Bryn Mawr Classical Review

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Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.10.21

David Butterfield, The Early Textual History of Lucretius' De rerum natura. Cambridge classical studies.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2013.  Pp. xi, 342.  ISBN 9781107037458.  $110.00.  

Reviewed by Lisa Piazzi, University of Pisa (


The purpose of the book is to offer an investigation of the textual fate of Lucretius’ poem from its composition until the rediscovery of the work by Poggio in 1417. The research, limited to textual and codicological analysis, is the first comprehensive and detailed study of this topic and fills a gap in Lucretian scholarship.

Chapter 1 describes the extant Lucretian Carolingian manuscripts (O, Q, GVU), summarizes editorial progress since the nineteenth century and deals with the difficult matter of the Itali (the Italian manuscripts derived from the ‘Poggianus’, the copy of the mediaeval manuscript found by Poggio and sent to Niccoli) and their position in the stemma. The first part of the chapter is mainly based on earlier studies.1 Butterfield rejects the hypothesis that the Itali constitute an independent branch of the tradition descended from the archetype W or from an hyperarchetype anterior to the subarchtype of OQ and Schedae (this thesis has recently been supported by Flores in his edition of Lucretius 2). Following Diels, Timpanaro, K. Müller, Cini, Reeve and Deufert,3 the author argues that Poggio found a direct copy of O, which he terms c: the ‘Poggianus’ p is a copy of c, from which all the Itali derive, so that they bear no independent authority for reconstructing the text. Nevertheless, in some of these manuscripts as well as in the corrections entered by Poliziano into Laur. 35, 29 and by Pomponio Leto into N (Naples IV E 51), we find readings that sometimes demonstrate knowledge of O itself not mediated by c and sometimes suggest knowledge of c not mediated by p. Butterfield argues convincingly that during the fifteenth century a fresh collation of O (at least of Book I) must have been made on an Italian lost manuscript, and, on the other hand, that c was recollated as well, so that some of its readings separately entered the Italian tradition a little later. In particular the f group, although descended from p, had access to readings antedating p. The author proposes a plausible hypothesis: Poggio found c and commissioned a copy (p), but left c wherever it was discovered. Some years later another Italian scholar, such as Bartolomeo da Montepulciano, managed to obtain c itself and brought it to Italy, so that its readings circulated. This reconstruction is the first valuable contribution offered by Butterfield: even if all the Italian manuscripts descend from p, itself a copy of O (via c), some of them show an intermingling of readings drawn from c with readings drawn from O, because of the recollation of both made throughout the fifteenth century.

Chapter 2 deals with the indirect tradition up to the Carolingian period and with the so-called fragments of Lucretius (lines quoted as Lucretian by grammarians or other authors but absent from the direct tradition). Differences between the text of Lucretius’ manuscripts and the citing authors are often due to quotation from memory (for example in Seneca or Quintilian), but sometimes it is probable that some of these authors (such as Lactantius or Nonius) read a text which was different from the branch of the tradition that survives in our extant manuscripts. Butterfield explores the features of the quotations made by different authors (for example the ‘Virgilisation’ of the Lucretian text in Macrobius) and draws inferences about the availability of the poem in Rome and in the Empire and about the direct (or indirect) knowledge of the text revealed by the quotations (among the grammarians, for example, it seems that only Priscian, Terentius Scaurus and Donatus had direct access to De rerum natura). The investigation is complete: my only remark is that in the paragraph about Servius he could have mentioned the recent book by M. L. Delvigo, even if it does not deals specifically with textual problems.4 The value of the indirect tradition is quite limited for the Lucretian editor, although Butterfield is sometimes too sceptical about the quotations of the grammarians, for example when he rejects the hàpax longiter cited by Nonius and Charisius at Lucr. 3, 676 in lieu of the manuscripts reading longius.5 The chapter closes with a discussion about the so-called fragments: the old study by Pizzani had already argued that the majority of these quotations have been misattributed to Lucretius, mainly because both grammarians and ancient scribes often confused the name of Lucretius with similar names, expecially Lucilius. Butterfield discusses some more fragments and offers an exhaustive and balanced overview of the problem.

Chapter 3 treats the capitula, subject headings transmitted by Lucretian manuscripts throughout the text and also recorded in indices preceding Books IV-VI: this analysis is one of the strongest points of the book and is completed by a full collation of the ninth-century capitula included in Appendix I. Butterfield’s hypothesis is that, at the beginning, capitula were marginal notes meant to provide quick references for the content of the poem; in a second phase they were copied into indices, then rubricated, capitalised and added in the text: in this form they stood in the archetype. This material reflects more strata of notations. Some of them, written in Greek and confined to Book I-II, are drawn from Greek philosophical texts, (usually Epicurean) and show a level of acquaintance with the poem and its sources absent from the Latin capitula. These latter, which are the largest number, are usually mere repetitions of Lucretian words, often banalised and simplified, so that we are quite sure that they are not from Lucretius’ hand. Butterfield posits at least two separate annotators: the first was author of the Greek capitula and made his notes 250-300 years after Lucretius’ death, while the second wrote the Latin capitula during the following two centuries. He concludes that this material, not Lucretian but interesting for the information that it can provide about the history of tradition, should be printed by the editor in an appendix.

