Mother of us all, pleasure of humans and gods,
nourishing Venus, who, under the gliding stars,
vitalize the open sea and the fruitful lands,
because of you every living species
is conceived and born into the light of the sun:
at your approach the winds flee you and the clouds
scatter away, to you the prolific earth
offers lovely flowers, to you the surface of the sea smiles
and the serene sky shines with suffused light.

As soon as the Spring day reveals its appearance
and the fruitful west wind breathes free,
first the birds of the air announce you
and your arrival, their hearts stricken by your force.
Then beasts and flocks prance on lush pastures
and swim across swift streams: thus all seized by your
enchantment they follow you ardently where you lead them.

Finally, over seas and mountains and raging rivers,
in the leafy homes of the birds and in the green fields,
instilling sensual love in everybody's breast,
you cause them to propagate passionately the generations of their kinds.

Because you alone govern the nature of things
and without you nothing emerges to the bright shores of light
and nothing pleasant or lovable is made,
I wish you to be my companion in writing these verses
that I venture to compose on the nature of things,
for our Memmius, that you, goddess, led to excel
in all things at all times with honour.
Therefore give, o goddess, eternal enchantment to my words.

                                  [Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, Book 1, 1-28]

These are the first verses of the philosophical poem On The Nature Of Things (De Rerum Natura) by Titus Lucretius Carus, an ancient Roman writer who lived in the first century BCE. The book explains in passionate poetic language the doctrines of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who lived two centuries earlier. Epicureanism says that the world is made of invisibly tiny particles, atoms, that flow according to the laws of nature and sometime swerve randomly. Humans, like all other creatures, are made of atoms and cease to exist when the atoms scatter. But we shouldn’t be afraid of death; instead we should dedicate our life to the pursuit of pleasure and friendship.

We don’t know anything about the life of Lucretius. The fictitious story told by Saint Jerome centuries later is just an expression of Christian prejudice. Lucretius was born in around 100 BCE and died in his forties, leaving his great book unfinished. The book was probably edited and published by Cicero, who was an admirer. Another admirer was Virgil, whose Georgics were inspired by De Rerum Natura.

The first century BCE was a time of upheaval and conflict in the Roman world, that eventually led to the collapse of the Republic and the establishment of the Empire. There were a series of civil wars in which generals attempted to seize power. The latest, between Pompey and Caesar, broke out shortly after Lucretius’ death and resulted in Caesar becoming Dictator. The poem is addressed to Gaius Memmius, a Roman politician and orator, who had been a supporter of Pompey before changing his allegiance to Caesar. Besides being the dedicatee of Lucretius’s poem, he was also a protector of the poet Catullus. He was a refined Graecophile intellectual and a scheming politician. His machinations eventually caused his downfall and he was exiled to Greece for electoral fraud.

De Rerum Natura is very different from the classical epic poems of the time, that glorified the actions of gods and heroes. Their models were Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and Virgil would later produce the equivalent Roman example with the Aeneid. Lucretius’ book is more similar to the treaties by Greek pre-Socratic philosophers, which sometimes were written in poetic form and had the title On Nature. Notable examples were Anaximander, Parmenides, and Empedocles. Unfortunately these books are lost and only fragments survive. In spite of the different character of his poem, Lucretius starts by following the tradition of opening with an invocation to a deity, here Venus, the goddess of love.

In the Latin original, Lucretius calls Venus the generatrix of the people of Aeneas. Aeneas was the hero who escaped from Troy after its destruction by the Greeks and travelled to Italy, where his descendants founded Rome. So “the people of Aeneas” means all Romans. This would include all potential readers, so it is a way of including all of them as children of Venus. That’s why in my translation I generalize it to “us all”.

According to Epicureanism, gods do not intervene in our world. So we must interpret Venus not as literally a goddess, but as a personification of the universal force of love. Lucretius calls Venus pleasure (voluptas) of men and gods. Pleasure is the highest goal of life according to Epicureanism. Another indirect reference to traditional religion appears in the reference to the West wind (Favonius). According to classical myth, the god Aeolus kept the winds locked in a cave and released them according to the seasons. In accordance, Lucretius says that the west wind is reserata, literally unlocked.

In the last verses above Lucretius for the first time states, twice, the title and topic of his book: De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) and calls upon Venus as the ruler of nature. The word translated as enchantment is lepor, which is often translated as charm. It is the universal erotic and generative force of Venus that enraptures and leads all creatures. In the last verse, Lucretius asks the goddess to give eternal lepor to his words. So he is asking her to infuse her own power into the poem.

On Translations:
There are several good translations of De Rerum Natura in English. The one by W. H. D. Rouse in the Loeb Classical Library is plain and readable. An impressive poetic translation is the recent one by A. E. Stallings in rhyming fourteeners.

My own translation cannot compete with these: I’m not a classical scholar and English is not my first language. My interest is sparked by the parallels between Lucretius’ worldview and the discoveries of modern science. In this sense, I’m influenced by the Italian translation by Piergiorgio Odifreddi.

I’m also interested in the relation between Epicurean and Buddhist ethics. My inspiration came from a course by Stephen Batchelor and John Peacock on the parallels between the doctrines of Buddha and Epicurus. I’m encouraged by the discussions with the Ten Perfection group of participants to a recent course by Stephen Batchelor: many thanks in particular to Tom, Mary and Joe.

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