Article abstract: Lucretius synthesized primary tenets of Greek Epicureanism and atomism and offered a rational, nontheological explanation for the constituents of the universe; he did this in Latin hexameter verse and developed a philosophical vocabulary for the task.
It is much easier to show why most of what has been written about the life of Titus Lucretius Carus is incorrect, doubtful, or malicious than it is to arrive at a reliable account. Relatively little can be deduced from his poem, and there are no substantive contemporary references to him. Consequently, too much credence has been given to the jumbled biographical note written by Saint Jerome, which itself was derived from an unreliable account by the Roman historian Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus. Saint Jerome miscalculates Lucretius’s dates of birth and death; also, it is unlikely that Lucretius was driven insane by a love potion and wrote On the Nature of Things during periods of lucidity. The latter story seems to have arisen from Lucretius’s treatment of love in section 4 of the poem.
Several details of Lucretius’s early life can, however, be inferred with relative certainty. His name is a strange combination that implies both servile (Carus) and noble origins (from the kinship grouping Gens Lucretia), but he was likely closer to the middle class of his contemporary Cicero. Though Cicero himself did not emend Lucretius’s poetry, as Saint Jerome reports, it is likely that his brother Quintus Cicero oversaw its publication. Like Cicero, Lucretius appears to have evinced an early interest in philosophy, influenced by the Alexandrian movement, though his own poetry has an old Roman spirit reflecting his readings of Quintus Ennius. Cicero thought that Lucretius had the “genius” of Ennius and the “art” of the Alexandrians.
Lucretius lived through the turmoil caused by the civil war between aristocrat Lucius Cornelius Sulla and populist Gaius Marius as well as the conspiracy of Lucius Sergius Catilina. He also witnessed the consequent decline of Roman republican government. Perhaps this political uncertainty directed him to the comfortable philosophy of Epicurus, which held that the goal of human existence should be a life of calm pleasure tempered by morality and culture. The atomism of Democritus and Leucippus, which held that the material universe could be understood as random combinations of minute particles (atomoi), provided a rational and scientific means of explaining the cosmos and avoiding what Lucretius came to see as the sterile superstitions of religion.
In all, the impressions one has of Lucretius at this early stage in his life are of a young man of good background and a good education who is eager not for the political arena or personal advancement but to explain the world in a reasonable way to Romans with similar education who would read his verse. In addition, he aimed to make living in that rationally explained world as pleasant an experience as possible.
One can only guess how Lucretius lived during the years he was writing On the Nature of Things from its dedication to Gaius Memmius. Memmius held the office of praetor in 58 b.c.e. and fancied himself a poet, primarily of erotic verse in the style of Catullus. Memmius’s shady political dealings eventually caught up with him, and he was driven into exile; nevertheless, it is reasonable to assume that Lucretius received some financial support from him. Memmius figures less importantly in the body of the poem, however, and his name is used in places only for metrical convenience.
Details of the poem show the kind of atmosphere Lucretius wished to escape, essentially that of his own city in the final years of the republic. The world is filled with gloom, war, and decay. The poet wishes to stand on a hill, far removed from wickedness and ambition, and watch the waste and destruction. Passages such as these reveal a man who yearned for tranquil anonymity. Other writers, such as Cicero, would find themselves propelled into a political maelstrom that would ultimately destroy them; Lucretius was determined to avoid this fate.
The times in which Lucretius lived cried out for reasonableness. Educated Romans saw the obvious conflict between their elaborate mythology and their religion, which glorified deities who did everything from seducing women to causing mildew. Even so, Rome continued to fill the various priestly colleges, to take auspices as a means of determining favorable outcomes, and to celebrate public games in honor of these very deities. A century later, Rome would deify its emperors, partly to shift its religious observances to personalities who were incontestably real and partly to curb the spread of imported cults such as Mithraism and what came to be known as Christianity.
Lucretius had solved this problem, for himself at least, and outlined his position on religion in On the Nature of Things. The creative force...
(The entire section is 2074 words.)