BMCR 2023.05.18

Lucretius on disease: the poetics of morbidity in De Rerum Natura

, Lucretius on disease: the poetics of morbidity in De Rerum Natura. Trends in classics. Supplementary volumes, 117. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2021. Pp. 211. ISBN 9783110722659



Kazantzidis’ Lucretius On Disease could scarcely be more timely. The product of many years, it was completed in the relatively early days of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It also emerged amidst a small but significant outpouring of works on disease in DRN and closely related subjects, e.g. by Gardner, Gale and Garani.[1] These works—particularly read together—powerfully underscore both this crucial aspect of Lucretius’ De rerum natura and also DRN’s enduring relevance for our times.

Famously, Lucretius’ Latin epic and work of Epicurean philosophy concludes with a plague: the Plague of Athens, nearly four hundred years earlier; for this Lucretius draws particularly on Thucydides’ eyewitness account (DRN 6.1138–1286; Thuc. 2.47–54). Scholars have long debated why DRN ends this way. Theories range from Clay’s influential argument that Lucretius saw it as a ‘final test for the reader’ to the possibility that this was not Lucretius’ intended ending after all.[2] By analysing the theme of disease (morbus) in DRN, Kazantzidis concludes that Lucretius did mean to end with the plague and that this was due in part to aesthetic considerations – considerations related to the plague’s poetic and philosophical functions. The monograph thus aims to emphasise the plague’s aesthetic dimensions, to show that the plague is the culmination of a larger narrative programme and to highlight the symbolic, aesthetic and narratological functions of disease more generally throughout DRN. To this end, it offers an introduction, four chapters (including some previously published material; cf. p. vii) and an afterword.

The book takes as its jumping-off point Lucretius’ famous honey-wormwood simile (DRN 1.926–50, 4.1–25), generally understood to mean that Lucretius represents his poetry as a way of sugaring the pill, so to speak, of the (sometimes) bitter medicine of philosophical truth. It claims Lucretius sometimes inverts this tendency, including when it comes to disease. Lucretius instead uses his poetry as a means of rendering disease into something that, properly understood, is all the more terrifying—terrifying to the point of being sublime. Implicit in that argument is another: Lucretius is aiming to rid his readers of false fears and to point out the legitimate ones. Spectacles serve as important teaching moments in DRN’s didactic programme.[3] Of the real threats to individual and collective wellbeing, plague is the ultimate exemplar; the reader would do well to tremble before it. Hence Lucretius’ concludes with its most spectacular instance.

Chapter one, ‘Disease and the (Un)making of the World’, argues that disease is a controlling metaphor in Lucretius’ discussions of cosmogony. Scholarship has long recognised that Lucretius often represents the human body and Earth as being in a microcosm-macrocosm relationship and uses each to elucidate the other. Building on this, the chapter contends that Lucretius takes the idea that disease is a cause or ‘architect’ of death in the human body and employs it metaphorically on the cosmic level as a way of conceptualising the inevitable destruction of the world. The concept of disease thus brings order to apparent chaos; it transforms both individual death and cosmic destruction into processes governed by natural law, processes that also make possible the generation of new life, new worlds. Disease substitutes for divine agency. The chapter explores potential polemics, especially with Plato’s Timaeus. It also suggests Lucretius’ account of ‘the swerve’ should be read in relation to disease and cosmic order, perhaps even as a microcosm thereof. It ends on the hopeful note that actual epidemic disease inherently contains the same duality as operates on the individual and cosmic levels – that Lucretius represents the plague of book six as containing the seeds of society’s regeneration.

