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Swerving Atoms and Changing Times: Lucretius and his Readers in Late Antiquity

Abigail Kate Buglass

University of Edinburgh

The paper investigates some of the many ways in which the poets and thinkers of Late Antiquity read and interpreted Lucretius’ radical poem De Rerum Natura. Lucretius debunks the myth of a divinely controlled cosmos and presents our world as being governed by the motions of the smallest parts of the universe, the atoms. According to Epicurean philosophy, the merest shift in an atom’s position can cause atomic collision, the source of every phenomenon and action. This shift, or swerve (clinamen), is an apt metaphor to describe the profound and disturbing effect which Lucretius’ poem had on the world after its 1417 rediscovery by the humanist and book hunter Poggio Bracciolini; the title of Stephen Greenblatt’s controversial bestseller The Swerve conveys both these senses. Lucretius’ message is unsettling and subversive in any period: gods play no role; our bodies, after death, resolve into the most basic earthly components, eventually regenerating new life; and though matter is conserved, there is no perennially surviving soul to linger or travel to the underworld.

Although the near-contemporary reception of Lucretius by poets such as Vergil and Horace is well explored (e.g. Hardie (2009)), as is the much later reception by readers of the Renaissance and Enlightenment after Poggio’s rediscovery, study of the poem’s late antique reception is markedly absent from the scholarship. The assumption that Lucretius was not widely read in Late Antiquity, a result of lack of study not lack of evidence, has led to the dismissal of allusions to DRN in this period, even in authors who frequently borrow from Lucretius (Green (1971, 51) on Paulinus of Nola; and Hadzsits’ 1935 broad but at times imprecise study of Lucretian influence). My paper, ‘Swerving Atoms and Changing Times’, uses case studies to explore the unsettling, turbulent effect of the radical worldview which Lucretius presents to late antique readers, pagan and Christian. Equally it also considers some of the ways in which the profound religious changes of this period affected the interpretation and the readership of Lucretius, and how his message was accepted, neutralized, or perverted. Discussion begins in the late 3rd/ early 4th century with Arnobius and Lactantius, ending with Isidore of Seville (the last to cite Lucretius in Late Antiquity). Interpretation of Lucretius’ reception is pursued both on a close philological level and as a broader encounter with a text that challenged all religious viewpoints.

I have identified three broad, potentially overlapping, categories of this reception: the grammarians and commentators; poets who view Lucretius as the quintessential philosopher-poet; and Christian writers attacking or appropriating DRN, setting Lucretius up as a ‘straw pagan’ or shamelessly reusing his attacks on traditional religion. 

For the grammarians, Butterfield’s survey (2013, 55-91) is helpful, though his focus remains firmly on textual transmission and corrections. It is far from surprising that late antique poets would draw upon Lucretius when integrating philosophy into their works, pioneering as he was in his versification of Epicurus’ prose. Yet allusions to Lucretius by later poets have frequently been neglected or, where studied, minimised as purely formal emulation (Hagendahl (1958, 9, 380); Sánchez-Ostiz (2013, 101)); desire for ‘archaizing effect’ (e.g. Hadzsits (1935, 10)); or even as evidence that Lucretius was a convenient source for various philosophical schools (Cameron (2011, 328-31). Although case studies on this aspect of Lucretius’ reception exist (Sánchez-Ostiz (2013); Ware (2012); Gennaro (1957)), modelling on DRN is still generally viewed as formal. Apart from Gatzemeier (2013), the Christian reception of Lucretius has received surprisingly little attention. And other than some acute discussion of Hamartigenia by Dykes (2011, esp. 177-89), Rapisarda (1950) is the last systematic study of the Lucretius-Prudentius relationship.

The influence of other classical poets and thinkers on late antique authors, pagan and Christian, is increasingly well documented. My paper attempts to add to Lucretian and late antique scholarship in allowing full appreciation of the DRN’s impact on the intellectual development of the later Roman world.

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Playing with Time

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