Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.11.04

Bonnie A. Catto, Lucretius. Selections from De rerum natura.   Wauconda:  Bolchazy-Carducci, 1998.  Pp. xxx, 272.  ISBN 0-86516-399-5.  $26.00.  

Reviewed by C. A. Hoffman, University of California, Berkeley (
Word count: 1731 words

This is a good book. Those who wish to give second and third-year college students of Latin a good sampling of the De rerum natura, would do well to give this text their consideration. Following in the tradition of other learning texts offered by Bolchazy-Carducci, Catto's book offers the student not only a full sampling of the poem, but also an abundance of notes, vocabulary, and, perhaps most noteworthy of all, a florilegium of relevant passages selected from "classical" and non-classical authors that bear upon the particular Lucretian passages to which they are attached. It is this combination of features which makes the book worthy of serious examination by anyone who intends to introduce students to Lucretius and his important poem.

Catto's introduction offers a good general overview of Lucretius and his subject matter. Furthermore, her review of rhetorical figures is welcome in light of current academic trends towards greater vagueness in the use of terms such as metonomy, which in some circles passes as a synonym for synecdoche. Catto's helpful bibliography is not restricted strictly to philological matters, but also contains a number of scientific texts to provide those of us who are relatively innocent of formal science with a number of good starting points. For the next edition of her text, Catto may want to consider adding David Lindberg's, The Beginnings of Western Science,1 which provides a very useful historical overview of the Western scientific tradition.

The heart of the text consists of 53 selections drawn from the whole of the poem. Each selection is prefaced by a brief introduction explaining its place within the poem, and summarizing the relevant issues being handled by Lucretius at the moment. Omissions in the text are also paraphrased in these introductions, thereby allowing the student to have a grasp of the poem's overall argument. The layout of the material is as follows. On the left-hand pages are found vocabulary and explanatory notes, while on the right-hand pages are found the passages themselves together with discussion questions and quotations from various sources that illuminate in one way or another the Lucretian passage in question. It is in these illustrative passages that this book stands out particularly. They are far-ranging so that a snippet from Plato may appear with a quotation from the New York Times.2 This willingness to go beyond the classical authors is a real strength as it tends to give Lucretius an immediacy and relevance which would not otherwise be apparent. The discussion questions go beyond serving as a test of the student's comprehension; rather, many are designed to involve the student in the issues which Lucretius addresses.

For example, consider Lucretius 1.419-530, which is reading selection 12 in Catto's book. Catto begins with a brief summary of the passage's purpose. The passage itself is accompanied by quotations from Democritus, Epicurus, Plato, Isaac Newton, James Boswell, Stephen Hawking, and Curt Siplee.3 Appended questions touch on topics ranging from word order, to belief in solid bodies, to the issue of what Lucretius might think of sub-atomic particles. This book, then, offers much for the classroom, and should go a long way towards sparking interest in Lucretius among its target audience.

That said, a few minor difficulties merit notice. The first of these paradoxically relates to its most attractive features: the vocabulary, questions, and illustrative passages. This is mostly an issue of formatting and personal taste, but their combined visual weight has a tendency at times to overpower the Latin text, if not simply detract from it. If, for example, a student is attempting to translate a twelve-line selection,4 it must surely appear a little daunting to have that bit embedded within a full-page of vocabulary, three questions, and three adjunct passages. This is not to denigrate the value of any one of these components -- surely vocabulary ranks foremost in importance -- but simply to point out that there are instances in which the combination of features may have a tendency to overpower the main task at hand: the reading of the Latin. The illustrative passages themselves would be improved if the medieval period were represented; both Occam and Avicenna, to name two worthies, touch on matters relevant to the poem. Additionally, there are times when the material being quoted runs the risk of outstripping the reader's knowledge: to understand the quotation from Matthew Deady requires at least a basic knowledge of what is meant when a physicist uses terms such as conservation, mass, and energy. Otherwise, how is someone to make sense of this: "we physicists know that mass is just a particular form of energy"?5 Similarly, some questions require more knowledge than can safely be taken for granted, others are simply confusing. Appended to Selection 196 are four questions, two of which illustrate this. One gives a brief explanation of the Bose-Einstein condensate and then asks the student to surmise how Lucretius would react to this phenomenon; another asks, "can you think of a modern example of the speed of atomic motion analogous to the rapidity of the sun's light?" It seems unlikely the most students would be prepared to answer the former question; the latter would benefit from clearer phrasing.

The explanatory notes are generally brief, direct, and lucid. Regarding the issue of alliteration and assonance, however, they are simply confusing, as the criteria for interpreting the significance of these poetical figures are never spelled out. On what basis, for example, can it be said that the assonance of "a" at 2.81 and 5.1393 reflects tranquillity? Apparently alliteration in "s" at 2.147 creates the image of a sizzling sun, but how is this known? Why would alliteration in "v" enhance the beauty of the scene described in 2.144, but imply irony in 2.257? Sometimes alliteration is apparently meaningless such as at 3.343, 3.840, and 3.842. Alliteration of "s" and "c" is evocative of clashing armor at 2.322, but at 3.994 it brings to mind the idea of cutting. Alternatively, alliteration of "t" at 3.1 mimics the sound of a trumpet, but at 4.11 it is apparently without significance. These examples certainly leave one with the impression that the interpretation of assonance and alliteration is largely arbitrary. This problem can be contrasted with Catto's comment on 5.1428 because in this instance she provides a logical reason for understanding auro signisque as hendiadys.7

