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Lucretius’ multiple interlocutors in the DRN

Giulia Fanti

University of Oxford

Lucretius’ De rerum natura is widely regarded as the didactic poem par excellence in Latin literature. As such, it displays one of the most characteristic features of the genre, which is a close relationship between the poet/teacher and the addressee/pupil, who is not only spurred to the learning of Epicurean doctrine, but himself takes the floor, reacting to Lucretius’ teachings.

The present paper has two aims. In the first place, why does Lucretius choose to make his reader say something? Twice in Book I the addressee raises a point about what he has been taught and his voice is heard through the form inquis (vv.803, 897), which suggests the idea of a relationship ‘of mutual intellectual respect and progressive learning’ (Volk 2011), which tightens the bond between Lucretius and his reader, who is directly involved. The influence of the Epicurean didactic tradition, immortalized by both Epicurus’ Peri Physeos and Philodemus’ works, and the most diverse literary genres – above all satire, rhetoric and diatribe – all play a role here, making the interaction between teacher and pupil more vivid, and the tone more dramatic.

However, the pupil is not, quite surprisingly, Lucretius’ sole interlocutor. We encounter two cases throughout the poem where the poet’s attention is shifted from the reader to either a generalising second person singular or even a third interlocutor. This happens in the proem to Book II, where the superiority of the philosopher’s condition over humanity is pointed out, and in Book III, where the warnings of the personified Natura are addressed first to the whole humankind, and after, more specifically, to an old man.

Why does Lucretius divert his attention to interlocutors other than his reader? The rhetorical weight of these passages has attracted most scholarly attention, whereas they are underappreciated as didactic devices, as I shall show. Well exemplifying Philodemus’ suggestion – as explained in the Peri Parrhesias – that the most successful way to show pupils their mistakes is to ascribe them to the teacher’s own youth, these strategies enhance Lucretius’ relationship with the reader: he is shielded from any direct rebuke, and made a spectator of a vivid scene, into which Lucretius instils a strong educational aim.

These cases will not only provide ample illustration of the interaction between rhetorical and didactic strategies, but also show how weak the boundaries between them can be. 

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Lucretius: Author and Audience

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