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The concluding lines of De Rerum Natura Book 3 warn against the capricious desires brought on by the fear of death. The metaphor that ends this passage, “et sitis aequa tenet vitai semper hiantis” (3.1082-84), “and an equal thirst for life grips us forever gaping,” remains difficult for interpreters to fathom. Questions persist about the relevance of the thirst metaphor here and about its soundness as a coherent conclusion to the book. This paper offers a new reading of these lines as a tacit reference to the myth of Tantalus which functions as an implicit mythological allegory for chronic psychological dissatisfaction. This reading solves local problems of interpretations, and, more significantly, provides insight into the poet’s didactic strategy in which the concealment of the myth within the metaphor functions as a didactic tool.

Lucretius’ didactic method has undergone informal reassessment in the scholarship of recent decades. With the waning of the opinion, embodied in the Anti-Lucrèce chez Lucrèce of Patin, that Lucretius lacked authorial control over his poem, scholars (such as Classen, Schrijvers, Asmis, Clay, and Gale) have looked at the poet’s rhetorical aims with greater confidence in the poem’s unity of form and content. These scholars generally agree that persuasion is the cohesive element that unites the poetry with the philosophy. Lucretius himself defends this combination of poetic form and philosophical content in the metaphor of the honeyed cup (1.931-950 = 4.1-25), which claims that the function of his poetry’s sweetness is to deceive. This paper is part of a larger project that expands the investigation into Lucretius’ rhetorical approach by searching out new “honeyed cups” in Lucretius’ didactic method beyond his use of verse. It examines instances in which Lucretius conceals the full force of his philosophical doctrines behind the familiar sweetness of myth and provides layers of meaning which reveal truths to the “penetrating reader” (Clay 48) while insulating the naïve reader from uncomfortable philosophical truths.

This paper takes the above passage (3.1082-84) as an “implicit allegory,” subtly insinuated through the metaphor of thirst and through prior verbal allusions to the name Tantalus, “Denique tanto opere in dubiis trepidare periclis | quae mala nos subigit vitai tanta cupido?” (3.1076-77), that compares the chronic dissatisfaction that results from the fear of death to the torture of the mythical Tantalus. The passage provides an especially clear example of what I am calling Lucretius’ “didactic concealment”—a subtle rhetorical technique that couples a surface meaning that is appropriate to the philosophical context with a deeper significance intended to delve further into philosophical truths. Here, as in other passages, Lucretius leaves traces of these deeper meanings for his more “penetrating readers” and invites these readers to follow these traces to their ultimate conclusion, “animo satis haec vestigia parva sagaci” (1.402). In this example, the warning that appears on the surface of the text stands by itself, but the implicit comparison of the reader, as the object of this warning, to the mythical Tantalus serves also to drive Lucretius’ lesson home.

This passage follows upon several other examples of explicit allegory which transfer the emotional weight of myth to psychological afflictions of the real world. The comparisons both naturalize the myths and imbue these common afflictions with the same dread and awe that the myths evoke. This final “implicit allegory,” when recognized, also adds the gravity of the myth to the warning against fleeting desire, but leaving the myth unnamed is also a special part of Lucretius’ didacticism. The reader who recognizes the myth in this description of human nature is himself supplanting the mythical with the real. The indirectness of the rhetorical device thus acts, by virtue of its indirectness, as a form of Epicurean psychagogia, whereby the student becomes an active participant in his own Epicurean education.


  • Asmis, Elizabeth, “Rhetoric and Reason in Lucretius,” AJP 104 (1983), 36-66.
  • Classen, C. Joachim, “Poetry and Rhetoric in Lucretius,” TAPA 99 (1968), 77-118.
  • Clay, Diskin, Lucretius and Epicurus (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983).
  • Gale, Monica, Myth and Poetry in Lucretius, ser. Cambridge Classical Studies (Cambridge, UK; NY: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
  • Schrijvers, P. H., Lucréce: Horror ac Divina Volupas (Amsterdam: Hakkert, 1970).

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