The Roman poet Lucretius (99-55 BC) was a follower of the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BC). Epicurus did not believe in gods and created a cosmology in which everything had a natural explanation. The basis of this cosmology was grounded on the views of the Greek atomists Leucippus and Democritus. As the name `atomists’ already suggests, they were the first to introduce the idea of atoms: invisible small parts out of which everything is constructed, though their idea that atoms are indivisible (Greek atomoj) proved wrong. This idea was not only a revolutionary step in physics, but had also its consequences for morality and religion: if there are no gods who intervene in our lives, there is no reason to fear them.
Lucretius expounded the philosophy of Epicurus in his De Rerum Natura (About the nature of things), a poem in six books written in the heroic meter of the Greek hexameter. Latin is not particularly suited for this meter and Lucretius is clearly fighting to have the words fitting into the metrical pattern. In doing so he sometimes invents new words and now and then the Latin syntax is a bit awkward.
In the following extract Lucretius takes away the fear of the reader that doing away with religion opens the door for immoral behavior. He refers to the story of the sacrifice of Iphigenia, eldest daughter of Agamemnon. There are various versions of this story and Lucretius is mainly following the version by Euripides: Agamemnon, one of the Greek leaders sailing to Troy, had once promised Artemis to sacrifice the most beautiful thing the year had produced. It happens that Iphigenia was born that year and Agamemnon `forgets’ all about his promise. When sailing with his fleet to Troy he stops at Aulis and then unfavorable winds withheld him from going further. Agamemnon goes to the seer Calchas, who tells him that it is Artemis who is preventing him from going further, unless he fulfills his promise and sacrifices his own daughter. Iphigenia is still at home, but Odysseus devices a plan to get her to Aulis without any suspicion. Under the pretext of marrying Achilles, she comes over… In some versions she is saved by Artemis, who replaces her on the altar with a deer, but in the version told by Lucretius there is no room for the goddess to show any mercy.
Illud in his rebus vereor, ne forte rearis 80
impia te rationis inire elementa viamque
indugredi sceleris. quod contra saepius illa
religio peperit scelerosa atque impia facta.
Aulide quo pacto Triviai virginis aram
Iphianassai turparunt sanguine foede 85
ductores Danaum delecti, prima virorum.
cui simul infula virgineos circum data comptus
ex utraque pari malarum parte profusast,
et maestum simul ante aras adstare parentem
sensit et hunc propter ferrum celare ministros 90
aspectuque suo lacrimas effundere civis,
muta metu terram genibus summissa petebat.
nec miserae prodesse in tali tempore quibat,
quod patrio princeps donarat nomine regem;
nam sublata virum manibus tremibundaque ad aras 95
deductast, non ut sollemni more sacrorum
perfecto posset claro comitari Hymenaeo,
sed casta inceste nubendi tempore in ipso
hostia concideret mactatu maesta parentis,
exitus ut classi felix faustusque daretur. 100
tantum religio potuit suadere malorum.
illud refers to ne: `I fear this in these matters, that….’
rearis: Lucretius addresses his reader
reor, ratus sum: to be of the opinion, think
ratio, – onis: system of philosophy
indugredi: Lucretius has a preference for archaic forms : indu is old Latin for in
ingredior, ingressus sum: to enter
scelus, sceleris: wicked deed, crime
quod contra: whereas on the contrary
pario peperi partum: to bring forward
Aulide …virorum: The skeleton of this sentence is ductores aram turparunt: `the leaders defiled the altar’ Whose altar? Triviai virginis. With what? sanguine foede Iphianassai.
Aulide: locative case `at Aulis’. The locativus was lost in Latin, except in place names (Romae: at Rome) and in some words (humi: on the ground)
quo pacto: `on the grounds of a certain pact’ the promise of Agamemnon.
Triviai virginis : Artemis. Triviai is an old genitive. The adjective itself does not apply to Artemis, but to Diana, the Roman goddess equated with Artemis. Trivius means `of the crossways’ and as tri makes clear those crossways where three ways meet. At such crossways altars for Diana were erected.
