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Didactic warfare: Military imagery and progressive exposure in Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura

Brian Hill

Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey

This paper will examine how recurrent images in De Rerum Natura (DRN) form a central and coherent aspect of Lucretius’ didactic program and his relationship with his audience.  I suggest that Lucretius reintroduces a given image or set of images – here, scenes of warfare – and slightly changes his subsequent presentation of that imagery whenever it is recycled at later stages in the poem.   Further, I submit that the poet repeats these slightly-altered images in increasingly subtle ways in order to challenge his reader to adopt and enact more comprehensively the lessons of Epicureanism laid out in the poem.  Over the course of reading DRN, the pupil is nudged ever closer to the battlefield by degrees, all in hopes that the budding Epicurean will thus be trained to put their newly acquired philosophical training into practice even once they have set the poem aside.

The recent boom in Lucretian scholarship has seen the emergence of a number of insightful analyses of Lucretius’ various didactic strategies.  These studies examine the ways in which Lucretius exhorts his readers, leads them, or even manipulates them (e.g., Mitsis 1993, Volk 2002, Whitlatch 2014, Asmis 2016).  The artistry of Lucretius’ imagery has likewise captivated readers of DRN in recent years especially, in large part in the wake of West’s seminal study on the topic (1969) but with renewed vigor after such studies as Gale’s (1994) and others.  And while the recent trend towards a unitarian reading of DRN reconciling its twin poetic and philosophic aims has been able to catch fire (e.g., Clay 1983, Gale 1994), there still exists something of a void, so to speak, in Lucretian scholarship regarding the importance of repeated images in DRN to Lucretius’ twofold purpose of both instructing and delighting (1.927-34).  This paper examines one such set of images as Lucretius uses military analogy to coax his reader gradually into the fray.

Especially from the proem of Book 2 onward, Lucretius makes specific choices in phrasing which serve to call to mind similar but subtly altered scenes for the reader.  Early in Book 2 he establishes the vocabulary which will continue to shape the pupil’s reading experience: suave etiam belli certamina magna tueri / per campos instructa tua sine parte pericli, 2.5-6).  Fowler and De Lacy, among others, have already noted the calm, detached nature of these lines, setting up the ataraxic calm which typifies the Epicurean ideal.  When similar language recurs later in the poem, however, the action is not staged in precisely the same terms.  The reader again looks out over military exercises from a distance, but now the reader has a personal stake in the fighting (tuas legiones, 2.40).  The distance between us and the fighting gradually diminishes; and they cease even to be mere exercises (certamina, as at 2.5 above).  What is more, we have moved from the kind of military language which characterizes even the Book 1 sacrifice of Iphianassa to the final scene of the poem with the gruesome terror of the Athenian plague.  We have thus moved from mythic past into historical reality; and Lucretius challenges his reader step by step to be prepared to face ever greater (and ever more threatening, more real) assaults on their ataraxic focus.

    Questions of the poet’s relationship with his addressee and his audience will naturally be considered in this paper: How does Lucretius ensure that his reader will hear the echo of such repeated analogies across the body of DRN?  And what if the pupil in fact fails to do so?  This paper thus attempts to analyze relevant passages of DRN with a particular eye toward Lucretius’ deployment of military metaphor and hopes to offer preliminary answers to these very issues.

Session/Panel Title:

Creating Audiences in Didactic Poetry

Session/Paper Number

4.3

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