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Below is an excerpt of On the Nature of Things by Lucretius as translated by Ian Johnston. To preview the book in pdf format, you can do so via our "Preview This Book" page here.

On the Nature of Things


[Invocation to Venus; plea for peace; dedication to Memmius; tribute to Epicurus; tyranny of religion; example of Iphigeneia; importance of resisting religion with reason; tribute to Ennius; Lucretius defines his task, acknowledges difficulty of using Latin; first principle: nothing is made of nothing; second principle: nothing is reduced to nothing; existence of invisible particles; presence of empty space (void); explanation of movement; sense experience as criterion of truth; no third form of nature; properties and accidents; time does not exist; primary elements are permanent; basic particles make hard and soft objects; primary particles cannot be broken up; criticism of Heraclitus; tribute to and criticism of Empedocles; criticism of Anaxagoras; analogy of elements to letters in words; infinity of matter and space; no common pull to the centre.]

Text Box:  

Mother of Aeneas’ sons, joy of men and gods,
nourishing Venus, who beneath the stars
that glide across the sky crams full of life
ship-bearing seas and fruitful lands—through you
are conceived all families of living things
which rise up to gaze upon the splendour
of sunlight, and when you come near, goddess,
winds and sky clouds scurry off; for your sake,
artful earth puts forth sweet flowers; for you,
smooth seas smile, calm sky pours glittering light,                
10                               [10]
and once day’s face reveals the spring, winds blow
freely from the west, bringing fertility,
and air-born birds whose heart your power strikes
give first signs of you, goddess, and your approach.
Then herds of wild beasts leap in carefree fields,
swim through raging rivers—so seized with joy
and eagerness, all follow you, no matter
where you lead—from there through seas and mountains,
roaring streams, leafy homes of birds, and fields
now turning green, as you inspire all hearts                            
with tempting love and, through desire, bring out                         
new generations, each in accordance
with its kind. And because you, by yourself,
guide natural things and lacking your support
nothing rises in the godlike regions
of the light, and nothing rich and worthy
of our love comes into being, I yearn
for you to be my partner as I write,
attempting verses on the nature of things,
for my Memmius, whom you, goddess,                                      
have willed at all times to be excellent,
a splendid man in everything he does.
So for him, divine lady, give these words
all the more everlasting grace. Bring in
a universal lull meanwhile which calms
all brutal works of war on sea and land,                                              
since you alone can succor mortal men
with tranquil peace, for Mars, the lord of war,
who controls the savage acts of battle,
will often hurl himself onto your breasts,                                 
conquered by the eternal wound of love,
and there, with his smooth neck leaning back,
he gazes up, goddess, his mouth open,
and feeds his eyes, greedy with love, on you;
as he reclines, his breath hangs on your lips.
While he is there, goddess, from above allow
your sacred body to flow around him.
O splendid lady, let pleasing words pour
from your lips, seeking sweet peace for Romans,                              
since at a time of crisis in our land,                                            
we cannot do this work with peace of mind,
nor in these events can the noble son
of Memmius neglect the common good.

For the whole nature of gods, in itself,
must for all time enjoy the utmost peace,
far removed and long cut off from us
and our affairs, and free from any pain,
free from dangers, strong in its own power,
and needing nothing from us—such nature
will not give in to those good things we do                             
nor will it be moved by our resentment.

