Virtually nothing is known about the life of Lucretius. Jerome tells how he was driven mad by a love potion and wrote his poetry between fits of insanity, eventually committing suicide in middle age; but modern scholarship suggests this account was probably an invention. The De rerum natura was a considerable influence on the Augustan poets, particularly Virgil (in his Aeneid and Georgics, and to a lesser extent in his Eclogues) and Horace. It virtually disappeared during the Middle Ages, but was rediscovered in a monastery in Germany in 1417, by Poggio Bracciolini, and played an important role both in the development of atomism (Lucretius was an important influence on Pierre Gassendi) and the efforts of various figures of the Enlightenment era to construct a new Christian humanism.
And now, good Memmius, receptive ears And keen intelligence detached from cares I pray you bring to true philosophy
De Rerum Natura (tr. Melville) 1.50
If I must speak, my noble Memmius, As nature's majesty now known demands
De Rerum Natura (tr. Melville) 5.6
Very little is known about Lucretius's life; the only certain fact is that he was either a friend or client of Gaius Memmius, to whom De Rerum Natura was addressed and dedicated. In a letter by Cicero to his brother Quintus in February 54 BC, Cicero said that: "The poems of Lucretius are as you write: they exhibit many flashes of genius, and yet show great mastership." By this time, both Cicero and his brother had read De Rerum Natura, and so might have many other Romans. However, a literary evaluation of Lucretius's work reveals some repetition and a sudden end to Book 6 during a description of the plague at Athens. The poem appears to have been published without a final revision, possibly due to its author's death. If this is true, Lucretius must have been dead by 54 BC.
In the work of another author in late Republican Rome, Virgil writes in the second book of his Georgics, clearly referring to Lucretius, that "Happy is he who has discovered the causes of things and has cast beneath his feet[a] all fears, unavoidable fate, and the din of the devouring Underworld."
A brief biographical note is found in Aelius Donatus's Life of Virgil, which seems to be derived from an earlier work by Suetonius. The note reads: "The first years of his life Virgil spent in Cremona, right until the assumption of his toga virilis, which he accepted on his 17th birthday, when the same two men held the consulate, as when he was born, and it so happened that on the very same day Lucretius the poet passed away." However, although Lucretius certainly lived and died around the time that Virgil and Cicero flourished, the information in this particular testimony is internally inconsistent. Virgil was born in 70 BC, and his 17th birthday therefore took place in 53 BC. Also, the two consuls of 70 BC, Pompey and Crassus, stood together as consuls again in 55, not 53.
Nor is there sufficient basis for a confident assertion of the date of Lucretius's birth or death in other sources. Another yet briefer note is found in the Chronicon of Donatus's pupil, Jerome. Writing four centuries after Lucretius's death, he enters under the 171st Olympiad the following line: "Titus Lucretius the poet is born. Later he was driven mad by a love potion, and when, during the intervals of his insanity, he had written a number of books, which were later emended by Cicero, he killed himself by his own hand in the 44th year of his life." The claim that he was driven mad by a love potion, although defended by such scholars as Reale and Catan, is often dismissed as the result of historical confusion, or anti-Epicurean slander. Jerome's image of Lucretius as a lovesick, mad poet continued to have significant influence on modern scholarship until quite recently, though it is now accepted such a report is inaccurate. Similarly, the statement that Cicero emended (Latin: emendavit) the work prior to publication is doubtful. The exact date of his birth varies by manuscript; in most it is tallied under 94 BC, but in others under 93 or 96. Lucretius (an atheist writer) and Jerome (a Christian priest) also write for opposing purposes, and whether or not Jerome had attempted to disparage Lucretius's work as the work of a madman is an open question.
