Lucretius is the Marmite of Roman literature. For some of my colleagues the De Rerum Natura, “On the Nature of the Universe” (DRN), his attempt to express the complex philosophical creed of Epicurus in poetry, mixes incompatibles: even certain Bodley Medal laureates have been known to diss Lucretius in my presence. Others are more sympathetic, and for some of them it’s the very strangeness of this project that holds a lot of its appeal.
I count myself one of the latter group, predictably, and I’m especially intrigued by Lucretius’ skill in exploiting the resources of poetry to advance his key aim, converting the reader to Epicurus’ philosophy and the contented existence that he insists will follow. In the DRN poetry and philosophy are thoroughly interwoven, inseparable, which means that interpreting the poem requires as good a grip of his philosophical position as his poetic technique. David West’s great little book The Imagery and Poetry of Lucretius is still for me the best introduction to Lucretius’ intricate poetry, and I’d freely admit that I fall far short of competence on the philosophical side myself. When I was co-writing something on Epicureanism and Lucretius recently, I left as much of the seriously technical stuff as I could to my co-author, Barney Taylor, who’s got a surer footing in Epicureanism and Lucretius’ account of it than I’ll ever have.
All I’m going to do in this blog is develop a thought I had while Barney and I were revising our article over the weekend. The focus is Lucretius as philosopher-poet or poet-philosopher, a poet whose poetry is all about convincing us of his philosophical convictions.
The De Rerum Natura is addressed to “Memmius”, generally believed to be C. Memmius L. f., a senior politician in Rome in the 50’s BC. By “addressed to” I mean that Lucretius presents the detailed account of Epicureanism doctrine that he offers in the DRN as a private communication between himself and Memmius: the stated aim of the poem is the conversion of this one individual. That’s the initial set up, at any rate. In practice, across the whole of the poem, although that intimacy is maintained, Memmius is named only occasionally, and a well-established interpretation of Lucretius’ strategy here is that this allows the place in the conversation originally occupied by Memmius to become the reader’s. When Lucretius addresses “you”, in other words, it’s easy for readers to feel that it is with them, individually, that Lucretius is communicating. Certainly the ancients thought that reading the De Rerum Natura was like “discussing the nature of the Universe with Lucretius as if face to face” (cum Lucretio videbuntur velut coram de rerum naturam disputare, Vitruvius 9 praef. 17).
Well, that was once the established view. But in 1993 a very influential article by Phillip Mitsis upset it. Mitsis argued that Lucretius’ style of argument in the poem was too aggressive for it simply to be a case of Memmius standing in for the reader. Rather, he suggests, the reader is being encouraged to see the “you” addressed in the poem, Memmius, as a bit of an dunce, consistently failing to grasp Lucretius’ arguments; according to Mitsis, the reader does not slip into Memmius’ shoes, then, but instead, in the process of watching Memmius get it wrong over and over again, and wishing to avoid sharing Memmius’ slow-wittedness, imperceptibly absorbs the wisdom of Epicurus.
That would certainly be psychologically astute on Lucretius’ part, and everyone agrees that Lucretius has the psychology of teaching pretty much taped, but on a number of grounds I don’t find Mitsis’ theory very convincing. Barney Taylor is actually working on a comprehensive response to his article, which, as I say, is a very influential one, and I wouldn’t attempt to anticipate Barney’s arguments even if I could.
But I am going to suggest one potentially relevant consideration, which occurred to me last weekend when I came across a remark attributed to Epicurus himself (Epicurus fr. 208 Usener). It is from a letter written by Epicurus to a fellow Epicurean, and it’s preserved for us by the Roman philosopher Seneca (Epist. 7.11). It simply says, “I say this not to many people, but just to you: we are, each for the other, an audience large enough” (haec ego non multis, sed tibi: satis enim magnum alter alteri theatrum sumus). But what struck me about it was that the relationship that Epicurus here describes existing between himself and his correspondent, intimate communication between two individuals, is exactly what Lucretius also establishes between himself and Memmius in the DRN.