Chapter two, ‘Disease, Closure and the Sense of an Ending’, treats the theme of disease in relation to DRN’s narrative structure, arguing that the endings of books three and four look forward to and are realised by that of book six. It contends that through these sections Lucretius gradually shifts the focus and concept of disease from—to borrow its language—one of psychological or ‘metaphorical’ illness to physical or ‘real’ diseases.[4] Much of the argument relies on taking morbus in DRN to mean something tantamount to the modern conception of disease, i.e. a severe affliction with manifest or otherwise externally quantifiable symptoms, caused genetically or by some external contagion, often communicable and outright infectious as well as difficult to treat or cure. The chapter thus interprets metaphorically or analogically the other things which Lucretius characterises as diseases, illness, states of unwellness and/or ailments; Lucretius appropriates the contemporary medical discourse surrounding disease to signal that such things are similarly destructive. This especially targets the view that emotions in DRN, specifically those resulting from false beliefs, qualify as real afflictions, indeed among the main ones Lucretius is trying to cure. Rather, it advances, Lucretius is trying to render his readers immune to afflictions that are just ‘in their heads’, so that by the end of the poem readers will only be affected by ‘real’ diseases, those which philosophy cannot treat.

The third chapter, ‘Disease and the Marvellous: Epilepsy in Book 3 and 6’, reads Lucretius’ treatment of epilepsy (3.487-509) both literally and metaphorically. The Hippocratic tradition, paradoxography and Greek tragedy are brought to bear. Kazantzidis claims that epilepsy is an exception to Lucretius’ tendency to depict diseases as due to external contagion, the result of taking in a ‘foreign’ body. Epilepsy is the result of internal causes and thus like a sort of enemy within, specifically a poisonous snake. This seems to suggest that Lucretius’ goal is to undermine epilepsy’s reputation as ‘the sacred disease’, divinely caused. The chapter argues that the result of epilepsy’s disruptive transformation process, as with externally caused diseases, is a state of alienation from our own bodies, ‘loss of personal identity’ and ‘descent into an animal state’ (e.g. pp. 76–7). It then extends these ideas, as well as the microcosm-macrocosm principle discussed in chapter one, in several ways. It argues that Lucretius represents potentially cataclysmic cosmic events, such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, as being like the epileptic seizures of the Earth; this it takes as further evidence that Lucretius thinks the world is diseased, in some sense.

The final section of this chapter will likely generate considerable discussion. It argues that Lucretius thinks menstruation and the female body more generally are comparanda. In DRN 6.769-805, Lucretius mentions substances that are noxious under certain circumstances; chapter three interprets all of them as diseases or disease-like, focusing on two examples: the soporific effect of the smell of the extinguished night-lamp on someone with epilepsy and the claim that a woman, when she has her menstrual period, similarly faints at the odour of castor oil. On the basis of this, Lucretius’ treatment of love in book four and potential parallels with other traditions, the chapter makes two related arguments. One is that Lucretius thinks the female body is bizarre, inferior, dirty and diseased; the other is that the Earth, being like a female body in particular, is thus likewise ailing and diseased, both from the inside and out. This particularly seems to challenge the communis opinio that throughout DRN Lucretius represents the Earth as a mother figure in a largely positive light—even rightly referred to as a mother, as Magna Mater, insofar as she provides the matter from which all things and beings in the world are generated (cf. e.g., DRN 2.581–99). Similarly, since Epicurus admitted women to The Garden, this line of argument also calls into question Lucretius’ adherence to the founder’s views—something generally acknowledged to be the case (including in chapter four), even if not to the exclusion of all others. To see these and some other challenges developed more explicitly would have been interesting for the specialist, as well as useful for the non-specialist.

