The Gallic War by Julius Caesar – 1

I’d just bought the Oxford University Press edition of Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars off Amazon when I walked into my local charity shop and found the old Penguin edition going second-hand for £2. So I snapped it up and am now reading the two editions interchangeably.

The OUP edition (1996)

The OUP edition (1996) is translated and introduced by Carolyn Hammond. She began to put me off almost immediately when, in her preface, she writes:

The subject-matter of The Gallic War is potentially distasteful, even immoral, for the modern reader. The drive to increase territorial holdings, high civilian as well as military casualties, and the predominance of economic motives for organised aggression – all these belong to an accepted norm of international activity in the ancient world, and hence need careful introduction and explanation…

This begs all kinds of questions. For example: Why are you devoting so much time to translating a work which you find ‘distasteful and immoral’? It’s the same question as arose when reading Mary Beard’s history of Rome: Why has an ardent feminist dedicated her life to studying a world of toxic men?

Second problem is Hammond’s assumption that war to increase territory and incur high casualties for economic motives is somehow unique to, and restricted to, the ancient world and so needs ‘careful introduction and explanation’. Really? Had she not heard of the Yugoslav wars or the Congo wars, which were ongoing as her book went to press? Or the Second World War, possibly? Korea, Vietnam, Biafra, Afghanistan. The world always has wars. Not understanding them means you don’t understand the world you live in.

In fact Hammond’s statement that the concept of ‘war’ needs explaining is rather patronising, isn’t it? Her attitude bespeaks a certain kind of academic condescension, a voice from the bosom of woke academia telling people who have bought a book about a famous war that she needs to explain what ‘war’ is, and that some readers might find ‘war’ ‘distasteful, even immoral’. Maybe her edition should have warning stickers on the cover: ‘This book about an eight-year-long war may contain scenes of a violent nature’. Just in case the purchaser of a book titled ‘The Gallic War’ hadn’t figured that out for themselves.

In her introduction Hammond covers a lot of material but in a consistently confused way. She tells the story (which I’ve read so many times I am now heartily sick of it) about Publius Clodius Pulcher being found in Caesar’s house dressed as a woman and trying to infiltrate a women-only religious ritual. She refers to it mainly to lead up to Caesar divorcing his wife and making his ‘famous’ declaration that Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion. But she tells the whole thing in such a cack-handed way that I was left dismayed by her inability to tell a simple story.

Hammond refers to key aspects of ancient Rome, such as the consuls, in an oddly throwaway manner as if we all ought to know about this already. Frequently her prose is, well, questionable:

This was the year of the conspiracy of Catiline. It was also the year in which the sacrosanctity of the people’s tribunes was raised once more, this time through the prosecution of an old man called Rabirius, a prosecution behind which Caesar’s hand was detected. (p.xvi)

a) That last phrase doesn’t inspire confidence in her ability to express herself, does it? b) This is all she tells you about both Catiline and Rabirius. I don’t care about Rabirius but if she’s going to mention the Catiline conspiracy, surely it deserves a decent explanation rather than a nine-word sentence. And why does she write the elaborate and clunky phrase ‘the conspiracy of Catiline’ rather than the more smooth and usual ‘the Cataline conspiracy’.

It feels very much like Hammond has a bullet point list of issues to get through but doesn’t have the space to explain any of them properly, instead cramming them into clunky, broken-backed sentences which shake your confidence in her ability to translate anything by anyone into decent English prose.

As happens with many writers, Hammond’s uncertain grasp of English phrasing reflects a clumsiness in conceptualising the ideas she’s trying to express:

In 60 BC Pompey, Crassus and Caesar formed an unofficial pact which came to be known as the ‘first triumvirate’ (on the analogy of the triumvirate of Anthony, Octavian and Lepidus in 43).

I know what she’s trying to say but it’s badly phrased because it’s badly conceived. The first triumvirate wasn’t formed on the analogy of the second triumvirate because the second triumvirate, quite obviously, hadn’t happened yet; it only happened 17 years later. She means something like, ‘this pact is now referred to as the first triumvirate because the same kind of deal was arranged 17 years later between Anthony, Octavian and Lepidus. Historians came to refer to them as, respectively, the first and second triumvirates’. I see what she’s trying to say, but her phrasing literally doesn’t make sense. Again it feels like a) an item on her checklist which she had to cram in but b) didn’t have the space to explain it more clearly and so ends up doing it clumsily.

It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in her ability to understand and translate complex content from the Latin if, when given free rein to express herself in English, she produces such mangled ideas and tangled-up sentences.

Hammond’s account of the politicking around the triumvirate ticks it off her checklist but isn’t as clear as Beard, Holland or Scullard. You need to understand what the first triumvirate was: that Caesar brokered a deal between the rivals Crassus and Pompey whereby Crassus used his money to bribe voters and Pompey used his influence in order to pass laws and get decisions they each wanted:

  • Pompey wanted land and money awarded to his veterans who’d returned from his wars in Asia Minor in 62
  • Caesar wanted to be made governor of Gaul where he scented an opportunity to acquire military glory and, thereby, political power
  • and Crassus wanted to be awarded governorship of Syria, from where he planned to launch a military campaign into Armenia and Parthia which would bring him not only glory but troves of Eastern loot

It was a deal between three uneasy rivals to manipulate political elections behind the scenes using Crassus’s money and to ensure they each got their way. They didn’t abolish the tools of the Roman constitution; they took them over for their own purposes. Many contemporaries (for example, Cicero) and later historians took the signing of this pact in 60 BC as the defining moment when the old forms of Roman politics were eclipsed by the power politics and rule of Strong Men which was, after 30 years of increasing instability and civil war, to lead to the rise of the ultimate strong man, Octavian.

It would have been nice to have learned something about ancient Gaul but instead Hammond wastes the last seven pages of her introduction on another tick box exercise, an examination of Caesar’s posthumous reputation and influence. She produces a huge list of European historians and poets, not to mention later generals or theorists of war, who she claims were influenced in one way or another by the great dictator but rattles through them at such high speed with barely a sentence about each that you learn nothing.

How much does it help you understand Caesar’s Gallic Wars to learn that Dante placed Brutus and Cassius in the deepest pit of hell next to Judas Iscariot? Not a whit. This kind of thing should either be done properly or not at all.

In summary Carolyn Hammond’s introduction so put me off her ability to think, instruct or write plain English that I hesitated to even begin her translation.

On the plus side, the OUP edition has one big map of ancient Gaul and five other maps of regions or specific battles, scattered through the text as needed; a 3-page timeline; a 15-page glossary of names; and 21 pages of notes, three times the number in the Penguin edition.

The Penguin edition (1951)

Unlike the OUP edition, the blurb on the back of the Penguin edition (titled The Conquest of Gaul) offers a crisp, useful summary of the subject:

  • Between 58 and 50 BC Julius Caesar conquered most of modern France, Belgium and Switzerland along with parts of Holland and Germany and invaded Britain, twice.
  • Caesar’s texts are an invaluable source for these events.
  • Caesar’s texts are the only narratives written by any military leader from the ancient world about his own campaigns.
  • Caesar’s writings were not disinterested academic histories but part of Caesar’s ongoing campaign for power, designed to promote his achievements and forward his political career with his peers and the Roman people.