Text Box:  
And you, [Memmius,] must direct yourself,
with unbiased ears and judicious mind
quite free from care, to proper reasoning,                                          
so that you do not scorn and throw away
my gifts to you, laid out with true good will,
before you grasp them. For I will begin
to set down for you the highest matters
of heaven and gods, and I will disclose
the first principles of matter, the ones                                      
nature uses to produce, increase, sustain
all things, and into which she converts them
once more, when they disintegrate. These things,
in explanatory accounts of them,
we are accustomed to call “materials”
and “the generating bodies of things”—
to name them “seeds of things,” using the term
“primordial elements,” since they come first,
and from these things all objects are derived.
Text Box:  
When to all eyes men’s life lay foully crushed                           80
throughout the land beneath the heavy burden
of religion, who, from heavenly regions
would show her head, menacing mortal men
with her hideous face, a Greek man was the first
who dared raise his mortal eyes against her,
the first one to oppose her, undeterred
by stories of the gods, by lightning strikes
or menacing rumbles from the heavens.
Instead, with even greater eagerness
he roused his spirit’s keen intelligence,
                                                       90          [70]
to answer his desire to be the first
to break the narrow bolts of nature’s doors.
And so the living power of his mind
won out, and he moved forward, far beyond
the flaming bulwarks of the world, and then,
in his mind and spirit, made his way through
the boundless immensity of all things.
From there, triumphant, he brings back to us
what can come into being and what cannot,
and finally the processes by which                                             
the power of each thing has boundary stones,

a deep-set limit.
[8] And so religion,
in its turn cast down, is thrown underfoot.
This victory makes us heaven’s equals.
Text Box:  
But I fear in these matters you perhaps                                                [80]
may think you move into first principles
of an wicked way of thinking, starting
down an impious road—whereas, in fact
that same religion has too often spawned
profane and criminals acts, like that time                                
at Aulis, when leaders chosen by the Greeks,

preeminent men, horribly defiled
the virgin Trivia’s altar with the blood
of Iphianassa.
[9] Once the bands of wool
were wrapped around the young girl’s hair and hung
down both cheeks equally, and once she saw
her father standing right by the altars
looking gloomy and, there beside him, priests
hiding the knife, with people gazing on,
weeping at the sight of her, she sank down,                            
kneeling on the ground, struck dumb with terror.

The hapless girl had been the very first
to award the king the name of father,
but at such a time that was no help to her.
For men’s hands lifted her and bore her on,
trembling, to the altars—and not so that,
with a solemn ritual completed,
a loud bridal hymn could now escort her,
but so she, quite pure in her defilement,
even at the time of her own wedding,                                       
might fall a wretched victim to a blow
from her father’s hand in that sacrifice,
to ensure a happy, successful trip                                                          
was granted to the fleet. That shows how much
religion can turn mankind to evil.

