In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Lucretius

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Texts and Translations
  • Commentaries
  • The Reception of Lucretius in the Renaissance and Early Modern Period
  • Lucretius in Modern Discussions of Materialism
  • Lucretius and the Sublime

Philosophy Lucretius
Duncan F. Kennedy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0291


The De rerum natura (usually translated as On the Nature of Things or On the Nature of the Universe) is a Latin poem in six books composed in the mid-1st century BCE by Titus Lucretius Carus to introduce a Roman audience to the philosophy of the Greek materialist thinker Epicurus (341–270 BCE). The loss of much of Epicurus’s own output means that Lucretius has become the most important source for Epicurean philosophy, but the creative transformation of that philosophy in Lucretius’s poem has left its distinctive mark on the reception of Epicurean physics and ethics in the Western materialist tradition. Virtually nothing is known of Lucretius himself, and little can be reliably inferred about him from the poem. The sole contemporary reference to the poet and his poem comes in a letter of Cicero to his brother from February 54 BCE in which Cicero (a critic of Epicureanism in his own philosophical writings) echoes his brother’s marked admiration for its literary qualities. That admiration is echoed in the Roman literary tradition, but the poem’s impassioned rejection of the notions of divine creation of (or intervention in) the world, and of life after death made it a repeated target in later centuries for Christian polemic. This may underlie the biographical tradition attested in Late Antiquity (though now largely rejected) of the poet’s suicide, driven mad by a love potion. The poem was effectively unknown for a millennium after the fall of the western Roman Empire, but following the rediscovery and copying of a manuscript by the humanist Poggio Bracciolini in 1417, it has played an important and continuing role in the history of ideas and theories of materialism. It became the chief vehicle for the dissemination of ancient atomism in Renaissance and early modern thought as well as a focus or proxy for anticreationist views and a precursor of some aspects of evolutionary theory. In the modern period, its views on atomic motion (particularly the swerve of atoms), and its arguments against the fear of death continue to be invoked to frame debate, while its self-conscious response to the challenge of transmitting ideas across time, and the boundaries of language and culture, address the relationship of language and philosophy.

General Overviews

Sedley 2018 provides a concise and authoritative introduction to the structure and content of the poem and its philosophical concerns. Vesperini 2017 explores what the author calls the “myths” that have grown up around Lucretius in different periods that have contributed to “the supposed history of our modernity”; the essays in Lezra and Blake 2016 approach the persistent claims for the modernity of Lucretius from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. Twenty-first-century overviews overwhelmingly take the form of edited collections rather than individual monographs. They appeal to different audiences and levels, but the editors’ introductions offer informed overviews of trends in recent research as well as guides to further reading. Gale 2007 reprints eighteen classic articles and book chapters on Lucretius that provide a sense of how approaches to Lucretius in classical scholarship have developed over the course of the 20th century. The essays in Gillespie and Hardie 2007 deal with aspects of the poetic and philosophical content but are mainly devoted to surveying the reception of the poem and its ideas, which has been the most important area of growth in Lucretian studies in the early 21st century and is represented also in the theoretically inflected case studies of the reception of Epicureanism (Holmes and Shearin 2012). Another prominent trend in recent work has been to investigate how Lucretius’s philosophical and poetic concerns interact, and this is the particular focus of Lehoux, et al. 2013. So bound up is Lucretius with the exposition of Epicureanism that consideration of the philosophical importance of his poem is inseparable from the legacy of Epicureanism in general. Although not focused specifically on Lucretius, Warren 2009 offers concise and critical accounts of the chief areas of philosophical interest in Epicureanism. Campbell 2011 provides a complementary bibliography to the present one that addresses the disciplinary interests of classical studies.

  • Campbell, Gordon Lindsay. “Lucretius.” In Oxford Bibliographies in Classics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    An extensive bibliographic guide to Lucretius from the perspective of classical philology: language, meter, textual tradition, poetics, and literary studies included.

  • Gale, Monica R., ed. Lucretius. Oxford Readings in Classical Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    Gale’s introduction (pp. 1–17) to this collection of influential articles provides a clear overview of recent classical scholarship, supplemented in the footnotes by bibliographies of further reading that focus on the particular topics discussed. A good point of entry to the field.

  • Gillespie, Stuart, and Philip Hardie, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Lucretius. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL9780521848015

    Informative introductory articles on the philosophical and poetic contexts of Lucretius’s poem, and on episodes in its reception from Antiquity to the 20th century, arranged by period.

  • Holmes, Brooke, and Wilson H. Shearin, eds. Dynamic Reading: Studies in the Reception of Epicureanism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199794959.001.0001

    Eleven innovative studies, ranging from Antiquity to the 20th century, that offer sophisticated perspectives on the legacy of Epicurus and Lucretius. The editors’ introduction (pp. 3–29) sets a thought-provoking theoretical agenda.

  • Lehoux, Daryn, Andrew D. Morrison, and Alison Sharrock, eds. Lucretius: Poetry, Philosophy, Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199605408.001.0001

    Ten essays on central Lucretian topics that seek to combine perspectives (e.g., literary analysis, philosophy, and the history of the sciences) that often figure separately in approaches to the poem. Most suitable for those with some experience of Lucretian scholarship.

  • Lezra, Jacques, and Liza Blake, eds. Lucretius and Modernity: Epicurean Encounters across Time and Disciplines. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

    Eleven essays that offer diverse and focused challenges to rethink how responses to Lucretius in the modern period have continued to shape our sense of the Western intellectual tradition.

  • Sedley, David N. “Lucretius.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2018.

    An accessible overview of the poem’s structure and contents, as well as its Epicurean background, by a scholar whose contributions to the field have been groundbreaking. Also contains an extensive bibliography.

  • Vesperini, Pierre. Lucrèce: Archéologie d’un classique européen. Paris: Fayard, 2017.

    Explores episodes in the history of the reception of Lucretius from Antiquity through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment, out of which the dominant modern image of his poem has emerged.

  • Warren, James, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Epicureanism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL9780521873475

    Introductory essays by leading scholars on the history of Epicureanism and its major areas, with a particular focus on the thought of Epicurus himself, including his ruminations on physics, cosmology, psychology, ethics, language, and prescriptions for living.

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