Lucretius was a Roman philosopher and poet, best remembered for his landmark poem ‘De rerumnatura’. He was a follower and proponent of ‘Epicureanism’ (a philosophy taught by the Greek philosopher, Epicurus) and his poem is said to be among the best works on this philosophy. This epic poem is the only known work of his and has been translated into English under the title ‘On the Nature of Things’. The poem expounds a wide range of topics ranging from physics through literature to philosophy. Not much is known about his birth or death and virtually no information is available about his life in between. However, he is widely regarded to have belonged to Roman nobility. Many medieval and modern scientists, philosophers and political leaders have credited him with influencing their thought process. The concept of the three-age system (periodization of history into three time periods: the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages) is also widely credited to him. He was criticized by many classical and medieval thinkers, but his poem is the modern world’s primary source of knowledge of Epicurean physics.
Childhood & Early Life
Titus Lucretius Carus was probably born around 99 B.C. Since his exact birth date is unknown, accounts of other happenings and references to his age at other times have been used by experts to estimate his birth year.
Details about his parents and siblings are not available. Almost nothing is known about his early life. But his firm grasp on Greek, Latin, philosophy, literature and science suggests that he received an expensive education.
It is widely believed by scholars and experts that he belonged to the aristocratic class of the Roman society of his time since his epic poem depicts a detailed knowledge of the lifestyle of wealthy Romans.
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Lucretius was a follower of the Epicurean system of philosophy, one that propagates that no divine beings are responsible for the happenings in the lives of human beings, and that the greatest pleasure in life is the absence of pain.
Besides his firm belief in ‘Epicureanism', ‘Atomism’ and ‘Materialism’, not much is known about the professional life or career of this Roman poet and philosopher.
He is believed to have written his epic Latin poem ‘De rerumnatura’ around the first century B.C., and it consisted of six volumes, explaining Epicurean principles, thoughts on science and philosophy in great detail.
Most scholars believe that his poem was not complete and he most likely passed away before he could edit, correct or publish it.
From his poem, it is evident that his main interests lay in the fields of atoms, metaphysics and ethics. He believed that the laws of nature governed all life on earth and there was no after-life.
Almost no other information is available about his career. Only one historical reference to him is available in a letter written by Roman statesman Cicero in 54 B.C., where he simultaneously appreciates and mocks the poet for his epic poem.
Lucretius wrote the poem ‘De rerumnatura’ probably around the first century B.C., in six volumes, with the aim of explaining ‘Epicureanism’ to the Romans of his time. It covered a variety of subjects like atoms, cosmology, origins of life, the development of civilization, religion, art, mortality, geological and meteorological phenomena, etc.
Lucretius is counted among the first few thinkers to have discovered that everything in the universe eventually decays.
His epic poem is said to have been a major influence on the works of poets like Horace and Virgil, who wrote during the reign of Caesar Augustus from 27 B.C. to 14 A.D.
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Though his work was forgotten for quite a few centuries, in 1473, his poem saw a resurgence in popularity and was printed for the first time in Brescia, Lombardy.
Around 1580, the French philosopher and writer Montaigne heavily perused and quoted from the Latin printed version of ‘De rerumnatura’ in his own famous essay volume ‘Essais’.
In the mid-1600s, his poem was translated into English by the noted English translator, poet and biographer Lucy Hutchinson but published much later.
In 1869, Lucretius was made the subject of British poet Alfred Tennyson’s poem ‘Lucretius’ that mocked and criticized him.
In 1910, he was one of the titular subjects of the Spanish-American writer and philosopher George Santayana’s famous book 'Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, and Goethe.’
Family & Personal Life
Many believe that Lucretius was married to a woman named Lucilia, but no concrete evidence is available to validate their marriage or relationship.
He is said to have belonged to a wealthy family that owned vast estates in the countryside, as was the trend among Roman nobility of that time.
The Latin historian and theologian St. Jerome noted that he had keen knowledge of nature, plants and animals.
Not much is known about the exact date or circumstances of Lucretius’ death, but he is believed to have died around 55 B.C. at the age of 44 years. St. Jerome believed that a love potion concocted by the poet drove him to insanity and eventual suicidal death.
He did not believe in afterlife and criticized religion, which earned him the ire of early church fathers.
He was often branded as an atheist and his work was heavily belittled for more than two centuries, with some, like the Christian Roman philosopher Lactantius even calling him ‘the most worthless of poets’.
From Machiavelli and Molière to Montaigne and Thomas Jefferson, many famous people are said to have owned copies of and been inspired by his poem ‘De rerumnatura.’
His poem was completely forgotten for almost ten centuries during the Middle Ages, until it was rediscovered by the Italian scholar Poggio Bracciolini.