The Inevitability of Death

Titus Lucretius Carus (c. 94—c. 55 b.c.) lived in troubled times, during which the Roman state was disrupted by internal strife and civil war. In his poem De rerum natura (On the nature of the universe), he expounds the doctrines of the Greek philosopher Epicurus on the physical nature of the universe and the consequences of these doctrines for suffering humanity.

A fundamental tenet of Epicurean philosophy was that, because there is no afterlife, we have no reason to fear death. In the following selection, Lucretius strengthens the minds of waverers by pointing out that even the greatest and most powerful men have not escaped death.

Hoc etiam tibi tute interdum dicere possis

"lumina sis oculis etiam bonus Ancus reliquit, 1025

qui melior multis quam tu, improbe, rebus.

inde alii multi reges rerumque potentes occiderunt, magnis qui gentibus imperitarunt.

text Titi Lucreti Cari De Rerum Natura, ed. C. Bailey

(Oxford University Press, 1947) meter hexameter [§mi]

hoc eti|am tibi | tut(e) || injterdum | dicere | possis lumina | sis ocu|lis || eri|am bonus | Ancu(s) re|llquit (Early Latin poetry had allowed the elision of final s before a word beginning with a consonant, and Lucretius follows this practice, as in Ancu(s).)

1024 Hoc this, i.e., what follows; tute emphatic form of tu; interdum adv. at times; possis potential subj. [§g68] you could—Lucretius is suggesting that the reader could tell himself what follows in order to overcome any fear he might have of death.

1025 lumen luminis n. light (pi. for sg. [§g 53])—the light is the light of day; sis (an old form of suis) oculis instrumental abl. [§G47] with his eyes; etiam here even; Ancus -I m. the fourth king of Rome; abandoned (relinquo -ere) the light with his eyes is a roundabout way of saying that he died.

1026 melior compar. of bonus; multis ... rebus abl. of respect [§g46] in many ways (lit., things); quam here than; improbe voc. [you] shameless [person]—the reader is conceived as rebuking himself for imagining that he should fare better than Ancus.

1027 inde since then; rerum potentes masters (potens (potentis) adj. used as a noun, lit., powerful) of things, i.e., lords of the world.

1028 occidd -ere die; qui, which is placed second in its clause ([§g4]; the same word order is used in 1. 1029), has as its antecedents the two nouns in 1. 1027; imperitarunt (= imperitaverunt [§g95]) 3 pi. perf. ind. act. imperito -are rule over, which takes the dative (magnis ... gentibus).

ille quoque ipse, viam qui quondam per mare magnum stravit iterque dedit legionibus ire per altum 1030

ac pedibus salsas docuit super ire lacunas et contempsit equis insultans murmura ponti, lumine adempto animam moribundo corpore fudit.

Scipiadas, belli fulmen, Carthaginis horror, ossa dedit terrae proinde ac famul infimus esset. 1035

adde repertores doctrinarum atque leporum,

1029 ille quoque ipse even that [man] himself—Xerxes I, king of Persia, who in 480 b.c. constructed a bridge of boats over the Hellespont to invade Greece; this feat, which Lucretius describes in 11. 1029-1032, was universally regarded as an extraordinary display of power; quondam once; per + acc. over. X030 stravit (3 sg. perf. ind. act. sternô -ere) here in the technical sense of pave, trans, who once paved a road over the mighty sea; dedit legionibus allowed [his] legions (legiô legiônis f.); iter (cognate acc. [§g 17]) ... ire to go on a way; altum -Ï n. poetic word for sea, trans, the deep.

1031 pedibus (pes pedis m.) instrumental abl. [§G47] with [their] feet; salsâs ... lacunas (lacuna -ae f.) is governed by super, trans, over the salt pools, i.e., over the sea; the understood object of docuit (doceô -ëre) is the legions in 1.1030, trans. taught them.

1032 contempsit (contemnô -ere) showed his contempt for; equis (instrumental abl. [§g 47]) insultans (insultô -are lit.,jump on) [by] prancing on [it] (i.e., the sea) with horses; murmura (murmur murmuris n.) pontï (pontus -ï m.) the sea's mut-terings—murmura (acc. after contempsit) suggests that the sea was making low noises of protest.

1033 lumine adempto (adimô -ere) abl. absolute [§G49] the light [of day] having been taken away, trans, when deprived of the light [of day]; animam ... fôdit (fiindô -ere) breathed (lit., poured) out [his] soul—according to ancient belief, the soul left the body through the mouth at the point of death; moribundo corpore abl. of separation [§G40\from [his] dying body.

