BMCR 2002.03.42

Lucretius and the Didactic Epic

, Lucretius and the didactic epic. Classical world series. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2001. viii, 70 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm.. ISBN 1853995576 $13.95.

Lucretius takes a leisurely 7,415 lines (244 pages in the Oxford text) to instruct his student Memmius in the nature of the universe. Monica R. Gale (G.), by contrast, has only 70 pages to teach a kind of “Lucretius 101” to high-school students and undergraduates, the envisaged audience of Bristol’s Classical World Series, in which her book Lucretius and the Didactic Epic appears. This task must have posed quite a challenge to the author of the well-known (and considerably longer) Myth and Poetry in Lucretius (Cambridge 1994): how to condense all that could and should be said about the De rerum natura into so small a space? But G. pulls it off: if you are looking for a concise, no-nonsense introduction to Lucretius for classroom use, look no further.

The slim paperback has the look and feel of a textbook, from the unattractive cover to the poorly reproduced illustrations (including a picture of the Epicurean Food Hall in Dublin!). It is clearly aimed at readers with little or no background knowledge who are studying Lucretius either in the original or in translation. Thus, G. quotes hardly any Latin (and translates what little there is); her well-chosen “Suggestions for Further Reading” are restricted to publications in English; and there is even a section with “Suggestions for Further Study,” in which G. provides a number of essay questions that one can actually imagine assigning to students. True to its purpose, the book does not contain any striking new insights on Lucretius, but is rather a summary of generally accepted views, somewhat colored by G.’s personal interests and predilections (which readers of Myth and Poetry will recognize). Its main virtue lies in the intelligence of G.’s readings and in the outstanding clarity with which she presents the material.

The first chapter (“The Didactic Tradition”) provides an overview of didactic poetry before Lucretius and tries to answer the question of why the Roman poet—just like his Presocratic predecessors, such as Empedocles—chose the medium of poetry, instead of prose, to convey his philosophical subject matter. G. suggests reasonably that this has to do with the typical association of poetry with both authority and seductiveness, two qualities of crucial importance to the didactic enterprise. In the second chapter (“Philosophy and Poetry”), G. discusses the relationship of poetry and philosophy specifically in Lucretius, coming to the conclusion that the two are “completely intermeshed” (8). After an extremely short (but still informative) introduction to Epicurean philosophy, she reflects on the appropriateness (or lack thereof) of Lucretian poetry as a medium for Epicurus’ message, briefly raising the question of Epicurus’ hostility to poetry. The chapter ends with a discussion of the famous honeyed-cup simile and other passages in which Lucretius more or less explicitly comments on his poetics.

G. then turns, in the third chapter (“Didactic Strategies: Lucretius and his Reader”), to an examination of the role of Memmius and the ways in which the teacher interacts with his student, before moving on, in the fourth chapter (“Venus and the Plague”), to a discussion of the proem of Book 1 and the end of Book 6. She suggests that the invocation of Venus and the description of the plague, with their stress on, respectively, creation and destruction, are designed to balance each other. She also subscribes to the widely held view that the bleak ending of the poem is to be understood as a kind of “final exam” that puts the reader’s newly acquired Epicurean ataraxia to the test.

In the fifth chapter, (“Fear of the Gods and Fear of Death”), G. shows how in addition to the obvious tripartite structure of the De rerum natura, the poem can also be understood as divided into two halves, with Books 1-3 meant to combat the fear of death (by showing that “life” and “death” are just a matter of the conglomeration and dissolution of atomic compounds) and Books 4-6 intended to do away with fear of the gods (by providing rational explanations for potentially frightening natural phenomena). The sixth chapter (“Lucretius as Literary and Social Critic”) is concerned with Lucretius’ ambivalent attitude toward his poetic models Homer and Ennius (he styles himself as their literary sucessor while casting aspersions on their subject matter) and with the poet’s criticism of contemporary Roman values, particularly the military and political ambition of the upper class. The book ends with an Afterword (“Lucretius’ Didactic Sucessors”), in which G. very briefly surveys Vergil’s Georgics (the topic of her own Virgil on the Nature of Things, Cambridge 2000) and Ovid’s Ars amatoria.

Given the brevity of the book, G.’s choice of topics is by needs selective, and on the whole, she has chosen well. It makes sense, in light of G.’s audience, that there is little discussion of Lucretius’ style and language, and the fact that the book’s focus (quite unlike that of the De rerum natura itself) is on ethics and poetics rather than on physics is probably reflective of not just G.’s own interests but also those of most readers of Lucretius today. My only quarrel with Lucretius and the Didactic Epic is G.’s insistence (clear already from the book’s title) on reading the De rerum natura as a kind of epic poem (a point of view in evidence also in Myth and Poetry, pp. 99-128). In my opinion, the term “didactic epic” is unhelpful: while it is true that for most of antiquity, didactic poetry was not recognized as its own genre but rather considered to be epic, the term “epic” in this case means little more than “a longish poem in hexameters.” The fundamental difference between the two genres was pointed out already by Aristotle ( Poet. 1447b13-20), who maintained that Empedocles—though commonly labeled an epicist, just like Homer—was not really a poet at all since his work—unlike that of Homer—was not “mimetic,” that is, did not tell a story. This is not to say that didactic poems, including the De rerum natura, do not share themes and stylistic features with texts that are “epic” in the more narrow sense in which most classicists use the word. Still, I believe that it does greater justice to didactic poetry to treat it as its own class of literature—especially when one is addressing readers who may not be particularly well-versed in the criticism of ancient genres (and note that G. never defines what she means by “epic”).

Such quibbles aside, G.’s book delivers exactly what it promises, an informed and informative introduction to Lucretius, aimed at lower-level students (though anyone interested in the De rerum natura will find Lucretius and the Didactic Epic a convenient summary of basic issues). It is the target audience that sets the work apart from other short introductions to the topic: E. J. Kenney’s Greece and Rome survey (1977) is geared mostly for scholars, while W. R. Johnson’s flamboyant Lucretius and the Modern World (London 2000; see my review in BMCR 01.01.17) addresses a larger audience of general readers. To the student who is confronted with the De rerum natura in high school or college, however, G.’s book will prove a trusty guide to a difficult but exciting poem.