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The Meanings of Nature: Philosophy, Science and Divination between Lucretius and Seneca

Daniele Federico Maras

A passage of the sixth book of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura includes an unusual expression of mockery in regard to the use of the ‘Etruscan verses’ (6.379-385: Tyrrhena carmina) in order to interpret the meaning of lightning bolts. In actuality, the poet claims, lightning is caused by colliding clouds; hence there is no agency of gods to be discovered in it.

Notably, this is the earliest mention of Etruscan scripts of Disciplina and, at the same time, informs us of the reaction of the philosophical community to their contents, with special regard to the Epicureans who rejected any form of divination as incompatible with indeterminism and free will.

An answer to the Epicurean criticism reported by Lucretius is provided by Seneca (Quaest. Nat., 2.32), who compares the Hellenistic and Etruscan knowledge on thunderbolts: “We think that, because clouds collide, lightning is emitted; they (the Etruscans) hold that clouds collide in order to emit lightning. As a matter of fact, since they attribute everything to the divine, they believe not that events have a meaning because they have occurred, but occur in order to have a meaning.”

Most probably, Seneca is quoting from the work of some learned Etruscan haruspex, published in the lapse of time between Lucretius and himself: in this perspective, Aulus Caecina should be regarded as a most likely mid-source, since he is actually mentioned as Seneca’s source (Nat. Quaest., 2.39.1-2.49.1).

A further passage of Seneca on lightning bolts attests that the Stoic Attalus—teacher of the philosopher—devoted himself to the science of interpreting lightning, and moderated the Etruscan Disciplina with his Greek subtlety (Nat. Quaest., 2.48.2; 2.50.1). As a result, Attalus’ linear classification of thunderbolts was opposed to the complexity and pedantry of Aulus Caecina’s doctrine: according to the Stoic philosopher, the types of thunderbolts are only three: those that have a meaning relating to us, those that have no meaning, and those whose meaning is unintelligible to us.

By comparing these passages we gain information on an ongoing philosophical and scientific debate which involved Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, as well as Etruscan haruspices, in the context of late Republican and early Imperial Rome. Apparently, the incorporation of the Hellenistic science, even in the interpretation of lightning—a core component of the Etruscan divinatory lore—was part of the process of adaptation and updating of the Disciplina on the part of the haruspices.

It is significant, therefore, that Vitruvius testifies to a parallel reflection on the rational value of haruspicy, that is to say the interpretation of the entrails of the sacrificed victims (arch., 1.4.9): the careful inspection of the livers of animals fed on that spot whereon a city or an encampment was to be built, he claims, provides precious information on the healthiness of local water and food.

The analysis of the extant Latin sources provides thus evidence for the contents of the works of Disciplina: a lost literary genre of the early CE, and a substantial part of the history of ancient thought.

Session/Panel Title:

Prophecy

Session/Paper Number

11.1

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