Good. Feels like we are among adults. As to the extras, this edition also has a big map of Gaul, plus one of southern Britain and a useful one of the crucial siege of Alesia. It has a 17-page glossary, 8 pages of notes (far fewer than the OUP), but on the plus side, a useful 3-page appendix on the Roman army of Caesar’s day.

The Penguin translation was made by Stanley Alexander Handford (born in 1898) and first published in 1951. It was revised and given a new introduction by Jane Gardner in 1982. It would be a relief to report that it is a model of lucidity but the introduction, alas, also reveals an odd way with the English language. For example:

Political necessity, rather than military or than his personal irreplaceability in command, required that he continue in post.

That adjective, ‘military’, in normal English would require a noun after it. I fully understand that it refers back to the noun ‘necessity’ and can, after a moment’s confusion, be understood that way. But it would be clearer to use a synonym such as ‘need’ or maybe just write ‘Political rather than military necessity…’ And the second ‘than’? Delete it. And then ‘continue’? I understand that this is a subjunctive following the conditional preposition ‘that’ so that it is technically correct. But it is not, nowadays, standard English. We’d probably just say ‘continued’ or make it crystal clear with ‘should continue’:

Political necessity rather than military need or his personal irreplaceability in command required that he continued in his post.

The point is that all three of these dubious elements reflect Latin rather than modern English usage. Instead of spelling out the precise relationships between parts of speech it leaves some implicit in ways which are technically correct but strongly influenced by the highly inflected nature of Latin in which grammatical relationships are shown by changes within words rather than prepositions or word order.

In fact this make the third book in a row I’ve read (A.J. Woodman’s Sallust, Carolyn Hammond’s Gallic War, S.A. Handford’s Conquest of Gaul) in which the English translators struggled in the introduction to write in plain English – before I’d even started reading the translation. Instead all three betray an addiction to Latinate ways of thinking, Latinate ways of forming sentences, and to odd, unenglish phraseology.

Anyway, Gardner’s introduction (once you acclimatise to her occasional Latinate phraseology) is much better than Hammond’s directionless ramble – it is direct, straightforward, factual and clear. She establishes the basic fact that Caesar spent 9 years away from Rome, campaigning in Gaul.

The Roman constitution

She has a good stab at explaining the complicated Roman constitution. Theoretically, legislative and electoral sovereignty was vested in popular assemblies. In practice the state was dominated by the Senate which consisted of 300 or so men who had held any of the four ‘magistracies’ (aedile, quaestor, praetor, consul) which were elected for one-year posts These posts were arranged in the so-called cursus honorem. There were quite a few other posts such as censor or pontifex maximus, and elections to other priesthoods, such as the College of Augurs. Surprisingly, the Senate could not propose legislation: this was proposed (and vetoed) by the ten or so tribunes of the people elected every year.

Marius

Then Gardner recaps the military and political background to Caesar’s career: Caius Marius saved Rome from invasion by Germanic tribes around 100 BC but at the cost of holding seven successive consulships and developing a close relationship with his army which looked to him to provide money and land for veterans. I.e. he created the template for the Strong General which was to bedevil Roman politics for the next 70 years.

After a decade of political disturbance (the 80s) Lucius Cornelius Sulla seized power (82 to 78 BC) and implemented reforms designed to prevent the rise of another strong man.

Pompey and Crassus

But just eight years later most of Sulla’s reforms had been cancelled, mostly in the people’s enthusiasm to award the boy wonder general Gnaeus Pompeius extraordinary powers to prosecute wars against a) the pirates who bedevilled Rome’s overseas trade (67) and b) against King Mithridates of Pontus who was terrorising Asia Minor (66).

Back in Rome, ambitious young Julius Caesar (born 100 BC) attached himself to the richest man in Rome, Marcus Crassus, and they were both associated with an attempt to set up a hugely powerful land reform commission (ultimately rejected).

Their names were also mentioned in connection with the notorious conspiracy by Lucius Sergius Catilina to overthrow the state (the Cataline conspiracy which Hammond refers to in one half-sentence, quoted above) although nothing, in the end, was conclusively proved.

In 62 Pompey returned from the East and, despite everyone’s fears that he might use his loyal army and widespread popularity to mount a coup in the style of Sulla, he disbanded his army and returned to civilian life. He was unhappy, though, to discover that this weakened his power in the state and that his requests to have land granted to his veterans kept being delayed. Meanwhile Marcus Crassus was having various business ventures blocked. And when Caesar returned in 60 BC from service as governor of Further Spain and wanted to be awarded a triumph, this wish also was blocked by the Senate.

The first triumvirate

So the three men, each in their separate ways stymied by the Establishment, came to a shady, behind-the-scenes agreement to advance each other’s ambitions. Pompey got his land reform, Crassus got his business ventures approved, and Caesar got himself elected consul for 59 BC and secured legislation appointing him governor of Cisalpine Gaul (northern Italy) and Illyricum (the east coast of the Adriatic Sea). He then bribed one of the ten tribunes of the plebs to propose a law giving him governorship of Transalpine Gaul, the Roman province along the south coast of France. Both posts started in 58 BC and were to be held for an unprecedented five years, ending on 1 March 54.

This is where the narrative of the Gallic War commences, with Caesar arriving to take up command of his provinces.

Back in Rome

Gardner doesn’t stop there but goes on to describe the political shenanigans in Rome following Caesar’s departure for Gaul. After just one year his political opponents began lobbying for him to be relieved of his command and return to Rome as governors traditionally ought to. But if he did this, Caesar knew he would almost certainly face prosecution by his political enemies. He continued in his command until 56, when the political crisis intensified.

Luca

So he organised a meeting in the summer of that year in Luca, in north Italy (in his governorship of Cisalpine Gaul), attended by Pompey and Crassus and a third of the Senate, at which they recommitted to their pact. As a result:

  1. Caesar’s rule in Gaul was renewed for a further five years.
  2. Crassus and Pompey arranged for themselves to be elected consults in 55 BC and then…
  3. for Pompey to be awarded governorship of Spain which he would, however, administer in absentia while remaining in Rome,
  4. and for Crassus to be given command of an army to be sent to Parthia out East in 54.

Clodius and Milo

Meanwhile, escalating street violence between political gangs led by Titus Annius Milo and Publius Clodius Pulcher led to a breakdown of public order and in 52 BC the senate appointed Pompey sole consul in order to bring peace to the streets.

Should Caesar give up his command?

Gardner then gives a day by day account of the complicated manoeuvres around attempts by his enemies to get Caesar to relinquish his command and return to Rome a private citizen – and by Caesar and his supporters to try to get him elected as a consul, in his absence. The aim of this was so that Caesar could transition seamlessly from military governor to consul, which would guarantee he’d be exempt from prosecution for his alleged misdemeanours in Gaul.

It was this issue – whether he would lay down his governorship of Gaul and whether he would be allowed to stand for consul in his absence – which led to complex manoeuvring, proposal and counter-proposal in the Senate and the failure of which, finally, convinced Caesar that he would only be safe if he returned to Italy with his army.

Crossing the Rubicon

When he crossed the river Rubicon which divided Cisalpine Gaul (which he legitimately ruled) into Italy (where his presence with an army was illegal and a threat to the state) Caesar triggered the civil war with Pompey who, whatever his personal feelings, now found himself the representative of the Senate and the constitution. But this latter part of the story is dealt with in the book by Caesar now known as The Civil War and so it is here that Gardner ends her summary of events.

