BMCR 2002.02.08

Lucretius: On the Nature of Things

, , On the nature of things. Indianapolis/ Cambridge: Hackett Pub, 2001. xxxviii, 224 pages ; 22 cm. ISBN 0872205878 $34.95.

1 Responses

[[For a response to this review, see BMCR 2002.03.09.]]

The present translation is Martin Ferguson Smith’s slight revision of a prose version of Lucretius that he first published in 1969.1 The English has been Americanized, and the introduction (vii-xxxiv) is new, as is the select bibliography (xxxv-xxxvii), most of the notes (now 533 instead of 360; the nineteen dealing with textual matters should have been in an appendix), the revamped outline (now divided among the books of the poem), and the index of names and subjects (from which Diogenes of Oinoanda, whom Smith has edited with distinction, is omitted, despite fifteen citations). The introduction and notes predictably draw on Smith’s revised version of W.H.D. Rouse’s Loeb edition (1975),2 but the translation is quite different, since Smith revised Rouse’s version only where the text was altered (see preface to the Loeb edition, p. vi).3

In 1969 Smith, like R.E. Latham (1907-1992) in his Penguin prose translation of 1951, worked in the long shadow of Cyril Bailey (1871-1957), and aimed to be less painstakingly literal than the Balliol sage. Both succeeded, though Smith, as a reviewer noted,4 was more literal than Latham. The body’s imminent sexual bliss at 4.1107 ( in eost Venus ut muliebria conserat arva), for example, was no longer Latham’s “seed-time in the fields of Venus” but “Venus on the point of sowing the woman’s fields.” Today the revised Smith competes with two other annotated translations: John Godwin’s revision of Latham (1994), and a verse translation by a retired British civil servant, Sir Ronald Melville, with supplementary material by Don and Peta Fowler (1997).5 Godwin made Latham more literal (and thus more like Smith), while Melville concocted a metrically inept version remarkably close at times to the unrevised Rouse.6 All three translations have similarly uncontroversial general introductions, bibliographies, and a plethora of notes (641 for Godwin; 547 for the Fowlers). The notes by Smith and the Fowlers, apart from cross-references and references to Epicurean sources, deal mainly with literary aspects of Lucretius’ poem, the Fowlers’ being the more detailed (too detailed for undergraduates), and thus rather like those in Smith’s Loeb edition. Godwin, the author of valuable commentaries on Lucretius Bks. 4 and 6,7 addresses philosophical issues in greater detail, and is more au courant with the secondary literature on Epicureanism.

The affinities between Smith and Melville/Fowler are surprising when Smith’s work is published by Hackett, which has produced some outstanding translations in ancient philosophy. Smith’s Lucretius is presumably intended to complement Hackett’s two source books, on Hellenistic philosophy and on Epicurus, both designed for teaching in departments of philosophy.8 Yet Smith only skims the surface of philosophical issues. He has, for example, less than an undocumented page (Introd., xxvi-xxvii) on the problematical swerve, while the ideal of ataraxia is summarised in a six-line note at 137 n. 2, and identified as a meteorological metaphor! He also translates some theoretically sensitive terminology poorly,9 and provides too little help for the philosophical beginner.10 His notes, like those in his Loeb, also include numerous exegetically irrelevant Lucretian echoes in English literature. Yet philosophers would probably have preferred to see, for example, the conclusion of Book 3 embellished with references to Thomas Nagel on death rather than to Thomas Gray on lachrymose orphans ( ad 3.894-896), and they will be surprised to find no citation of Martha Nussbaum’s discussions of sex and death in The Therapy of Desire.11

Smith’s translation, as we have said, resembles Latham/Godwin, and it is often more effective in explicating the text and in capturing the Lucretian mood (e.g. at 2.381-382); stretches of Books 3 and 4 have a particularly appealing flow. Imperfections include esoteric vocabulary and pointless slang, as well as that peculiar British use of the colon as a conjunction.12 And if it is not unfair to pick on a single line, I doubt that in the discussion of birth-control at the end of Book 4, line 1270 ( clunibus … viri Venerem … laeta retractat) means that a woman,”in her delight … receives the man’s penis with her buttocks” (my italics).13 That suggests partners still engaging more ferarum/ quadrupedumque ritu (4.1264-1265), a position that we were told was designed to facilitate conception (4.1265-1266). At 1270 the partners are surely face to face, and the woman lifts her midriff to make the penis draw back (cf. Nussbaum, Therapy of Desire, 184 n. 79), or, in Godwin’s version, she “thrusts away from the man’s penis with her buttocks.” The reentering penis then confronts a moving target created by the undulation described in line 1271, and this technique, according to Epicurean folklore, helps prevent conception.

