Thursday, October 20, 2016


Lee Fratantuono, A Reading of Lucretius' 'De rerum natura'. Lanham; Boulder; New York; London: Lexington Books, 2015. Pp. xii, 505. ISBN 9781498511544. $140.00.

Reviewed by David Butterfield, Queens' College, Cambridge (

Version at BMCR home site


This is a large and strange book. The title announces it as 'a reading' of Lucretius' De Rerum Natura, whereas the blurb and introduction (p.ix) simply call it a commentary. In reality it is neither: it gives a line-by-line account of the poem's content, surveying broader thematic concerns where possible. Fratantuono has produced works of a similar nature for Virgil's Aeneid (2007), Ovid's Metamorphoses (2011) and Lucan's Bellum ciuile (2013), narrative poems that are more naturally suited to such treatment. Now Lucretius, as an established 'epic predecessor', comes fourth in the series. The result is a dense but difficult work: several original and engaging elements lie buried within a stubbornly linear reading of a didactic poem that inevitably paraphrases its entire curriculum.

Fratantuono cites (albeit without reference) John Masson's Lucretius: Epicurean and Poet (1907-9) as an analogous undertaking. For all of its faults, Masson's ambitious work found some success because it unified Lucretian topics under suitable chapters, setting out the poet's approach before critiquing it with modern scholarship (and science); the structural confines of his poem were rejected as not fit for purpose. By contrast, Fratantuono's Reading allows DRN to control the order and depth of his topics. When such an awkward monograph-cum-paraphrase was last attempted, by Raphael Francus in 1504, he understandably gave up halfway through.

The Reading does not succeed in being 'a comprehensive commentary' (rear cover): it is too narrow in approach, mostly disregarding philosophical and philological analysis; furthermore, it does not engage critically or directly with Lucretian scholarship, even if works are copiously indexed in endnotes. References to the commentaries of Lambinus, Giussani, Heinze, Merrill and Ernout-Robin could be counted on one hand; the works of Pius, Creech, Wakefield, Forbiger, Bockemüller, Mueller, Piazzi, Clotilde, Salemme and Jackson appear not to have been used.

Fratantuono's work is intended to inform both experts and novices in their Lucretian studies. This it has the potential to do. However, by reproducing the structure of DRN exactly in its six chapters, and not offering any independent argumentative thread, the going is heavy for both parties. The book's pace is uniform and leisurely throughout, with each page covering some fifteen to twenty verses. Lucretius' topics are subdivided by subject headings, introducing discussions that range from a single paragraph to several pages. By honouring Lucretius' own distribution of lines, however baffling at times, Fratantuono's account is sometimes too brief on major topics: for most critics, the clinamen (pp. 99-105) deserves greater treatment than magnets (pp.451-6) or thunder and lightning (pp. 416-24); likewise, Lucretius' brief but bizarre recantation of armed animals in warfare (5.1341-9) is given regrettably short shrift (p. 387).

Since to recount the book's contents would be to paraphrase a paraphrase of DRN, I will instead outline some good and some bad aspects of the book. First among the good, there is something appealing about an avowedly subjective reading of a poem that has provoked so much controversy and vacillation. Second, the reader is left in no doubt that Lucretius' poem has been read with care and zeal. Third, and most importantly, in several places Fratantuono is able to offer ideas that are new, or revisit old ideas from fresh angles. First among the bad, he is frequently evasive and hard to pin down about what 'reading' he wishes to promote. Second, the book's structure fails to showcase and bolster his ideas that overturn the trend of modern scholarship. Third, the book is absolutely riddled with typographical errors.

Amidst the survey there appear a number of fresh and exciting contributions: for instance, Fratantuono well encapsulates the ethos of Lucretius' poem as a sweet lament (dulcis querella, ex 4.584 and 5.1384), best summarised at pp.265-7; contends throughout that pietas plays a much more central role in the poem than has previously been acknowledged; gives rich colour to the account of the Magna Mater (2.600-60, at pp.121-7); argues persuasively that Lucretius seeks to establish himself as divine in the proem to Book 5 (p. 316); explores the unsettling presence of a lethal flower on Helicon (6.786-7 at pp. 445-7).