Iphianassai: again an old genitive. In Homer Iphianassa is the youngest daughter of Agamemnon, but Lucretius uses the name here as an alternative for Iphigenia.
turparunt = turpaverunt.
sanguis, sanguinis: blood
foedus, foederis:, horrible, repulsive
Danai, Danaum: the Greek
delectus: singled out, elected
prima virorum = primi virorum. prima is neuter plural. Lucretius imitates Greek usage of neuter plural adjective plus genitive to qualify a noun even when the noun is not neuter.
simul = simul atque : as soon as
infula: A sacred fillet (a woolen band, white and red, worn upon the forehead by priests, victims, and suppliants, as a badge of consecration. The end of the strands were hanging down at either side.)
virgineos with comptus.
comptus, –us: ornament of the hair, but here = coma `hair’.
ex utraque pari malarum parte profusast: ambigious sentence. Read: (infula) profuse est pari parte ex utraque malarum
profusus: hanging down
pari parte: in equal lengths
ex utraque malarum: from both sides of her cheeks
sensit gouverns a) parentem adstare, b) ministros celare and c) civis effundere
hunc propter: beside him
celo: to conceal
aspectu suo: `at sight of her’
civis (acc. plur.!): the citizens of Aulis
tremibundus = tremens
metus – us: fear
genibus summissa: lowered by her knees, kneeling
peto: to fall upon, sink down
prosum + dat.: to be useful for
in tali tempore: tempus has here the meaning of `circumstance, danger,’
queo: to be able to. The subject is the quod clause: `It could not serve the poor girl, that…’
princeps = prima: she as first
donarat = donaverat . to whom one gives is in the acc. and what is given is in the abl.
patrio nomine = nomine `pater’
sublatus ppp of suffer: to take up
tremibundus = archaic form of tremens
deductast = deducta est. Both sublata and deducta are taken from the Roman marriage ceremony at which at a certain point the bride was lifted off the ground, and finally escorted home by the marriage company.
sollemni more sacrorum perfecto: on the customary way of rites done
comitari is here passive form of the rare word comito: to accompany. Normally comitari is a deponent verb
Hymenaeus: wedding choir. At Roman weddings `Hymen , o hymeneae’ were shouted. Hymen was the Roman god of marriage.
casta inceste…tempore…hostia…maesta: as a sinless sorrowful victim on a sinful moment. The e in incestus is because of the influence of the preceding i.
nubo: to marry
concido: to fall down
mactatus, – us: sacrifice. The word is coined by Lucretius and is only found here.
mactatu parentis: parentis is subjective genitive `of the father’.
exitus ut = ut exitus
exitus, -us: way out
classis. –is: fleet
felix faustusque: a stock combination in Latin `happy and favorable’
tantum + gen.: such a degree of
I found a translation by William Ellery Leonard, published in 1916. His English is even more archaic than the Latin of Lucretius…
I fear perhaps thou deemest that we fare
An impious road to realms of thought profane;
But ’tis that same religion oftener far
Hath bred the foul impieties of men:
As once at Aulis, the elected chiefs,
Foremost of heroes, Danaan counsellors,
Defiled Diana’s altar, virgin queen,
With Agamemnon’s daughter, foully slain.
She felt the chaplet round her maiden locks
And fillets, fluttering down on either cheek,
And at the altar marked her grieving sire,
The priests beside him who concealed the knife,
And all the folk in tears at sight of her.
With a dumb terror and a sinking knee
She dropped; nor might avail her now that first
‘Twas she who gave the king a father’s name.
They raised her up, they bore the trembling girl
On to the altar- hither led not now
With solemn rites and hymeneal choir,
But sinless woman, sinfully foredone,
A parent felled her on her bridal day,
Making his child a sacrificial beast
To give the ships auspicious winds for Troy:
Such are the crimes to which Religion leads.