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Lucretius at the Ludi: Comedy and Other Drama in Book Four of De rerum natura

Mathias Hanses

Lucretius’s allusions to Roman comedy in DRN 4 have so far mostly been interpreted within the context of the Epicurean’s discussion of love and sex. Here, Lucretius rejects the palliata’s overly self-indulgent emotionality. I will argue that in fact, Lucretius’s allusions to comedy also inform his wider argument about Epicurean physics. Throughout Book 4, we can detect scattered additional references to the stage. Taken together, these serve to illustrate that if a Roman visits a festival, the result may be that the theater will keep coming to mind, even if he is by now engaged in a different activity, such as writing a didactic poem about Epicrean philosophy. This is because the simulacra that are emitted from all bodies at all times can get stuck for days at a time in the heads of the Roman theatergoer.

Lucretius’s scorn for stock comic scenarios is at its most apparent as he describes how love can lead young men to squander their fathers’ riches (4.1121-40). He follows up with a similarly stern denunciation of comedy’s undignified exclusus amator, who begs his lover to let him enter her house (4.1174-89). Both of these passages are rich in the thematic vocabulary of Roman comedy and thereby make their association with the humorous stage almost explicit (pallam, 4.1130; ludi, 4.1131; leporum, 4.1133; postscaenia, 4.1186; compare Rosivach 1980; Brown 1987; Goldberg 2005).

Antogonistic as these lines may be, Lucretius’s approach to his literary predecessors tends to be more ambivalent than such a straightforward rejection (West 1969; Kenney 1970; Harrison 2002; Gale 1994 and 2007). And indeed, Lucretius has set his readers up to recognize that the author himself (or at least: his literary persona) is an aficionado of the Roman stage. In his explanation that an object’s simulacra can get trapped in our minds, he had also turned to the stage for an example: “And we often see that when those who spent many consecutive days focused on the Games now stop taking these things in with their senses, there still remain open pathways in the mind along which the same simulacra ... can travel. Therefore, for many days, they continue to see these same things in front of their eyes, ... so that they seem to perceive ... the glitter of the varied marvels of the stage” (Lucr. 4.973-83).

It is in part to illustrate this phenomenon that Lucretius brings up comedy in DRN 4. In the vicinity, we can detect a variety of other stage references that serve the same purpose. Having just pointed out the existence of the simulacra for the first time, Lucretius adduces a common occurrence in the theater as proof. It is because of the simulacra that “the yellow and red awnings ... when they are spanned across the rafters and beams of great theaters ... dye the people seated together underneath them ... and the entire show of the stage” (Lucr. 4.72-83). Slightly later, he compares the impact reflective surfaces have on simulacra to the effect of hitting an unfinished theatrical mask (persona, 4.297) against a pillar before its clay has fully set: it is turned inside out. Then, he debunks the common preconception that echoes—really just acoustic simulacra bouncing back at the caller—are emitted by satyr ‘plays’ going on in the forests (4.580-92).

The tongue-in-cheek implication of this cluster of theatrical passages is that ‘Lucretius’ himself has been to a festival and cannot get the ludi off his mind as he is writing the DRN. Of course, this is not to be understood as an actual autobiographical reference. Rather, Lucretius is testing our observational skills as he sends us looking for hidden illustrations of his theories in the pages of the DRN (for this technique, compare Gale 1994; Holm 2013).

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Comedy and Comic Receptions

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