Gaul and its inhabitants

As with the Hammond edition, I wondered why Gardner was going into so much detail about events in Rome which we can read about elsewhere, but her summary of Roman politics only takes 6 pages before she goes on to write about the actual Gauls:

Rome already controlled the South of France whose major city was the port of Massilia (modern Marseilles), founded by the Greeks around BC. Over the 9 years of his command Caesar was to extend Roman control to all of France, southern Holland, Belgium, Germany west of the Rhine and most of Switzerland.

Caesar grouped the inhabitants of this huge area into three tribal groupings. This was an over-simplification but modern scholars still debate the complex ethnic, cultural and political relationships between the many tribes he mentions in his account. Ethnic and cultural similarities connected peoples living across a huge area of north-west Europe, from Britain to the borders of modern Turkey, but to the Greeks and Romans they were all ‘Gauls’ or ‘Celts’, terms they used interchangeably.

The whole of northern Europe was characterised be ceaseless migrations which had been going on since at least the 4th century BC, when one tribe penetrated deep enough into Italy to sack Rome in 390 BC, an event which left a lasting stain on the Roman psyche and an enduring paranoia about the ‘Gaulish threat’.

This fear had been revived at the end of the 2nd century, from 110 to 100 BC, when the two tribes of the Cimbri and the Teutoni threatened to invade north Italy. It was in order to defeat these enemies that the general Caius Marius was awarded the consulship for an unprecedented run and whose ultimate defeat of the threat made him a popular hero.

As Caesar took up his command at the start of 58 BC some tribes, the Helvetii and the Suebi, were once again on the move, threatening their neighbours and destabilising the Roman province. This was the justification Caesar used for taking aggressive military action against them.

Gardner’s introduction goes on to describe Gaulish culture, the existence of towns and trade, their fondness for Mediterranean wine (France didn’t yet cultivate grapes), their coins and art, the fact that some tribes had evolved beyond kings to elected magistrates and so on. Doubtless this would be dealt with more thoroughly in a more up-to-date history.

Last point to make is that Caesar consistently denigrates the Gaulish character. According to him the Gauls are impulsive, emotional, easily swayed, love change for its own sake, credulous, prone to panic, scatter brained and so on. Caesar links the Gauls’ instability of character to the instability of their tribal politics, where leaders routinely feud among themselves, assassinate each other and so on. (This often seems a bit rich coming from Caesar who was himself subject of the most famous assassination in history, representing a state which was about to collapse into a succession of civil wars.)

Gardner makes the simple point that what amounts to what we nowadays might call a ‘racist’ stereotyping of an entire people is deployed in an all-too-familiar tactic to justify conquering and ‘liberating’ i.e. subjugating them.

The Gallic Wars is a propaganda document: it is a set of commentaries, one for each of the eight campaigning years Caesar was in Gaul which a) justify his military conquests b) promoted his reputation as a spectacularly successful general. Each of the eight books might as well end with the same sentence: “So that’s why you ought to give me a triumph.”

His comments and reflections on Gaul and the Gauls or individual tribes or leaders sometimes strike the reader as reasonably objective and factual. But the fundamentally polemical, propaganda motive is never absent.

Which edition?

I started off reading the OUP edition because it was new and clean, the maps were embedded where they were needed in the text and Hammond’s translation, as far as I could tell, didn’t show any of the oddities of style all-too-apparent when she tries to write in her own name. About a third of the way in I swapped to the Penguin edition for no reason I can put my finger on except its prose style, and the physical object itself, felt older and cosier.

The decline in academic writing for a general audience

Older academics (from the 1950s and 60s) tended to have a broader range of life experience, vocabulary and phrasing. More recent academics, from the 1980s and 90s onwards, tend to have lived narrower academic lives and their use of English is marred by ideas and terms taken from sociology, critical theory and the inevitable woke obsessions (gender and race) which make their prose narrow, cold and technocratic.

Born in 1934, Gardner writes prose which is clear, factual, to the point and more sympatico than Hammond, born a generation later, whose prose is clunky, cluttered and confused, and whose sensitive virtue signalling (war is ‘distasteful, even immoral’) comes over as patronising.

There’s a study to be done about the decline in academic writing for a wide audience, the decline in academics’ ability to reach out and connect with a broader public. Immediately after the war, Allen Lane’s creation of the cheap paperback Penguin Classics was designed to bring the best literature from round the world, and from all of history, to the widest possible audience, accompanied by introductions by experts designed to widen their appeal.

By the turn of the 21st century many of the introductions to classic literature which I regularly read spend more time scolding the reader (or their authors) for not having the correct attitudes to race and gender which are absolutely required on their campuses and in their faculties, than explaining the world of the author and their text.

It gets boring being told off or patronised all the time. So I preferred the old Penguin edition and Jane Gardner’s intelligent, useful and unpatronising introduction. And she’s funny. Right at the end of her introduction she explains:

The glossary has been completely redone and now contains more than twice as many items as the original. There are a few additional notes and also a few changes to some of Handford’s more tendentious judgements. The editor has also seized the opportunity, in writing a new introduction, of being tendentious herself. (page 26)

🙂


Related link

Roman reviews

The way things are by Lucretius translated by Rolfe Humphries (1969)

I try to learn about the way things are
And set my findings down in Latin verse.

(Book IV, lines 968 and 969)

This is a hugely enjoyable translation of Lucretius’s epic poem De rerum natura which literally translates as ‘On the nature of things’. Fluent, full of force and vigour, it captures not only the argumentative, didactic nature of the poem but dresses it in consistently fine phrasing. It has an attractive variety of tones, from the lofty and heroic to the accessible and demotic, sometimes sounding like Milton:

Time brings everything
Little by little to the shores of light
By grace of art and reason, till we see
All things illuminate each other’s rise
Up to the pinnacles of loftiness.

(Book V, final lines, 1,453 to 1,457)

Sometimes technocratic and scientific:

We had better have some principle
In our discussion of celestial ways,
Under what system both the sun and moon
Wheel in their courses, and what impulse moves
Events on earth.

(Book I lines 130 to 135)

Sometimes like the guy sitting next to you at the bar:

I keep you waiting with my promises;
We’d best be getting on.

(Book V, lines 95 and 96)

Sometimes slipping in slangy phrases for the hell of it:

What once was too-much-feared becomes in time
The what-we-love-to-stomp-on.

(Book V, lines 1,140 and 1,141)

Titus Lucretius Carus

Lucretius was a Roman poet and philosopher who lived from about 99 to about 55 BC. Not much is known about him. His only known work is the philosophical poem De rerum natura, a didactic epic poem of some 7,500 lines, written entirely to promote the abstract philosophy of Epicureanism. No heroes, no gods, no battles, no epic speeches. Just 7,500 lines comprehensively describing Epicurus’s atomic materialism and his ‘scientific’, rationalist worldview.

The title is usually translated into English as On the Nature of Things. It is a mark of Rolfe Humphries’ attractive contrariness that he drops the almost universally used English title in favour of the slightly more confrontational and all-encompassing The ways things are. He himself in his preface describes this title as ‘simple, forthright, insistent, peremptory’. Peremptory. Nice word. Like so much else in his translation, it feels instantly right.