And even for you the time will come when,
overpowered by prophets’ horror stories,
you seek to move away from us. No doubt,
they can now make up many dreams for you
which could disturb a life of principle                                        140
and with fear upset all your good fortune—
and rightly so. For if men could perceive
there is a set limit to their troubles,
they would, with some reason, have strength enough
to resist religion and prophets’ threats.
But now, since we must fear that, when we die,
we will be punished for eternity,
there is no means, no possibility,                                                                                        [110]
of fighting back. For people do not know
the nature of the soul—whether it is born                                150
with them, or, by contrast, is inserted
at their birth, whether it perishes with us,
dissolved in death, or whether it visits
the shades of Orcus, his enormous pools,
or whether, as our Ennius said in song,
it sets itself, by divine influence,
in other animals.[10] He first brought back 
from lovely Helicon a wreath of leaves 
that never fades—its fame is spoken of 
by families of men in Italy.                                                             160
And yet after this, Ennius explains, 
setting it down in deathless poetry, 
there truly are regions in Acheron                                                        [120]
where our souls and bodies do not remain,
but only certain phantoms, strangely pale.
From there, he says, in front of him arose
the ghost of always flourishing Homer,
which started to shed salty tears and then
to describe in words the nature of things.
And so we must with proper reasoning                                      170
look into celestial matters—explain
the reasons for the wandering of the sun 
and of the moon, the force which brings about
everything that happens on the earth;
and, in particular, we must employ                                                                                   [130]
keen reasoning, as well, to look into
what makes up the soul, the nature of mind,
and what it is that comes into our minds
and terrifies us when we are awake
and suffering some disease or in deep sleep,                              180
so that we seem to see and hear right there, 
before our eyes, those who have met their deaths,                            
whose bones the earth now holds in its embrace.
I am not unaware how difficult
it is to clarify in Latin verse
obscure matters discovered by the Greeks,
above all since we must deal with many things
employing new words, because our language
is impoverished and the subject new.
But your own excellence and the pleasure                                 190              [140]
I look forward to from your sweet friendship
are prompting me to finish any work,
no matter how demanding, urging me
to stay awake throughout the peaceful night,
seeking words and verse where I can at last
hold up a clear light for your mind, and you
can see into the hidden core of things.
And so this terror, this darkness of mind,
must be dispelled, not by rays from the sun
or bright shafts of daylight, but by reason                                 200
and the face of nature. And we will start
to weave her first principle as follows:
nothing is ever brought forth by the gods                                          [150]
from nothing.[11] That is, of course, how, through fear,
all mortal men are held in check—they view
many things done on earth and in the sky,
effects whose causes they cannot see at all,
and so they assume that such things happen
because of gods. Hence, once we understand
that nothing can be produced from nothing,                           210
then we shall more accurately follow
what we are looking for, how everything 
can be created and all work can be done
without any assistance from the gods.
For if things were made from nothing, each type                              [160]
could be produced from any other thing,
with no seed required. To start with, humans
could spring up from the sea, races of fish
arise from land, and birds burst from the sky;
domestic beasts, other cattle, all kinds                                       220
of savage creatures of uncertain birth
would live in farm land and the wilderness.
The same fruits would not be produced from trees
with no alterations—no, they would change,
and any tree could carry any fruit.
In fact, were there no procreant bodies
for each one, how could anything possess
a fixed and constant mother? But now, because
each object is produced from certain seeds,
it grows out of them and comes to regions                               230
of the light from places in which its stuff,                                                               [170]
the primary elements of each, belongs.
For this reason, it is impossible
for all things to be produced from all things,
since there are in specific substances
powers which make those substances distinct.
And why do we see roses coming out
in spring, grain when it gets hot, and grape vines
ripening under autumn’s influence,
if not because, when certain seeds of things                             240
have fused together at their proper time, 
whatever is created then appears,
while the season favours it, and the earth,
full of life, safely brings out tender things
to regions of the light? But if these things                                          [180]
were made from nothing, then they would spring up
suddenly at random, at strange moments
of the year, because then there would not be
any primal matter which could be checked
from a productive union at a time                                                250
that was unfavourable. And what is more, 
if they could increase in size from nothing,
there would be no need of time for growing
once seeds had joined together. For young men
might suddenly be produced from infants,
and groves of trees might come up from the ground,
arising unexpectedly. These things,
quite obviously, just do not happen—
all things mature gradually [at set times],
as is appropriate, [since they all grow]                                       260
from certain seeds, and as they get bigger,
they maintain their kind, so you can understand                                            [190]
that every individual thing is fed
