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The Poetics of Wormwood: Bitter Botany in Lucretius and Ovid

Paul Hay

Case Western Reserve University

This paper examines references to wormwood in Roman literature (primarily the works of Lucretius and Ovid) and argues that modern readers must contextualize these references alongside ancient botanical knowledge about wormwood to understand their placement in Roman poetry. Previous scholars (such as Kilpatrick 1996 and Shearin 2014 for Lucretius; Davisson 1985, Stevens 2009, and La Bua 2015 for Ovid), while recognizing the plant’s importance, have treated poetic references to wormwood as simply a well-known rhetorical trope of bitterness or as a generic marker of medicine, but have failed to analyze them in light of real-life wormwood usage. By ignoring ancient lore about the properties of wormwood and its variety of uses in antiquity, modern readers of Latin poetry overlook many other layers of symbolic import in these references that ancient readers (for whom wormwood was a common substance in their daily lives; cf. Totelin 2018) would have better understood. I argue that wormwood serves not simply as a symbol for gustatory bitterness but as a nexus for medical discourse and anxiety about literary notoriety.

Lucretius mentions wormwood six times throughout the De Rerum Natura, most famously in his repeated image of the honey-rimmed cup of wormwood medicine given to a child; indeed, Lucretius refers to Epicurean philosophy explicitly as a bitter wormwood juice (one that seems somewhat harsh, tristior, to the unaccustomed). Several ancient sources (Celsus, Pliny the Elder, Dioscorides, Aelian, Aristotle) write that wormwood, in its medicinal capacity, is a purgative and a diuretic, prescribed for maladies like jaundice and liver abscesses, and can keep away pests such as bowel worms. Thus Lucretius as the reader’s doctor (cf. Mitsis 1993) signals that the process of reading the DRN to achieve ataraxia is like reducing the swelling or inflammation within the body, and various other features of the DRN (such as the long litany of proofs of the mortality of the soul) can be explained as a literary enaction of this purgative process. As Epicureanism is a totalizing philosophy (with its physics and its morals being inseparable and mutually supporting), contemporary readers of Lucretius would understand that one would need to purge oneself of any competing ideologies before fully accepting the teachings of Epicurus.

Decades later, and perhaps with Lucretius on his mind, Ovid mentions Pontic wormwood three times in his exile poetry (Tr. 5.13.21, Pont. 3.1.23, and Pont. 3.8.15, called tristia absinthia in the last two). Ovid’s invocations of the wormwood-covered plains of Pontus relate to his fear of being silenced into poetic oblivion. Relegation to Tomis effectively ended the urban, urbane life of Ovid in Rome; only through his literature could he survive symbolically and maintain his voice (Natoli 2017), and his wormwood-infused poetry helps protect that voice. Pliny informs us (NH 27.52; cf. LiDonnici 2001) that wormwood was mixed into ink as a method of warding off mice and other pests that might eat the papyrus (and destroy the literature written thereon). As wormwood in ink was meant to help preserve physical poetry books for posterity, so does the appearance of wormwood in Ovid’s exile poetry (and its stated influence, along with the rest of Pontic culture and geography, on his literary production; cf. Gaertner 2005) reflect his desire to stave off oblivion in Rome through continued publication. These wormwood references fit alongside other examples of late-period Ovid’s literary anxiety, such as worries about Roman library inclusion identified by Blum 2017, and the contemporary concerns, noted by Pliny (NH 13.79-89), regarding poor or scarce writing supplies in the early first century CE.

The poetry of Lucretius and Ovid is infused with wormwood, both textually and symbolically. When contextualized in light of ancient botany, these symbolic layers emerge to reveal complex rhetorical purposes. The references to wormwood in Lucretius and Ovid thus serve as a useful case study for what a reading steeped in contemporary botanical lore can offer to our understanding of Roman poetry.

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Latin Poetics and Poetic Theory

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