The Roman Epicurean poet Lucretius is often celebrated (or condemned) as a key figure in the development of modern secular thought. His scientific epic poem On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura) contains many radical ideas, including a physics based on atoms and vacuum, the first fully mechanical account of nature, ideas of species development and natural selection, and it denies divine creation, Providence, and the immortal soul. Because of the threat these ideas posted to Christianity, Lucretius and Epicureanism were much attacked by early Church Fathers, and throughout the Middle Ages ‘Epicurean’ appeared as a term of abuse, interchangeable with heretic, atheist, even sodomite. When Lucretius’s poem was rediscovered in 1417, the first readers to study his work all knew his sinister reputation, but chose nonetheless to read, copy, and eventually publish this most infamous ancient. Close examination of surviving Renaissance manuscripts reveals that most of the scholars who risked their reputations to read and Lucretius also believed that his radical ideas were completely wrong. The notes and thoughts Renaissance readers scribbled in the margins of their copies of Lucretius reveal how and why comparatively orthodox scholars studied and defended this infamous author, and thus how the book survived to reach more receptive audiences in later centuries.
Ada Palmer, Assistant Professor of Early Modern European History and the College; Associate Faculty of Classics; and Member of the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge, the University of Chicago