Last updated
Titus Lucretius Carus
Bust of Lucretius
Bornc. 99 BC
Diedc. 55 BC (aged around 44)
Era Hellenistic philosophy
School Epicureanism
Main interests
Ethics, metaphysics, atomic theory [1]

Titus Lucretius Carus ( /ˈttəslˈkrʃəs/ TY-təs loo-KREE-shəs, Latin:  [ˈtɪ.tʊz lʊˈkreː.tɪ.ʊs ˈkaː.rʊs] ; c.99 c.55 BC) was a Roman poet and philosopher. His only known work is the philosophical poem De rerum natura , a didactic work about the tenets and philosophy of Epicureanism, and which usually is translated into English as On the Nature of Things and somewhat less often as On the nature of the universe. Lucretius has been credited with originating the concept of the three-age system that was formalised in 1836 by C. J. Thomsen.


Very little is known about Lucretius's life; the only certainty is that he was either a friend or client of Gaius Memmius, to whom the poem was addressed and dedicated. [2]

De rerum natura was a considerable influence on the Augustan poets, particularly Virgil (in his Aeneid and Georgics , and to a lesser extent on the Eclogues ) and Horace. [3] The work was almost lost during the Middle Ages, but was rediscovered in 1417 in a monastery in Germany [4] by Poggio Bracciolini and it played an important role both in the development of atomism (Lucretius was an important influence on Pierre Gassendi) [5] and the efforts of various figures of the Enlightenment era to construct a new Christian humanism. Lucretius's scientific poem On the Nature of Things(c. 60 BC) has a remarkable description of Brownian motion of dust particles in verses 113–140 from Book II. He uses this as a proof of the existence of atoms. [6]


And now, good Memmius, receptive ears
And keen intelligence detached from cares
I pray you bring to true philosophy

De rerum natura (tr. Melville) 1.50

If I must speak, my noble Memmius,
As nature's majesty now known demands

De rerum natura (tr. Melville) 5.6

Virtually nothing is known about the life of Lucretius, and there is insufficient basis for a confident assertion of the dates of Lucretius's birth or death in other sources. Another, yet briefer, note is found in the Chronicon of Donatus's pupil, Jerome. Writing four centuries after Lucretius's death, he enters under the 171st Olympiad: "Titus Lucretius the poet is born." [7] If Jerome is accurate about Lucretius's age (43) when Lucretius died (discussed below), then it may be concluded he was born in 99 or 98 BC. [8] [9] Less specific estimates place the birth of Lucretius in the 90s BC and his death in the 50s BC, [10] [11] in agreement with the poem's many allusions to the tumultuous state of political affairs in Rome and its civil strife.

Lucretius probably was a member of the aristocratic gens Lucretia , and his work shows an intimate knowledge of the luxurious lifestyle in Rome. [12] Lucretius's love of the countryside invites speculation that he inhabited family-owned rural estates, as did many wealthy Roman families, and he certainly was expensively educated with a mastery of Latin, Greek, literature, and philosophy. [12]

A brief biographical note is found in Aelius Donatus's Life of Virgil, which seems to be derived from an earlier work by Suetonius. [13] The note reads: "The first years of his life Virgil spent in Cremona until the assumption of his toga virilis 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." However, although Lucretius certainly lived and died around the time that Virgil and Cicero flourished, the information in this particular testimony is internally inconsistent: if Virgil was born in 70 BC, his 17th birthday would be in 53. The two consuls of 70 BC, Pompey and Crassus, stood together as consuls again in 55, not 53. Another yet briefer note is found in the Chronicon of Donatus's pupil, Jerome. Writing four centuries after Lucretius's death, Jerome contends in the aforementioned Chronicon that Lucretius "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." [7] The claim that he was driven mad by a love potion, although defended by such scholars as Reale and Catan, [14] is often dismissed as the result of historical confusion, [2] or anti-Epicurean bias. [15] In some accounts the administration of the toxic aphrodisiac is attributed to his wife Lucilia. Regardless, Jerome's image of Lucretius as a lovesick, mad poet continued to have significant influence on modern scholarship until quite recently, although it now is accepted that such a report is inaccurate. [16]

De rerum natura

A manuscript of De Rerum Natura in the Cambridge University Library collection Start of Lucretius DRN manuscript.jpg
A manuscript of De Rerum Natura in the Cambridge University Library collection
De rerum natura (1570) T. Lucretii Cari De rerum natura.tif
De rerum natura (1570)

His poem De rerum natura (usually translated as "On the Nature of Things" or "On the Nature of the Universe") transmits the ideas of Epicureanism, which includes atomism and cosmology. Lucretius was the first writer known to introduce Roman readers to Epicurean philosophy. [17] The poem, written in some 7,400 dactylic hexameters, is divided into six untitled books, and explores Epicurean physics through richly poetic language and metaphors. Lucretius presents the principles of atomism, the nature of the mind and soul, explanations of sensation and thought, the development of the world and its phenomena, and explains a variety of celestial and terrestrial phenomena. The universe described in the poem operates according to these physical principles, guided by fortuna, "chance", and not the divine intervention of the traditional Roman deities [18] and the religious explanations of the natural world.

