Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura: an Epicurean interpretation of origins

Illustration of Lucretius,book V (1743)

Illustration of book V in a 1743 edition of Lucretius

In two earlier posts (of November and December 2012) I discussed Vitruvian origin myths, and their Renaissance afterlife; but where did Vitruvius base his account on? According to Rowland and Howe’s critical edition of De Architectura, [1] we might have to look for its source with Titus Lucretius Carus, author of De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things, written around 59 BC), an epic work in verse inspired by the philosophical doctrine of Epicurus (4th century BC).

The best known tenets of Epicureanism, and also the ones most frequently misinterpreted in later centuries,[2] had to do with pleasure, which the philosophy defined as the freedom from physical pain and mental worry. To reduce their worrying, Epicure advised his followers to free themselves of unnecessary fears and superstitions, especially of the gods and of death. Lucretius took this advice to heart in the fifth book of De Rerum Natura, which discusses the origin of the world and the early history of humankind. Since the sixth century BC, the locus classicus for this kind of account in the Greek-speaking world had been Hesiod’s famous story of the Golden Age.[3] Lucretius however, following Epicure, eliminated all talk of gods interfering with human life, and instead offered his readers the purged version that inspired Vitruvius.

What Vitruvius did not take over were the primitivist leanings of the account. Lucretius frequently contrasted the primordial ways of living he described with civilization as it was known in his own days, and used them to criticize various aspects of it: ambition, greed, war, conquest, the lust for gold and riches, the fear of gods, and the quest for useless luxury. Although he lamented the invention of mining, metal weaponry, seafaring, husbandry and agriculture, at the end of the fifth book he conceded, in true Epicurean fashion, that change was an inevitable fact of life and not necessarily negative:

Sailings on the seas,
Tillings of fields, walls, laws, and arms, and roads,
Dress and the like, all prizes, all delights
Of finer life, poems, pictures, chiselled shapes
Of polished sculptures—all these arts were learned
By practice and the mind’s experience,
As men walked forward step by eager step.
Thus time draws forward each and everything
Little by little into the midst of men,
And reason uplifts it to the shores of light.
For one thing after other did men see
Grow clear by intellect, till with their arts
They’ve now achieved the supreme pinnacle.[4]


The Swerve (2011)

Lucretius’ text has an interesting reception history,[5] which was recently explored by Stephen Greenblatt in his 2011 book The swerve: how the world became modern. Anthony Grafton reviewed this Pulitzer-prize winning bestseller for the New York Review of Books: ‘[Lucretius’] was a magnificent vision … but also one impossible to reconcile with Christian ideas about God, the cosmos, and the duties of mankind. How did this most pagan of the pagans gain entry to the papal library? And what did his presence there mean? These are some of the questions that Greenblatt poses, and tries to answer, in his book.’

Just like Vitruvius’ De Architectura, De Rerum Natura found its way to a modern public when a manuscript version was discovered by Poggio Bracciolini, secretary to the anti-pope John XXIII, around 1414. It was first printed in the late fifteenth century, and frequently republished ever since: as Grafton puts it, ‘for two centuries to come, Lucretius would serve as an intellectual fire-starter’. Many well-known literary figures read the work and were influenced by it. Leon Battista Alberti got his pessimist view of history from Lucretius, Niccolo Machiavelli copied and annotated the work, and Michel de Montaigne too filled his copy with extensive notes. In early modern times Lucretius was adopted by the controversial philosophers Giordano Bruno, Thomas Hobbes and Pierre Gassendi.

Grafton’s review points out some omissions in Greenblatt’s book though, such as the fact that Lucretius and Epicurus also reached the modern world via the widely read works of Virgil, and Servius’ equally widely read commentary of his Eclogues, Georgics, and the Aeneid. Still, he deems it a remarkable achievement:

Greenblatt’s career has included a long series of dazzling feats. Again and again, he has devised ingenious and unexpected ways to give urgency to the study of Renaissance texts that had bored students and repelled readers for generations. In The Swerve, he has done something even more remarkable: he has reached the best-seller list with a detailed, searching, and original account of an ancient book and its afterlife—an account so vivid and persuasive that it will induce thousands of readers to learn how books were produced and read in the ancient and medieval manuscript worlds, and to see what it felt like to live in a society in which books held the answers, or were thought to do so, about life, the universe, and everything.



[1] Vitruvius, Ten Books on Architecture, translated by Ingrid D. Rowland, commentary and illustrations by Thomas N. Home, Cambridge University Press, 1999. Commentary, p. 173

[2] Epicurus reasoned that man’s fundamental drive in life is to limit the amount of pain and, in doing so, arrive at a degree of comfort and pleasure. Contrary to how later generations understood it, this view did not amount to an advice to heedlessly give in to pleasure and shun any discomfort: in the end, according to Epicure, what benefited man most was living a simple life.

[3] Hesiod’s partition of early history into five stages in his Works and Days was later adopted by Ovid, with some alterations, and immortalized in the first book of the Metamorphosen (8 AD). For more on Ovid and Hesiod, see my post of March 1 2013

[4] This translation was taken over from William Ellery Leonard, available at Project Gutenberg

[5] See for a publication history of De Rerum Natura also this 1867 source , with the most important fifteenth- to nineteenth century editions and translations



  1. Pingback: The origins of architecture according to Vitruvius | ORIGINS OF ARCHITECTURE

  2. This is a useful and stimulating text.

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