Lucretius’ Plague | Stephen Basdeo

By Stephen Basdeo, a writer and historian based in Leeds, UK. He recommends that readers, if they have not done so already, read his short article on the cultural manifestations of the Athenian Plague before reading this article.

The Founding of Rome

According to legend, Rome was founded on 21 April 753 BC. Having grown from small farming settlements based around the city’s seven hills and the river Tiber, for over two centuries since its founding Rome had a monarchy—with Romulus allegedly serving as its first king—until c.509 BC when the people of Rome ousted King Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, after which it became a republic.

King Lucius Tarquinius Superbus

Between 343–282 BC Roman Republic gradually extended its power outwards from the city of Rome and unified the whole of Italy under its rule. Soon the Romans turned their attention to Greece. Macedonia also came under Rome’s domination after the decisive Battle of Corinth in 146 BC, while the Kingdom of Pergamon was annexed to the Roman Republic in 133 BC.

Roman Culture

The Romans may have conquered the Greeks but in terms of culture it was the Greeks who conquered the Romans. Roman sculptors, artists, architects, and poets and dramatists looked to Greece for inspiration. Even the pantheon of gods who the Greeks worshipped were Romanized.


Writers often copied the works of Greek thinkers, or adapted them. As one scholar remarks:

‘the concept of aemulatio, far from being a disgrace, was highly acceptable and widely practised in the Roman world’.[1]

In the case of those Greek writers Thucydides and Sophocles, their texts were widely disseminated throughout the Roman Republic and its provinces and even informed new works. This was the case with Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura, which is translated as On the Nature of Things.

Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things

Little is known of Lucretius’s life, who lived between 94 and c.49 BC. His full name was Titus Lucretius Carus, and he appears to have been an aristocrat and was, as far as can be ascertained, initially destined for a legal career before turning to writing poetry.

18th century translation of De Rerum Natura

Cicero was certainly impressed with Lucretius’s work, the former having declared that

‘the poetry of Lucretius is … rich in brilliant genius yet highly artistic’.[2]

How to be Happy

Lucretius probably—for as with many ancient writers’ lives there are many things that cannot be determined with much certainty—studied philosophy in Athens and became an adherent of Epicureanism.

As followers of the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341–270 BC), Epicureans held the main goal of life to be the pursuit of human happiness; to realise this happiness, one had to make sense of and study the natural world; and people also had to acknowledge that their subconscious fear of death and dying was the source of much unhappiness.

Once a person fully understood their subconscious fears then those fears could be eliminated, and people would be free to pursue bodily and mental pleasure without anxiety.

Avoiding politics, where at all possible and not caring too much about what the gods thought of you, were two further ways in which one could get rid of their anxieties.[3] Lucretius’s Epicurean worldview shines through in On the Nature of Things but of his life little more is known.

Writing several centuries after Lucretius’s death, Saint Jerome remarked that

‘he was driven mad by a love potion and, having composed in the intervals of his sanity several books … committed suicide in his forty-fourth year’.[4]

De Rerum Natura

Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things was at heart a poem that explained the principles of Epicureanism to a Roman audience. That is to say, that it sought to explain the workings of the natural world, hence its title.

Throughout the poem we find a picture of a highly ordered universe in which all sensations and thoughts spring from natural causes. In the sixth and final book of the poem Lucretius also delved into the causes of disease, and he had evidently been reading Thucydides’s account of the Athenian Plague.[5]

Lucretius subscribed to the theory of miasma, saying that

‘air becomes diseased … Nature by herself brings an infected sky to us or something we are not accustomed to experience, which by its recent coming may be able to attack us.’[6]

Different diseases flourish in different climates and, so argued Lucretius, these were all caused by bad air.

With his general explanation of the causes of disease out of the way Lucretius then focused specifically upon the plague that ‘once occurred in the realms of Cecrops’[7] (King Cecrops was, according to legend, the first king of Greece).[8]

Just as Thucydides argued, Lucretius stated that the Athenian plague came out of Egypt before settling in Athens. Lucretius’s description of the symptoms are terrifying: the people who were struck down with the plague experienced fever, red eyes, and they ‘sweated blood’ and coughed up yellow spittle. Ulcers clogged sufferers’ throats and rendered many of them unable to speak. The ulcers in their throats led to foul breath.

The afflicted received no respite from their suffering because sleep did not visit them and their minds became disordered until finally people succumbed. Friends and family abandoned those who were sick. Ploughmen died at their ploughs. Shepherds died in the fields. Bodies lay unburied in the street and the temples overflowed with the dead. People neglected the worship of the gods.

Michel Sweerts’s Plague in an Ancient City

If they did not succumb to the disease and die then some nasty after effects awaited them—a black discharge from the bowels. Sometimes the madness and confusion stayed with them—some survivors imagined that they could feel the disease spreading throughout their entire bodies into their extremities and in their crazed state endeavoured to cut off their hands and feet. Some men even attempted to cut off their own genitals, fearing, in their confusion, that the sickness has spread to the reproductive organs.

Lucretius was more, shall we say, ‘dramatic’ than Thucydides whose own history, it will be recalled, aimed to contain nothing of the ‘romance’ common to the history writing of his day. There was certainly nothing in Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War of survivors amputating their genitals—Thucydides was a survivor and he never resorted to such extreme measures.

In spite of the fact that Lucretius’s account of the Athenian Plague contained many invented facts, it is clear that, even when Lucretius was living 300 years after the event, the Plague of Athens left a great scar on people’s imaginations.

[1] Rachel Finnegan, ‘Plagues in Classical Literature’, Classics Ireland, 6 (1999), 23–42 (p. 32).

[2] W.H.D. Rouse, ‘Introduction’, in Lucretius: On the Nature of Things, Trans. W.H.D. Rouse, Loeb Classical Library, 181 (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1924), p. xi.

[3] David Konstan [online], ‘Epicurus’, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. by Edward N. Zalta (Stanford University Press, 2018), accessed 17 December 2020. Available at:

[4] Rouse, p. x.

[5] Finnegan, p. 34.

[6] Rouse, ll. 1090–1936.

[7] Rouse, ll. 1139.

[8] Anon [online]. ‘Cecrops’, Greek Mythology, accessed 17 December 2020. Available at:

1 reply »