What Epicurus is describing is I think a kind of ideal for Epicureans, perhaps even the quintessence of an Epicurean life of pleasure and ἀταραξία, freedom from anxiety. The intimate colloquy with a friend answers to a cluster of things that Epicurus believed contributed to the good life. Epicurus’ school was located in the Garden (Κῆπος), a small property belonging to him just outside Athens, a place of retreat from public life which Epicurus shared with friends, and in which their friendship was expressed through communal living, eating, and conversation. Cicero caricatures Epicureans as “carrying on discussions in their own little gardens” (in hortulis suis … dicere, Leg. 1.39), while Epicurus himself, in a letter he wrote as he lay dying to a friend named Idomeneus, describes the intense pain he was in, but insists his suffering is offset by “the joy in my soul at the recollection of our past conversations” (τὸ κατὰ ψυχὴν χαῖρον ἐπὶ τῇ τῶν γεγονότων ἡμῖν διαλογισμῶν μνήμῃ, Diog. Laert. 10.22). As for friendship itself, there was no aspect of social life more highly valued by Epicurus or his followers. In Epicurus’ own words (Sententiae Vaticanae 78), “The man of noble character is chiefly concerned with wisdom and friendship. Of these the former is a mortal good, but the latter is immortal” (ὁ γενναῖος περὶ σοφίαν καὶ φιλίαν μάλιστα γίγνεται, ὧν τὸ μέν ἐστι θνητὸν ἀγαθόν, τὸ δὲ ἀθάνατον).
Epicurus and Lucretius are both replicating this ideal of the intimate conversation as approximately as they can in written form, by a letter (generally understood in Antiquity as conversation by other means), and by a poem that dramatises a similar discussion. And insofar as the De Rerum Natura styles itself a conversation with Memmius, it is a token of friendship, too. Lucretius says so explicitly early in Book 1, explaining his motivation for undertaking the writing of the poem, despite its difficulties (140-41), “your excellence and the pleasure of delightful friendship that I anticipate” (tua … uirtus … et sperata uoluptas/ suauis amicitiae). Friendship is here presented as an abundant source of pleasure, pleasure being the primary good in Epicurean philosophy. I might add, though, that this is a moment when Memmius goes unnamed. Is it in fact friendship with me, the reader, that Lucretius has in mind here? The possibility of an intimacy extending across two millennia, achieved by a poetic text, is one of those things that makes Roman literature kind of thrilling.
But enough of that. The basic dramatic setup of the De Rerum Natura seems designed to express this especially valued Epicurean social practice of friendship. It’s important in this connection that friendship, amicitia, was something highly valued by Romans in general. Lucretius’ task in the DRN is to convert ordinary Romans to a philosophy that promoted a radically different understanding of the world, not an easy task. He tries very hard not to alienate his reader, and to insist on the common ground between Rome and Epicureanism. Amicitia is one such: to Romans there would be little less threatening than a friendly conversation.
Nevertheless, what may seem perfectly Roman is also thoroughly Epicurean. Spend any time “discussing the nature of the Universe with Lucretius as if face to face” and you start to see the world as you should, you start to become an Epicurean; but as part of that process you start to adopt the social practices of Epicureans, the friendly discussions in a space (the De Rerum Natura, a kind of poetic Garden) free of the distractions and anxieties of everyday life. That’s as cunning a piece of psychological manipulation as Mitsis proposes, I think: by the very act of reading the De Rerum Natura, your behaviour is being moulded into an Epicurean shape.
I don’t think any of that represents an unprecedented insight. But I suggested earlier that thinking about one-to-one conversation might also give us a counterargument to Mitsis. What I have in mind is the paramount value that Epicureans attached to friendship, amicitia, φιλία. If Lucretius’ colloquy with Memmius, and with each of us, does indeed embody friendship, Epicurus’ immortal good, could an Epicurean, in a poem dedicated to conveying the life-transforming doctrines of Epicurus, contemplate betraying such a sacred thing? For a betrayal of friendship is surely what Mitsis’ theory amounts to: Lucretius is pretending to be Memmius’ friend, with his deepest interests at heart, but in fact is showing him up as an idiot for the benefit of the rest of us.
