Skip to main content

A Note on Lucretius 4.1046

  • Alessandro Schiesaro (a1)

One of the most surprising features of the final part of the fourth book of the De rerum natura is the peculiar way Lucretius introduces the topic he intends to examine at length. We approach the extensive treatment of love from merely physiological phenomena. The terms libido and amor are mentioned for the first time at 1045 and 1046 respectively; I would like to focus on the interpretation of those lines and on the meaning of the clausula dira libido in the context of the final section of Book Four. Lucretius is talking of semen:

quod simul atque suis eiectum sedibus exit,

per membra atque artus decedit corpore toto,

in loca conveniens nervorum certa cietque

continuo partis genitalis corporis ipsas.

irritata tument loca semine fitque voluntas 1045

eicere id quo se contendit dira libido,

idque petit corpus mens unde est saucia amore.

Hide All

1 This interpretation is laid out in an excellent paper by A. Traina, Dira libido. (Sul linguaggio lucreziano dell'eros), in Sludi di letteratura latina in onore di A. Traglia (Rome, 1979), i. 259–76, now in Traina A., Poeti latini (e neolatini) II (Bologna, 1981), pp. 11 ff. Traina rightly points out the reticence of the editors, among whom only Leonard and Smith (Madison, 1942) have anything to remark on dira (but, as Traina says, their opinion, ‘dira …a Puritanical and conventional epithet for unchastened desire’, misses the point). The situation has not significantly changed: J. Godwin (Warminster, 1980) remains silent, and R. Brown (Amsterdam, 1988) basically agrees with Traina.

2 One of the meanings of dirus (generically: ‘terrible’) is ‘unnatural’, to be taken more precisely as ‘absurd’, ‘senseless’. For Lucretius, love is not only excessive, inasmuch as it takes away Epicurus' disciple from the search for ⋯ταραξ⋯α and wisdom, but altogether unnatural: it is absurd to hope that the source of passion and the means to quench it can come from the same person, quod fieri contra totum natura repugnat (1088). Cf. Hor. Carm. 2.2.13ff. (crescil indulgens sibi dirus hydrops / nee sitim pellit, nisi causa morbi / fugerit venis), where dirus not only describes the repelling aspect of the dropsical, but indicates as well the mistake he is led into, the indulgentia sibi, the fact that he goes on drinking instead of trying to eliminate the causa morbi (cf. Nisbet and Hubbard ad loc).

3 Hier. Chron. s.a. 1923 Helm; DrLogre , L'anxiété de Lucrèce (Paris, 1946).

4 Lucretius' polemical target should therefore be seen in the traditional portrait of love as only metaphorically terribilis, δiν⋯ς. On the contrary, Love is actually dirus (whether or not the two adjectives are etymologically connected). It is a flame that, as Nature herself teaches all too well, cannot be put out by water coming from the same source as the fire: ⋯ ταώσας, for Lucretius, oὐκ ἰ⋯σταi (cf. Otto, Sprichwörter, s.v. amor).

5 Impensus does not have any negative implication, and can be referred to positive qualities as well. This is the first time that the adjective is used in poetry: cf. ThLL vii.l, p. 548, 73.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

The Classical Quarterly
  • ISSN: 0009-8388
  • EISSN: 1471-6844
  • URL: /core/journals/classical-quarterly
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 5 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 59 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 17th January 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.