Within this work, Lucretius makes reference to the cultural and technological development of humans in his use of available materials, tools, and weapons through prehistory to Lucretius's own time. He specifies the earliest weapons as hands, nails, and teeth. These were followed by stones, branches, and, once humans could kindle and control it, fire. He then refers to "tough iron" and copper in that order, but goes on to say that copper was the primary means of tilling the soil and the basis of weaponry until, "by slow degrees", the iron sword became predominant (it still was in his day) and "the bronze sickle fell into disrepute" as iron ploughs were introduced. [1] He had earlier envisaged a pre-technological, pre-literary kind of human whose life was lived "in the fashion of wild beasts roaming at large". [19] From this beginning, he theorised, there followed the development in turn of crude huts, use and kindling of fire, clothing, language, family, and city-states. He believed that smelting of metal, and perhaps too, the firing of pottery, was discovered by accident: for example, the result of a forest fire. He does specify, however, that the use of copper followed the use of stones and branches and preceded the use of iron. [19]

Lucretius seems to equate copper with bronze, an alloy of copper and tin that has much greater resilience than copper; both copper and bronze were superseded by iron during his millennium (1000 BC to 1 BC). He may have considered bronze to be a stronger variety of copper and not necessarily a wholly individual material. Lucretius is believed to be the first to put forward a theory of the successive uses of first wood and stone, then copper and bronze, and finally iron. Although his theory lay dormant for many centuries, it was revived in the nineteenth century and he has been credited with originating the concept of the three-age system that was formalised from 1834 by C. J. Thomsen. [20]


In a letter by Cicero to his brother Quintus in February 54 BC, Cicero said: "The poems of Lucretius are as you write: they exhibit many flashes of genius, and yet show great mastership." [21] In the work of another author in late Republican Rome, Virgil writes in the second book of his Georgics, apparently referring to Lucretius, [22] "Happy is he who has discovered the causes of things and has cast beneath his feet [lower-alpha 1] all fears, unavoidable fate, and the din of the devouring Underworld." [23]

Natural philosophy

An early thinker in what grew to become the study of evolution, Lucretius believed nature experiments endlessly across the aeons, and the organisms that adapt best to their environment have the best chance of surviving. Living organisms survived because of the commensurate relationship between their strength, speed, or intellect and the external dynamics of their environment. Prior to Charles Darwin's 1859 publication of On the Origin of Species , the natural philosophy of Lucretius typified one of the foremost non-teleological and mechanistic accounts of the creation and evolution of life. [24] In contrast to modern thought on the subject, he did not believe that new species evolved from previously existing ones and denied that modern animals, which dwell on land, derived from marine ancestors. Lucretius challenged the assumption that humans are necessarily superior to animals, noting that mammalian mothers in the wild recognize and nurture their offspring as do human mothers. [25]

Despite his advocacy of empiricism and his many correct conjectures about atomism and the nature of the physical world, Lucretius concludes his first book stressing the absurdity of the (by then well-established) spherical Earth theory. [26]

While Epicurus left open the possibility for free will by arguing for the uncertainty of the paths of atoms, Lucretius viewed the soul or mind as emerging from arrangements of distinct particles. [27]

See also


  1. subiecit pedibus; cf. Lucretius 1.78: religio pedibus subiecta, "religion lies cast beneath our feet"

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Epicurus</span> Ancient Greek philosopher, founder of Epicureanism

Epicurus was an ancient Greek philosopher and sage who founded Epicureanism, a highly influential school of philosophy. He was born on the Greek island of Samos to Athenian parents. Influenced by Democritus, Aristippus, Pyrrho, and possibly the Cynics, he turned against the Platonism of his day and established his own school, known as "the Garden", in Athens. Epicurus and his followers were known for eating simple meals and discussing a wide range of philosophical subjects. He openly allowed women and slaves to join the school as a matter of policy. Epicurus is said to have originally written over 300 works on various subjects, but the vast majority of these writings have been lost. Only three letters written by him—the letters to Menoeceus, Pythocles, and Herodotus—and two collections of quotes—the Principal Doctrines and the Vatican Sayings—have survived intact, along with a few fragments of his other writings. Most knowledge of his teachings comes from later authors, particularly the biographer Diogenes Laërtius, the Epicurean Roman poet Lucretius and the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus, and with hostile but largely accurate accounts by the Pyrrhonist philosopher Sextus Empiricus, and the Academic Skeptic and statesman Cicero.

