Lucretius and the Transformation of Greek Wisdom

Lucretius and the Transformation of Greek Wisdom

Lucretius and the Transformation of Greek Wisdom

Lucretius and the Transformation of Greek Wisdom


This book studies the structure and origins of De Rerum Natura (On the nature of things), the great first-century BC poem by Lucretius. By showing how he worked from the literary model set by the Greek poet Empedocles but under the philosophical inspiration of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, the book seeks to characterize Lucretius' unique poetic achivement. It is addressed to those interested both in Latin poetry and in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy.


This book is the partial repayment of a debt. It was my desire to understand Lucretius better that led me into postgraduate research on Epicureanism. And, even more than the philosophy component of my Greats course at Oxford, it was that postgraduate research on Epicureanism that emboldened me to pursue the study of ancient philosophy as a career. It would therefore be only a small exaggeration to say that I learnt ancient philosophy in order to understand Lucretius. Until recently I have ventured little about Lucretius in print, but I have been thinking about him throughout my teaching career at Cambridge. This book is the outcome, and my way of thanking its eponymous hero.

My fascination with Lucretius was fuelled when as an Oxford undergraduate I had the good fortune, in 1966–7, to attend the wonderful lectures on Lucretius by the then Corpus Professor of Latin, Sir Roger Mynors. Mynors told us that he had himself in his early days been enthralled by Cyril Bailey's Lucretius lectures, none of whose brilliance, he remarked, showed through into Bailey's later monumental edition of the poet ('He had gone off the boil'). I like to think that some excitement from the real Bailey filtered through to me in those lectures.

Another debt is to David Furley, whose book Two Studies in the Greek Atomists I came across in Blackwell's while studying Aristotle for Greats. It was that book – which I bought for the then shocking sum of three pounds and nine shillings – that taught me not only how much interest Aristotle gained when he was read alongside other philosophers from a very different tradition, but also how much philosophical depth and subtlety there were to be found in Epicureanism, including that of Lucretius himself.

There are two other friends I should also like especially to thank. My copy of Martin Ferguson Smith's Loeb edition of Lucretius has finally fallen to bits during the writing of this book, a tribute to the fact that I rely on it at all times. His pioneering work on Diogenes of Oenoanda xi . . .

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