He chose for his work a philosophical rather than a poetic title- De Rerum Natura, “On the Nature of Things”- a simple translation of the Peri Physeos (“About Nature”) which the pre-Socratics had used as a common name for their treatises. He offered it to the sons of Caius Memmius, praetor in 58, as a road from fear to understanding. He took as his model the Empedoclean epic of exposition, as his speech the quaint bluntness of Ennius, as his medium the mobile and versatile hexameter. And then, forgetting for a moment the distant carelessness of the gods, he began with a fervent apostrophe to Venus conceived, like Empedocles’ Love, as a symbol of creative desire and the ways of peace:
Mother of Aeneas’ race, delight of men and gods, O nurturing Venus!… Through thee every kind of life is conceived and born, and looks upon the sun; before thee and thy coming the winds flee, and the clouds of the sky depart; to thee the miraculous earth lifts up sweet flowers; for thee the waves of the sea laugh, and the peaceful heavens shine with overspreading light. For as soon as the springtime face of day appears, and the fertilizing south wind makes all things fresh and green, then first the birds of the air proclaim thee and thy advent, O divine one, pierced to the heart by thy power; then the wild herds leap over the glad pastures, and cross the swift streams; so, held captive by thy charm, each one follows thee wherever thou goest to lead. Then through seas and mountains and rushing rivers, and the leafy dwellings of the birds, and the verdant fields, thou strikest soft love into the breasts of all creatures, and makest them to propagate their generations after their kinds. Since, therefore, thou alone rulest the nature of things; since without thee nothing rises to the shining shores of light, nothing joyful or lovely is born; I long for thee as partner in the writing of these verses…. Grant to my words, O goddess, an undying beauty. Cause, meanwhile, the savage works of war to sleep and be still…. As Mars reclines upon thy sacred form, bend thou around him from above, pour sweet coaxings from thy mouth, and beg for thy Romans the gift of peace.
II. DE RERUM NATURA
If we try to reduce to some logical form the passionate disorder of Lucretius’ argument, his initial thesis lies in a famous line:
Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum-
“to so many evils religion has persuaded men.” He tells the story of Iphigenia in Aulis, of countless human sacrifices, of hecatombs offered to gods conceived in the image of man’s greed; he recalls the terror of simplicity and youth lost in a jungle of vengeful deities, the fear of lightning and thunder, of death and Hell, and the subterranean horrors pictured in Etruscan art and Oriental mysteries. He reproaches mankind for preferring sacrificial ritual to philosophical understanding:
O miserable race of men, to impute to the gods such acts as these, and such bitter wrath! What sorrow did men [through such creeds] prepare for themselves, what wounds for us, what tears for our children! For piety lies not in being often seen turning a veiled head to stones, nor in approaching every altar, nor in lying prostrate… before the temples of the gods, nor in sprinkling altars with the blood of beasts… but rather in being able to look upon all things with a mind at peace.