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Lucretian Pietas in Vergil’s Aeneid

Jason Nethercut

University of South Florida

This paper argues that the central virtue of pietas in the Aeneid frequently responds to Lucretius’ redefinition of this “very Roman concept” (Austin 1971, at Aen. 1.10) in the De Rerum Natura. Scholars have long recognized Epicurean elements in the Aeneid (Mellinghoff-Bourgerie 1990; Dyson 1996; Gordon 1998; Adler 2003; chs. 7-14 in Armstrong, Fish, Johnston, and Skinner 2004; Kronenberg 2005; contra Feeney 1991: 172-3), as well as the specific influence of Lucretius on Vergilian poetry (Hardie 1986; Catto 1989; Farrell 1991; Dyson 1997; Warden 2000; Gale 2001; Hardie 2009: ch. 5; Nelis 2015). A focused study of the Lucretian valences of pietas in the Aeneid, however, is still lacking (cf. the tantalizing suggestions in Fratantuono 2015: 7-9). This lacuna is especially glaring, given that a) Lucretius deviates from Epicurean orthodoxy as encountered in the works of Epicurus and in Philodemus’ On Piety by repudiating traditional notions of piety (Summers 1995) and b) the influence of Lucretian religio in the Aeneid has been well studied (Dyson 1997).

Situating itself within this nexus of scholarship, this paper demonstrates that Vergil’s response to Lucretian pietas was nuanced, adopting some of Lucretius’ ideas at some points (like the impiety of human sacrifice: Lucr. 1.89=Aen. 1.349, 2.663), while repudiating others (e.g. Lucretius upbraids a ship’s captain at 5.1225-1234 for wrong-headed piety (nec pietas ulla, Lucr. 5.1196) in offering up terrified petitionary prayers during a seastorm, which contrasts spectacularly with the way that Vergil’s insignem pietate virum behaves in the Aeneid’s opening storm). In the final analysis, the Lucretian background  complicates our interpretation of Aeneas’ pietas–––and may even undermine pietas as a virtue––as well as the other paradigms of piety and impiety encountered in Vergil’s epic.

Session/Panel Title

Virgil and Religion

Session/Paper Number

16.1

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