1034 Scipiadâs (-ae m.), an eccentric form of the cognomen Scîpiô, is used here because of the meter; the person referred to is Publius Cornélius Scîpiô Âfri-cànus the elder, the most famous and successful Roman general in the Second Carthaginian War, who finally defeated Hannibal in 202 B.c.; belli fulmen (ful-minis n.) the thunderbolt of war; Carthàgô Carthaginis f. the city of Carthage in what is now Libya; horror horrôris m. terror.

1035 os ossis n. bone; terrae dat.; proinde ac [si] ... esset (3 sg. imperf. subj. sum) in the same way as [if] he were—the subjunctive is used because this is a supposition; famul old nom. sg. of famulus -i m. house slave; infimus lowliest.

1036 adde (2 sg. imp. act. addô -ere) add—Lucretius is introducing other classes of eminent people; repertor repertpris m. inventor, creator; doctrina -ae f. here system of thought, i.e., the different varieties of philosophy; lepôs lepôris m. lit., charm, but here denoting the arts that give pleasure (music, painting, and the like).

adde Heliconiadum comités; quorum unus Homerus sceptra potitus eadem aliis sopitus quiete est.

denique Democritum postquam matura vetustas admonuit memores motus languescere mentis, 1040

sponte sua leto caput obvius obtulit ipse.

ipse Epicurus obit decurso lumine vitae, qui genus humanum ingenio superavit et omnis restinxit, Stellas exortus ut aetherius sol."

i037î. Hie Helicôniades (Heliconiadum were the Muses, divinities associated with Helicon, a mountain in Boeotia sacred to Apollo, who was the patron god of musicians and poets, trans, dwellers on Helicon; their comités (comes comi-tis m./f. follower) were different types of artists, in particular, poets—the phrase Heliconiadum comités is more restrictive than repertôrës lepôrum; the antecedent of quorum is comités; unus Homërus (-i m.) sceptra (pi. for sg. [§G53]; sceptrum -1 n. scepter) potitus (potior -in gain possession of, win) Homer alone (unus) having won the scepter [of poetry]—Homer was regarded by both Greeks and Romans as the supreme poet; eâdem (idem + dat. the same as) ... quiète (quiës quiëtis f. sleep) instrumental abl. [§g47]; aliis (dat. after eâdem) the others, i.e., other poets; sôpîtus ... est (sôpiô -Ire put to sleep); trans, has fallen asleep in (lit., with) the same slumber as the others. I039ff. dènique finally—for Lucretius, the final two examples are the most important; Dëmocritus (-1 m.) the Greek philosopher who formulated an atomic theory that was taken over by Epicurus (-1 m.), who for Lucretius was the genius who had solved all of humanity's problems; postquam (after; here postponed [§g 4]) takes the perfect tense where in English a pluperfect is used; matura vetustas (vetustâtis f.) ripe old age; admonuit (admoneô -ere warn) has Democritum as its object and is also followed by an acc.+inf. [§g 10], memorës motus languescere (languescô'-ere become feeble); memorës môtûs ... mentis lit., the remembering activities (môtus -us m.) of the mind, i.e., the mental processes that make up memory; sponte suâ a set phrase, by his own will, voluntarily; lëtô (lëtum -I n. death) dat. with caput (capitis n. head) ... obtulit (offerô -ferre deliver) and also with obvius (here presenting [himself]), lit., he himself, of his own will, presenting [himself] to death, delivered [his] head [to it] (i.e., death)—he committed suicide. 1042 obit contraction of obiit (3 sg. perf. ind. obeô obire die); dëcursô (dëcurrô -ere run through, run one's course) lumine vitae abl. absolute [§G49], trans, after he had run through the light of life—Lucretius seems to be referring to a relay race in which successive runners received and passed on lighted torches. i043î. genus humanum the human race; ingenio (ingenium -(i)l n. intellect) abl. of respect [§g 46]; superô -are surpass; omnis is the object of restinxit (restinguô -ere) he extinguished all, which repeats the meaning of the previous clause but leads on to the metaphor introduced by the postponed ut [§G4] ( just as); stellâs (stella -ae f.) exortus (exorior -irl rise) ... aetherius (heavenly, in the heavens) sol, trans, just as the rising (exortus, though perfect, has a present sense [§G74]) sun in the heavens [extinguishes] the stars.

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