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The Politics of Atomism in Cicero

Matthew Gorey

Washington University

Political analogies abound in Roman discussions of natural philosophy, arguably the most

famous of which are found in the De Rerum Natura of Lucretius, which portrays atomic

compounds forming assemblies (concilia, coetus) and compacts (foedera) in the manner of

Republican Roman citizens. Numerous scholars since Fowler (1989) have noted the

‘republicanism’ of Lucretius’s social metaphors, and the poet’s frequent conflation of political

and philosophical terminology unites his philosophical agenda with his call for an end to

contemporary civil strife (Gladhill 2016; Hammer 2014; Schiesaro 2007). However, while

scholarship on political metaphor in first-century Roman philosophy has focused largely on De

Rerum Natura, Cicero’s philosophical writings offer a valuable—and understudied—point of

comparison from an anti-atomist perspective. In particular, the various accounts of Epicurean

atomism in Ciceronian dialogues from the mid 40s BCE reveal a set of tendentious political

metaphors in opposition to those of Lucretius. In this paper I examine the use of political

discourse in Cicero’s descriptions of Epicurean atomism, arguing that the Roman statesman

likens non-teleological atomism to the violent disruptions of mob rule and populist demagoguery

in the late Republic.

In two different dialogues, Cicero compares atoms to the urban mob at Rome, referring to

the “crowd of atoms” (atomorum turba; Tusc. 1.11.22) and their “turbulent collision” (turbulenta

concursio; Fin. 1.6.20). Hellegouarc’h (1963), citing widely from late Republican and Augustan

literature, argues that both turba and turbulentus possess strong connotations of mob violence

and populist political disorder—a persistent feature of public politics in the final decades of the

Republic—and it follows that this would have been keenly felt during the period of 45-44 BCE.

Even for Lucretius, a bona fide atomist writing in the 50s, the metaphor of the atomic turba applies specifically to disordered groups of atoms, which he contrasts with the positive political

metaphor of a coetus (‘gathering’) or concilium (‘assembly’) when those atoms successfully

combine to form a larger, ordered whole (Cabisius 1984-5). Cicero’s turba atomorum, therefore,

is not just a crowd by virtue of its numbers, but by its lack of effective guidance and its supposed

propensity to disorder and violent collision.

A related example occurs in De Natura Deorum, when one of the interlocutors

supplements his formal arguments regarding chance and regularity by characterizing the motion

of atoms as not just impossibly random, but reckless: concurrentibus temere (“colliding

recklessly”, Nat. D. 2.37.94; cf. Nat. D. 2.44.115). In his study of political language in the late

Republic, Weische (1966) argues that temeritas (“recklessness”), along with temere and

temerarius in post-Sullan political discourse, is closely associated with the rashness of mobs and

demagogues at Rome, which Cicero in his political speeches repeatedly contrasts with the

prudent judgment of the senatorial aristocracy (e.g. Cic. Flac. 58).

Lastly, I discuss a provocative line from De Natura Deorum in which one of the

interlocutors castigates Epicureans for reducing all of cosmology to the “tyranny and

licentiousness of atoms” (abuteris ad omnia atomorum regno et licentia, Cic. Nat. D. 1.23.65).

In a strictly philosophical sense, the metaphor of political tyranny (regnum) ridicules the absolute

authority given to atoms in Epicurus’ reductionist explanations of natural phenomena, while the

atoms’ licentiousness (licentia) ties the behavior of atoms to odious developments in

contemporary politics, analyzed in detail at De Re Publica 1.67-8 (Reinhardt 2005).

I conclude by considering how Cicero’s political characterization of atoms fits into the

broader cultural landscape of the mid 40s. As Baraz (2012) has demonstrated, Cicero’s later

dialogues are intimately connected with his political ambitions under the new Caesarian regime, and the same can be said for his treatment of atomic physics. When Cicero applies negative

political catchwords and metaphors to atomism, it has the effect of equating Epicurean physics

with the sort of mob violence, demagoguery, and eventual tyranny that ended republican

government at Rome and forced Cicero himself out of politics and into philosophical writing.

Session/Panel Title

Political Thought in Latin Literature

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