LUCRETIUS: THE ARCHEOLOGY OF AN EUROPEAN CLASSIC
(Fayard, 400 pages, 2017)
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This is an explosive book, a bombshell in its field . . . [demystifying] inherited stories and [shaking] up habits of thought.
—Le Monde des Livres
By the end of this book, I hope to have convinced the reader that the people who preceded us in Europe so many centuries ago deserve more than to be seen merely as our precursors. We must learn to know and love them for what that they were in and for themselves, that is to say, for what made them different from us. This is how they can help us better understand who we are.
Little is known about the life of Lucretius, the first century b.c. Roman poet and philosopher, beyond his only known work, De rerum natura, usually translated as On the Nature of Things or On the Nature of the Universe. Yet this poetic masterpiece remains one of the primary sources of information on Epicurean physics. Thus, it has been naturally assumed that Lucretius himself was a proponent of Epicurean philosophy and De rerum natura a didactic poem. Pierre Vesperini challenges this assumption and other received ideas that have, since the mid-nineteenth century, coalesced into what he calls “the myth of Lucretius.” He reconstructs with virtuosity the world in which, and for which, these classic verses were produced, resituates the place of Lucretius in that world, and retraces the poem’s afterlife through the centuries.
In the first part of the book, Vesperini, an ethnologist as much as a historian, firmly contextualizes De rerum natura within the times and place of its production. And he never ceases to ask questions: Did the Romans have philosophical convictions? What was the place of Greece in the imagination of ancient Roman aristocratic society? What is a poeta at a time when many wrote verses? Who was Memmius, Lucretius’ patron for whom the poem was composed? From Roman cultural practices of reading and writing to poetic aesthetics, Vesperini leaves no stone unturned. He argues that the De rerum natura is above all, if not exclusively, a work of art, which can be no more reduced to a philosophical treatise than the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel can be reduced to a Church doctrine on the Last Judgment.
The second part of the book is devoted to the reception of the poem throughout the Middle Ages and up to modern times. Vesperini paves the ground for a spirited rebuttal of the myth of a hypermodern Lucretius popularized by Stephen Greenblatt in his bestseller, The Swerve—and the notion that the rediscovery of De rerum natura during the Renaissance, after centuries of near oblivion, sparked the modern age by reintroducing Europe to the theories of Epicurus.
Vesperini’s Lucretius is a scholarly book that does not assume specialist knowledge on the part of the reader. With verve, passion, and brilliant erudition, it invigorates the ongoing debate on the posterity of one of the Roman world’s great classics.
Pierre Vesperini is a historian of ancient philosophy. He is the author of La philosophia et ses pratiques d’Ennius à Cicéron (École française de Rome, 2012) and Droiture et mélancolie: Sur les écrits de Marc Aurèle (Verdier, 2016), which received the La Bruyère Prize awarded by l’Académie française.