To sum up: Latham/Godwin will remain my choice for introducing students to Lucretius’ ideas (and I am not sure that anyone should present him, though some try to, as just “literature”). Its philosophical material, better outline, shorter paragraphs, wider margins, and larger type font give the Penguin a clear edge over Smith, even where there is not much to choose between the actual translations. So the Hackett Lucretius is a missed opportunity for this house to have enlarged its impressive ancient philosophy list with a Lucretius accessible for his ideas and arguments, and presented with reference to the best recent philosophical literature. The ideal translation of the De rerum natura for philosophers should probably have arguments laid out with headings and subdivisions (as, for example, in Vol. 1 of Long and Sedley’s The Hellenistic Philosophers), and with passages from Epicurus interspersed in the text. The revised Smith is not only a far cry from this ideal but also does not even begin to be a tool for philosophical teaching. Hackett has served the study and teaching of Plato and Aristotle well; it has yet to do the same for Hellenistic philosophy.


1. On the Nature of Things, tr. and introd. M.F. Smith (London: Sphere, 1969), never reprinted and out of print by 1972 (Smith, vi). It cost six shillings (less than one US dollar), and was “bedizened with a cover [unfortunately missing from the bound copy that I consulted] of revolutionary surrealism” (Anon. in Greece and Rome, 17 [1970], 227).

2. Lucretius on the Nature of Things, tr. W.H.D. Rouse, rev. M.F. Smith, Loeb Classical Library, ed. 2. (1982) repr. with revisions (Cambridge and London, 1992). Rouse’s translation was first published in 1924.

3. Readers forget this. Thus recently A.A. Long (“Lucretius on Nature and the Epicurean Self,” in K. Algra et al. (eds.), Lucretius and his Intellectual Background [Amsterdam, 1997], 125-139 at 134) has praised “Smith” for translating maiestas rerum (Lucr. 5.2 and 7) as “the majesty of nature.” But this is Rouse’s translation, whereas in the translation under review Smith takes res to refer to the subject-matter of Epicureanism, and has “the majesty of my theme” (5.2) and “the majesty of [Epicurus’] revelations” (5.7). Here I blame the Loeb people for not abandoning the revised Rouse and publishing an undivided translation.

4. J.M. Schnyder at CW, 64 (1970), 90.

5. Both are entitled Lucretius on the Nature of the Universe; the one tr. R.E. Latham, rev. with introd. and notes by J. Godwin (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1994), the other tr. R. Melville, with introd. and notes by D. and P. Fowler (Oxford and New York, 1997; Oxford World’s Classics, 1999).

6. Cf., for example, Lucr. 3.670-674 and 4.1200 in Rouse and Melville.

7. Lucretius: De Rerum Natura IV, and Lucretius: De Rerum Natura VI (Warminster: Aris and Phillips, 1986 and 1991 respectively).

8. B. Inwood and L.P. Gerson (trs.), Hellenistic Philosophy: Introductory Readings, ed. 2 (Indianapolis and Cambridge, 1997), and the same authors’ The Epicurus Reader: Selected Writings and Testimonia (1994) (reviewed at BMCR 95.01.06). Neither collection contains much exegetical material, and the texts in Hellenistic Philosophy are presented in a rather clotted format that is unhelpful for teaching.

9. See, for example, 1.449 where quaecumque cluent is done as “all predicable things” (better “all things which are spoken of”, Long/Sedley), and 2.865-867 where talk of “sensible” things being “composed of insensible elements” similarly introduces medieval jargon into a context that makes it clear that sentire (865) refers to perceptions and feelings generally, insensibilia (867) to things that lack these. In cosmology, the anachronistic “gravitate” for niti at 1.1053 and 1056 should be replaced with “tend,” Smith’s own equivalent in a related expression at 6.335-336.

10. His bibliography, for example, is missing such basic tools as D. Zeyl et al. (eds.), Encyclopedia of Classical Philosophy (Westport Conn., 1997), and D.J. Furley, “Lucretius,” in T.J. Luce (ed.) Ancient Writers: Greece and Rome (New York, 1982), vol. 2, 601-620.

11. M.C. Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (Princeton, 1994), chs. 5 and 6, deal with, respectively, love and death. For the numerous recent philosophical discussions of the Epicurean view of death see Nussbaum 204, n. 12. Nagel’s landmark paper of 1970, “Death,” is in his Mortal Questions (Cambridge, 1979), 1-10.

12. For some odd vocabulary note, for example, “inspirit” for celebrare (1.4), “spasmic” for in iactando (3.491), and “squamous” for squamigerus (1.372 and 378). For slang note “is knocked on the head” for occidit used of an argument failing (2.790), and “be snuffed out” for dissolvi (3.612). For the colon used to suppress conjunctions see 2.304 ( nam) and 3.365 ( enim).

13. Melville goes further in this direction with “she holds his penis close/ Between her buttocks”! Interestingly Smith’s revision of Rouse in the Loeb edition (n. 2 above) has “she thrusts against the man’s penis with her buttocks,” which, if “against” were replaced by “away from,” would capture what is going on here.