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The Hellenistic Pedigree of Lucretius' Honeyed Cup

Brian P Hill

Bucknell University

The memorable analogy of the honeyed cup of wormwood (1.936-50 ≈ 4.11-25) surely ranks among the most enduring images in De rerum natura (DRN). Indeed, Lucretius’ blending of the medicine of Epicureanism with the sweetness of poetry continues to exercise scholars by virtue of the clearly programmatic implications of the image (Gale 1994, Clay 2003, Buchheit 2004, Kyriakidis 2006, Menghi 2006, Comte-Sponville 2008, Mastandrea 2014-2015, Nethercut 2019). However, despite the wealth of critical attention paid to this famous analogy, several reminiscences of two major Greek predecessors in this passage have so far gone unnoticed in scholarship. In this paper, I identify previously unrecognized intertextual allusions to Callimachus and Nicander within these lines. I then show how these allusions suggest that the learned compositional aesthetics associated with those Hellenistic poets also informs the refined poetics to which Lucretius likewise lays claim in DRN.

Following the classic study by Kenney (1970), scholars have demonstrated an increased willingness to explore Lucretius’ complex relationship with Hellenistic poetry (Brown 1982, King 1985, Donohue 1993, Nethercut 2018). I present new evidence in this area by identifying specific resonances of Callimachus and Nicander in this Lucretian image. For example, I posit that Lucretius models his passage in part on Callimachus Aet. fr. 7.13-14 Harder. In those lines, Callimachus asks the Graces to extend their oily touch to his poetry and grant it staying power (ἔλλατε νῦν,⸥ ἐ⸤λέ⸥γοισι ⸤δ⸥’ ἐνιψήσασθ⸤ε⸥ λιπώσ⸤ας | χεῖρ⸥α̣ς ἐμ̣⸤οῖς, ἵνα μο⸥ι πουλὺ μένωσ⸤ι⸥ν ἔτος).  This entreaty prefigures Lucretius’ claims that he will touch his philosophical exposition with the charm and honey of the Muses (musaeo contingens cuncta lepore, Lucr. 1.934 = 4.9; quasi musaeo dulci contingere melle, 1.947 = 4.22). However, while Callimachus cedes agency to the Graces in that endeavor, Lucretius seeks to apply the Muses’ charm to his work himself.  Thus, even as he subtly alludes to a Callimachean model, Lucretius innovates on that poetic precedent and quite literally takes the image into his own hands.

Lucretius artfully gestures toward Nicander in several details of his description as well, beyond the general or stylistic similarities that the two poets share (Hollis 1998).  For the victim of a particular toxin in the Alexipharmaca, for instance, Nicander prescribes an antidote of wormwood steeped in sweet wine (τῷ μέν τ’ εὐβραχέος ἀψινθίου ἄλγος ἐρύξει | ἐνστῦφον πόμα κεῖνο νεοθλίπτῳ ὑπὸ γλεύκει, Alex. 298-99).  Lucretius in turn adds a sweetener to his own bitter draught of wormwood as well (amarum | absinthi laticem, Lucr. 1.940-41 = 4.15-16).  Lucretius also draws our attention to the lips of the drinker (labrorum tenus, 1.940 = 4.15), recalling Nicander’s similar focalization (παρὰ χείλεσι, Alex. 279).  However, as I show in detail, Lucretius again demonstrably repurposes several features of his Greek precursor’s account.  For example, whereas Nicander presents a victim who is tricked (τι δόλῳ, Alex. 279) into ingesting the poison, Lucretius repositions the trickery (ludificetur, Lucr. 1.939 = 4.14) as a tool of the healer, producing a rather different picture in the process. Lucretius thus customizes these and other features of Nicander’s account to suit his exposition of the healing doctrines of Epicureanism.

On the model of Conte’s (2017) recent formulation, then, I demonstrate that the subtle differences between Lucretius’ image and its Greek counterparts bear at least as much significance as the highlighted similarities do. Further, I suggest that the reputations of Callimachus and Nicander as poets of erudite, allusive verse (Harder 2002, Wilson 2018) in turn make them apt targets for learned reappropriation by Lucretius. I conclude that Lucretius’ subtle allusion to these poets, within the highly self-conscious and programmatic analogy of the honeyed cup, suggests the centrality of these Hellenistic poets’ erudite aesthetics to Lucretius’ twin poetic and didactic aims in DRN. Recognition of these allusions thus facilitates a fuller appreciation of Lucretius’ text as both a powerful philosophical protreptic and a finely wrought work of art.

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Hellenistic Poetry

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