Latin literature includes the essays, histories, poems, plays, and other writings written in the Latin language. The beginning of formal Latin literature dates to 240 BC, when the first stage play in Latin was performed in Rome. Latin literature would flourish for the next six centuries. The classical era of Latin literature can be roughly divided into the following periods: Early Latin literature, The Golden Age, The Imperial Period and Late Antiquity.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Epicureanism</span> Philosophical system

Epicureanism is a system of philosophy founded around 307 BC based upon the teachings of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus. Epicureanism was originally a challenge to Platonism. Later its main opponent became Stoicism.

Gaius Memmius was a Roman orator and poet. He was Tribune of the Plebs, possibly a patron of Lucretius, and an acquaintance of Catullus and Helvius Cinna. His sister Memmia was married to Gaius Scribonius Curio.

<i>De rerum natura</i> 1st-century BC didactic poem by Lucretius

De rerum natura is a first-century BC didactic poem by the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius with the goal of explaining Epicurean philosophy to a Roman audience. The poem, written in some 7,400 dactylic hexameters, is divided into six untitled books, and explores Epicurean physics through poetic language and metaphors. Namely, Lucretius explores the principles of atomism; the nature of the mind and soul; explanations of sensation and thought; the development of the world and its phenomena; and explains a variety of celestial and terrestrial phenomena. The universe described in the poem operates according to these physical principles, guided by fortuna ("chance"), and not the divine intervention of the traditional Roman deities.

Gaius Memmius may refer to:

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Hermarchus</span>

Hermarchus or Hermarch, sometimes incorrectly written Hermachus, was an Epicurean philosopher. He was the disciple and successor of Epicurus as head of the school. None of his writings survives. He wrote works directed against Plato, Aristotle, and Empedocles. A fragment from his Against Empedocles, preserved by Porphyry, discusses the need for law in society. His views on the nature of the gods are quoted by Philodemus.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ladon (mythology)</span>

Ladon was a monster in Greek mythology, the dragon that guarded the golden apples in the Garden of the Hesperides.

Religious skepticism is a type of skepticism relating to religion. Religious skeptics question religious authority and are not necessarily anti-religious but skeptical of specific or all religious beliefs and/or practices. Socrates was one of the most prominent and first religious skeptics of whom there are records; he questioned the legitimacy of the beliefs of his time in the existence of the Greek gods. Religious skepticism is not the same as atheism or agnosticism, and some religious skeptics are deists.

Catius was an Epicurean philosopher, identified ethnically as an Insubrian Celt from Gallia Transpadana. Epicurean works by Amafinius, Rabirius, and Catius were the earliest philosophical treatises written in Latin. Catius composed a treatise in four books on the physical world and on the highest good. Cicero credits him, along with the lesser prose stylist Amafinius, with writing accessible texts that popularized Epicurean philosophy among the plebs, or common people.

Gaius Amafinius was one of the earliest Roman writers in favour of the Epicurean philosophy. He probably lived in the late 2nd and early 1st century BC. He wrote several works, which are censured by Cicero as deficient in arrangement and style. He is mentioned by no other ancient writer but Cicero. In the Academica, Cicero reveals that Amafanius translated the Greek concept of atoms as "corpuscles" (corpusculi) in Latin.

<i>De Natura Deorum</i> Philosophical dialogue by Cicero

De Natura Deorum is a philosophical dialogue by Roman Academic Skeptic philosopher Cicero written in 45 BC. It is laid out in three books that discuss the theological views of the Hellenistic philosophies of Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Academic Skepticism.

Lucilia is believed to have been the wife of the Roman philosopher Lucretius, though there is little evidence of their relationship, let alone marriage. Moreover, the name 'Lucilia' was not associated with Lucretius until many centuries after his death. In Walter Map's twelfth century work titled De nugis curialium, 'Lucilia' is the name of a woman who murders her husband by giving him a potion that causes him to go insane. It wasn't until 1511, in Pius's vita, that the name 'Lucilia' became associated with Lucretius. Some have even questioned whether this association was made-up for the sake of writing, that is, to maintain literary style.

