Lucretius: A Guide to Selected Sources
Correlate the sources mentioned in the guide to those listed in the margin using the mouse.
Titus Lucretius Carus (‘Lucretius’) was a Roman poet of the first century BCE, best known as the author of the didactic poem De rerum natura (On the Nature of the Universe). The oldest account we have of his life is a short report found in Jerome’s version of the Chronicle of Eusebius Jer. Chron. ad Ol. 171.3 (94 BC) under the year 94 BC. According to Jerome, the poet went mad after drinking a love potion; in the lucid intervals between periods of insanity, he wrote several books, which were later edited by his famous contemporary, the orator Cicero. Lucretius finally commited suicide at the age of 44.
Embellished versions of Jerome’s story are then found in a number of later sources. One of the most notable is the so-called Vita Borgiana Vita Borgiana, a life of Lucretius compiled in the early modern period by Girolamo Borgia and discovered in the British Library in the late nineteenth century. Once thought to be based on a lost ancient biography of the poet, this is now more commonly recognised as a text invented or collated from later sources (Fabbri 1984; Holford-Strevens 2002: 2). The life adds a number of details to Jerome’s account, including the claim that the poet’s mother was sterile for a long time before she conceived him (matre natus diutius sterili, a phenomenon Lucretius himself describes in De rerum natura 12.4.1251-3) and that the love-philtre was administered by a ‘wicked woman’ (femina improba), while Cicero – a paradigm of classical decorum – is not merely said to edit the poem after his death, but becomes the poet’s intimate acquaintance and literary advisor, who takes particular exception to Lucretius’ lack of restraint in the use of metaphor (cf. Solaro 2000 for discussion and a full transcription).
Apart from the Borgia life, the story of the love potion and madness captured the imaginations of later readers and underwent a number of metamorphoses. At some point in the tradition ─ probably originating from a reading of a remark about a woman called ‘Lucilia’ who gave her husband ‘the cup of madness instead of the cup of love’ found in Walter Map’s On Courtly Fripperies (twelfth century) ─ the woman, identified as Lucretius’ wife or girlfriend, also acquires the name Lucilia (Holford-Strevens 2002: 5; Reeve 2007: 208). In a further variation mentioned briefly by the fifteenth-century humanist Pomponius Laetus, the boy Asterion, named ‘for his fairness and remarkable beauty’ after the word for star (Latin astrum; Greek ἀστήρ), is identified as the cause of the poet’s downfall (Solaro 1993: 60-3). Later, Lucilia, who ‘found/ Her master cold’ Tennyson, ‘Lucretius’ 1-2 and acquired the potion that caused the poet’s madness, inspired one of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s most fraught and fascinating engagements with the classical tradition in the poem ‘Lucretius’ Tennyson, ‘Lucretius’ (1868) on the last days of poet’s life (Johnson 2000; Priestman 2007). Lucretius’ imaginary biography has also been the topic of one of the Vies imaginaires (1896) by the French symbolist author Marcel Schwob and Nei pleniluni sereni: Autobiografia immaginaria di Tito Lucrezio Caro (1995) by the Italian author and classical scholar Luca Canali.
Despite the staying power of Jerome’s account, modern critics recognise its ostensible ‘facts’ as fiction. In an attempt to debunk the somewhat undignified story of the love potion by finding its true ‘origin’, scholars often explain the fictive content of the life as originating in confusion: e.g., that Jerome or his source confused Lucretius with a certain ‘Lucullus’, who was driven mad by drugs given to him by his love-sick freedman (Wilkinson 1949). In the end, however, the origin of the legend remains lost to us. What matters, and what has mattered to generations of readers, is the fact that the biography functions substantially as a reading of Lucretius’ poem. De rerum natura, a poem on the philosophy of Epicurus contains a long section on love and sex (4.1030-1287) which has been seen both as ‘the finest description of sexual intercourse ever written’ (by W. B. Yeats) and as an expression of the tragedy of ‘the incomplete fruitions of souls pent up within their frames of flesh’ (according to the Victorian essayist J. A. Symonds: Gillespie and Hardie 2007: 12). Reflecting the Epicurean attitude that condemns passionate desire as intrinsically destructive, Lucretius provides a powerful description of the intense frustrations and hallucinatory passion of the lover, as ‘madness grows day by day’ (in ... dies gliscit furor), DRN 4.1069. More broadly, it is possible to read in the poem a pervading set of contradictions that have been seen to reflect the presence of a mind at war with itself, or even, for some, a sense of ‘morbid depression’ (Bailey 1947: 1.12). The result has been a series of mutually reinforcing biographical fictions and critical readings: the legend of mad Lucretius reflects latent elements in his poem; the biography, in turn, has been read back into the work, deliberately emphasising the ‘anti-Lucretius in Lucretius’ (cf. Johnson 2000).
Another reason why Jerome’s story has been particularly hard to shake off is the perceived close link between madness and creativity. Even in antiquity, the poet Statius could write of the combination of lofty inspiration and learned care that underwrites De rerum natura in his picture of ‘the sublime frenzy of learned Lucretius’, docti furor arduus Lucreti (Silvae 2.7.76), a literal reading of which (furor carries the sense of frenzied madness as well as frenzied inspiration) might have bolstered Jerome’s story (Bailey 1947: 8). It is easy to see in the poem’s tone, style and ambition the kind of ‘flight of the mind’ that Lucretius ascribed to his master Epicurus (1.62-79). As Thomas Creech put it in the early modern period, in an edition illustrated by the image of the poet bathed in the light of celestial inspiration, it was, or so later readers have liked to think, through his madness that Lucretius ‘in a poetical rapture ... could fly with Epicurus beyond the limits of this world’.
- Bailey, C. (ed.) 1947. Titi Lucreti Cari de rerum natura libri sex. 3 vols. Oxford.
- Canfora, L. 1993. Vita di Lucrezio. Palermo.
- Fabbri, R. 1984. ‘La “Vita Borgiana” di Lucrezio nel quadro delle biografie unmanistiche.’ Lettere Italiane 36: 348-66.
- Gillespie, S. and Hardie, P. R. (eds.) 2007. The Cambridge Companion to Lucretius. Cambridge.
- Holford-Strevens, L. 2002. ‘Horror vacui in Lucretian Biography.’ Leeds International Classical Studies 1.1: 1-23.
- Johnson, W. R. 2000. Lucretius and the Modern World. London.
- Priestman, M. 2007. ‘Lucretius in Romantic and Victorian Britain.’ In S. Gillespie and P. R. Hardie (eds.): 289-305.
- Reeve, M. 2007. ‘Lucretius in the Middle Ages and Early Renaissance: Transmission and Scholarship’. In S. Gillespie and P. R. Hardie (eds.): 205-213.
- Solaro, G. 1993. Pomponio Leto, ‘Lucrezio’. Palermo.
- 2000. Lucrezio: Biografie umanistiche. Bari.
- Wilkinson, L. P. 1949. ‘Lucretius and the love-philtre.’ CR 63: 47–8.
- Ziegler, K. 1936. ‘Der Tod des Lucretius.’ Hermes 71: 421─40.