On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura)
by Titus Lucretius Carus (c. 99 - c. 55 BCE)
This abridged presentation of Lucretius' famous six-book poem on nature focuses mostly on those passages essential to Epicureanism based on translations by Sisson and Rouse. The contents of these files are not public domain, but appear by permission of the copyright holders mentioned in the notices at the bottom of each page -- all rights reserved. About 50% to 60% of the text from each book is represented here; breaks in the text are demarcated by a numeric heading which corresponds to the line number of the Latin manuscript.
An unabridged public-domain translation is also available at MIT.
Who is skillful enough to produce an adequate poem
about the magnificent world and these discoveries about it?
Does anyone so use language that he can praise appropriately
the man [Epicurus] who made these discoveries and left them for us?
I think the subject beyond an ordinary mortal,
for to put things in the way so superb a subject
demands, Memmius, a person no less than that deity
who first discovered the explanation of life
which is now called wisdom, and who had the ability
to rescue life from all its storms and darkness
and put it down in a calm and brilliant light.
Compare what he did with what the other gods did.
Ceres brought corn and Bacchus started the notion
of making the most of the juice that comes from the vine.
Yet neither of these two gifts is indispensable
and travelers say some countries still do without them.
But you cannot live well unless your heart is unclouded.
Reason enough to consider that man as a deity
from whom we get these delightful consolations
which soothe the mind and make life tolerable.
Or perhaps after all you have a preference for Hercules;
If you do let me tell you, you are completely wrong.
Should we really worry now about the gaping
jaws of the lion, or that boar in Arcady?
Or about that bull in Crete, or that plague in Lerna,
the hydra whose head was protected by poisonous snakes?
What about the triplet body of Geryon?
Or Diomedeís horses breathing fire from their nostrils
in Thrace, along the Bistonian border and Ismara?
Do they matter all that much? Do we fear those harpies
with their raucous cries and their claws on Lake Stymphalus?
And the snake which had to look after the golden apples
of the Hesperides, he certainly looked fierce
and had to wrap his enormous length around the tree;
What harm could he do on his remote Atlantic shore
where we donít go and the savages donít dare to?
The same with all those monsters that were gotten rid of,
If they hadnít been killed, would they do much harm alive?
None at all, I think: for there are enough wild beasts
even now; there is plenty to be afraid of
in woods, upon great mountains and in deep forests
but none the less we can generally avoid them.
But unless the heart is cleansed, what struggles we face,
what dangers, and hardly know how it comes about!
How bitterly are we torn if we let lust coax us,
What cares we have and then, what fears as well!
Or how much pride and filthiness and petulance
and what disasters! What self-indulgence and laziness!
The man who gets the better of all this
by words and without weapons, will not such a one
deserve to be reckoned among deities?
The more if he has himself given explanations
about the immortal gods and revelations
about the order of nature in its entirety.
Following his footsteps, I too attempt to find reasons
and in my writings to show how all is created
within a system from which nothing can escape;
And that there are laws of time which must be obeyed.
And first, the soul itself is subject to them
óformed of a body which itself was bornó
it cannot last intact throughout the ages;
It is only images cheat our minds in dreams
when we think we see someone whom life has abandoned.
For the rest, the general plan of my work now brings me
to show the mortality of the world itself,
that it too has a body which had a beginning.
I hope to show from what assembled material
the earth, sky, sea, stars, sun all came together
and the globe of the moon; what kinds of living creatures
sprang out of the earth and what kinds never existed;
How the human race with different ways of talking
began to converse by giving names to things;
And how it was that the fear of the gods found an entrance
into menís minds, and now guards all over the world
shrines, lakes, groves, and altars and statues of gods.
Besides, I will deal with the course of sun and moon
and by what forces they are naturally steered
lest you make the mistake of thinking their own free will
sends them about the sky in sacred procession
compliantly ripening corn and controlling destinies
or imagine that they move by the will of the gods.
Even those who have taken the point that the gods are indifferent
sometimes wonder how the whole affair is managed
and are specially concerned about things overhead
which they see rolling round so high in the heavens.