Macrons are indicated throughout the text, although a number of errors have crept in. Derivations of cedere such as accedere,8 decedere,9 concedere,10 recedere,11 discedere,12 are missing macrons consistently enough that one wonders whether the problem arises from the Oxford Latin Dictionary, the editors of which have decided to indicate long vowels only in metrically ambiguous cases.13 This same practice perhaps explains why misceri, sparsi, and sparsurus, to cite a few examples, are missing their macrons.14 Another problem that possibly arises from the same source is the listing of the principal parts of verbs. For example, in her vocabulary, Catto lists the fourth principal part of consuescere as consueturus;15 for ludere she provides lusurus.16 The problem here is that it is unclear what lexicographical principle Catto is following. If she is following the traditional one found in the Oxford Latin Dictionary, A Latin Dictionary, and Chambers Murray Latin-English Dictionary,17 then instead of the future active participles she should provide the supine, which is attested for both verbs . If she is following the method used by Wheelock's Latin18 or Latin: An Intensive Course,19 to name two commonly used teaching texts, then she should provide the perfect passive participle, which is also attested for both verbs. As it stands, however, Catto's listing implies to the American student who has learned his or her Latin from either of the two textbooks mentioned that there is no perfect passive participle for these verbs because of the analogy with esse. To the European student, it might imply the lack of a supine. In any event, Catto should explain her practice so that there will be no ambiguity.

A handful of explanatory comments miss the mark. According to the note on 1.265, the use of the "personal voice is very rare in other epic poets," but surely it is not: among the Latin poets, Vergil, Flaccus, Statius, Corripus, open their epics directly in the first person,20 while Ovid, Claudian, and Ennius, presumably, indirectly;21 among the Greeks Apollonius introduces himself directly,22 while Homer does it indirectly.23 Possem at 1.949 is mislabeled as primary sequence; neither fateare at 2.1064 nor secuta est at 3.930 are passive, rather they are ordinary deponents;24 similarly, dignarier and molier conventionally are called deponent, not passive, infinitives;25 ut at 2.1170 is not a "linking conjunction," but rather an adverb introducing an indirect question; tuisque ex, inclute, chartis at 3.10 is not anastrophe according to the definition supplied by Catto at p. xxiv because the object of the preposition does follow it. The reference to Sisyphus at 3.995 elicits the comment that "[his] exact crime ... is unclear," but Apollodorus, who is surely relevant here, indicates that he was being punished for revealing one of Zeus' trysts;26 it is hard to see how Cicero's exile elucidates line 3.998. Suadent in 4.1157 should be scanned as a short followed by two longs rather than as an anapest as indicated.27

These quibbles are minor and do little to detract from the overall quality of the book, although as an aside it would be useful to have grammatical notes cross-referenced with any of the standard reference grammars. In any event, the book ought to be welcomed by anyone wishing to introduce students to Lucretius. Whereas, up to this point, one had little choice but either to focus on a single book of the poem and use a readily available and affordable commentary such as Kenney's,28 or, if getting a sense of the whole poem were the goal, to have the students purchase the useful edition by Leonard and Smith,29 which currently costs $45.00, now in Catto's book there is a useful and affordable alternative. It has the advantage of being comprehensive, inexpensive, and, most important, well-suited for the classroom. Thus, just as one can be certain that Leonard and Smith would be largely wasted in this context because of its bulk and the relatively sophisticated nature of its comments, so one can be equally certain that every bit of Catto's book can be completely used in the classroom. Surely that is money well spent.


1.   David C. Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science, Chicago, 1992.
2.   p. 47. Even Mary Poppins is allowed her Lucretian echo! p. 65.
3.   pp. 55-9.
4.   p. 85.
5.   p. 33.
6.   De rerum natura 2.95-164.
7.   p. 238.
8.   pp. 30 and 232.
9.   p. 42.
10.   p. 110.
11.   pp. 126,160, 170, and 268.
12.   pp. 137 and 260.
13.   P. G. W. Glare, ed., Oxford Latin Dictionary, Oxford, 1984, p. xxiii.
14.   pp. 86 and 88, respectively.
15.   p. 259.
16.   p. 264.
17.   C. T. Lewis and C. Short, edd., A Latin Dictionary, Oxford, 1980; W. Smith and J. Lockwood, edd., Chambers Murray Latin-English Dictionary, Cambridge, 1991. It is worth noting that neither these two dictionaries nor the Oxford Latin Dictionary states anywhere explicitly what lexicographical standard it is using for the lemmata of verbs, a circumstance which perhaps deserves adjustment in light of the differing approaches discussed here.
18.   R. A. LaFleur, ed., Wheelock's Latin, New York, 1995, pp. 75-6.
19.   F. L. Moreland and R. M. Fleischer, Latin: An Intensive Course, Berkeley, 1977, p. 23.
20.   Aeneis 1.1; Argonauticon 1.1; Thebais 1.4; Iohannis 1.6.
21.   Metamorphoses 1.1; De raptu Proserpinae 1.4; Annales 1.5 (Skutsch).
22.   Argonautica 1.2.
23.   Ilias 1.1; Odyssea 1.1.
24.   pp. 122 and 158, respectively.
25.   pp. 194 and 216, respectively.
26.   Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, Oxford, 1997, p. 44 (1.9.3); the comments of T. Gantz also seem straightforward enough. Early Greek Myth, Baltimore, 1993, v. 1, pp. 173-6. cf. W. E. Leonard and S. B. Smith, edd., De rerum natura, Madison, 1970, ad loc.
27.   p. 184.
28.   E. J. Kenney, De Rerum Natura, Cambridge, 1984.
29.   See n. 27, supra.

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