The last chapter, ‘From Callimachean Aesthetics to the Sublime: The Plague in Book 6’, argues that Lucretius’ plague narrative constitutes the climax and culmination of the connection between disease and the marvellous in DRN. More specifically, it argues that literary qualities of the plague narrative contribute to this. It suggests Lucretius’ plague evinces and illuminates his ambivalent relationship with Callimachus and the aesthetic values of Alexandrian poetry that Callimachus epitomised. On this reading, to contrast with the pleasurable or positive sublimity of that aesthetic elsewhere in DRN, Lucretius’ plague emphasises ‘filth, excess and impurity’, void, despair and helplessness—that which would likely unsettle and engender a sense of disgust or dread; that is, the negative or unpleasant sublime (p.122). Lucretius’ Thucydidean account of bodies piled everywhere, dead and dying (DRN 6.1262–71), thus answers his Callimachean locus amoenus (DRN 1.921–50, 4.1–25). Through such aesthetic inversion, the chapter argues, Lucretius presents a ‘spectacle of destruction’ comparable to that of the world’s birth and creation, a counterpoint ‘designed to stir the poem’s readers, for one last time, with the thrill of the sublime’ (p.122). How? Lucretius ‘elevates’ the victims of the plague ‘into active participants of their own demise’ and thus participants in the cosmic one (p.156). The readers also become participants through the recognition of themselves in this mirror—and in that moment they feel the chill run up their spine. The Afterword highlights this, the importance of accepting and even endorsing disease and death as a meaningful part of one’s own life. One’s own life, in turn, becomes a meaningful part of the cycle of creation and destruction that binds all things.

The book is written primarily with the Lucretian specialist in mind. The written style and footnotes, for instance, generally assume a quite a good working knowledge of DRN and the scholarly debates surrounding it. Some footnotes aim to make these more accessible to the non-specialist. Others will be of interest as scholarly arguments themselves. The book is organised around related arguments that can stand alone or be read together, both between and within chapters. This will facilitate the reader looking to specific sections. For the reader approaching the book sequentially from cover to cover or looking to particular topics, the indices offer some guidance to points of intersection; internal cross-referencing is minimal. The editing is a bit uneven, but not in ways that detract from the clarity of ideas or general quality.

Overall, this book offers a timely, stimulating treatment of disease in DRN. It asks a number of important and thought-provoking questions. Even those who will take more persuading will find considerable value and food for thought in the answers offered. They speak to the worthwhileness of attending to the potential for dialogue between poetry, philosophy and medicine, both in DRN and more broadly. The book will be of interest particularly to scholars of Lucretius and of the history of medicine. Together with the other scholarship mentioned, Lucretius On Disease also points to promising opportunities for further work. Given the times, it would indeed be surprising if there were not a good deal more to come.



[1] H. H. Gardner, Pestilence and the Body Politic in Latin Literature (Oxford 2019); M. R. Gale, “Plagues and the Limits of Didactic Authority: Lucretius and Others” in J.S. Clay and A. Vergados (eds), Teaching Through Images: Imagery in Greco-Roman Didactic Poetry, (Leiden, Boston 2021), 205–30; M. Garani, “Seneca as Lucretius’ Sublime Reader (Naturales Quaestiones 3 praef.)” in P.R. Hardie, V. Prosperi and D. Zucca (eds), Lucretius Poet and Philosopher: Background and Fortunes of De Rerum Natura (Berlin, Boston 2020), 105–26; M. Garani, “It’s the final countdown: Taking the philosophical test on the brink of death (Lucretius’ DRN, Seneca’s Nat. Quaest. 3.27–30),” in G. Kazantzidis (ed.), Lucretian Receptions in Prose (Berlin, Boston forthcoming)—a volume which grew out of the eponymous conference in Patras in 2018 and to which this reviewer is also contributing.

[2] D. Clay, Lucretius and Epicurus (Ithaca NY 1983), esp. 169–266. For bibliography since, see p.37.

[3] Cf. esp. M. R. Gale, “Contemplating Violence: Lucretius’ De rerum natura,” in M.R. Gale and J.H.D. Scourfield (eds), Texts and Violence in the Roman World (Cambridge 2018) 63–86. On which see e.g. p.6 n.20.

[4] Cf. esp. pp. 39–40, 48–50. Nevertheless, it recognises that Epicureanism does not admit a mind-body dualism; cf. p.11 n.2, 39–40 nn.12–13.