I can’t see that for an Epicurean that could be anything but unthinkable.
(P.S. 13.4.2016. In a text I’ve been encouraged to read by James Warren [see the discussion below], Philodemus’ Peri Parrhesias or On Frank Criticism, there is a lot of very interesting material on parrhesia, candid (and typically corrective) speech, as a mark of friendship and an essential component of the relationship between philosopher and pupil, itself figured as an encounter between friends, and on the candid speech that played a key role in Epicurean communities, a kind of group therapy maintaining the psychic and philosophical health of their members. As a corollary, we are informed (fr. 41) that “to act in secret is necessarily most unfriendly, no doubt.”)
Regular readers of this blog, all two of you, will confirm that I like it to keep it clean. There’s no gratuitous smut. There won’t be any gratuitous smut here, either. But I’ve been researching a first-century-B.C. Roman called C. Memmius, and he’s a rum cove. My main concern is with his philosophical beliefs, how committed he was to Epicureanism (deeply committed, I want to prove), and from the evidence he comes across as an odd mixture, on the one hand a politician thoroughly immured in the graft and malpractice of late-republican Rome (to the extent that he was eventually exiled for electoral corruption), but with flashes of something like high principle compatible with a philosophical outlook, occasionally, too.
However, another thing that it’s hard to ignore in accounts of Memmius’ behaviour, and this is at first sight less compatible with enlightened philosophical detachment, is his voracious sexual appetite.
The ancients seemed to enjoy telling anecdotes about Memmius’ erotic adventures. In 60 B.C. Cicero shared news of a scandal with Atticus (Ad Atticum 1.18.3): the annual festival of Iuuentas, Youth, which was possibly when young Roman men celebrated their coming of age, was presided over by members of the Lucullus family. But it had been suspended because “Memmius had initiated M. Lucullus’ wife in some rights of his own,” as Cicero waggishly puts it, leading to the divorce of Lucullus and his wife, which apparently disqualified Lucullus from staging the festival. But Cicero has more gossip to share. “Menelaus took this hard and filed for divorce. But while that shepherd of Ida in olden times had only injured Menelaus, our modern Paris had as little respect for Agamemnon as for Menelaus.” Memmius is Paris, stealing Menelaus/Lucullus’ wife; but there were two Lucullus brothers, M. Lucullus and the elder (and more successful) L. Lucullus (= Agamemnon). Cicero’s implication is that Memmius had had his wicked way with the wives of both of them.
He was less successful with Pompey the Great’s wife, though not for want of trying. Curtius Nicias was a Greek scholar who, like many Greek intellectuals, depended on the patronage of powerful Romans, and he received it, we’re told, from both Memmius and Pompey. In the latter case this may have had a lot to do with an expertise Nicias had in the works of C. Lucilius, the poet who effectively invented verse satire. Lucilius had also been Pompey’s great-uncle, and since his satires could be felt by Romans to encapsulate some of their most cherished values, he was a useful association for an ambitious politician like Pompey to advertise. Memmius also had literary and scholarly interests, but he had other uses for Nicias, too. Pompey’s patronage gave Nicias access to Pompey’s house, and Memmius somehow persuaded him to carry a billet doux to Pompey’s new wife Cornelia, 20 years old but already the widow of P. Licinius Crassus, son of Crassus the triumvir, killed by the Parthians at Carrhae. Unfortunately for Memmius, Cornelia immediately informed Pompey. It was unfortunate for Nicias too, since naturally enough he was barred from ever entering Pompey’s house from that day forward (Suet. Gramm. 14).
