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On the Nature of the Universe

Genre - Didactic Poetry

Lucretius's On the Nature of the Universe is an important example of a popular genre of ancient literature, didactic poetry. The purpose of this genre is to give instruction to the reader on various topics ranging from farming to philosophy. Lucretius's purpose is to explain Epicureanism to his readers and win them over as followers of this philosophy. Because of the scope of Lucretius's poem, which includes both the origin and dissolution of the universe, and also on account of its meter (dactylic hexameter as in the Iliad), it may be called an epic, but not in the same sense as the heroic narratives of Homer and Vergil.

Historical Background

When Lucretius wrote On the Nature of the Universe Rome was experiencing political disorder. Political strife had begun at Rome in the late second century B.C. when attempts to enact land reform met with resistance from the Roman Senate, which resulted in the violent deaths of many advocates of land reform. From this time, Roman politicians were divided into two loosely organized "parties": the Populares, Roman aristocrats who presented themselves as champions of the people, and the Optimates, aristocratic defenders of Senatorial authority. In Lucretius's own lifetime (c. 99-c. 55), an attempt by the Populares to have Roman citizenship bestowed on Rome's Italian allies was met with violence when the tribune who proposed discussion of this issue was murdered. Soon afterwards, a dispute arose between two powerful Roman generals, Marius and Sulla. Marius, who on occasion sided with the Populares and Sulla, a staunch defender of the Senate, came into conflict over an important command in the East. This strife resulted first in Sulla's taking Rome by force to obtain the command and then, after his departure to the East, the capture of Rome by Marius. Three years, later after Marius's death, Sulla upon his return again used military force to gain the upper hand at Rome. Each victory by Marius or Sulla ended in the systematic murder of their political enemies. The final victory of Sulla was marked by an especially bloody massacre of his opponents. The violent power struggle between adherents of the Populares and Optimates undermined the free Republic and its constitutional principles. As a result, the Roman Republic was in a period of decline which ended in its ultimate destruction. Lucretius presents Epicureanism to his fellow Romans as an answer to how one can live a happy life in the midst of this political chaos.


Book 1.1-482
Just as Homer begins his poems with an address to the Muse, Lucretius begins his poem with an invocation to the goddess Venus, the Roman counterpart of Aphrodite. Since it is a central doctrine of Epicureanism that the gods have no involvement with men, it is clear that Lucretius is addressing Venus as a symbolic figure. Read lines 1-40 carefully, and explain what Venus represents for Lucretius.

What great service did Epicurus do for man (62-79)? What does the example of Iphianassa illustrate (80-101)? What fears ruin man's happiness (102-111)? What special problem did Lucretius have in writing a Latin poem about Greek philosophy (136-139)?

According to Lucretius what is the first principle of Nature (150)? What benefit does an understanding of this principle bring to man (151-158)? Give one argument that Lucretius uses to support this principle (159-214). What is needed for anything created to come into existence (205-206)? What are all things made of (215-224)? Why must these basic elements of matter be indestructible (225-237)? Look up the modern scientific principle of conservation of mass in a good reference work. How do lines 262-264 (see 2.303-307) represent this principle?

Give two arguments presented by Lucretius for the existence of atoms despite their invisibility to the human eye (277-328). Why must empty space (the void) exist (329-345; 426-428)? Give two examples of void existing in created objects (346-369). What are the two basic mutually exclusive realities in the world (430-448). Explain the difference between a property and an accident (449-458). Why are past events considered accidents of matter (459-482)?

Book 2.1-477
According to lines 1-13, what should a man avoid in order to be happy? What general reference to contemporary events at Rome is evident in these lines? What natural goal should our actions aim at (14-21)? Are luxuries necessary for the enjoyment of pleasure (22-39)? Explain your answer. What is the best means of ridding oneself of superstitious fears (40-61)?

What are the two causes of the motions of atoms (83-85)? Why must atoms always be in motion (89-108)? What does the analogy of motes in a sunbeam illustrate (112-141)? Why does Lucretius believe that the universe was not made for man by the gods (167-181)? What is the natural movement of things having the property of weight (184-205)?

