Lucretius Carus was a Roman poet and philosopher. His only work
that we know of is De Rerum Natura, On the Nature of Things, which
is considered by some to be the greatest masterpiece of Latin verse
- deeper than any other poet; more moving, imaginative than any
other philosopher. Stylistically however, most scholars attribute
the full blossoming of Latin hexameter to Virgil. The De Rerum Natura
however, is of indisputable importance for its influence on Virgil
and other later poetry. The main purpose of the work was to free
men's minds of superstition and fear of death.
achieves this through expounding the philosophical system of Epicurus,
whom Lucretius immortalizes. Lucretius identifies superstition
with the notion that the gods created our world or interfere with
its operations in any way. Fear of such gods is banished by showing
that the operations of the world can be accounted for entirely
in terms of the purposeless motions of atoms through empty space,
instead of in terms of the will of the gods.
fear of death is banished by showing that death is annihilation,
and so, as a simple state of nothingness, death can be neither
good nor bad. Lucretius also famously 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 really wasn't so bad after all.
compares his work as a poet to that of a doctor. Just as a doctor
may put honey on the rim of a cup containing bitter but healing
medicine, so too Lucretius cloaks hard philosophical truths in
sweet verse to make them go down more easily. De Rerum Natura
faithfully transmits Epicurean physics and psychology. Lucretius
was one of the first Epicureans to write in Latin.
know very little about Lucretius' life; one source of information
(generally considered unreliable) is St. Jerome, who mentions
Lucretius in the Chronica Eusebia. According to Jerome, Lucretius
was born in 94 BC, and died at the age of 44. He claims that Lucretius
was driven mad by a love-philtre and that the work was written
during the intervals of his insanity, before he killed himself.
claims about Lucretius' life have been discredited for three main
reasons: firstly, the Epicurean philosophy expounded by Lucretius
sets great store on reason and discourages romantic attachments;
secondly, it would have been exceedingly difficult for Lucretius
to compose a sustained poetic masterpiece if were raving mad most
of the time; and finally, it seems likely that Jerome, as one
of the early church fathers, would have wanted to discredit Lucretius's
philosophy, which includes disbelief in any kind of life after
death and in any divinity concerned with man's welfare.
implies in one of his letters to his brother that they had once
read Lucretius' poem. This is the last mention of Lucretius until
Aelius Donatus, in his Life of Virgil, while stating that Virgil
assumed the toga virilis on October 15, 55 BC, adds "it happened
on that very day Lucretius the poet died." If Jerome is accurate
about Lucretius' age (44) when he died, then based on other evidence
that confirms 55 BC as Lucretius' year of death we can then conclude
he was born in 99 BC. Also, the work has several allusions to
the tumultuous state of political affairs in Rome and its civil
the only certain fact of Lucretius' life is that he was either
a friend or a client of Gaius Memmius, to whom he dedicated his
poem On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura). This poem is also
unfinished, although Jerome says that Cicero "amended"
it -- which may mean he edited it for its eventual publication.
attempts in this poem to present a total Epicurean worldview.
Ranging from the nature of matter to sex, politics, and death,
the poem is encyclopedic, and is considered one of the masterpieces
of Latin verse.
use of the hexameter is very individualistic and ruggedly distinct
from the smooth urbanity of Virgil or Ovid. His use of heterodynes,
assonance, and oddly syncopated Latin forms create a harsh acoustic.
The sustained energy of Lucretius' writing is unparallelled in
Latin literature, with the possible exception of parts of Tacitus's
Annals, or perhaps Books II and IV of the Aeneid.