But the loose sexual mores of the Roman elite could cut both ways. We enter seriously farcical territory with Valerius Maximus’ story (6.1.13) of what Memmius did to the man who cuckolded him. Memmius had married Fausta, daughter of Sulla the dictator (and ward of L. Lucullus, whose permission Memmius must have asked to marry her!), when Fausta was around 15 years old and Memmius a decade older, a pretty typical Roman arrangement (though Pompey was thirty years older than Cornelia). Fausta had a reputation for infidelities of her own, although if we always need to be sceptical of claims of sexual misbehaviour in our ancient sources, women with powerful connections like Fausta (or Clodia, the target of Cicero’s misogynistic attack in the Pro Caelio) were particularly likely to attract outrageous claims about their sexual morality. The story, at any rate, is that Memmius discovered Fausta in flagrante delicto with one L. Octavius and “pummelled him with hams (pernis contudit)”. The interpretation and indeed the Latin text is controversial here, but no one has come up with a better solution, so a bludgeoning with cured legs of pork is as likely as anything.
Memmius and Fausta divorced around this time, after about 17 years of marriage, and this may have been the catalyst (it certainly wouldn’t been Memmius’ serial infidelities that did it, given Rome’s firm double standards), but marriages, divorces, infidelities and sex at Rome in general were more often than not a pursuit of politics by other means, and the connection to Sulla that Fausta represented had perhaps become a liability at that point of Memmius’ political career. It certainly looks like no coincidence that at the time he was trying to seduce Cornelia Memmius was facing conviction under a law passed by Pompey, her husband, and was trying to avoid exile by turning state’s evidence and prosecuting L. Metellus Scipio, her father. His affairs with the wives of the Luculli also followed a long political feud between Memmius and the Lucullus brothers, his former allies, pursued by Memmius (according to Plutarch, Cato 29.3) “more to gratify Pompey than out of private enmity”, so that didn’t work.
On another occasion, when Memmius claimed (and provided names of witnesses to back his claim) that Julius Caesar had played the part of cupbearer to Nicomedes king of Bithynia, in other words had been Nicomedes’ passive sexual partner (cf. Ganymede, the archetypal cupbearer), it was one way of countering Caesar’s overwhelming influence in the 50s B.C. In Roman political culture, a perception of sexual potency equated pretty easily to political authority, and we could read all of Memmius’ sexual activity and sexualised rhetoric as methods of asserting his greater claims as a man and a politician. Mind you, it’s hardly surprising he had so little support when he found himself faced with exile.
C. Memmius features in two of Catullus’ poems, and they happen to include some of the most obscene language in Catullus’ whole collection (which is saying something). Catullus had served on Memmius’ staff when he governed Bithynia and Pontus, in modern Turkey, in 57 B.C. In poems 10 and 28 he describes Memmius’ mistreatment of his staff in luridly sexual terms, in both cases metaphorically attributing to Memmius, whom he catchily and untranslatably christens the irrumator praetor, a sexual act that I shall leave you to investigate for yourselves. This is actually one of those fleeting hints of principle one finds in Memmius’ record: what Catullus appears to be objecting to is Memmius’ refusal to allow his staff, Catullus included, to fill their boots at the expense of the people of Bithynia and Pontus. Memmius seems to have been unusually respectful of the culture of Rome’s Greek subjects. But is the extreme obscenity of Catullus’ language, especially in 28, which implies an overcharged male assertiveness on Memmius’ part, also picking up on his boss’s notorious sex drive?
Well, returning to where I started, this all seems quite hard to square with Epicureanism, which for all its modern associations was an exacting philosophy. Lucretius’ great Epicurean poem De Rerum Natura, which he addresses to a Memmius who is generally assumed to be the Memmius we’re talking about, delivers a brutally disillusioned indictment of romantic passion in his fourth book. But perhaps that’s the key. What Lucretius objects to is not so much sex itself, but the distress that sex can cause, essentially when sex becomes complicated by emotion. To put that another way, Epicureans approved of sex, but not of love: “Nor does he who avoids love lack the fruit of Venus,/ but rather he takes the rewards which come without penalty” (DRN 4.1073-4). An austere creed, as I say. Memmius also wrote erotic poetry, but I’m not sure he’d count as a love poet. His poetry was notoriously explicit, according to Ovid, Tristia 2.433. I think we can assume that Memmius didn’t readily allow romance to enter his numerous sexual liaisons.
Philosophical is one word for that. Or perhaps C. Memmius was just a