Once more they revert to the ancient superstitions
and take back those terrible masters they think all-powerful,
not knowing that there are some things which can happen
and some which cannot, that every power is limited
by the system itself, and that everything has an end.
more scrupulously and also with greater certainty
than the Pythian priestess from the tripod and laurel of Phoebus,
I will go into this consoling matter quite thoroughly,
so that you donít superstitiously imagine
that earth and sun and sky, sea, stars and moon
are divine material and ought to be everlasting;
Or take the view that, just like the giants and Titans
anyone ought to be subject to criminal punishments
who so to speak reasons away the walls of the world
and looks as if he wanted to put out the sun
and brand the everlasting with common speech.
These things in fact are far from any divinity
and certainly not to be counted among the gods;
They seem rather to be outstanding examples
of the sort of things which has neither life nor feeling.
It is not as if there were reason to think that a mind
can equally well exist in any body.
Trees cannot grow in the sky, and in the salt sea
you will find no clouds, and fish do not live in fields,
There is no blood in wood and there is no sap in rocks;
Everything grows and lives in fixed conditions:
It is the nature of mind that it cannot arise
except in the body and close to the sinews and blood.
You might rather expect, I suppose, to find the intellect
in the head or shoulders or possibly in the heels
if it could pop up anywhere;
At least that would still be within the human container.
But as it seems that even within the body
there is a fixed location where soul and mind can grow
there can be no reason whatever for asserting
they could hold their own outside any animal body,
in the crumbling soil or in the fire of the sun,
In water, or in the highest ethereal regions.
No question therefore of these things being divine
since it is clear that they are not even alive.
that the gods can live in any part of the world.
Their nature is delicate and far from anything
our senses perceive; it can hardly be seen by our minds.
And since it has always eluded the touch of our fingers
it must find intangible anything we can touch
for what cannot touch can certainly not be touched.
Therefore the gods must live in quite different conditions
from us, in mansions as delicate as themselves:
A point I will return to and deal with more fully.
established this marvelous world and that on that account
we are in duty-bound to praise their work
and even to believe that it will last forever:
That its is blasphemy, in the face of their venerable wisdom
which made all this for our eternal benefit
ever to question what goes on in their residences,
to talk disrespectfully and turn things upside-down
óto go on like this is, I assure you, Memmius,
absolute rubbish. These immortal and blessed beings
could be none the better for any thanks we could give them:
Why should they therefore do anything for us?
What could have happened to make them want to change
their way of life which had gone on so smoothly so long?
Surely to get any pleasure out of novelties
implies something wrong with what you have already?
But a being who has never known pain
and has passed the time beautifully,
whatever could make him itch for something new?
Or are we to think life was passed in shadows and sorrows
till things were brightened up by a new generation?
Would it have hurt us not to have been created?
Admittedly once you are born you want to stay
but then there is pleasure to persuade you to keep alive.
But for one who has never tasted the Venus of living
what drawback could there be in not being born?
And where would the gods have found a model to work from
or first got the notion of what man should be like?
How could they see in their minds what they wanted to make?
How could they have known the properties of the elements
and the likely results of various combinations
if nature did not provide them with examples?
So many elements in so many ways
in collision with each other for infinite time
and always kept in motion by their weight
attempted all possible ways of coming together
and every creation which could be so produced:
No wonder they have found the arrangement they have
and entered on the courses which gave us the universe
which now persists by a constant self-renewal!
If I knew nothing of the nature of elements
yet, given the behavior of celestial bodies
and from other observations, I would conclude
that nature was not a divine invention
intended for us: there is so much that is wrong with it.
In the first place, of all that the immense skies roll over,
there are the mountains and woods which ravenous beasts
have taken possession of; there are rocks, vast marshes,
and the sea which keeps the various shores apart.
Two thirds are rendered useless to men by either
blazing heat or else intolerable cold.
What is left for agriculture would be overrun
by thorns and the like if we did not take it in hand
in order to keep alive and, groaning in labor,
turn up the earth all the time with hoe and plow.
If we did not turn the fertile soil with the plowshares
and work at it until the crops came up
they would not emerge into the air on their own.
And yet so often the product of all this labor,
when at last the leaves appear and everything flowers,
is either burnt up by excessive heat
or else is ended by the rains and frost
or blown about by violent gales of wind.
What of all those terrifying breeds of wild animals
which are dangerous to man on land or sea?
Why does nature encourage them? And why at all seasons
are there so many sick? And why do so many die young?