and grows from its own particular stuff.[12]
And what is more, without seasonal rains
during the year, the earth could not produce 
her delightful fruits; then, too, without food
animal nature could not reproduce
the species and maintain its life. From this,
you can all the more easily believe                                               270
that many things have many elements
in common—just as we see with letters, 
which are the same in many words—rather
than thinking any substance could exist
without its primary matter.[13]
                                                    And further,
why could nature not have created men
so big that they could make their way on foot                                    [200]
across the sea, with their own hands tear down
great mountains, and in life expectancy
outlast many human generations,                                               280
unless the reason is that certain stuff
has been designed to make specific things, 
and that determines what can be produced?  
Therefore, we must acknowledge that nothing
can be produced from nothing, since with things
there is a need for seeds, from which each one
is made and can be brought into the air,
into the gentle winds. And finally,
since we perceive that cultivated lands
are preferable to those left on their own                                    290
and, when worked by hand, yield better produce,
we clearly see that there are in the earth                                                                   [210]
primordial elements of things, which we,
by turning over fertile ground with ploughs,
and taming the land’s soil, stir into birth.
If there were no seeds, you might well observe
that things become much better on their own
without our work. 
                                  To this we can also add 
that nature dissolves all things back again
into their own elements and does not                                        300
turn matter into nothing.[14] If anything
were destined to die, including the parts
of which it is composed, then all matter
would be quickly snatched away before our eyes
and vanish. For no force would be needed
which could bring about the dissolution
of its parts and sever their connection.                                                [220]
As it is now, since everything consists
of ageless seeds, nature does not let us
witness the death of anything, until                                           310
force intervenes to cut it into pieces
with some blow or to penetrate inside, 
through the empty spaces, and dissolve it.
And if time totally destroys those things
it takes away by aging, consuming
all their matter, how does Venus send back
into the light of life those families
of creatures, each according to its kind?
When they are restored, how does artful earth
offer them food, nourish, and strengthen them,                      320
meeting each one’s needs? How do its own springs                          [230]
and distant rivers flowing far and wide
keep the sea supplied? How does the aether
feed the stars?[15] The infinity of time
and days gone by should have destroyed all things
made up of mortal elements. But if
those particles which make up and renew
the total sum of things have been around
though all the ages of those years long past,
then we can be assured they do possess                                      330
an immortal nature. And thus, no things
can be converted back into nothing. 
Indeed, unless some everlasting stuff 
kept substances more or less connected
in a mutual matrix, one common force                                                 [240]
and cause could generally destroy all things,
for then, in fact, a touch would be enough
to kill, as is obvious, if there were
no substance in a body which endured,
if it were linked seeds which any force                                       340
was bound to break apart. But as it is,
since different networks of first elements
combine together and since their substance
endures forever, things continue on,
their bodies unimpaired, until the time
an opposing force with sufficient strength,
a power which can undo their structure,
encounters them. Thus, there is no substance
which is reduced to nothing—but all things,
once dissolved, go back to material stuff.                                   350
Lastly, the rains vanish, when the aether,                                            [250]
our father, has poured them into the lap
of earth, our mother. But then glistening crops 
spring up, the branches on the trees turn green,
and trees themselves grow bigger and become
weighed down with fruit. Moreover, from this rain
our race is fed, as well as those of beasts.
Thus, we see happy cities filled with youth
and leafy woods full of young birds singing
on every side, and fat, weary cattle                                               360
set their bodies down in joyful pastures,
and dazzling white liquid milk flows out
from swollen udders; thus, new offspring play
on unsure limbs, frolic on tender grass,                                                [260]
with fresh milk stirring their young hearts. And so,
what seems to disappear does not all go—
nature renews one thing from another
and does not allow objects to be born
without the help of something else that died.
Come, I have been teaching you that matter 370
cannot be created out of nothing
and, in the same way, once it is produced,
cannot be reduced to nothing, and yet,
in case you should perhaps still start to doubt
my words, because our eyes cannot perceive
the elementary particles of things,
learn more about those bodies you yourself
must grant exist in what cannot be seen.                  [270]
First of all, the power of wind, once roused,
lashes harbours, annihilates huge ships,       380
scatters clouds. Sometimes in swift, whirling storms
it sweeps across the plains, covering them
with giant trees, and assaults mountain tops
with blasts that splinter wood—that’s how fiercely
the wind howls out in passionate anger,
screaming and threatening with a frantic howl.
And therefore we can have no doubt that winds,
although invisible, are bodies, too.
They sweep sea and land as well as sky clouds,
jolt and ravage them with sudden whirlwinds.         390
They rush on ahead and spread destruction,                        [280]
just as water, whose nature is delicate,