Some of these novel ideas are profitably raised but rather flogged to death: Lucretius' vacillation between optimistic and pessimistic attitudes towards pietas is closely explored but left foundering by the time we reach the close of Book 6 (pp.467-73); the conflict between the Roman, the Greek and the Trojan continually reappears but is never allowed to crystallise; Lucretius' undeniable focus upon death and destruction is revisited by the minute and loses its force through repetition (the terms 'destruction'/'destructive'/'destroy' occur over 200 times).

By contrast, some ideas are plain silly: for instance, that Lucretius intended Aeneadum genetrix to be the title of the work (12 n.23); that he was encouraged to depict Venus and Mars in the poem's proem because they were caught in a rete, which resonates with the second syllable of his name (71 n.42); that Manilius' Astronomica is five books long because it seeks to counteract contentions of Lucretius' fifth book (396 n.23).

Despite the book's aim to offer 'a reading', it is very often frustratingly difficult to apprehend quite what that single reading is. Alongside the flashes of new and interesting takes on the poem, one finds a good deal of ambiguity, bet-hedging and passing of the buck. It is indicative that 'more or less', 'somewhat' and 'as it were' occur over a hundred times. Frequent expressions of the type 'some would prefer' or 'some might think' hinder more than help. 'A reading' must lose much of its force when its results are enshrouded in this sort of verbal clag: 'One might perhaps speculate that...' (p. 71 n.43); 'Individual readers will consider this passage [2.300-2] more or less darkly' (153 n.119); 'This section [4.324ff.] may seem to mark something of a more or less sharp break' (p. 244).

In a work that sets great store by the ordering and succession of Lucretius' poem, it is remarkable how desperately little Fratantuono has to say on the poem's original ordering of books (pp. 236-7) or state of completion (p. 396 n.42).1 These are not technical points for a late-nineteenth-century German dissertation but must underpin any competent consideration of the poem's structure, texture and purpose. Nevertheless, the introduction shows commendable interest in establishing what Lucretius actually wrote (p. xi). Yet this attitude is not reflected in the book as a whole: we are told that 'ink has been spilled' on serious critical problems, such as the doublet 1.936-50 = 4.1-25 (p. 54) and the fascinating case of 5.312 (p. 329). Often the textual problem is wholly set aside as bearing little weight on the analysis. This is indeed commonly the case, but in other instances it is the lynchpin – the crux – for a correct interpretation: such instances as 2.257-8 (paradosis uoluptas... uoluntas) and 5.53 (paradosis immortalibus e diuis) well demonstrate this, but Fratantuono says not a word about either. In other cases the major textual problem is raised to a position of prominence but then left hanging in the balance: 1.44-9 ('[w]e might consider that these lines are genuine', p. 20), 2.42-3 (p. 90), 3.15 (p. 164), 4.456-7 (pp. 254-5), 4.1096 (p. 311 n.208), 5.1442 (pp. 392-3). In cases such as these Fratantuono needs to posit a text for discussion or make clear that he is aporetic.2 In fact, it remains entirely unclear on what Latin text Fratantuono has based his analysis, since the verses cited are at times inconsistent in their readings and orthography. Martin Ferguson Smith's Loeb is the most probable source, even if that cannot be the case throughout. Since Lucretius' text is cited with over fifty typographical errors, and the translation does not always match the text (e.g. 3.907 'deflevimus', 'will weep' at p. 210,), this ambiguity poses a serious problem.