The child is like a sailor cast up by the sea,
lying naked on the shore, unable to speak,
helpless, when first it comes to the light of day,
shed from the womb through all the pains of labor,
and fills the place with cries as well it might,
having a life of so many ills before it.
Yet flocks and herds, to say nothing of wild beasts,
donít need a rattle or anything of that kind
nor even a nurse to feed them with baby-talk:
Nor do they need sets of clothes for summer and winter.
One may add that they donít need weapons or high walls
to keep them safe, they find themselves perfectly happy
walking around in a world which produces plenty.
And first, if it is the whole of the sky which turns
the air must press with particular force on the poles
and hold them so that at those points there is no movement
while another current flows in the direction
the glittering stars follow in their rotation;
Or else the current flows underneath the world
as we see rivers turn a water-wheel.
On the other hand the whole sky may stay still
while the brilliant stars are somehow carried across:
Either because there are rapid currents of either
circulating as they look for a way out
and these carry the stars and determine their orbit;
Or else a current of air coming from outside
accounts for their movements: or they glide by themselves
in search of food and go wherever they find it,
feeding on elements of flame here and there in the sky.
It is not easy to establish with certitude
the cause of events I this word; my aim is rather
to show what is possible anywhere in the universe
in various worlds formed upon various plans
and to set out the several causes which might operate
throughout the universe to move the stars.
Only one of these can operate in our sky
and I will not venture to say which it might be;
The advance of knowledge is inevitably gradual.
For the earth to rest as it does in middle of our system
its weight must gradually decrease to vanishing point
so that underneath it is of a different nature
and has been from its beginnings
one with the air in which it is embodied.
That is why it has no weight and can ride on air
Rather as a man does not feel the weight of his limbs
and the head does not weigh on the neck, and we do not feel
the whole weight of our bodies upon our feet
while any burden placed on us from outside
we feel at once, though the weight may be much less:
Which shows how the circumstances make a difference.
The earth does not therefore rest upon alien material
but is cushioned by something which has the nature of air
and was conceived with it from the beginning of the world,
a part of the system as our limbs are part of us.
When the earth is struck by a sudden clap of thunder
the whole atmosphere about it shakes,
which could not happen in this way if earth were not
joined somehow or other to the air and sky.
They are, indeed, fixed by their common roots
and have been together since the beginning of time.
Do you not see how, for all the weight of the body,
the soul with its subtle nature can support it
because they have always been together as one?
And what could lift the body when it leaps in the air
except the strength of the soul which controls the limbs?
So you see how a subtle nature can be strong
when joined to a heavy body, and that is the case
with air and the earth and with ourselves and our soul.
The disc of the sun must be the same size, more or less
as it seems to our sense, and just about as hot,
for however far it may transmit its heat
the distances take nothing from the mass of flames
and it does not appear any smaller than it is.
The heat of the sun and the light which it pours out
arrive at our organs of sense and fall on the earth,
so its form and size must be as they appear
without indeed addition or subtraction.
The moon may shine because it is struck by the rays of the sun
and turns the light increasingly towards us
the further she recedes from the ball of the sun
until just opposite him she shines out full
and at her rising watches the sun go down:
Then slowly reversing her steps she must hide her light
in the same way, the nearer she slides to the sun,
passing through the other half of the zodiac;
That is the theory of those who think that the moon
is a ball which runs below the course of the sun;
Which seems to me a true hypothesis.
It may be, however, that the moon has her own light
and turns and shows the various shapes of her brightness.
There may be some other body which turns with the moon,
obscuring her light in varying degrees as it moves,
a body which cannot be seen since it has no light.
Now I go back to the early days of the world
when the ground was soft and gave birth to new productions
committing them to the care of the wayward winds.
In the beginning, the earth gave forth vegetation and bright foliage
all over the hills and across the level plains;
The flowering meadows glittered with bright green;
The different trees rose high in the air,
striving with nothing holding them back.
Like first feathers and hair and bristles appearing
on the naked bodies of quadrupeds and birds,
the new earth shot out grass and shrubs at first
and then went on to produce the mortal animals,
great numbers of them, starting in various ways.
The animals cannot have fallen from the sky
nor those that live on land have come out of the sea.
No wonder therefore the earth is called our mother
since every creature came out of the ground.
Many creatures still exist underneath;
It takes the rain and sun to bring them up:
The less cause for wonder, therefore, that more and larger creatures
were brought to birth when the earth and air were young.