The various modern translations

In the past few months I’ve had bad experiences with both Oxford University Press and Penguin translations of Latin classics. I thought the Penguin translation of Sallust by A.J. Woodman was clotted, eccentric and misleading. But I also disliked the OUP translation of Caesar’s Gallic Wars by Carolyn Hammond, which I bought brand new but disliked her way with English in just the introduction before I’d even begun the text, so that I ended up abandoning her for the more fluent 1951 Penguin translation by S.A Handford (which also features a useful introduction by Jane Gardner, who comes over as intelligent and witty in a way Hammond simply isn’t).

Shopping around for an English translation of Lucretius, I was not impressed by the snippets of either the Penguin or OUP translations which are available on Amazon. It was only when I went further down the list and read the paragraph or so of Rolfe Humphries’ translation which is quoted in the sales blurb that I was immediately gripped and persuaded to cough up a tenner to buy it on the spot.

I knew an OUP edition would be festooned with notes, many of which would be insultingly obvious (Rome is the capital city of Italy, Julius Caesar was the great Roman general who blah blah blah). Humphries’ edition certainly has notes but only 18 pages of them tucked right at the very back of the text (there’s no list of names or index). And there’s no indication of them in the actual body text, no asterisks or superscript numbers to distract the reader, to make you continually stop and turn to the end notes section.

Instead the minimal annotation is part of Humphries’ strategy to hit you right between the eyes straightaway with the power and soaring eloquence of this epic poem, to present it as one continuous and overwhelming reading experience, without footling distractions and interruptions. Good call, very good call.

[Most epics are about heroes, myths and legends, from Homer and Virgil through Beowulf and Paradise Lost. Insofar as it is about the nature of the universe i.e. sees things on a vast scale, The way things are is comparable in scope and rhetoric with Paradise Lost and frequently reaches for a similar lofty tone, but unlike all those other epic poems it doesn’t have heroes and villains, gods and demons, in fact it has no human protagonists at all. In his introduction, Burton Feldman suggests the only protagonist is intelligence, the mind of man in quest of reality, seeking a detached lucid contemplation of the ways things are. On reflection I think that’s wrong. This description is more appropriate for Wordsworth’s epic poem on the growth and development of the poet’s mind, The Prelude. There’s a stronger case for arguing that the ‘hero’ of the poem is Epicurus, subject of no fewer than three sutained passages of inflated praise. But ultimately surely the protagonist of The way things are is the universe itself, or Lucretius’s materialistic conception of it. The ‘hero’ is the extraordinary world around us which he seeks to explain in solely rationalist, materialist way.]

Epicurus’s message of reassurance

It was a grind reading Cicero’s On the nature of the gods but one thing came over very clearly (mainly from the long, excellent introduction by J.M. Ross). That Epicurus’s philosophy was designed to allay anxiety and fear.

Epicurus identified two causes of stress and anxiety in human beings: fear of death and fear of the gods (meaning their irrational, unpredictable interventions in human lives so). So Epicurus devised a system of belief based on ‘atomic materialism’, on a view of the universe as consisting of an infinite number of atoms continually combining in orderly and predictable ways according to immutable laws, designed to banish those fears and anxieties forever.

If men could see this clearly, follow it
With proper reasoning, their minds would be
Free of great agony and fear

(Book III, lines 907-909)

Irrelevant though a 2,000 year old pseudo-scientific theory may initially sound, it has massive consequences and most of the poem is devoted to explaining Epicurus’s materialistic atomism (or atomistic materialism) and its implications.

Epicurus’s atomic theory

The central premise of Epicureanism is its atomic theory, which consists of two parts:

  1. Nothing comes of nothing.
  2. Nothing can be reduced to nothing.

The basic building blocks of nature are constant in quantity, uncreated and indestructible, for all intents and purposes, eternal. Therefore, everything in nature is generated from these elementary building blocks through natural processes, is generated, grows, thrives, decays, dies and decomposes into its constituent elements. But the sum total of matter in the universe remains fixed and unalterable.

Once we have seen that Nothing comes of nothing,
We shall perceive with greater clarity
What we are looking for, whence each thing comes,
How things are caused, and no ‘gods’ will’ about it!

It may sound trivial or peripheral, but what follows from this premise is that nature is filled from top to bottom with order and predictability. There cannot be wonders, freak incidents, arbitrary acts of god and so on. The unpredictable intervention of gods is abolished and replaced by a vision of a calm, ordered world acting according to natural laws and so – There is no need for stress and anxiety.

Because if no new matter can be created, if the universe is made of atoms combining into larger entities based on fixed and predictable laws, then two things follow.

Number One, There are no gods and they certainly do not suddenly interfere with human activities. In other words, nobody should be afraid of the wrath or revenge of the gods because in Epicurus’s mechanistic universe such a thing is nonsensical.

Holding this knowledge, you can’t help but see
That nature has no tyrants over her,
But always acts of her own will; she has
No part of any godhead whatsoever.

(Book II, lines 1,192 to 1,195)

And the second consequence is a purely mechanistic explanation of death. When we, or any living thing, dies, its body decomposes back into its constituent atoms. There is no state of death, there is no soul or spirit, and so there is no afterlife in which humans will be punished or rewarded. We will not experience death, because all the functioning of our bodies, including perception and thought, will all be over, with no spirit or soul lingering on.

Therefore: no need for ‘the silly, vain, ridiculous fear of gods’ (III, 982), no need to fear death, no need to fear punishment in some afterlife. Instead, we must live by the light of the mind and rational knowledge.

Our terrors and our darknesses of mind
Must be dispelled, not by the sunshine’s rays,
Not by those shining arrows of the light,
But by insight into nature, and a scheme
Of systematic contemplation.

(Book I, lines 146 to 150)

Interestingly Lucretius likes this phrase so much that he repeats it verbatim at Book II, lines 57 to 61, at Book III, lines 118 to 112, and Book VI, lines 42 to 45. Like all good teachers he knows the essence of education is repetition.

Epicurus the god

The radicalness of this anti-religious materialist philosophy explains why, early in Book I, Lucretius praises Epicurus extravagantly. He lauds him as the man whose imagination ranged the lengths of the universe, penetrated into the secrets of its origin and nature, and returned to free the human race from bondage. One man alone, Epicurus, set us free by enquiring more deeply into the nature of things than any man before him and so springing ‘the tight-barred gates of Nature’s hold asunder’.

Epicureanism is as much as ‘religious’ experience as a rational philosophy and Lucretius’s references to Epicurus in the poem could almost be hymns to Christ from a Christian epic. They are full of more than awe, of reverence and almost worship. (Book I 66ff, Book II, Book III 1042, opening of Book V).

He was a god, a god indeed, who first
Found a new life-scheme, a system, a design
Now known as Wisdom or Philosophy…

He seems to us, by absolute right, a god
From whom, distributed through all the world,
Come those dear consolations of the mind,
That precious balm of spirit.

(Book V, lines 11 to 13 and 25 to 28)

Lucretius’s idolisation of Epicurus just about stops short of actual worship because Religion is the enemy. Organised religion is what keeps people in fear of the gods and makes their lives a misery. Epicurus’s aim was to liberate mankind from the oppression and wickedness into which Religious belief, superstition and fanatacism all too often lead it.

Religion the enemy of freedom

Lucretius loathes and detests organised Religion. It oppresses everyone, imposing ludicrous fictions and superstitions about divine intervention and divine punishment. Nonsense designed to oppress and quell the population.

I teach great things.
I try to loose men’s spirits from the ties,
Tight knotted, which religion binds around them.