Chapters 4 and 5 are devoted to the correcting hands of O and to the marginal annotations of Q. Thanks to a full recollation of O, Butterfield comes to a new assignation of corrections to no fewer than six hands. In particular he describes the activity and methodology of the Irish scholar-monk Dungal, whose hand had already been identified by B. Bischoff. Dungal corrected O in the first quarter of the ninth century, soon after the copying of the manuscript. Butterfield argues that he drew his corrections from a source that was related to our extant ninth-century manuscripts, maybe the archetype itself, because he does not restore any verses that were missing in W. Dungal’s corrections are more frequent in Books V-VI, probably because he was more interested in the subject matter of this part of the poem, especially in meteorological matters. After Dungal’s work, two other Carolingian hands made corrections: the one that Butterfield terms the Annotator made some marginal marks, with particular attention to metrical errors; the one known as O2 made corrections ope ingenii and probably had no access to other manuscripts. Specific attention is directed to another Glossator (O3) later than O2, who corrected only the first book of the poem: his annotations are significant, because from them Butterfield argues the existence of an intermediary between O and the Poggianus. The author follows and strengthens an hypothesis already expressed by K. Müller and posits the intermediary c, which was copied from O after its correction by Dungal and O2 but before that by O3. This new investigation on the correcting hands of O is another important contribution of the book. Chapter 5 is the shortest, devoted to the few ancient annotations of Q1, the only Carolingian corrector of the Quadratus, since Q2 has been recognized as an Italian humanist of the mid fifteenth century.

In the Conclusion the author reflects on the script of the archetype and its predecessors: rejecting Lachmann’s well-known view that Lucretian archetype was a capital manuscript, Butterfield cautiously states that Lucretius’ transmission had a capital phase and a later minuscule phase: the archetype and the hyperarchetype were probably written in minuscule, but an earlier capital phase existed, which itself followed one or more phases of papyrus rolls in older Roman cursive.

The text is followed by five appendices, which contain the complete list of the capitula, an apparatus fontium Lucreti, a list of the corrections and annotations of O, a reconstruction of the foliation of the archetype and a survey on the fate of the Carolingian manuscripts in the early modern period. The ample and up-to-date bibliography is divided into sections (Manuscripts, Editions, Commentaries and Secondary literature) and is followed by a selective but useful Index.

To conclude, the book is a solid and reliable guide to the main codicological and textual questions of the tradition of De rerum natura. Probably only a few specialists will read it from beginning to end, but it will be consulted by every Lucretian scholar interested in the textual history of the poem. As regards methodological questions the author usually expresses a balanced overview: for example he appears to be rightly sceptical about the papyrus fragments from Herculaneum, in which K. Kleve claimed to have found traces of De rerum natura.6 I totally agree with him also when he writes, at the very end of the book, that “since Lucretius’ poem was manifestly unfinished […] the Lucretian editor should certainly not improve the ordering of the poem for him by rearranging paragraphs and arguments, regardless of what Lucretius might have intended, unless the transposition could be correcting a genuine error of transmission” (p. 273). In a similar way he prudently choses not to consider the difficult question of interpolation, stating that “if the text did suffer from the concerted efforts of one or more interpolators, such activity occurred too early in the tradition to be elucidated by close analysis of our extant ninth-century witnesses” (pp. 2-3). The style and the structure of the volume are very clear and the book can be considered a valuable tool, which make us await with confidence and expectations the new Oxford Classical Text of Lucretius that Butterfield is currently preparing.


1.   Among others: U. Pizzani, Il problema del testo e della composizione del De rerum natura di Lucrezio, Roma 1959; K. Müller, “De codicum Lucretii Italicorum origine, Museum Helveticum 30, 1973, 166-178; G. F. Cini, “La posizione degli ‘Italici’ nello stemma lucreziano”, Atti e Memorie dell’Accademia Toscana La Colombaria 41, 1976, 116-169; S. Timpanaro, La genesi del metodo del Lachmann, Padova 19812, 20033 (Engl. Transl. The Genesis of Lachmann’s Method, tr. G. W. Most, Chicago 2005).
2.   Titus Lucretius Carus, De rerum natura. Edizione critica con introduzione e versione a cura di E. Flores, Naples 2002-2009 (3 vols.).
3.   H. Diels Titi Lucreti Cari De rerum natura, recensuit emendavit supplevit Hermannus Diels, Band I, Berolini 1923-24; M. D. Reeve, “The Italian Tradition of Lucretius”, Italia Medioevale e umanistica 23, 1980, 27-48 and Id., “The Italian Tradition of Lucretius revisited”, Aevum 79, 2005, 115-164; M. Deufert, “Zu den gegenwärtigen Aufgaben der Lukrezkritik”, Hermes 138, 2010, 48-69; K. Müller, Cini and Timpanaro are cited above.
4.   M. L. Delvigo, Servio e la poesia della scienza, Pisa-Roma 2011.
5.   The reading of the indirect tradition has been convincingly defended by S. Timpanaro, “Longiter in Lucrezio III, 676”, Maia 22, 1970, pp. 355-357 (= Id., Contributi di filologia e storia della lingua latina, Roma 1978, 140-146).
6.   K. Kleve, “Lucretius in Herculaneum”, Cronache Ercolanesi 19, 1989, 5-27, followed by other articles.

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