BMCR 1998.11.06

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura III

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After J. Godwin’s commentaries on books IV and VI (Warminster, 1986 and 1991), P. Michael Brown, who previously edited the first book of Lucretius for Bristol Classical Press in 1984, continues the Aris & Philipps series of Lucretius with this new edition of book III. He largely keeps to his predecessor’s format (preface, introduction, text and translation, commentary, bibliography and indices), but his commentary comprising 130-odd pages is much fuller than Godwin’s (who devotes about ninety pages each to the longer books IV and VI). Further English commentaries on Lucretius, chiefly designed for students, are on hand for books III (E.J. Kenney, Cambridge, 1971) and V (C.D.N. Costa, Oxford, 1984). It is therefore slightly disappointing to have an additional commentary on book III rather than II, which was last treated by the somewhat dated work of Cyril Bailey (Oxford, 1947). Moreover, Brown’s commentary, although better than Kenney’s at illuminating Lucretius’ philosophical argument, is at best complementary to Kenney’s, but nowhere nearly replaces it.

The introduction comprises six sections, of which four constitute rewritten and expanded, yet hardly updated versions of Brown’s previous introduction to book I. I find particularly useful the philosophical sections III (“Epicurean Philosophy and Lucretius”), a brief but crisp survey of Epicurean logic, physics and ethics and their application in Lucretius, and IV (“The Epicurean Soul”), which helps to clear up in advance the difficulties with the central terms of the book, animus and anima. In both sections, however, as well as in the introductory notes in the commentary (on which more below), a philosophy student might have wished to see the extant Epicurean sources more fully integrated, with at least a reference to the major collections (if not Usener’s Epicurea and Arrighetti’s Epicuro, then Long & Sedley’s Hellenistic Philosophers, all absent from the bibliography). Section II (“The Poet”) presents the sparse biographical evidence on Lucretius with the requisite caution. After a broad outline of the structure and content of the six books of the De Rerum Natura in section I (“The Poem”), Brown connects Lucretius’ personal appeal to his addressee Memmius with the missionary aims of the Epicurean school and refers to Epicurus’ own practice in his letters to his disciples; yet this aspect of the poem is much more plausibly explained as a generic constituent of didactic poetry, on which Brown has disappointingly little to say in the complementary section V (“Lucretius’ Poetic Medium and Achievement”). In this section, he rightly concludes from 1.921-950 that Lucretius regards his poetry as a tool to propagate the difficult Epicurean doctrine more widely and attractively; he then argues strongly for the poetic unity of the De Rerum Natura by focussing primarily on the stylistic qualities of its expository passages. Although Brown’s approach is rather opposite to that chosen by Kenney, it is encouraging to see that both reach roughly the same conclusions. Section VI (“The Manuscripts”) is insufficient. Brown does not mention the recently-deciphered Lucretian papyri from Herculaneum, which are of great significance to the reception of Lucretius in the Epicurean school and to the earliest period of the Überlieferungsgeschichte. The survey of the humanistic manuscripts takes no account of Michael D. Reeve’s fundamental investigation of the Italian tradition of Lucretius ( IMU 23, 1980, 27ff.), and even before Reeve, the Codex Monacensis, Clm 816a, which Brown vaguely calls “a valuable Italian manuscript,” was much more adequately assessed by Munro, who disregarded the manuscript itself as being “of no importance whatever” (p. 25 in the fourth edition of his Lucretius [Cambridge, 1886]), but carefully collected its marginal notes, which (among other witnesses) contain the emendations of the renaissance scholar Michael Marullus. Constituting a “new text”, as the back cover proclaims, Brown’s edition aims to provide “as complete and continuously readable a version as possible without resort to extravagant conjecture”. The resulting text, I think, is conservative to an extent which has been thoroughly undermined by the appearance of Konrad Mueller’s authoritative critical edition (Zuerich 1975), which Brown ignores throughout. Brown’s accompanying notes, rather than tackling seriously the problems, tend to smooth away real difficulties with ‘neat’ explanations and parallels which are not, or not quite, germane. For example, see on 196-199 (where in 199 not aura, but aura suspensa levisque should be supplied), 244 (contrast Kenney), 415 (where a parallel for the omission of the copula in a subordinate clause is needed), 717 (see Mueller, Gnomon 46, 1974, 760), 820 (see Madvig, Op. ac. [2. edition] 235, n. 2) and 969 (contrast Heinze). Brown strongly holds the view that the poem lacks a final revision by its author (cf. p. 2 and e.g. the notes on 806-829 and on 969, where he refuses to accept Cipelli’s antehac for ante haec, which overcomes the difficulties). An alternative explanation, that the text might have suffered extensively from later revisions, is nowhere taken into account, neither, for instance, at 806-818, an interpolation so obvious to scholars such as Munro and Housman ( CP II, 426) that they saw no need for even a single word of argument, nor at 474-475, which are simply excluded without remark.

