Titus Lucretius Carus was a Roman poet and philosopher who was born probably in BC 98 or 96; the year is uncertain. Of his birthplace and parentage nothing is known. Jerome is authority for the statement that he was made insane by a love-philter, and finally committed suicide, having composed some books in the intervals of his madness. According to Donatus, he died on the same day that Vergil assumed the toga virilis -- October 15, BC 55. His writings, however, possesses a unity and continuity inconsistent with the tradition that it was composed "in lucid intervals." It is possible, though, that the story of the poet's insanity and self-destruction may reflect some tragic event of his life. The legend of the madness of Lucretius was elaborated by Tennyson in a well-known poem.

Lucretius left one work, the De Rerum Natura, a didactic poem in six books containing nearly 7,500 hexameter lines. The purpose of the poem is to set forth the Epicurean system of philosophy, particularly those portions dealing with the origin of the world and the operations of natural forces. The poet's aim in writing was, as he tells us, to free men's minds from the baneful influence of superstition and of the belief in the hereafter, to which he attributed the greater portion of the fears and troubles of life. He tried to explain how, without the direction or intervention of supernatural agencies in any degree, all natural phenomena may be accounted for. In Book I, he lays down as fundamental truths the propositions that nothing can come from nothing, and that to nothing no one returns. The universe is made up of matter and void, or space. It has no centre; for matter exists in infinite quantity, and space is without limit. Matter is composed of atoms, which are inconceivably minute, perfectly solid, and indestructible. Book II is devoted to an elaborate discussion of the atoms, treating their movements, shapes, and combinations. Sensation and feeling are declared to be an accident of atomic combination, a result of the coming together of atoms of certain shapes in certain ways.

The subject of the third book is the mind and soul, which, according to the poet, are inseparably united and of material nature, being composed of the finest and roundest atoms. He offers several proofs that the soul perishes at the same time with the body. Book IV deals with the phenomena of sense-perception. From the surface of all objects, thin films of matter are continually flying off, preserving the general outline of that from which they come. These impinge upon our senses, and perception is an immediate result. Yet in the adaptation of the senses to their functions, there is no evidence of design, no sign of creative intelligence. The fifth book sets forth the perishable nature of the world, its formation from a fortuitous concourse of atoms, the origin of life by spontaneous generation, the preservation of animal life in accordance with the law of the survival of the fittest, and the development of man in civilization out of a condition of brutish savagery. In Book VI, the poet attempts to explain the natural phenomena, which seem most terrible and inexplicable, particularly thunder and lighting, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, the changes of the Nile, and the power of the magnet. The poem ends abruptly with a description of the plague at Athens, and was evidently given to the world before it had received the final recession of the author.

In the matter of the poem, Lucretius followed closely the teachings of Epicurus, whom he revered as guide and master. With a truly Roman spirit, he laid more emphasis upon the region of law in the universe than his teacher; but he made no contribution in the way of doctrine to the Epicurean system. Whether he intended to bring his work to a close with a presentation of the ethical views of Epicurus it is impossible to determine; but numerous references show that in these, also, the poet was fully in sympathy with his master. That of the poem of Empedocles, On Nature, perhaps suggested the form of the De Rerum Natura. The thought and manner of expression reveal the influence of several Greek poets besides Empedocles (notably Homer and Euripides), and of the early Roman poets (particularly Eunius), as well as of Cicero's Aratea. Yet the poem throughout bears the stamp of a marked individuality. Believing deeply himself in the mission of Epicureanism as a cure-all for human ills, Lucretius proclaimed its teachings with an almost religious fervor. Previous to his time, this system of philosophy had received only scanty treatment in Latin, that, too, in barbarous prose. From the multitude of its technical details and the absence of a supernatural element, it seemed incapable of poetic handling. Nevertheless, Lucretius succeeded not only in presenting the main features of Epicurean physics and psychology with admirable clearness, but also even in clothing them with a highly poetic form. There are, indeed, passages of unequal merit, and now and then the lack of the poet's finishing touches becomes unpleasantly apparent; yet from beginning to end, the poem carries the reader along with a kind of epic movement and interest.

The existing manuscripts of Lucretius are all derived from a single archetype, which has long since disappeared. From this at least three copies were made. One of these, a beautiful folio of the ninth century, is now at Leyden (called A by Munro). Another was the parent of the quarto MS. of the tenth century (B), also at Leyden, and of two others of which there are considerable fragments at Copenhagen and Vienna. The third copy was taken by Poggio to Italy in the fifteenth century, and became the ancestor of the numerous Italian MSS. Of the De Rerum Natura.