also had a marked influence upon modern philosophy, as perhaps the most complete expositor of Epicurean thought. His influence is especially notable in Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana, who praised Lucretius (along with Dante and Goethe) in his book 'Three Philosophical Poets.'

See also


  1. ^ M.F. Smith, "Introduction", De rerum natura, Loeb Classical Library
  2. ^ "This biography is formally and explicitly the work of Aelius Donatus. ... The Vita, however, in all probability is not his, ... but rather Suetonius', essentially unaltered." Nicholas Horsfall, (2000), A Companion to the Study of Virgil, page 3. BRILL.
  3. ^ "The story is considered by many a pure fable, but there are not a few scholars who see at least some truth to the story, not only because of a certain disorder in the poem, but also because of a certain poetic frenzy creating in not a few passages an exalted atmosphere and also because of the anxiety pervading the whole poem." Giovanni Reale, John R. Catan, (1980), A History of Ancient Philosophy: The Systems of the Hellenistic Age, page 414. SUNY Press
  4. ^ "If this story were true, it would be surprising that it was not used by Ovid half a century later in defending his Art of Love or by the fathers of the church attacking paganism and Epicureanism: it may be the result of a biographical reading of parts of Books 3 and 4, or of confusion with Lucretius' contemporary the politician C. Licinius Lucullus, of whom a similar story is told." Ronald Melville, Don Fowler, Peta Fowler, (1999), Lucretius: On the Nature of the Universe, page xii. Oxford University Press
  5. ^ "Since earlier writers show no knowledge of this story, it can confidently be dismissed as a fabrication, probably designed to undermine the credibility of the materialistic philosophy that Lucretius expounds." Martin Ferguson Smith, (2001), Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, page vii. Hackett
  6. ^ "Cicero's editorship has been denied on account of his hostility to Epicureanism and defended because of his interest in literature." Alexander Dalzell, (1982), Lucretius, in The Cambridge History of Classical Literature, page 39. Cambridge University Press.
  7. ^ Cyril Bailey in the "Prolegomena" of his 3-volume commentary on Lucretius' De Rerum Natura (1947), pp.1-3; and Martin Smith in the introduction to the Loeb edition of the poem (1992), pp.x-xi
  8. ^ E.J. Kenney in the introduction to his commentary on De Rerum Natura III (1971), p.6; and C.D.N. Costa in the introduction to his commentary on De Rerum Natura V (1984), p.ix


  • Lucretius. De Rerum Natura. (3 vols. Latin text Books I-VI. Comprehensive commentary by Cyril Bailey), Oxford University Press 1947.
  • On the Nature of Things, (1951 prose translation by R. E. Latham), introduction and notes by John Godwin, Penguin revised edition 1994, ISBN 0-14-044610-9
  • Lucretius (1971). De Rerum Natura Book III. (Latin version of Book III only– 37 pp., with extensive commentary by E. J. Kenney– 171 pp.), Cambridge University Press corrected reprint 1984. ISBN 0-521-29177-1

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Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Truths kindle light for truths.

Titus Lucretius Carus (ca. 99 BC - 55 BC) was a Roman poet and philosopher. His major work is De Rerum Natura, On the Nature of Things, which is considered by some to be the greatest masterpiece of Latin verse.



De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things)

