Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.05.54

Monica R. Gale (ed.), Lucretius: De Rerum Natura V. Aris & Phillips Classical Texts.   Oxford:  Aris & Phillips, 2008.  Pp. vii, 222.  ISBN 978-0-85668-889-8.  $36.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Lee Fratantuono, Ohio Wesleyan University (
Word count: 1174 words

How should one approach a commentary on Lucretius? Or, more precisely, what should one tackle and how should one tackle it? Not surprisingly, since the appearance sixty odd years ago of Bailey's magisterial three volume edition, no one has tried to explicate the entire epic; treatments of single books or sections of books have been the norm. Lucretius is not Catullus or even Virgil, and so most of the commentaries that have appeared are aimed at audiences no younger or less experienced than the "sixth formers and undergraduates" who may never have existed except in harmless enough pedagogical fantasy, while many volumes are clearly meant in usum eruditorum. Book 5 is of congenial enough interest to students (as opposed to the second book, still somewhat neglected by the commentary tradition) to warrant repeated treatments, and so Gale's volume appears in the Aris and Phillips Classical Texts series a quarter century after Costa's Oxford essentially student edition and six years after Campbell's full scale edition of part of the book.1 Gale's volume, while aimed at a student audience that has not had much if any exposure to the poet, is a significant addition to the Lucretius bibliography and merits high praise as a splendid achievement by a distinguished Lucretian. Gale's hope (as expressed in her Preface) is that even students with little or no Latin could profit from her book; they certainly can, even if it is likeliest that this commentary will see classroom use in advanced college Latin seminars.

In the introduction, the sections on "Language and Style" and the "Transmission of the Text" are best and carefully balance the need to provide accessible information to neophyte readers of the poem with comprehensive coverage of the salient points. Elsewhere in the precious opening pages of this edition, Epicurus and the Greek philosophical antecedents to the epic are given careful prolegomena, as is the complex political reality of Lucretius' late Republic. In lesser hands these introductory sections would become a confused jumble of overwhelming detail with no sense of the forest for the sake of the trees; in Gale's hands fifteen pages of economical and lucid prose provide exactly what the student needs to approach a difficult book of Latin verse.

The text is essentially Bailey's.3 The translation is a good indicator that Lucretius (who has suffered plenty of abuse in this regard) would find a most distinguished English voice in Gale, should she ever choose to translate the entire poem. The prose is always accurate and close to the Latin, but one does not lose sight of the fact that the translation is of a poetic original: no mean feat for verse this challenging to render into decent English (on a minor note, the small, unobtrusive Latin line numbers in the translation will make many a student grateful).4

The heart of this book is the commentary, and it is here where Gale's talents are most on display. The series demands that the lemmata follow the translation, a practice I have never quite understood. Indeed, the degree of sophistication of some of the notes on matters grammatical and metrical seems to render superfluous the need to make the commentary accessible to a wider audience by providing English lemmata; Gale's exceedingly accurate translation helps ameliorate what could have been problematic in this regard. I single out some notes for special praise: 87 "cruel masters" on the language of political discourse in the late Republic, 221 on "premature death" (personified or not), 259 Earth as common mother of us all, 380-381 "a most unholy war" on civil strife and military metaphors, 614-649 on solar and lunar orbits (especially the vexing 614-619), with helpful borrowed illustrations (so also 705-750 on the phases of the moon), 824-825 on "the romping animals," 948-949 on nymphs and lymph, 993 on "ritually correct burial," 1028-1090 on the origins of languages, 1198-1203 on possible contemporary allusions to Roman cult-practices, 1308-1349 on the use of animals in warfare (an especially wonderful section of notes).

The commentary is full of examples such as these, notes that blend a high level of sophistication with absolute mastery of disparate material that must be presented with clarity and care to a junior audience. Gale is especially good at presenting the complicated tangle of Presocratic philosophy to fledgling Lucretians and is particularly sensitive to the influence of Hesiod as well as discussion of relevant passages from Cicero's philosophica. Lucretius 5 is a text that makes many demands on the range of a commentator; Gale does not fail to rise to its challenges. What is particularly delightful about some of the more mundane notes (i.e., the ones where one might imagine any commentator would say essentially the same thing and provide the same basic information to a student) is how they manage to surpass the competition (i.e., Costa) and appear fresh and anything but hackneyed. Indeed, a user of this commentary who has experience in Lucretius might find Gale's notes exactly the right medicine for malaise and stimulus for approaching Book 5 afresh. It is always enjoyable to read a close explication of a book of Latin verse from someone who has written a high quality monograph; not all Latinists prepare commentaries. Gale's note on 1129-1130 reveals a deep understanding of at least one of the mysteries of Aeneid 6 (Anchises' strange advice to Aeneas), even if in the end Virgil is more Lucretian than not in his eschatology.

The bibliography is sane and sensible, with a particularly good culling of articles such as we might expect from the editor of the Oxford Readings in Lucretius (and references in the commentary, while numerous, are never obtrusive or superfluous). Gale's commentary is also free of the recent lamentable trend to ban most older articles (however relevant and sound) from one's bibliography. In an ephemeral internet world, one might note that the online Epicurus website Gale recommends is one of the older continuous sites (1996). Refreshingly for this level of commentary, Gale is willing to cite scholarship in languages other than English where appropriate.

The first Latin volume in the popular Cambridge green and yellow series was Kenney's Lucretius 3, which offered a model to other commentators for how to present a single book of the De Rerum Natura to an anglophone student audience. The Aris and Phillips series already had Brown's 3 and Godwin's 4 and 6. But the standard for this level of Lucretian commentary has now been set by Gale's 5.

I first read Lucretius with Leonard and Smith's venerable one volume edition, itself a strangely antiquated work that has had no rival for complete coverage of the entire poem in one convenient volume (which means a pre-Bailey experience for many, where it is forever and always 1942). There is undeniable flexibility (and cost effectiveness) in having the complete text with reasonably adequate notes available for a Lucretius course. But it is difficult to imagine such a course now without Gale's 5, which offers exactly what students need to appreciate one of the longest and finest achievements of Latin epic.


1.   Costa, C.D.N. Lucretius De Rerum Natua Book V. Oxford, 1984, and Campbell, G. Lucretius on Creation and Evolution: 5.772-1104. Oxford, 2003.
2.   Ideas from Gale's Myth and Poetry in Lucretius (Cambridge, 1994) are of course seamlessly integrated throughout the text; if anything, Gale is modest in her notes about her signal contributions to our appreciation of Lucretius' poem.
3.   Gale's correct citation of the dates for Bailey's OCT (1900, 1922) is a good example of the degree of precision exhibited by this commentary. Note Holford-Strevens, L. "The Dates of Cyril Bailey's Oxford Classical Texts of Lucretius," The Classical Quarterly N.S. 50.1 (2000), pp. 306-307.
4.   Resignedly I must concur with Gale that 5.312 is "incurably corrupt," even if my first thought on opening the book was that she might offer some plausible emendation.

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