But since all fecundity must have an end, she gave up
like a woman who is past the time of childbearing.
Time changes the nature of the whole world;
Everything passes from one state to another
and nothing stays like itself: all things pass away;
Nature obliges everything to change about.
One thing crumbles and falls in the weakness of age;
Another grows in its place from a negligible start.
So time alters the whole nature of the world
and earth passes from one state to another:
She can no longer bear what she could,
but she bears what before she could not.
which came out with extraordinary faces and bodies,
the androgenóneither one sex nor the other
but between the two; there were creatures without hands or feet;
Mutes without mouths, blind creatures with nothing to look with,
and some with arms and legs so stuck to their bodies
that they could not do anything or go anywhere,
evade disaster or get what they needed for survival.
All such monsters were born without a future;
Their nature was such that they could not increase;
They never had a chance of reaching maturity;
They could not find food nor make a sexual connection.
We know that many conditions must be satisfied
if a species is to last and reproduce itself:
First there must be food for it, and then a channel
through which the genetic particles in the limbs
can find a way out; and the female must fit the male;
There must be organs which can give mutual pleasure.
Many species will have died out at this period,
not having the capacity to continue their race.
For wherever you see a creature which has survived,
it is craft or strength or mobility that has saved it,
affording protection from the very beginning.
There are many animals which have survived because
they were useful enough to us for us to protect them.
With lions and other beasts of like ferocity
it was strength which preserved them; with the fox it was craftiness;
With deer it was speed. But the light-sleeping, faithful dog
and all the various beasts of burden
as well as the woolly sheep and all sorts of cattle:
All these have been entrusted to men to look after, Memmius.
They were anxious to escape wild beasts and live in peace
and obtain plenty of food without any labor;
We gave them all that but the price was that they had to be useful.
However, the animals nature endowed with none of these qualities,
who were neither able to live after their own manner
nor to render us any service for which we would tolerate
their living at our expense and being protected
óthese it is clear would merely be prey for others,
as it were entangled in their unfortunate selves
until nature brought their race to complete destruction.
was harder, having come from the hard ground.
They were constructed inside of larger bones,
stronger than ours, and their flesh was entirely sinuous.
It took more than heat or cold to exhaust such men;
They ate whatever offered and were not sick.
Through many repetitions of the sunís course
they followed a wandering life as wild beasts do.
They did no to employ their energies at the plow
and did not know the use of iron in agriculture
nor how to plant saplings, or lop boughs from old trees.
Whatever the sun and rain gave them they took
and were content with what earth grow on her own.
An oak-tree bearing acorns gave them enough
in the ordinary way, with the berries which you see still
on the arbutus in winter, red when they are ripe,
but larger and more numerous in those days.
The young earth bore a variety of coarse crops,
more than enough for the needs of its wretched inhabitants.
River and springs called men to slake their thirst
as now from high mountains the course of descending water
summons wild beasts from far and wide with its noise.
As they wandered in the night they came upon
the wooded haunts of nymphs, out of which, they knew
water would come splashing over the rocks,
the rocks dripping and covered with wet green moss,
and part of it bubbling out over the level plain.
nor how to dress themselves in wild beastsí skins.
They lived in groves and caves and in the forests
and sheltered their dirty bodies in the undergrowth
when buffeting winds and rain became too much.
They had no notion at all of the common good,
understanding nothing of custom or of law.
The man who was lucky and found some prey went off with it,
the only idea they had was: each man for himself;
And Venus coupled their bodies in the forest;
What brought them together was either that both wanted it,
or the man was violent and his lust was threatening,
or he offered bribes such as acorns, berries, or choice pears.
Trusting to the marvelous powers of their hands and feet
they would follow the tracks of wild beasts in the woods
and attack them with showers of stones, or club them down;
They could get the better of most, but a few they fled.
And like bristly swine they would throw themselves on the ground
naked, whenever the night came down upon them,
covering themselves as best they could with leaves.
Yet there was no question of waiting for the day
or wandering around in terror looking for it;
They waited silently and buried in sleep
till the sun with its red beacon brought back the light.
Accustomed from childhood to night and day
being produced in turn in constant succession,
it never occurred to them to be astonished,
nor to fear that the night when it came might last forever.