  • Ergo vivida vis pervicet et extra
    processit longe flamentia moenia mundi
    atque omne immensum peragravit mente animoque.
    • The vivid force of his mind prevailed, and he fared forth far beyond the flaming ramparts of the heavens and traversed the boundless universe in thought and mind.
      • Book I, line 72.
  • Possunt ac fieri divino numine rentur.
    • Nothing can be created from nothing.
      • Book I, line 155.
  • Nequeunt oculis rerum primordia cerni.
    • The first beginnings of things cannot be distinguished by the eye.
      • Book I, line 268.
  • Stilicidi casus lapidem cavat, uncus aratri.
    • Continual dropping wears away a stone.
    • Book I, line 313. Compare: "The soft droppes of rain perce the hard marble; many strokes overthrow the tallest oaks", John Lyly, Euphues, 1579 (Arber's reprint), p. 81.
  • Etsi difficiile esse videtur credere quicquam
    in rebus solido reperiri corpore posse.
    transit enim fulmen caeli per saepta domorum,
    clamor ut ad voces; flamen candescit in igni
    dissiliuntque ferre ferventi saxa vapore.
    tum labefactatus rigor auri solvitur aestu;
    tum glacies aeris flamma devicta liquescit;
    permanat calor argentum penetraleque frigus
    quando utrumque manu retinentes pocula rite
    sensimus infuso lympharum rore superne.
    • And yet it is hard to believe that anything
      in nature could stand revealed as solid matter.
      The lightning of heaven goes through the walls of houses,
      like shouts and speech; iron glows white in fire;
      red-hot rocks are shattered by savage steam;
      hard gold is softened and melted down by heat;
      chilly brass, defeated by heat, turns liquid;
      heat seeps through silver, so does piercing cold;
      by custom raising the cup, we feel them both
      as water is poured in, drop by drop, above.
      • Book I, lines 487-496.
  • Ita res accedent lumina rebus.
    • Truths kindle light for truths.
      • Book I, line 1117.
  • Suave magni maro turbantibus aequora ventis
    e terra magnum alterius spectare laborem;
    non quia vexari quemquamst jucunda voluptas,
    sed quibus ipse malis careas quia cernere suave est.
    • Pleasant it is, when over a great sea the winds trouble the waters, to gaze from shore upon another's tribulation: not because any man's troubles are a delectable joy, but because to perceive from what ills you are free yourself is pleasant.
      • Book II, line 1.
  • Omnis cum in tenebris praesertim vita laboret.
    • Life is one long struggle in the dark.
      • Book II, line 54.
  • Sic rerum summa novatur
    semper, et inter se mortales mutua vivunt.
    augescunt aliae gentes, aliae
    inque brevi spatio mutantur saecla animantum
    et quasi cursores vitai lampada tradiunt.
    • Thus the sum of things is ever being renewed, and mortals live dependent one upon another. Some nations increase, others diminish, and in a short space the generations of living creatures are changed and like runners pass on the torch of life.
      • Book II, line 75.
  • Dum taxat, rerum magnarum parva potest res
    exemplare dare et vestigia notitiai.
    • So far as it goes, a small thing may give analogy of great things, and show the tracks of knowledge.
      • Book II, line 123.
  • Omnia qua propter debent per inane quietum
    aeque ponderibus non aequis concita ferri.
    • All things must needs be borne on through the calm void, moving at equal rate with unequal rates.
      • Book II, line 238.
  • Infidi maris insidis virisque dolumque
    ut vitare velint, neve ullo tempore credant
    subdola cum ridet placidi pellacia ponti.
    • Never trust her at any time, when the calm sea shows her false alluring smile.
      • Book II, line 558.
  • Cedit item retro, de terra quod fuit ante,
    in terras.
    • What once sprung from the earth sinks back into the earth.
      • Book II, line 999.
  • Quo magis in dubiis hominem spectare periclis
    convenit adversisque in rebus noscere qui sit;
    nam verae voces tum demum pectore ab imo
    eliciuntur et eripitur persona, manet res.
    • So it is more useful to watch a man in times of peril, and in adversity to discern what kind of man he is; for then at last words of truth are drawn from the depths of his heart, and the mask is torn off, reality remains.
      • Book III, line 55-8.
  • Nam veluti pueri trepidant atque omnia caecis
    in tenebris metuunt, sic nos in luce timemus
    interdum, nilo quae sunt metuenda magis quam
    quae pueri in tenebris pavitant finguntque futura.
    hunc igitur terrorem animi tenebrasque necessest
    non radii solis neque lucida tela diei
    discutiant sed naturae species ratioque.
    • For as children tremble and fear everything in the blind darkness, so we in the light sometimes fear what is no more to be feared than the things children in the dark hold in terror and imagine will come true.
      • Book III, line 87.
  • Nil igitur mors est ad nos neque pertinet hilum,
    quandoquidem natura animi mortalis habetur.
    • Therefore death is nothing to us, it matters not one jot, since the nature of the mind is understood to be mortal.
      • Book III, line 831.
  • Cur non ut plenus vitae conviva recedis
    aequo animoque capis securam, stulte, quietem?
    • Why dost thou not retire like a guest sated with the banquet of life, and with calm mind embrace, thou fool, a rest that knows no care?
      • Book III, line 938-9.
  • Nam petere imperium quod inanus nec datur umquam,
    atque in eo semper durum sufferre laborem,
    hoc est adverso nixantem trudere monte
    saxa quod tamen e summo iam vertice rursum
    volvitur et plani raptim petit aequora campi.
    • Yes, to seek power that's vain and never granted
      and for it to suffer hardship and endless pain:
      this is to heave and strain to push uphill
      a boulder, that still from the very top rolls back
      and bounds and bounces down to the bare, broad field.
      • Book III, lines 998-1002.
  • Nec prorsum vitam ducendo demimus hilum
    tempore de mortis nec delibare valemus.
    • By protracting life, we do not deduct one jot from the duration of death.
      • Book III, line 1087.
  • Ut quod ali cibus est aliis fuat acre venenum.
    • What is food to one, is to others bitter poison.
      • Book IV, line 637. Compare: "What's one man's poison, signor, / Is another's meat or drink", Beaumont and Fletcher, Love's Cure, Act iii, Scene 2.
  • Nequiquam, quoniam medio de fonte leporum
    surgit amari aliquit quod in ipsis floribus angat.
    • In the midst of the fountain of wit there arises something bitter, which stings in the very flowers.
      • Book IV, line 1133. Compare: "Still from the fount of joy’s delicious springs / Some bitter o’er the flowers its bubbling venom flings", Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Canto i, Stanza 82.
  • Quod siquis vera vitam ratione gubernet,
    divitiae grandes homini sunt vivere parvo
    aequo animo; neque enim est umquam penuria parvi.
    • But if one should guide his life by true principles, man's greatest wealth is to live on a little with contented mind; for a little is never lacking.
      • Book V, line 1117.
  • Nam cupide conculcatur nimis ante metutum.
    • Men are eager to tread underfoot what they have once too much feared.
      • Book V, line 1140.
  • Circumretit enim vis atque iniuria quemque,
    atque, unde exortast, at eum plerumque revertit.
    • Violence and injury enclose in their net all that do such things, and generally return upon him who began.
      • Book V, line 1152.


  • All religions are equally sublime to the ignorant, useful to the politician, and ridiculous to the philosopher. -- Quoted by Ira D Cardiff, What Great Men Think of Religion (1972 [c1945], p. 245), quoted from James A Haught, 2000 Years of Disbelief (see: Talk:Seneca_the_Younger)

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