Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.02.25

Lisa Piazzi, Lucrezio e i Presocratici. Un commento a De rerum natura 1, 635-920. Testi e Commenti 1.   Pisa:  Scuola Normale Superiore, 2005.  Pp. 322.  ISBN 88-7642-151-3.  €40.00.  

Reviewed by Piet H. Schrijvers, Leiden (
Word count: 975 words

Piazzi's (P.) commentary on Lucretius, De rerum natura 1, 635-920, consists of two introductions (A. General Issues, p. 3-24, B. Special Issues, p. 25-58), a reprint of the text from Bailey's editio maior (1947), flanked by an Italian prose translation, and a line by line commentary, with separate introductions to the successive pericopes (p. 85-282). Lines 1, 635-920 contain Lucretius's criticism of three Presocratic philosophers: Heraclitus (635-704), Empedocles (705-829), Anaxagoras (830-920). These lines raise the major problem of how Lucretius obtained his knowledge of these predecessors: directly or indirectly, exclusively via Epicurus or also by means of doxographical sources. In several instances an editor or commentator meets serious difficulties concerning the constitution of the Latin text. As to these two major issues (Lucretius' position in the history of ancient philosophy before him and textual criticism), P's commentary forms a sound and welcome contribution to Lucretian scholarship. Nevertheless, a treatment which consists of nearly 60 pages of introduction and nearly 200 pages of commentary is, in my opinion, too extensive for the less than 300 lines of Lucretius's argumentations (635-920), which often have a rather straightforward and repetitious character. Too often P's monograph shows overlapping between the three different types of introductions, where the same philosophical and literary issues are discussed. Moreover, P.'s repetitious style mirrors too much Lucretius's own abundant way of writing. Fortunately, the book can easily be consulted by means of the useful and detailed indexes verborum (p. 309-311), rerum (p. 313-316), locorum (p. 317-322).

A peculiarity of the book is its Italian, not to say nationalistic, character. The non-Italian reader will be grateful for the many references to Italian scholarship; the bibliography (p. 283-307) is extremely useful for its numerous entries on Italian books and articles which are unknown or at least untraceable in other countries (for instance Pascal's judicious commentary on De rerum natura 1, dating from 1904, is a real rediscovery). Nevertheless, in the commentary itself the complimentary references lavishly offered to Italian colleagues often spoil the readability because of their out-dated character (e.g. Conte on diatribe and the sublime, 1966) or far-fetchedness and lack of relevance (e.g. Dionigi 1992 on le parole e le cose, followed by Schiesaro, etc. etc.). Perhaps this academic ritual is normale in (Italian) dissertations.

As for Lucretius's relationship with his Presocratic predecessors and opponents, P. rightly rejects the idea that the Roman poet is a fundamentalist following exclusively the teachings of his master Epicurus. She sagely claims a certain degree of 'aggiornamento' in Lucretius's exposition and criticism of Presocratic philosophy. This basic assumption is corroborated especially in the commentary on Heraclitus's doctrine. Following the lead of the German scholar Schmidt (Lukrez, der Kepos und die Stoiker, 1990) P. convincingly shows that Lucretius's criticism is also aimed at the Stoics. In the case of Empedocles and Anaxagoras she rightly points out that the Roman poet more than once employed a doxographic tradition. One regrets that in her introductions on general and special issues P. focuses only on the reception of Heraclitus by Epicureans and Stoics. Her discussion of the later reception of Empedocles and Anaxagoras is more limited and incomplete. (For instance P. ignores Gordon Campbell's recent (2003) commentary on De rerum natura 5, 772-1104, which contains much Empedoclean material and faces the same historical problem of reception.) As becomes clear from her scattered remarks in the commentary, in all three cases the doxographical tradition, starting with Aristotle and Theophrastus, plays a major role in Lucretius's treatment of Presocratic philosophy. This important issue, somewhat concealed in footnotes and in the abundance of her commentary, deserves a systematic and exhaustive treatment in one general introduction.

Among the literary subjects discussed in introductions and notes (esp. the influence of ancient diatribe on Lucretius's polemical style and his characterization of Heraclitus's manner of writing), too much attention is given, in my opinion, to more formal features like repetition, polyptoton, clausula and alliteration (the last phenomenon is analysed, classified and interpreted more than 50 times in the commentary!). This sometimes makes the consultation of her book painstaking (and rather boring). The discussions of textual problems and their proposed solutions, on the other hand, are always illuminating and convincing in their grammatical and/or stylistic or logical argumentations and perceptive conclusions. The added reprint of Bailey's selective apparatus criticus does not do justice to the thoroughness of P.'s discussions in this field. The long notes on the history of technical terms in Greco-Roman philosophy are praiseworthy.

On a few occasions I cannot agree with her interpretations: 636 summam, interpreted and translated by P. as 'universe', where Bailey's 'the whole sum' (omnis rerum summa) seems preferable in view of 635 materiem rerum and 502 omnis rerum summa, quoted by Fowler in his comm. on 2, 71 (Fowler's discussion is much more detailed and refined than P. suggests). 642 inversis verbis: P. follows my interpretation ('tropes', Horror ac divina voluptas, p. 44-45) which does not exclude allegory because according to ancient literary theory allegory consists of continued metaphors. 716-741 More than once P. characterizes the style of the praise of Empedocles as 'sublime', presumably using this term in a more general way. She nowhere refers to the connection between natural and literary sublime which is explicitly made by the author Peri Hupsous but had already entered Roman literature with Lucretius. 852 leti sub dentibus ipsis: P's references to Etruscan painting and literary motifs like tempus edax seem to me superfluous in view of Lucretius's own obsession with devouring animals (cf. 3, 888; 5, 990-5) and the presence of ossa, viscus, sanguen in the entire paragraph. 867 corpora crescunt: "non i vegetali, ma le particelle"; the reference to 1, 862 makes no sense; I prefer Merrill's and Bailey's identification corpora = res. 884 latices ... lactis: the formal similarity suggesting a pun comparable to ignis-lignum also is in favour of the interpretation latices = 'water'.

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