They were much more concerned about the savage beasts
which would often make a sleep the end of everything:
Driven from the shelter of their rock or cave
by the arrival of a wild boar or a lion
at dead of night and in an excess of terror
they would give up their pile of leaves to their savage guest.
There was not much more death about then than there is now
and little occasion to depart from life with laments.
No doubt it happened more often that some wild beast
got hold of someone and so made a lively dinner,
the hills and forests would be filled with moaning
as the man saw his flesh going into a living grave.
If anyone escaped with a piece bitten out of him
he would clutch his horrible wounds with trembling hands
and call for an end to it all with a strident voice
until cruel torments put an end to his life
without help, all being ignorant of what a wound wanted.
On the other hand, there was then no dying in thousands
in a single day in a military formation;
Nor was there any danger of being shipwrecked.
The sea often raged of course, but it brought about nothing
and had in the end to withdraw its empty threats;
Nor was there any question of a calm surface
enticing anyone with its treacherous smiles.
The desperate business of going to sea was unknown.
In those days it was starvation which finished men off
and now the same result is produced by plenty.
Then people accidentally poisoned themselves;
Now with great skill they poison one another.
and women became the property of one man.
So the chaste pleasures of a private Venus
were first invented and couples had their own children.
It was then that the human race began to soften.
Fire had the effect of making bodies less able
to bear the cold under the open sky;
Venus reduced their strength, and children with endearments,
easily broke down the stiff pride of their parents.
Then people first began to have friends and neighbors,
they did not seek to injure or treat with violence;
They gave a certain protection to women and children
and made it known in confused gestures and speech
that there ought to be some pity for those who are weak.
Of course they could not establish general peace
but a good proportion of people behaved in good faith;
If they hadnít, the human race would soon have died out
and the present would do without us and our breed.
and they found it useful to give names to things
much for the reason that we see children now
have recourse to gestures because they cannot yet speak
and point their fingers at things which appear before them.
Everyone tries to use the powers that are in him:
As calves will butt before they have grown their horns.
The young of the panther and of the lioness
fight with their claws and feet and teeth before
they have really got any teeth or claws to fight with.
In the same way we see that birds of very kind
begin to trust their wings before they can fly.
Therefore to think that somebody handed out names
to things and that this is how men first learned to speak
is idiotic: for if one man could so designate objects,
and make all the various sounds with his tongue,
why could not others do the same thing at the same time?
Besides, if others too had not made use
of words among themselves, how could they have guessed
words might be useful? And how could one man get the idea
in his mind in the first place and see what he wanted to do?
And one man could hardly force many to do as he fancied,
to see the point of learning the names of things.
It isnít easy to make the deaf understand
what one wants to teach them;
Those early men would not have stood for it
nor see any reason to put up with all that noise
being drummed into ears which naturally understood none of it.
Lastly, what is there so strange about the fact
that the human race, with a powerful voice and tongue,
should designate different impressions by different sounds?
Since even dumb cattle, to say nothing of wild beasts,
are in the habit of uttering different cries
in fear or pain and when they are bursting with joy.
These are matters which you can learn by observation.
by new ways of using fire, which the most inventive
and ingenious among them pointed out to the rest.
Kings began to found cites and construct fortresses
to serve as strong places and a refuge when necessary;
They divided the land and cattle and gave them out
to those who were beautiful, strong or showed intelligence.
Beauty and strength were, both of them, much esteemed;
Then wealth was discovered and soon after it was gold
which quickly became more honored than strength or beauty.
For men, however strong or beautiful,
generally follow the train of a richer man.
But if anyone were to conduct his life by reason,
he would find great riches in living a peaceful life
and being contented, one is never short of a little.
But men want always to be powerful and famous
so that their fortune rests on a solid foundation
and they can spend a placid life in opulence.
There isnít a hope of it; to attain great honors
you have to struggle along a dangerous way
and even when you reach the top there is envy
which can strike you down like lightning into Tartarus.
For envy, like lightning, generally strikes at the top
or any point which sticks out form the ordinary level.
So it is better to submit and live in quiet
than to want to be the master of several kingdoms.
Let people wear themselves out, let them sweat blood,
struggling up the narrow road of ambition;
Since they know no more than they hear from the mouths of others
and go for what they have heard, not what they perceive;
That is how things are and have been and will be.