Phaedrus was an Epicurean philosopher. He was the head (scholarch) of the Epicurean school in Athens after the death of Zeno of Sidon around 75 BC, until his own death in 70 or 69 BC. He was a contemporary of Cicero, who became acquainted with him in his youth at Rome. During his residence in Athens Cicero renewed his acquaintance with him. Phaedrus was at that time an old man, and was already a leading figure of the Epicurean school. He was also on terms of friendship with Velleius, whom Cicero introduces as the defender of the Epicurean tenets in the De Natura Deorum, and especially with Atticus. Cicero especially praises his agreeable manners. He had a son named Lysiadas. Phaedrus was succeeded by Patro.

"Not by Its Cover" is a science fiction short story by American writer Philip K. Dick, a "loose sequel" to his first published science fiction short story, "Beyond Lies the Wub". The story continues the former's theme of immortality, although not focusing on a living Wub itself, but rather its fur.

Felix, qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas” is verse 490 of Book 2 of the "Georgics", by the Latin poet Virgil. It is literally translated as: “Fortunate, who was able to know the causes of things”. Dryden rendered it: "Happy the Man, who, studying Nature's Laws, / Thro' known Effects can trace the secret Cause".

Don Paul Fowler was an English classicist.

Rabirius was a 1st-century BC Epicurean associated with Amafinius and Catius as one of the early popularizers of the philosophy in Italy. Their works on Epicureanism were the earliest philosophical treatises written in Latin. Other than Lucretius, Amafinius and Rabirius are the only Roman Epicurean writers named by Cicero.

Thinking like a mountain is a term coined by Aldo Leopold in his book A Sand County Almanac. In the section entitled "Sketches Here and There" Leopold discusses the thought process as a holistic view on where one stands in the entire ecosystem. To think like a mountain means to have a complete appreciation for the profound interconnectedness of the elements in the ecosystems. It is an ecological exercise using the intricate web of the natural environment rather than thinking as an isolated individual.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Martin Ferguson Smith</span>

Martin Ferguson Smith, is a British scholar and writer. After education at Shrewsbury School (1953–1958) he proceeded to Trinity College, Dublin (1958–1963), where he was a Foundation Scholar in Classics and won several academic prizes, including the Tyrrell Memorial Gold Medal for Greek and Latin verse and prose composition (1960). After gaining First Class Honours and a Moderatorship Prize (1962), he carried out postgraduate research under Donald Ernest Wilson Wormell for a thesis entitled "Lucretius: The Man and His Mission".


  1. 1 2 Lucretius. De rerum natura, Book V, around Line 1200 ff.
  2. 1 2 Melville & Fowler (2008), p. xii.
  3. Reckford, K. J. Some studies in Horace's odes on love
  4. Greenblatt (2009), p. 44.
  5. Fisher, Saul (2009). "Pierre Gassendi". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  6. William Ellery Leonard, ed. (1916). "Lucretius, De Rerum Natura (Lucr. 2.80)" . Retrieved 2021-11-18.
  7. 1 2 Jerome, Chronicon .
  8. Bailey (1947), pp. 1–3.
  9. Smith (1992), pp. x–xi.
  10. Kenney (1971), p. 6.
  11. Costa (1984), p. ix.
  12. 1 2 Melville & Fowler (2008), Foreword.
  13. Horsfall (2000), p. 3.
  14. Reale & Catan (1980), p. 414.
  15. Smith (2011), p. vii.
  16. Gale (2007), p. 2.
  17. Gale (2007), p. 35.
  18. In particular, De rerum natura 5.107 (fortuna gubernans, "guiding chance" or "fortune at the helm"): see Monica R. Gale, Myth and Poetry in Lucretius (Cambridge University Press, 1994, 1996 reprint), pp. 213, 223–224 online and Lucretius (Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 238 online.
  19. 1 2 Lucretius. De rerum natura, Book V, around line 940 ff.
  20. Barnes, pp. 27–28.
  21. Cicero, 2.9.
  22. Smith (1975), intro.
  23. Virgil, 2.490.
  24. Campbell, Gordon (2003). Lucretius on Creation and Evolution: A Commentary on De rerum natura 5.772-1104. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 3–6. ISBN   0199263965.
  25. Massaro, Alma (2014-11-11). "The Living in Lucretius' De rerum natura. Animals' ataraxia and Humans' Distress". Relations. Beyond Anthropocentrism. 2 (2): 45–58. doi:10.7358/rela-2014-002-mass. ISSN   2280-9643.
  26. Hannam, James (29 April 2019). "Atoms and flat-earth ethics". Aeon. Archived from the original on 29 April 2019. Retrieved 8 May 2019.
  27. Gillispie, Charles Coulston (1960). The Edge of Objectivity: An Essay in the History of Scientific Ideas. Princeton University Press. p.  98. ISBN   0-691-02350-6.