(Book I, lines 930 to 932)

As a vivid example of the way Religion always stands with evil he gives the story of Agamemnon being told by soothsayers to sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigeneia, to appease the gods, to calm the seas, so that the fleet of 1,000 Greek ships can sail from Greece to Troy. Could you conceive a worse example of the wicked behaviour religious belief can lead people into.

Too many times
Religion mothers crime and wickedness…
A mighty counsellor, Religion stood
With all that power for wickedness.

(Book I, lines 83 to 84 and 99 to 100)

Epicureanism and Stoicism in their social context

I need your full attention. Listen well!

(Book VI, line 916)

The notes to the book were written by Professor George Strodach. Like the notes in H.H. Scullard’s classic history of Republican Rome, Strodach’s notes are not the frequent little factoids you so often find in Penguin or OUP editions (Democritus was born in Thrace around 460 BC etc), but fewer in number and longer, amounting to interesting essays in their own right.

Among several really interesting points, he tells us that after Alexander the Great conquered the Greek city states in the late 4th century (320s BC) many of those city states decayed in power and influence and their citizens felt deprived of the civic framework which previously gave their lives meaning. To fill this void there arose two competing ‘salvation ideologies, Stoicism and Epicureanism. Each offered their devotees a meaningful way of life plus a rational and fully worked out account of the world as a whole. In both cases the worldview is the groundwork for ‘the therapy of dislocated and unhappy souls’. In each, the sick soul of the initiate must first of all learn the nature of reality before it can take steps towards leading the good life.

Lucretius’ long poem is by way of leading the novice step by step deeper into a worldview which, once adopted, is designed to help him or her conquer anxiety and achieve peace of mind by abandoning the chains of superstitious religious belief and coming to a full and complete understanding of the scientific, materialistic view of the way things are.

There’s no good life
No blessedness, without a mind made clear,
A spirit purged of error.

(Book V, lines 23 to 25)

Very didactic

Hence the poem’s extreme didacticism. It is not so much a long lecture (thought it often sounds like it) as a prolonged initiation into the worldview of the cult of Epicurus, addressed to one person, Lucretius’s sponsor Gaius Memmius, but designed to be used by anyone who can read.

Pay attention!…
Just remember this…

(Book II, lines 66 and 90)

Hence the didactic lecturing tone throughout, which tells the reader to listen up, pay attention, focus, remember what he said earlier, lays out a lesson plan, and then proceeds systematically from point to point.

I shall begin
With a discussion of the scheme of things
As it regards the heaven and powers above,
Then I shall state the origin of things,
The seeds from which nature creates all things,
Bids them increase and multiply; in turn,
How she resolves them to their elements
After their course is run.

(Book I, lines 54 to 57)

The poem is littered with reminders that it is one long argument, that Lucretius is making a case. He repeatedly tells Memmius to pay attention, to follow the thread of his argument, not to get distracted by common fears or misapprehensions, and takes time to rubbish the theories of rivals.

Now pay heed! I have more to say…

(Book III, line 136)

The poem amounts to a very long lecture.

If you know this,
It only takes a very little trouble
To learn the rest: the lessons, one by one,
Brighten each other, no dark night will keep you,
Pathless, astray, from ultimate vision and light,
All things illumined in each other’s radiance.

And it’s quite funny, the (fairly regular) moments when he insists that he’s told us the same thing over and over again, like a schoolteacher starting to be irritated by his pupils’ obtuseness:

  • I have said this many, many times already
  • I am almost tired of saying (III, 692)
  • as I have told you all too many times (IV, 673)
  • Be attentive now. (IV, 878)
  • I have said this over and over, many times. (IV, 1,210)
  • This I’ve said before (VI, 175)
  • Don’t be impatient. Listen! (VI, 244)
  • Remember/Never forget this! (VI, 653 to 654)
  • As I have said before… (VI, 770)
  • Once again/I hammer home this axiom… (VI, 938)

The good life

Contrary to popular belief the Epicureans did not promote a hedonistic life of pleasure. Their aim was negative: the good life is one which is, as far as possible, free from bodily pains and mental anxiety. They deprecated the competitive and acquisitive values so prevalent in first century BC Roman society:

The strife of wits, the wars for precedence,
The everlasting struggle, night and day
To win towards heights of wealth and power.

(Book II, lines 13 to 15)

What vanity!
To struggle towards the top, toward honour’s height
They made the way a foul and deadly road,
And when they reached the summit, down they came
Like thunderbolts, for Envy strikes men down
Like thunderbolts, into most loathsome Hell…
…let others sweat themselves
Into exhaustion, jamming that defile
They call ambition…

(Book V, lines 1,124 to 1,130 and 1,134 to 1,136)

Instead the Epicureans promoted withdrawal from all that and the spousal of extreme simplicity of living.

Whereas, if man would regulate his life
With proper wisdom, he would know that wealth,
The greatest wealth, is living modestly,
Serene, content with little.

(Book V, lines 1,117 to 1,120)

This much I think I can, and do, assert:
That our perverse vestigial native ways
Are small enough for reason to dispel
So that it lies within our power to live
Lives worthy of the gods.

This kind of life is challenging to achieve by yourself which is why the Epicureans were noted for setting up small communities of shared values. (See what I mean by the disarmingly open but powerful eloquence of Humphries’ style.)

If man would regulate his life
With proper wisdom, he would know that wealth,
The greatest wealth, is living modestly,
Serene, content with little.

(Book V, 1,118 to 1,121)

Shortcomings of Latin

Lucretius repeatedly points out that it is difficult to write about philosophy in Latin because it doesn’t have the words, the terminology or the traditions which have developed them, unlike the Greeks.

I know
New terms must be invented, since our tongue
Is poor and this material is new.

The poverty of our speech, our native tongue,
Makes it hard for me to say exactly how
These basic elements mingle…

(Book III, lines 293-295)

Interesting because this is the exact same point Cicero makes in the De rerum deorum. Cicero, in his books and letters made clear that his philosophical works as a whole have the aim of importing the best Greek thinking into Latin and, as part of the process, creating new Latin words or adapting old ones to translate the sophisticated philosophical terminology which the Greeks had spent centuries developing.

The really miraculous thing is that Humphries captures all this, or has written an English poem which is actually worth reading as poetry. ‘I

for your sake, Memmius,
Have wanted to explain the way things are
Turning the taste of honey into sound
As musical, as golden, so that I
May hold your mind with poetry, while you
Are learning all about that form, that pattern,
And see its usefulness.

(Book IV, lines 19 to 25)

Synopis

Book 1 (1,117 lines)

– Introduction

– hymn to Venus, metaphorical symbol of the creative urge in all life forms

– address to the poet’s patron, Memmius

– the two basic postulates of atomism, namely: nothing comes of nothing and the basic building blocks of the universe, atoms, cannot be destroyed

– the importance of void or space between atoms which allows movement

– everything else, all human history, even time itself, are by-products or accidents of the basic interplay of atoms and void

– on the characteristics of atoms

– a refutation of rival theories, of Heraclitus (all things are made of fire), Empedocles (set no limit to the smallness of things), the Stoics (who believe everything is made up of mixtures of the 4 elements) and Anaxagoras (who believed everything was made up of miniature versions of itself) – all comprehensively rubbished

– the infinity of matter and space

Book 2 (1,174 lines)

– the good life is living free from care, fear or anxiety

– varieties of atomic motion namely endless falling through infinite space; atoms travel faster than light

– the atomic swerve and its consequences i.e. it is a slight swerve in the endless downward fall of atoms through infinite space which begins the process of clustering and accumulation which leads to matter which leads, eventually, to the universe we see around us

– how free will is the result of a similar kind of ‘swerve’ in our mechanistic lives

– the conservation of energy

– the variety of atomic shapes and the effects of these on sensation

– atoms themselves have no secondary qualities such as colour, temperature and so on

– there is an infinite number of worlds, all formed purely mechanically i.e. no divine intervention required

– there are gods, as there are men, but they are serenely indifferent to us and our lives: in Epicurus’s worldview, the so-called gods are really just moral exemplars of lives lived with complete detachment, calm and peace (what the Greeks called ataraxia)

to think that gods
Have organised all things for the sake of men
Is nothing but a lot of foolishness. (II, 14-176)

– all things decay and our times are degraded since the golden age (‘The past was better, infinitely so’)

That all things, little by little, waste away
As time’s erosion crumbles them to doom.