There are some provocative ideas and tangents interspersed throughout the 2,000 notes that emanate from the Reading. Even if the majority direct the reader to the (recent) English commentaries or provide line references, they still play a valuable role. It is frustrating, then, that they bear the anachronistic (or at least incongruous) ignominy of being endnotes. If after turning sixty pages one reads only '2.20' (477 n.170), 'So Rouse' (ibid. n.172) or 'There is probably no allusion to...' (74 n.113), the anticlimax is palpable. Worse still, since many of these notes suffer from the vice of being syntactically dependent upon the sentence they reference, one must either read the book with a finger ever in the pudding or save up a store of twenty to read in one confused flurry.

Fratantuono's prose style is at times endearing, at others grating. Much of its character stems from his passion for the poem: over fifty times the text is 'lovely'; scores of times it is 'eerie', 'haunting' or 'chilling'. Other verbal penchants are more quaint: 'thereof' is used over fifty times (along with sentence-final 'thereto', 'therein' and 'thereon'); the absolute use of 'absent' (approximating to 'without') occurs over a dozen times; 'said' is frequently deployed to avoid the supposed sin of repetition – or demonstrative adjectives. Such curiosities rub shoulders with frequent colloquialisms ('and all that', 'and the like', 'no matter').3 Nevertheless, save for some otiose foreign tags or film references, the style is more particular than pretentious.4

More seriously, the extent of failure in proof-reading is the worst I have encountered in a twenty-first century book on the Classics. There are some 250 errors in the text: words (English and Latin) are omitted, repeated, wrongly placed and misspelled (through metathesis, homophony, auto-correct and perhaps OCR); sometimes the mistake can only be referred back to the author. This is regrettable, as readers – and Lucretius (here 'Lucertius', there 'Lucetius') – deserve better. A sale price of $140 should presuppose a good copy editor. The book ends with a partial bibliography (pp.485-90) and copious index (pp.491-504).5

The best elements of this book could have been united successfully in a shorter work – perhaps of six book-specific essays – for Fratantuono's strengths lie in painting with the broadest strokes and brightest hues. As it is, a work of 500 pages and more than 200,000 words should achieve a substantial amount. In practice, A Reading provides a comprehensive summary of the poem's contents, explores in detail a number of select themes, and makes a sustained case for Lucretius' depth of poetic artistry. Fratantuono writes that '[i]f [the book] has a goal it is to instill a deeper love for Lucretius in his readers' (p. xi): for those who are inspired by his ineluctable enthusiasm to read and contemplate DRN further, this goal will be achieved. But all Lucretian readers will still turn to the established commentaries and wonder why no one makes bold to write a good introductory book on Lucretius.


1.   'arguments about what the poet may have intended at this or that point in the composition of the epic are ultimately more or less rooted in subjective evidence of the apparent absence of the ultima manus'; 'the stronger argument seems to be to consider the poem to be more or less complete as is.'
2.   Several controversial texts are cited without critical comment (e.g., 2.289, 2.356, 4.897, 5.849, 6.755, 6.48). Elsewhere, impossible readings are called 'difficult', such as unmetrical manare (3.57 at 224 n.57) or non-existent exirtant (6.48 at p. 413). It is alarming to see OQ appear both as 'miniscule' (sic p.3) and 'capital' (156 n.203) manuscripts.
3.   Some words are new to me: 'peasure' (p.120), 'contraceive' (p.300), 'worldglobal' (335).
4.   Other traits are harder to stomach: many paragraphs begin with 'And' or 'For', which seems a self-contradictory practice, or are syntactically incomplete; 'might' often wants to play the part of 'may'; 'cf.' is frequently used for 'see'; the semi-colon is often roped in for a comma, colon or full stop.
5.   The bibliography does not include many scores of items cited in the footnotes, yet does contain some oddities such as Barbour and Norbrook's edition of Lucy Hutchinson's translation of Lucretius (nowhere cited), Martin West as a commentator on Horace's Odes, and the enigmatic 'O.' as editor of Ennius' Annales. The index is well-stocked but few readers of Lucretius could profit from entries such as 'Hellenistic philosophy, 4', 'poetic theory, 55' and 'questions, 301, 315'.

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