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Crops of Destruction: Parallels in Lucretius' Origins of Life and Disease

W. Erickson Bridges

Duke University

Lucretian scholarship has frequently discussed how the Plague of Athens serves as a fitting ending for the De Rerum Natura, both in its parallels with the invocation of Venus in the proem to Book 1 (Gale 1994, 2001) and in the cycle of creation and destruction found throughout the poem (Minadeo; Müller; Schiesaro). These analyses, however, often focus exclusively on the description of the Athenian Plague in 6.1138-1286, glossing over Lucretius’ explanation for the general origins of disease in 6.1090-1137. Upon inspection, these lines reveal a close parallel not to the invocation of Venus, but to another passage in Book 1: 1.250-261, the account of how rainfall begins the process of life.

In this paper, I will discuss the close parallels between 6.1090-1137 and 1.250-261, demonstrating how Lucretius uses the same vocabulary and process to account for the creation of both generative and destructive particles. With this reading I aim to bolster scholarship arguing that the account of disease functions as a complementary ending to the generative opening of the De Rerum Natura. Further, I will demonstrate how this reading transforms our understanding of the Plague into a destructive echo of the union of Mars and Venus.

1.250-261 details how rainfall, poured by pater aether into the lap (gremium) of the earth, begins the process of life, causing plants to rise up (surgere), which then sustain animals and humans and thereby cause the prosperity of cities and living offspring. Conversely, in 6.1100-1102, Lucretius describes that one of the ways in which particles of disease arise is when they rise (surgere) from the earth, beaten out by rain and sunlight. Then, in 1125-1132, these particles of disease insert themselves into crops and, consequently, into the living creatures that feed on crops. Thus, the same process creates two different but complementary outcomes: in the first, rainfall creates particles of life; in the latter, particles of death.

This parallel plays directly into the Epicurean understanding that creation and destruction are necessary, complementary processes of the natural world. Further, it also connects disease and the Plague even more strongly to the language of the proem. As noted above, in 1.250-1 pater aether pours rain into the gremium of Terra, which evokes the union of Mars and Venus: in both cases, a male deity falls into the lap of a goddess. But while the divine embrace in the proem is bound up in the Empedoclean imagery of Strife and Love (Furley), the description of aether and terra is purely generative. In this view, the origins of disease prompts us to understand the Plague itself as a destructive complement to 1.250-261, wherein the Epicurean “goddess” Natura (Clay) and her partner Mors (evocative of the proem’s archaic Mavors [Wormell]) create destruction where earlier there was creation.

Thus, by connecting the origins of life and disease through the process of rainfall, Lucretius creates in the Plague a satisfying complement to both his proem and his poem’s evocation of creation and destruction.

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Republican Latin Poetry

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