Book III (1,094 lines)

– Epicurus as therapist of the soul – this passage, along with other hymns of praise to the great man scattered through the poem, make it clear that Epicurus was more than a philosopher but the founder of a cult whose devotees exalted him

– the fear of hell as the root cause of all human vices

– the material nature of mind and soul – their interaction and relation to the body – spirit is made of atoms like everything else, but much smaller than ‘body atoms’, and rarer, and finely intricated

– rebuttal of Democritus’s theory of how atoms of body and spirit interact (he thought they formed a chains of alternating body and spirit atoms)

– descriptions of bodily ailments (such as epilepsy) and mental ailments( such as fear or depression) as both showing the intimate link between body and spirit

– an extended passage arguing why the spirit or soul is intimately linked with the body so that when one dies, the other dies with it

– the soul is not immortal – therefore there is no ‘transmigration of souls’; a soul which was in someone else for their lifetime does not leave their body upon their death and enter that of the nearest newly-conceived foetus – he ridicules this belief by envisioning the souls waiting in a queue hovering around an egg about to be impregnated by a sperm and all vying to be the soul that enters the new life

– the soul is not immortal – being made of atoms it disintegrates like the body from the moment of death (in lines 417 to 820 Lucretius states no fewer than 26 proofs of the mortality of the soul: Strodach groups them into 1. proofs from the material make-up of the soul; proofs from diseases and their cures; 3. proofs from the parallelism of body and soul; 4. proofs from the various logical absurdities inherent in believing the soul could exist independently of the body)

– therefore, Death is nothing to us

– vivid descriptions of types of people and social situations (at funerals, at banquets) at which people’s wrong understanding of the way things are makes them miserable

Book IV (1,287 lines)

– the poet’s task is to teach

Because I teach great things, because I strive
To free the spirit, give the mind release
From the constrictions of religious fear…

(Book IV, lines 8 to 10)

– atomic images or films: these are like an invisible skin or film shed from the surfaces of all objects, very fine, passing through the air, through glass – this is his explanation of how sight and smell work, our senses detect these microscopic films of things which are passing through the air all around us

– all our sensations are caused by these atomic images

all knowledge is based on the senses; rejecting the evidence of the senses in favour of ideas and theories leads to nonsense, ‘a road to ruin’. Strodach calls this ‘extreme empiricism’ and contrast it with the two other ancient philosophies, Platonism which rejected the fragile knowledge of the senses and erected knowledge on the basis of maths and logic; and Scepticism, which said both mind and body can be wrong, so we have to go on probabilities and experience

– his explanations of sight, hearing and taste are colourful, imaginative, full of interesting examples, and completely wrong

– how we think, based on the theory of ‘images’ derived by the impression of atomic ‘skins’ through our senses; it seems wildly wrong, giving the impression that ‘thought’ is the almost accidental combination of these atomistic images in among the finer textured atoms of the mind

– a review of related topics of human experience, including movement, sleep and dreams, the latter produced when fragments of atomistic images are assembled by the perceiving mind when it is asleep, passive and undirected

– an extended passage ridiculing romantic love which moves on to theory about sex and reproduction, namely that the next generation are a mix of material from each parent, with a load of old wives’ tales about which position to adopt to get pregnant, and the sex or characteristics of offspring derive from the vigour and other characteristics of the parents. Lucretius tries to give a scientific explanation of the many aspects of sex and reproduction which, since he lacked all science, come over as folk myths. But he is a card carrying Epicurean and believes the whole point of life is to avoid anxiety, stress and discombobulation and so, logically enough, despises and ridicules sex and love.

Book V (1,457 lines)

– Epicurus as revealer of philosophical wisdom and healer

– the world is mortal, its origin is mechanical not divine

– astronomical questions

– the origin of vegetable, animal and human life

– an extended passage describing the rise of man from lying under bushes in a state of nature through the creation of tribes, then cities – the origin of civilisation, including the invention of kings and hierarchies, the discovery of fire, how to use metals and weave clothes, the invention of language and law and, alas, the development of Religion to awe and terrify ourselves with

This book is the longest and also the weakest, in that Lucretius reveals his woeful ignorance about a whole raft of scientific issues. He thinks the earth is at the centre of the universe and the moon, sun, planets and stars all circle round it. He thinks the earth is a flat surface and the moon and the sun disappear underneath it. He thinks the sun, moon and stars are moved by the wind. He thinks all animals and other life forms were given birth by the earth, and that maggots and worms are generated from soil. In her early days the earth gave birth to all kinds of life forms but this no longer happens because she is tired out. Lucretius is anti-evolutionary in the way he thinks animals and plants and man came into being with abilities fully formed (the eye, nose, hand) and only then found uses for them, rather than the modern view that even slight, rudimentary fingers, hands, sense of smell, taste, sight, would convey evolutionary advantage on their possessors which tend to encourage their development over successive generations.

I appreciate that Lucretius was trying his best to give an objective, rational and unsupernatural account of all aspects of reality. I understand that although his account of the origins of lightning and thunder may be wildly incorrect (clouds contain particles of fire) his aim was worthy and forward looking – to substitute a rational materialistic account for the absurdly anthropocentric, superstitious, god-fearing superstitions of his day, by which people thought lightning and thunder betokened the anger of the gods. He had very good intentions.

But these good intentions don’t stop the majority of his account from being ignorant tripe. Well intention and asking the right questions (what causes rain, what causes thunder, what is lightning, what is magnetism) and trying hard to devise rational answers to them. But wrong about almost everything.

Reading it makes you realise what enormous events the invention of the telescope and the microscope were, both around 1600, Galileo’s proof that the earth orbits round the sun a decade later, the discovery of the circulation of the blood in the 1620s, Newton’s theory of gravity in the 1680s, the discovery of electricity around 1800, the theory of evolution in the 1850s, the germ theory of the 1880s and, well, all of modern science.

Reading Lucretius, like reading all the ancients and medieval authors, is to engage with intelligent, learned, observant and sensitive people who knew absolutely nothing about how the world works, what causes natural phenomena, how living organisms came about and evolved, next to nothing about astronomy, geography, geology, biology, physics, chemistry or any of the natural sciences. Their appeal is their eloquence, the beauty of their language and the beguilingness of their fairy tales.

And of course, the scientific worldview is always provisional. It may turn out that everything we believe is wrong and about to be turned upside down by new discoveries and paradigm shifts., It’s happened before.