So the kings were killed and that was the end of thrones
in their pristine majesty, and of the pride of scepters:
The crowned head, covered in blood, was kicked around
by the feet of the mob and had cause for dusty tears:
It is pleasant to trample on something that we have feared.
Power then went to the lowest dregs of the mob,
everyone fancied that he should be the top man.
Then some men had the idea of setting up magistracies
and establishing codes so that people could live by law.
For the human race had grown tired of anarchy
with its hostilities and so more easily yielded
of its own free will to live under legal restrictions;
The vengeance which individuals exacted in anger
was worse than is now enjoined under regular laws
óone can understand why men were sick of anarchy.
After that fear of punishment spoiled the prizes.
Violence and wrong catch people in their own nets
and those who start such things are most often entangled.
It is not easy to pass a peaceful life
if you act in a way that disturbs the general peace.
Although you elude the gods and the human race
you still must wonder whether your secret will be kept forever.
Are there not many people who talk in their sleep?
Or might not some word escape you in a delirium?
Crimes long concealed have come to light that way before.
which has spread to all nations and filled their cities with altars?
What has given support to all those sacred rites
so prominent everywhere on great occasions?
What is the source of that deep-seated terror
which has raised sanctuaries all over the world
and has compelled men to celebrate holy days?
It is not so difficult to explain all this.
Even in those times mortals would see the gods
in imagination, even when awake,
and in their dreams they were all the more impressive.
They attributed feelings to them because they saw
their limbs move and heard them speak fine words
suitable for such powerful and good-looking beings.
They thought them immortal, because they were always appearing
and yet somehow their form remained the same;
And because, after all, with all that strength they had,
one could hardly imagine anyone getting the better of them.
They thought them the most fortunate of beings
because they could not be troubled by the idea of death
and because in their dreams they saw them do marvelous things
without showing even the faintest sign of fatigue.
Besides, they saw the order of the celestial system
and how the seasons came around without mistake;
They did not guess at all how all that could happen
so they took refuge in attributing it all to the gods
and supposed they did it by a nod of the head.
They assumed the sky was where the gods would live
because that was where the sun and the moon had their residences,
the moon, the day, the night, and the solemn nightly stars,
the meteors that wander by night, the flying flames,
clouds, dew, rain, snow; the winds and lightning and hail;
The sudden rumblings and threatening murmurs of thunder.
Oh miserable human race, to ascribe such acts
to the gods and then to suppose them bitterly angry!
What troubles they made for themselves, what harm they did us,
what tears we shall leave behind for our descendants!
It is not piety to be repeatedly seen
turning a veiled head towards a piece of stone
and making sure you visit all the altars
with the blood of animals and a procession of prayers,
but to look on everything with a mind at peace.
When we look up to the temples of the sky
and the ether fast above all the glittering stars
and as we think of the course of the sun and the moon,
then to add to the other ills which weigh us down,
this fear also begins to raise its head:
That the power of the gods may be unlimited
and it may be that which sets the stars in motion.
It is this poverty of reason which troubles the mind
and we wonder about the origins of the world
and whether it may not end, and if the walls of the world
may not be able to stand this motion much longer;
Or whether, the gods having rendered them eternal,
they might go gliding on and on forever,
defying forever the strong power of time.
Besides, whose mind is not contracted with fear
because of the gods? Whose body is not afraid
when the parched earth trembles under the lightning
and great rumblings of thunder cross the sky?
Are not whole nations terrified? Kings may be proud,
but they stoop quickly enough when they fear the gods,
afraid that for some one crime or even a word
the day of reckoning may suddenly have come.
When wind and waves exhibit all their violence
and sweep before them the commander of the fleet,
to say nothing of his legions and elephants,
does he not seek the mercy of the gods
and timidly ask for a lull and favorable winds?
It does no good, for the fierce hurricane
often carries him to the shallows of death all the same:
So much a secret force kicks men around
and tramples on all the splendid rods and axes
which it seems to treat with something less than respect.
And finally, when the whole world rocks under our feet
and cities are shaken and fall or threaten to do so,
what wonder if human beings abase themselves
and hand over everything which happens here
to the power of the gods and let them rule everything?
