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This paper will argue that Lucretian Epicureanism is a persistent subtext in Latin love-elegy, and specifically that Lucretius’ ‘tableau’ of Mars and Venus at the opening of the De rerum natura (DRN 1.29-43) imparts to elegy’s fixation with love and war a quasi-Empedoclean outlook on the creative and destructive forces that regulate the world and human life. In the context of an age that claimed to have begotten peace through war (cf., e.g., Augustus, Res Gestae 13), the elegiac opposition of love and war is a political theme with urgent philosophical ramifications.

The prospect of Lucretian ‘subtextuality’ in elegy might seem unlikely given the polarised outlooks of the Epicurean and elegist. While scholarship has recognised that the other Augustan poets, especially Virgil, responded to Lucretian didactic in their explorations of Roman history and politics, and the place therein of civilian, soldier, and leader (cf., e.g., Hardie 1986; Farrell 1991; Gale 2000; Hardie 2009), it has only more recently considered Lucretius as a mediator of the same concerns in elegy (cf., e.g., Fabre-Serris 2005; Caston 2012). However, Tibullus’ and Propertius’ fixation with death and love points to the relevance to elegy of the central books of the DRN, and Ovid’s didactic works might be considered Lucretius’ final destination in elegy (Sommariva 1980; Shulman 1981; Steudel 1992; J. F. Miller 1997; Farrell 2008). In view of elegy’s propensity to converse with the Lucretian world-view, then, the implications of Lucretius-reception in Virgil suggest parallel avenues for exploration.

Having established in this way the potential for intertextual ‘traction’ between Lucretian Epicureanism and elegy, this paper will compare and contrast Virgil’s reception of Lucretius’ Mars-Venus ‘tableau’ in the Shield of Aeneas (where Lucretian language and Empedoclean subtext have far-reaching politico-philosophical implications) with three elegiac texts which, to varying degrees and with different implications, are in conversation with the same Lucretian passage:

  1. Tibullus 1.1, a bucolic reverie in which the lover prays to be delivered from war into his mistress’ embrace, looks to two passages of Lucretius: the poet’s prayer for peace in DRN 1, with its symbolic expression in the embrace of Mars and Venus; and the depiction of early man in DRN 5, here refracted though Virgil’s Eclogues. In bringing together these two sections of the DRN, Tibullus (like Virgil) projects the dream of a returning Golden Age onto a Lucretian backdrop. However, the snapshots of domestic violence that darken Tibullus’ vignettes of rustic peace suggest a cyclical interchange of love and strife that resonates, through Virgil, with Lucretius’ Empedoclean intertext.
  2. It has been noted that the unorthodox position adopted by the lovers in Propertius 3.4 is paralleled in literature only by Lucretius’ Mars and Venus and by Virgil’s Venus and Vulcan (Edmunds 2002). Further, the presence of Mars and Venus within this elegy, the juxtaposition of war and peace across this elegy and the next, and the recusatio in the latter specifically of Lucretian didactic (Conte 2000), invites philosophical as well as political interpretation of the diptych as a whole.
  3. The sexual positions recommended by Ovid at Ars Amatoria 3.771-88 echo both the Lucretian tableau and its Virgilian reworking (Gibson 2003), but eschew the political implications of the latter. Rather, Ovid’s agenda as erodidactic praeceptor adheres to a non-allegorical reading of Mars and Venus that further aligns this passage of the Ars with Lucretius’ analysis of female sexuality in DRN 4. In this context, Ovid’s historical exempla remain subordinate to the elegiac ‘warfare of love’.

The paper will conclude by suggesting that elegy’s manifold juxtapositions of Mars and Venus, peace and war, and even militia amoris may be more frequently informed by Lucretio-Empedoclean implications than we are accustomed to think. Elegy’s readings of Lucretius thus encompass a much wider discourse about the cyclic interchange of arma and amor, in the histories of our nations, as in our private lives.