Book VI (1,286 lines)

– another hymn to Epicurus and his godlike wisdom

…he cleansed
Our hearts by words of truth; he put an end
To greed and fears; he showed the highest good
Toward which we all are aiming, showed the way…

(Book VI, lines 22 to 25)

– meteorology: thunder, lightning because the clouds contain gold and seeds of fire, waterspouts

– geological phenomena: earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, clouds, rain, why the sea never overflows considering all the rivers running into it, the inundation of the Nile

– why noxious things oppress humanity; pigs hate perfume but love mud!

– four pages about magnetism, noticing and describing many aspects of it but completely wrong about what it is and how it works

– disease, plague and pestilence, which he thinks derive from motes and mist which is in the right ballpark

The odd thing about the entire poem is that it leads up, not to an inspiring vision of the Good Life lived free of anxiety in some ideal Epicurean community, but to a sustained and harrowing description of the great plague which devastated Athens during the second year of the Peloponnesian War (430 BC). For four pages the poet lays on detail after detail of the great plague, the symptoms, the horrible suffering and death, its spread, social breakdown, streets full of rotting corpses. And then – it just ends. Stops. Not quite in mid-sentence, but certainly in mid-flow.

The abruptness of this unexpected ending has led many commentators to speculate that Lucretius intended to write a seventh book, which would have been devoted to religion, theology, ethics and led up to the hymn to the Good Life everyone was expecting. I agree. Throughout the poem he is chatty, badgering the reader, telling us he’s embarking on a new subject, repeating things he’s said before, haranguing and nagging us. For the text to just end in the middle of describing men fighting over whose family members will be burned on funeral pyres is macabre and weird. Here are the very last lines:

Everyone in grief
Buried his own whatever way he could
Amid the general panic. Sudden need
And poverty persuaded men to use
Horrible makeshifts; howling, they would place
Their dead on pyres prepared for other men’
Apply the torches, maim and bleed and brawl
To keep the corpses from abandonment.

(Book VI, lines 1,279 to 1,286)

It must be unfinished.

Thoughts

1. The philosophy

I’m very attracted by Epicurus’s thought, as propounded here and in Cicero’s De natura deorum. After a long and sometimes troubled life I very much want to achieve a state of ataraxia i.e. freedom from mental disturbances. However, there seems to me a very big flaw at the heart of Epicureanism. One of the two cardinal fears addressed is fear of the gods, in the sense of fear of their arbitrary intervention in our lives unless we endlessly propitiate these angry entities with sacrifices and processions and whatnot. This fear of punishment and retribution is said to be one of the principle sources of anxiety in people.

Except that this isn’t really true. I live in a society, England, which in 2022 is predominantly godless. Real believers in actual gods are in a distinct minority. And yet mental illnesses, including depression and ‘generalised anxiety disorder’, are more prevalent than ever before, afflicting up to a quarter of the population annually.

It felt to me throughout the poem that accusing religious belief in gods as the principle or sole cause of anxiety and unhappiness is so wide of the mark as to make it useless. Even in a godless world, all humans are still susceptible to utterly random accidents, to a whole range of unfortunate blows, from being diagnosed with cancer to getting hit by a bus, losing your job, losing your house, losing your partner. We are vulnerable to thousands of incidents and accidents which could affect us very adversely and it is not at all irrational to be aware of them, and it is very hard indeed not to worry about them, particularly if you actually do lose your job, your house, your partner, your children, your parents etc.

The idea that human beings waste a lot of time in fear and anxiety and stress and worry is spot on. So the notion that removing this fear and anxiety and stress and worry would be a good thing is laudable. And Epicurus’s argument against the fear of death (death is the end of mind and body both; therefore it is pointless worrying about it because you won’t feel it; it is less than nothing) is still relevant, powerful and potentially helpful.

But the idea that you can alleviate anxiety do that by disproving the existence of ‘gods’ is, alas, completely irrelevant to the real causes of the problem, which have endured long after any ‘fear of the gods’ has evaporated and so is of no practical help at all. All Epicurus and Lucretius’s arguments in this area, fluent and enjoyable though they are, are of purely academic or historical interest. Sadly.

2. The poem

Cicero’s De rerum natura was a hard read because of the unrelentingness of the arguments, many of which seemed really stupid or petty. The way things are, on the contrary, is an amazingly enjoyable read because of the rhythm and pacing and phrasing of the poem.

Lucretius is just as argumentative as Cicero i.e. the poem is packed with arguments following pell mell one after the other (‘Moreover…one more point…furthermore…In addition…’) but this alternates with, or is embedded in, descriptions of human nature, of the world and people around us, and of the make-up of the universe, which are both attractive and interesting in themselves, and also provide a sense of rhythm, changes of subject and pace, to the poem.

Amazingly, although the subject matter is pretty mono-minded and Lucretius is banging on and on about essentially the same thing, the poem itself manages never to be monotonous. I kept reading and rereading entire pages just for the pleasure of the words and phrasing. This is one of the, if not the, most enjoyable classical text I’ve read. And a huge part of that is, I think, down to Humphries’s adeptness as a poet.

Comparison with the Penguin edition

As it happened, just after I finished reading the Humphries translation I came across the 2007 Penguin edition of the poem in a local charity shop and snapped it up for £2. It’s titled The Nature of Things and contains a translation by A.E. Stallings with an introduction and notes by Richard Jenkyns.

Textual apparatus

As you’d expect from Penguin, it’s a much more traditional layout, including not only the translation but an introduction, further reading, an explanation of the style and metre of the translation, 22 pages of factual notes at the end (exactly the kind of fussy, mostly distracting notes the Humphries edition avoids), and a glossary of names.

In addition it has two useful features: the text includes line numberings, given next to every tenth line. It’s a feature of the Humphries version that it’s kept as plain and stripped down as possible with no indication of lines except at the top of the page, so if you want to know which line you’re looking at you have to manually count from the top line downwards. Trivial but irritating.

The other handy thing about the Penguin edition is it gives each of the books a title, absent in the original and Humphries. Again, no biggy, but useful.

  • Book I – Matter and Void
  • Book II – The Dance of Atoms
  • Book III – Mortality and the Soul
  • Book IV – The Senses
  • Book V – Cosmos and Civilisation
  • Book VI – Weather and the Earth

New things I learned from Richard Jenkyns’ introduction were:

Epicurus’s own writings are austere and he was said to disapprove of poetry. Lucretius’s achievement, and what makes his poem so great, was the tremendous depth of lyric feeling he brought to the, potentially very dry, subject matter. He doesn’t just report Epicurus’s philosophy, he infuses it with passion, conviction and new levels of meaning.

This, for Jenkyns, explains a paradox which has bugged scholars, namely why a poem expounding a philosophy which is fiercely anti-religion, opens with a big Hymn to Venus. It’s because Venus is a metaphor for the underlying unity of everything which is implicit in Epicurus’s teaching that there is no spirit, no soul, nothing but atoms in various combinations and this means we are all united in the bounty of nature.

The opponents of Epicureanism commonly treated it as a dull, drab creed; Lucretius’ assertion is that, rightly apprehended, it is beautiful, majestic and inspiring. (p.xviii)

Lucretius’s was very influential on the leading poet of the next generation, Virgil, who assimilated his soaring tone.

The passages praising Epicurus are strategically place throughout the poem, much as invocations of the muses open key books in the traditional classical epic.

