De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) by Titus Lucretius Carus

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Historical Context

(Epics for Students)

Political Turmoil
During Lucretius' life (94 B.C. to 55 B.C.), Rome suffered a great deal of political upheaval in the struggle for power. In 88 B.C. civil war erupted between the aristocrat Lucius Cornelius Sulla and the populist Gaius Marius. When Marius marched against Rome, he was cruel and vindictive, seeking vengeance on the aristocracy with indiscriminate killing sprees. When Lucretius was a teenager, Sulla returned to Rome to be its dictator, seeking retaliation against those who had opposed him in the earlier conflict. Lucretius also saw the decline of the republican government that had been in place for much of his life. Although unstable, at least the republican government was familiar to the people and they did not have to live in constant fear of what kind of oppressive military regime would rule them next. A consequence of the fall of the republic was a shift in loyalty from the government to individual military leaders and political figures. The decline of the republican spirit among the people also weakened the Romans' traditional commitment to the family and state. In addition, many Romans were beginning to call into question the mythology that had guided their religious beliefs for so long. All of these factors created a cultural transformation and uncertainty.

The ongoing struggle for power among Pompey, Crassus, and Julius Caesar was underway throughout much of Lucretius' youth. Although the three formed a triumvirate (a political coalition intended to help each get what he wanted), power was abused and internal conflict eventually destroyed the compact. Shortly after Lucretius' death, Crassus died, which brought Pompey and Caesar into direct conflict with each other. In 52 B.C. the Senate made Crassus sole consul in an effort to defeat Caesar. Caesar returned to Rome in 49 B.C. and was soon ruling all of Italy. Lucretius' death came before Caesar brought the hope of stability to Rome.

Many scholars contend that the extreme political conditions in which Lucretius lived account for his adherence to Epicureanism. Faced with ongoing war and strife, he found Epicureanism to be a peaceful, pleasurable, moral way to live his life. His horrific depictions of war throughout De rerum natura can certainly be attributed to the political environment in which he lived. In addition, Lucretius admired the Epicurean pursuit of friendship. Having witnessed the massacres and bloodshed of power struggles, it is little wonder he would so fervently believe that people should seek to befriend and help each other.

Religious and Philosophical Crossroads
During Lucretius' time, educated Romans were beginning to feel uncertain about the elaborate mythologies in their religion. They began to doubt that gods and goddesses were really so active in human affairs that they would involve themselves in everything from love to mildew. The absence of a clear relationship between natural occurrences (volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, rain, etc.) and deity worship was a...

(The entire section is 1,717 words.)