I am well aware that the format of the series forces the editor to print a highly selective apparatus criticus. Yet an editor who has space for palaeographic trivialities such as pietate and piaetate (84) and the readings of codices descripti at 1, 702 and 856, must be blamed for omitting readings which are almost certainly correct from the ancient secondary tradition at 676 ( longiter) and from the Quadratus at 1017 ( carnificis, which depends on verbera, not on robur; cf. Mueller’s parallels in Gnomon 46, 1974, 760 and in his critical apparatus a.l.). In at least two instances Brown prints highly doubtful emendations without indicating the manuscripts’ readings: in 735f. sed tamen his (scil. animis) esto quamuis facere utile corpus | cum subeant the corrupt cum is replaced by Bernays’ cui, with cui subeant being unhappily translated as ‘in which to take refuge’. Yet the locative dative instead of the accusative is hardly possible in pre-Augustan poetry (cf. OLD s.v. subeo, No. 10b-c, where the quotations seem to confirm the slight difference in meaning between the two constructions felt by Williams on Verg. Aen. 3.292), and writing quod with the ‘amicus Fabri’, for which Vitr. 2.1.2 provides a very suitable parallel, is a far more plausible solution. In 742 cervis is the wrong emendation of the Venetian edition for the correct cervos of the manuscripts (743 being an obvious interpolation). The difficult lines 79-84 are inadequately treated: indicating a lacuna after 82, which makes the fear of death the subject of 83f. hunc uexare pudorem, hunc uincula amicitiai | rumpere (…) suadet, Brown translates: ‘it persuades one man to betray his sense of honour, another to break the bonds of friendship’, but in pre-Virgilian hexameter poetry hic … hic etc. never means ‘one … another’; contrast in Lucretius e.g. 3.75f., 3.311ff. and see Clausen on Verg. ecl. 4.56. The corrupt suadet has to be replaced by either fundo (Lambinus) or foede (Mueller). New and incorrect punctuation is introduced at 663, where icta for simple reasons of syntax can belong only into the ut clause, and at 1044, where Brown deletes the comma behind restinxit and bizarrely makes Epicurus outshine all stars!

In his notes on prosody, metre, grammar and poetic diction, Brown largely follows Kenney, incorporating some additional help for the less advanced student. In contrast to Kenney, he often confines himself to describing the metrical, grammatical or stylistic phenomenon under discussion, without seeing it, as Kenney does, in the wider context of Latin poetry and language. Compare, e.g., their notes on the omission of quod in 183, on the diminutive tantillus in 189, on the rhythm of 527 (the really remarkable feature is the word-end after the second spondaic element not followed by a monosyllable), on the hysteron proteron in 787, on the word-order in 843f., and on the indicative respondemus in 950. A student who has worked through Kenney will read his next Latin poet with greater understanding and with less need for help, whereas Brown, I fear, does not provide this benefit to the same extent. His additional remarks are not always reliable: in his note on suadet (84), he contends that suadere with accusative and infinitive is the replacement of ‘the prose construction of dative and an ut clause’, but both Ennius in his Annales (278f. Skutsch) and Lucretius (4.1157f.) actually use this alleged prose construction. The note on the spelling of seorsum (499-501) hardly derives from an autopsy of the Lucretian manuscripts. To Clark’s conjecture in 694 et lapis oppressus subsit si ( subitis e codd.) frugibus asper he objects “on metrical grounds, as Lucretius would more probably have written si subsit to secure coincidence of ictus and stress in the fourth foot”. But see, e.g., 3.76, 94, 101, 108 and, for si being the postponed monosyllable, 3.408, 4.298 and 300.

The true value of the book is to be found in its thorough illumination of the philosophical argument. Where the text is sound, the prose translation, as far as I can judge as a non-native English-speaker, fulfils its endeavour to be “as literal as the aim to produce a reasonably idiomatic version allowed”, and it is certainly inevitable that it should sometimes miss the vividness of the Latin (e.g. at 356) and abandon the syntax of the original (e.g. at 1053ff.). In the commentary, discrete passages are headed by informative introductory notes, which do not merely sum up the content of each passage, but also show its specific relevance to the book and its connection with the preceding and following argument. Taken together, these introductions form a sound interpretation of the whole third book and, incidentally, revise Bailey’s numeration of the proofs for the mortality of the soul. After the lengthy introductions, the line-by-line notes are sometimes a bit repetitive, but often improve the reader’s understanding of the consistently Epicurean spirit of Lucretius’ argument by illuminating his allusions to, or anticipations of, other aspects of the Epicurean doctrine. Brown’s superior understanding of the philosophical argument enables him to correct or improve upon Kenney in his notes on e.g. 249-251, 269-272, 580f. and 776f.

These virtues, to my mind, do not outweigh the shortcomings of a book, from which the student of ancient philosophy will certainly profit, even though Heinze’s commentary, which provides the full source-material on the background of Lucretius’ argument, remains indispensible. The student of Latin poetry is certainly better served by Kenney.

The very selective bibliography lists remarkably few items published after 1985; for an up-to-date research survey, covering all aspects of Lucretian scholarship and comprising extensive bibliographies, see M. Erler’s chapter Lukrez in: H. Flashar (ed.), Die Philosophie der Antike. Band 4: Die hellenistische Philosophie, Basel 1994, 381-490. On Francesco Bernardini Cipelli’s emendations of Lucretius see my paper in Hermes 128 (1998), 370ff, I was not the first to argue, in my Pseudo-Lukrezisches im Lukrez, Berlin-New York, 1996, that textual difficulties must not be excused by proclaiming that a final revision was not applied by the author. Misprints must be corrected at 180 (read factum for factam) and, more disturbingly, at 583 (read animae for animi and delete the consequent note in the commentary). In the apparatus criticus the note on 823 is transposed behind the note on 853. Further misprints in the commentary: p. 204 (on 941) read offensa for offensus, p. 216 (on 1036) read lepos for lepor. Bailey’s treatment of the subject (p. 112f.) needs to be revised. I thank John Turner for improving the English of this review.