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Polyeideia and the Intended Audience of Lucretius' De Rerum Natura

Jason Nethercut

This paper argues that Lucretius combines many different genres in his initial characterization of Epicurus in an attempt to make his philosophical system accessible to as broad an audience as possible. Scholars have long recognized that Lucretius presents Epicurus in the De Rerum Natura as if he were an epic hero (e.g. Conte, Hardie, and Gale). This paper adduces further, polygeneric, intertextual appropriations in the introduction of Epicurus (DRN 1.62-79) that cumulatively complicate this epic characterization. Didactic, comedy and satire all interact with epic in this passage, highlighting the poetic sophistication of Lucretius' work, while also connecting the philosophical exploits of Epicurus with "less elevated" genres. Paradoxically, as a direct result of this poetic sophistication, Epicurus becomes accessible to a wider, yet potentially less sophisticated, readership. The first section of this paper extends our understanding of the epic valences in Epicurus' characterization. Here it is argued that Lucretius associates Epicurus both with Homer's Achilles and Odysseus. This alignment is further sanctioned by a window reference, wherein Lucretius connects Epicurus back to these Homeric figures through Ennius' Pyrrhus in Annales 6. Moreover, Lucretius' allusion to Ennius also accesses the didactic strain of the epic tradition by introducing Epicurus without a name (Graius homo, DRN 1.66; Annales fr. 165 Sk). Indeed, Empedocles presents Pythagoras anonymously in On Nature (ἀνὴρ περιώσια εἰδώς, DK 129.1), who with this phrase alludes back to the fact that Parmenides leaves himself unnamed in the prologue to his own poem (εἰδότα φῶτα, DK 1.3). Lucretius complicates this epicizing presentation of Epicurus by incorporating comedic intertexts into his generic makeup. In the second section of this paper, previously understudied allusions to New Comedy and Lucilius are introduced as evidence that Lucretius broadens the horizon of expectations for his audience and, thus, broadens his potential audience itself. For example, Epicurus is described as "breaking down" the gates of the universe (effringere...portarum claustra, DRN 1.70-71). But before Lucretius the compound verb effringere only ever describes the action of the exclusus amator in Roman comedy and satire (Terence, Adelphoe 88-91; Plautus, Amphitruo 1026, Asinaria 388 and Stichus 327; Lucilius 839-840 M). The third section of this paper explores the interpretive complications that arise from Lucretius' expansion of his intended audience. Here it is argued that the indiscriminate introduction of many genres into the DRN can be viewed as evidence that Lucretius adheres to contemporary Epicurean genre theory. According to recent reconstructions of Philodemus' 4th book of On Poems (Greenberg, Janko), Epicureans in the first century BCE rejected the importance of generic categorization as superfluous to any coherent theory of poetry: the poetic element is common to all genres, so the concept of genre is irrelevant, if indeed genres actually exist. One way of accounting for the generic hybridity of Lucretius' Epicurus is to argue that Lucretius insists that genre has no control over the DRN. His poem is thus a perfect instantiation of Epicurean genre theory. If this is the case, then further polyvalence is manifest in this programmatic passage, inasmuch as Lucretius, in widening the accessibility of his poem through the juxtaposition of "high" and "low" genres, simultaneously appeals to an even more specialized audience of initiated Epicureans by affirming the Epicurean position in esoteric Hellenistic debates about genre. This paper thus extends insights about the mutually-reinforcing relationship of poetic form and poetic content in the DRN (Gale, especially), while also situating Lucretius in the mainstream of Hellenistic poets who cultivate a diverse readership (Harder). The arguments presented in this paper, therefore, are further evidence that the DRN deserves to be interpreted in the context of the Callimacheanism that permeates late Republican Latin poetry (Kenney, Brown).

Session/Panel Title

Polyvalence by Design: Anticipated Audience in Hellenistic and Augustan Poetry

Session/Paper Number

7.1

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