Why is the "swerve" necessary to allow for the possibility of creation (216-242)? Why is the "swerve" necessary for free will (251-293)? Look up the modern scientific principle of the Conservation of Energy in a good reference work. How do lines 297-299 represent this principle? What do the examples of grazing sheep and armies on maneuvers illustrate (308-332)? What do the various examples of different creatures and natural substances prove about atoms (333-397)? What is the reason for the differences in the tastes and smells of various natural substances (398-430)? What sense is the basis of all sensation (434-443)? What accounts for the hardness of some natural objects and the fluid nature of others (444-455)? How can a natural substance like sea-water be fluid and bitter at the same time (464-477)?

Book 3.1-176; 830-1094
What kind of life do the gods lead as revealed by Epicurus to Lucretius (14-24)? Why do men cling to superstition (48-54)? What is the main reason men commit evil (59-93)? Explain your answer. Where is the mind located (139-140)? What kind of pain can the mind suffer (147-160)? How does Lucretius prove that the mind and spirit are corporeal (161-176)?

What benefits does death bring to us (830-930)? What lesson for man is evident in the simile of the banqueter (931-965)? Lucretius points out that although the traditional myths which tell of famous sinners being punished in the underworld are false, these sinners exist in this life figuratively in the persons of various human beings who suffer a hell on earth. Explain what Tantalus, Tityos, Sisyphus and the Danaids each represent symbolically (978-1010). Why does belief in an afterlife of punishment destroy man's happiness (1014-1023)? What are the examples of Ancus, Xerxes, Scipio, Homer, Democritus and Epicurus meant to prove (1025-1052)? What is the point of the example of the restless man (1053-1075)? Why is our continual desire for new pleasures not a good reason for wanting to prolong our life (1076-1094)?

Book 5.783-1457
What is the origin of animals, birds and the human race (783-825)? Why did many monsters created by the earth become extinct (837-856)? What qualities enabled other species to survive (862-877)? Look up Darwin's theories of natural selection and survival of the fittest in a good reference book and compare them to the view presented in the last two passages. What are the similarities? Are there any differences? Why could the famous monsters of myth like the Centaur, Scylla, the Chimaera never have existed (878-924)?

Describe briefly the life of primitive men (925-957). What kind of social organization did they have (958-965)? What were the pleasures and dangers of their life (966-998)? What advantages did they have over men of more advanced civilization (999-1010)? What was the result of men living in huts, wearing clothing, using fire and the development of marriage and the family (1011-1018)? What alliance did men finally establish (1019-1020)? Why was this alliance necessary (1021-1027)? Why was language invented (1028-1032)? How did men discover fire (1091-1101)?

What kind of government was established first (1108-1109)? What led to the elimination of this form of government (1120-1142)? What kind of government replaced the first form and for what reason (1143-1150)? How does violence and injury affect the wrongdoer (1151-1160)? How does this argument illustrate the moral ideal of Epicurus?

In 1169-1182 Lucretius refers to the process whereby men came to know of the gods' existence. The visions of the gods that men see when awake and in their sleep are not mere illusions, but the result of the material images which come off the bodies of the gods and enter the world from the interspaces between worlds where the gods live. In exactly the same way as objects in the world are perceived by men, the material images of the gods make contact with the atoms of the souls of men and thereby enable men to become aware of the gods' existence. According to Lucretius, the mistake that men make is to believe that the gods live within and are involved with the world. Why did men create religion (1183-1193)? How do men suffer needlessly because of their religious beliefs (1194-1240)? How does Lucretius define true piety (1202)?

The final section of the book (1241-1457) represents an attempt to demythologize the development of arts and crafts. In myth various gods were credited with the invention of these civilized techniques (e.g., Hephaistos [metallurgy], Athene [weaving], Demeter [agriculture] etc.). According to Lucretius, how did men learn the process of metallurgy (1241-1268)? What human endeavors encouraged progress in metallurgy (1281-1296)? For what purpose were animals tamed (1297-1349)? What connection does weaving have with the use of iron (1350-1353)? Why were men the first weavers (1356)? Why did they give up this task (1357-1360)? How did men learn to practice agriculture (1361-1369)? to sing and play the flute (1379-1387)? to create a calendar (1436-1439)? How do lines 1390-1411 represent a fulfillment of Epicurus's moral ideal? How do lines 1416-1435 represent a violation of same? By what general process did man learn arts and crafts (1448-1457)? Explain how this explanation differs from the mythological point of view.

Table of Contents > Next Section: Vergil's Aeneid


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