Jenkyns points out that Lucretius’s tone varies quite a bit, notable for much soaring rhetoric but also including invective and diatribe, knockabout abuse of rival philosophers, sometimes robustly humorous, sometimes sweetly domestic, sometimes focusing on random observations about everyday life, then soaring into speculation about the stars and the planets. But everything is driven by and reverts to, a tone of impassioned communication. He has seen the light and he is desperate to share it with everyone. It is an evangelical poem.

Stalling’s translation

Quite separate from Jenkyns’s introduction, Stalling gives a 5-page explanation of the thinking behind her translation. The obvious and overwhelming differences are that her version rhymes, and is in very long lines which she calls fourteeners. To be precise she decided to translate Lucretius’s Latin dactylic hexameters into English rhyming heptameters, where heptameter means a line having seven ‘feet’ or beats. What does that mean in practice? Well, count the number of beats in each of these lines. The first line is tricky so I’ve bolded the syllables I think need emphasising:

Life-stirring Venus, Mother of Aeneas and of Rome,
Pleasure of men and gods, you make all things beneath the dome
Of sliding constellations teem, you throng the fruited earth
And the ship-freighted sea – for every species comes to birth
Conceived through you, and rises forth and gazes on the light.
The winds flee from you, Goddess, your arrival puts to flight
The clouds of heaven. For you, the crafty earth contrives sweet flowers,
For you, the oceans laugh, the sky grows peaceful after showers…

(Book I, lines 1 to 8)

Stalling concedes that the standard form for translating foreign poetry is probably loose unrhymed pentameters, with five beats per line – exactly the metre Humphries uses:

Creatress, mother of the Roman line,
Dear Venus, joy of earth and joy of heaven,
All things that live below that heraldry
Of star and planet, whose processional
Moves ever slow and solemn over us,
All things conceived, all things that face the light
In their bright visit, the grain-bearing fields,
The marinered ocean, where the wind and cloud
Are quiet in your presence – all proclaim
Your gift, without which they are nothingness.

Clearly Humphries’ unrhymed pentameters have a much more light and airy feel. They also allow for snazzy phrasing – I like ‘marinered ocean’, a bit contrived, but still stylish. Or take Humphries’ opening of Book III:

O glory of the Greeks, the first to raise
The shining light out of tremendous dark
Illumining the blessings of our life
You are the one I follow. In your steps
I tread, not as a rival, but for love
Of your example. Does the swallow vie
With swans? Do wobbly-legged little goats
Compete in strength and speed with thoroughbreds?

Now Stalling:

You, who first amidst such thick gloom could raise up so bright
A lantern, bringing everything that’s good in life to light,
You I follow, Glory of the Greeks, and place my feet,
Within your footsteps. Not because I would compete
With you, but for the sake of love, because I long to follow
And long to emulate you. After all, why would a swallow
Strive with swans? How can a kid with legs that wobble catch
Up with the gallop of a horse? – the race would be no match.

Stalling makes the point that the heptameter has, since the early Renaissance, been associated with ballads and with narrative and so is suited to a long didactic poem. Arthur Golding used it in his 1567 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and George Chapman in his 1611 translation of the Iliad. Stalling hopes the ‘old fashioned rhythm and ring’ of her fourteeners will, implicitly, convey ‘something of the archaic flavour of Lucretius’s Latin’ (p.xxvi).

OK, let’s look at the little passage which I noticed crops up no fewer than four times in the poem. Here’s Stalling’s version:

This dread, these shadows of the mind, must thus be swept away
Not by rays of the sun or by the brilliant beams of day,
But by observing Nature and her laws. And this will lay
The warp out for us – her first principle: that nothing’s brought
Forth by any supernatural power out of naught
.

(Book I, lines 146 to 153)

That use of ‘naught’ transports us back to the 1850s and Tennyson. It is consciously backward looking, in sound and meaning and connotation. I can see why: she’s following through on her stated aim of conveying the original archaism of the poem. But, on the whole, I just don’t like the effect. I prefer Humphries’ more modern-sounding diction.

Also, despite having much longer lines to play with, something about the rhythm and the requirement to rhyme each line paradoxically end up cramping Stalling’s ability to express things clearly and simply. Compare Humphries’ version of these same lines:

Our terrors and our darknesses of mind
Must be dispelled, not by the sunshine’s rays,
Not by those shining arrows of the light,
But by insight into nature, and a scheme
Of systematic contemplation. So
Our starting point shall be this principle:
Nothing at all is ever born from nothing
By the gods’ will
.

‘Insight into nature’ and ‘systematic contemplation’ are so much more emphatic and precise than ‘by observing Nature and her laws’ which is bland, clichéd and flabby.

Humphries’ ‘Our starting point shall be this principle’ is a little stagey and rhetorical but has the advantage of being crystal clear. Whereas Stalling’s ‘And this will lay/The warp out for us – her first principle…’ is cramped and confusing. Distracted by the odd word ‘warp’, trying to visualise what it means in this context, means I miss the impact of this key element of Lucretius’s message.

In her translator’s note Stalling refers to earlier translations and has this to say about Humphries:

Rolfe Humphries’ brisk, blank verse translation The way things are (1969) often spurred me to greater vigour and concision. (p.xxviii)

Precisely. I think the Stalling is very capable, and it should be emphasised that the fourteeners really do bed down when you take them over the long haul. If you read just a few lines of this style it seems silly and old fashioned, but if you read a full page it makes sense and after several pages you really get into the swing. It is a good meter for rattling through an extended narrative.

But still. I’m glad I read the poem in the Humphries’ version. To use Stalling’s own phrase, it has ‘greater vigour and concision’. Humphries much more vividly conveys Lucretius’s urgency of tone, his compulsion to share the good news with us and set us free:

…all terrors of the mind
Vanish, are gone; the barriers of the world
Dissolve before me, and I see things happen
All through the void of empty space. I see
The gods majestic, and their calm abodes
Winds do not shake, nor clouds befoul nor snow
Violate with the knives of sleet and cold;
But there the sky is purest blue, the air
Is almost laughter in that radiance,
And nature satisfies their every need,
And nothing, nothing mars their peace of mind.

(Book III, lines 15 to 25)

I’m with him, I’m seeing the vision of the passionless gods with him, and I’m caught up in his impassioned repetition of ‘nothing, nothing‘. All of which, alas, is fogged and swaddled in the long fustian lines of Stalling’s version:

…The gods appear to me
Enthroned in all their holiness and their serenity,
And where they dwell, wind never lashes them, cloud never rains,
And snowfall white and crisp with biting frost never profanes.
The canopy of aether over them is always bright
And unbeclouded, lavishing the laughter of its light.
And there they want for nothing; every need, nature supplies;
And nothing ever ruffles their peace of mind. Contrariwise…

The key phrase about the gods’ peace of mind should conclude the line; instead it ends mid-line and is, as a result, muffled. Why? To make way for the rhyme, which in this case is supplied by another heavily archaic word ‘contrariwise’ which has the unintended effect of trivialising the preceding line.

Stalling’s translation is skilful, clever, immensely rhythmic, a fascinating experiment, but…no.

Online translations

Now let me extend my argument. I’ll try
To be as brief as possible, but listen!

(Book IV, lines 115 to 116)

There have been scores of translations of De rerum natura into English. An easy one to access on the internet is William Ellery Leonard’s 1916 verse translation. Compared to either Stalling or Humphries, it’s dire, but it’s free.


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