suddenly carried in a flooding stream
gorged with massive run-off from heavy rains
down towering mountains races on, hurling
broken branches of the trees together,



[1]Aeneas is the legendary founder of the Roman people, and Aeneas’ sons are the Romans. The goddess of love, Venus, is his mother. The invocation to her and her presence throughout the poem may seem curious in a poetic argument dedicated to materialistic science, but, Serres argues, Venus has a vital role in the poem, which is advocating a more conciliatory view of nature different from the more aggressive, conquering, masculine view exemplified by Mars and Hercules and by rival theories which Lucretius is contesting.

[2]Gaius Memmius was a leading politician in Rome (tribune in 66 BC), and, we assume on the basis of these lines, a friend of Lucretius. When his political career collapsed, he retired to Athens and Mytilene. He died around 49 BC.

[3]Lucretius appears to have written these lines at a time of growing political crisis in Rome, during the consulship of Caesar and his political alliance with Pompey (c. 60 BC). He had already lived through the civil war between Sulla and Marius (in 82 BC).

[4]The passage “For the whole nature of the gods . . . resentment” (54 to 61 in the English) reappears in Book 2 (line 646 in the Latin). Many editors and translators omit them from this opening part of the poem. It seems likely, too, that after line 54 (line 43 in the Latin) a few lines have been lost, in which a transition is made to Memmius. I have added his name in square brackets to clarify the transition.

[5]Lucretius for some reason wishes to avoid the Greek word atom and its Latin equivalent, atomus, It may be that, given his desire to show how his Latin, in spite of its limitations, is capable of explaining “obscure” Greek ideas, he does not wish to use a Greek word very familiar to many of his readers. Whatever his motive, I have not used the word atom in the text of this translation (for the reason given above and also because the English word atom immediately conveys to the modern reader a great deal more information than the Greek word did to Lucretius or to his readers).

[6]The “Greek man” is Epicurus (341-270 BC), a Greek philosopher, founder of the school of philosophical thought called Epicureanism. None of his work remains, except for some fragments.

[7]Lucretius commonly uses the term world (mundus) to refer to the universe visible from earth. It does not mean earth, which is part of this world, or the entire universe, which contains many worlds. As Lucretius makes clear later in the poem, this world is a sphere enclosed in fiery aether. Hence, as Bailey observes, the expression about the bulwarks of the world is to be taken literally

[8]Boundary stones were important marks designating property lines. Smith notes that the Romans had a special god (Terminus) whose job it was to protect them.

[9]Homer gives Agamemnon’s eldest child the name Iphianassa. However, the girl is usually called Iphigenia. Smith suggests that Lucretius uses the Homeric name in order to give his poem more epic weight. Agamemnon, the leader of Greek expedition to Troy had offended the goddess Artemis, who then sent contrary winds to prevent the fleet assembled at Aulis from sailing. The prophet Calchas told Agamemnon he would have to sacrifice his daughter in order to get favourable winds. In some versions of the story Agamemnon lured Iphigenia to Aulis by telling her she was going to be married to Achilles. Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter, and the fleet sailed to Troy. Trivia is another name for the Greek goddess Artemis or her Roman equivalent, Diana.

[10]Quintus Ennius (239-169 BC) was a Latin poet and playwright, none of whose works survives except in fragments. He was considered the first great Latin poet. Orcus is the Roman god of the underworld.

[11]This is the most important basic principle of Epicurean materialism: everything is composed of matter and must be made by the actions of matter, without divine miracles which produce a physical object out of nothing at all.

[12]I follow Munro’s suggested emendation of the text in lines 188-189 of the Latin. The additional words are in square brackets.

[13]Lucretius here introduces one of his favourite analogies, comparing the letters of the alphabet used in the formation of words with the primary particles used in the formation of substances. The analogy is all the more pertinent in Latin because the world elementum [plural elementa] refers to both letters and particles.

[14]The second basic principle of Epicurean materialism is stated here: no substance can be reduced to nothing.

[15]Aether (or ether) is the material stuff which fills space, surrounding and containing all planets and stars. Since the stars are burning fires, they must be fed.

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