It is impossible to know the credibility of the accounts of Donatus and Jerome, since they wrote long after the poet's death, the latter author belonged to a theological tradition explicitly hostile to Epicureanism, and the sources of their off-hand comments are unknown. However, if 55 BC is Lucretius's most likely year of death, and if Jerome is accurate about Lucretius's age (43) when he died, it can then be concluded he was born in 99 or 98 BC. These are a lot of ifs, and it may be wisest to simply say that Lucretius was born in the 90s BC and died in the 50s BC. This ties in well with the poem's many allusions to the tumultuous state of political affairs in Rome and its civil strife.
Lucretius was probably a member of the aristocratic gens Lucretia, and his work shows an intimate knowledge of the luxurious lifestyle in Rome. Lucretius's love of the countryside invites speculation that he inhabited family-owned rural estates, as did many wealthy Roman families, and he was certainly expensively educated with mastery of Latin, Greek, literature, and philosophy.
His poem De Rerum Natura (usually translated as "On the Nature of Things" or "On the Nature of the Universe") transmits the ideas of Epicureanism, which includes Atomism, and psychology. Lucretius was the first writer to introduce Roman readers to Epicurean philosophy. The poem, written in some 7,400 dactylic hexameters, is divided into six untitled books, and explores Epicurean physics through richly poetic language and metaphors. Lucretius presents the principles of atomism; the nature of the mind and soul; explanations of sensation and thought; the development of the world and its phenomena; and explains a variety of celestial and terrestrial phenomena. The universe described in the poem operates according to these physical principles, guided by fortuna, "chance", and not the divine intervention of the traditional Roman deities.
^In particular, De rerum natura 5.107 (fortuna gubernans, "guiding chance" or "fortune at the helm"): see Monica R. Gale, Myth and Poetry in Lucretius (Cambridge University Press, 1994, 1996 reprint), pp. 213, 223–224 online and Lucretius (Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 238 online.
Virgil (c. 31 BC), Georgics, retrieved 16 May 2012Check date values in: |date= (help)
Lucretius. De Rerum Natura. (3 vols. Latin text Books I-VI. Comprehensive commentary by Cyril Bailey), Oxford University Press 1947.
On the Nature of Things, (1951 prose translation by R. E. Latham), introduction and notes by John Godwin, Penguin revised edition 1994, ISBN 0-14-044610-9
Lucretius (1971). De Rerum Natura Book III. (Latin version of Book III only– 37 pp., with extensive commentary by E. J. Kenney– 171 pp.), Cambridge University Press corrected reprint 1984. ISBN 0-521-29177-1
Lucretius (2008 [1997, 1999]), On the Nature of the Universe (tr. Melville, Robert) (introduction and notes by Fowler, Don; Fowler, Peta). Oxford University Press [Oxford World Classics], ISBN 978-0-19-955514-7
Munro, H. A. J.: Lucretius: On the Nature of Things Translated, with an analysis of the six books. 4th Edn, Routledge (1886). Online version at the Internet Archive (2011).
Strauss, Leo, "Notes on Lucretius," in Liberalism: Ancient and Modern (Chicago, 1968), pp. 76–139.
M. Erler, "Lukrez," in H. Flashar (ed.), Die Philosophie der Antike. Bd. 4. Die hellenistische Philosophie (Basel, 1994), 381–490.
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Ronald Melville, Lucretius: On the Nature of the Universe (Oxford, 1997).
D. Sedley, Lucretius and the Transformation of Greek Wisdom (Cambridge, 1998).
Don Fowler, Lucretius on Atomic Motion: A Commentary on De rerum natura 2. 1–332 (Oxford, Oxford UP, 2002).
Gordon Campbell, Lucretius on Creation and Evolution: A Commentary on De Rerum Natura Book Five, Lines 772–1104 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).
L. Rumpf, Naturerkenntnis und Naturerfahrung. Zur Reflexion epikureischer Theorie bei Lukrez (Munich: C.H. Beck, 2003) (Zetemata, 116).
David N. Sedley. Lucretius and the Transformation of Greek Wisdom (Cambridge, CUP, 2003).