Next, copper and gold and iron were discovered,
lumps of silver, and what could be done with lead,
when fire consumed huge forests in a blaze
on high mountains, either started by lightning,
or because, when they were waging war in the woods,
men brought in fire to terrify their enemies;
Or because, seeing the soil was fertile, they wanted
to open up new fields or make new pastures;
Or perhaps to drive out beasts and grow rich on the spoil,
for pits and fires were certainly used in hunting
long before men had snares and packs of hounds.
However it happened, and whatever the cause of flames,
when the forests were crackling up from their very roots
so that the earth beneath was baked deep down,
out of its burning veins there trickled a stream
of silver and gold and copper and lead, and collected
in hollow places: and when men saw it set,
when the fire had gone, and shine with its brilliant colors
they were taken with it and picked up the smooth shining pieces
and found they had taken the shape of the dips they had run in.
Then it occurred to men that they could melt metals
and let them run into any mold they liked;
After which they could be made as sharp and fine as they pleased
by hammering and drawing out the points;
So they made tools with which they could cut down forests,
trim the wood and smooth it into planks
and finally pierce it and bore holes.
At first they set about using silver and gold
as well as the much stronger metal, copper:
They proved no good, it was found that they simply bent
and could not stand up half as well to the work.
Then copper was more valued and gold neglected
as something useless you couldnít put a good point on:
Now copper has gone down and what men honor is gold.
So time, as it runs on, changes every fashion
and what was once valued attracts no honor at last.
Then something else comes along, which was disregarded
but now is more sought after from day to day
and everyone praises that and says it is marvelous.
It is easy now, Memmius, to find out for yourself
in what way the nature of iron was discovered.
The original weapons were hands and nails and teeth
and stones and pieces of broken wood from the forest
and flames and fire, once the use of them was known.
The value of iron came to light after that of copper
which is easier to work and found in greater abundance.
It was with copper men plowed, it was with copper
men threw themselves into battle and dealt out wounds,
acquired cattle and fields as well: for those who are naked
and have no arms give way to those who are armed.
Gradually the iron sword became popular
and a sickle of copper became ridiculous;
It was with iron that men tore up the ground
and its general use made chances in war more equal.
The habit of armed men mounting on horseback
and guiding the horse with one hand while they fight with the other
is older than risking the battle from a two-horsed chariot,
and two-horsed chariots came before chariots-of-four
where the armed man is protected by scythes on the wheels.
Later came elephants with towers on their backs
and trunks like snakes: the Carthaginians trained them
to take wounds calmly and make the enemy panic.
Discord invented one device after another
to make war ghastly to the nations engaged in it;
From day to day the horrors of war increased.
Men even tried to use bulls as part of the army
and to loose fierce boars into the midst of the enemy;
Some went to battle preceded by powerful lions
with armed trainers to keep them under control
who were supposed to guide and hold them in leash.
It didnít work; they got excited by carnage
and caused confusion a little too indiscriminately
and their fearful manes popped up in unsuitable places:
There was no controlling the horses, and no certainty
that they would continue to advance on the enemy.
The lionesses threw their excited bodies
in all directions and would attack whomever they met,
while others they would unexpectedly take from the rear
and pin them down to the ground or leave them wounded,
or fasten them with their teeth and claws.
The bulls would toss and trample on their owners
and rip the bellies of horses from below
or at least churn up the ground and look very threatening.
The boars would tear up their allies with their tusks,
dyeing with blood the weapons broken upon them
and shaking up both infantry and cavalry.
For the horses would shy away from the side where the tusk was
or stand on their hind legs and try to take to the air:
That didnít work either, for their tendons were often snapped
and they came tumbling down in a heavy fall.
These animals which they though so domesticated
got a little heated with all that was going on,
the wounding, the shouting, the flight, the terror, the tumult;
It was quite impossible to collect even a few of them,
the whole menagerie flew in various directions
as elephants now when they are deeply wounded
will bolt and often damage their own side.
That was how things were managed: but I find it hard to believe
that men could not have see there would be trouble
before they brought so much of it on themselves:
But they did what they did no so much in the hope of winning
as to make their enemies suffer and die in the process
when they themselves had too few men and perhaps inferior weapons.
The imitation of birdsong by the voice
came long before the singing of measured verses
which men in time learned to make to please their ears.
The whistling of breezes through the hollow reeds
taught country people to blow into hollow stalks;
Bit by bit they learned to make the plaintive sounds
which came from the pipe when the fingers bring it to life;
A discovery of secluded groves and woods
and the pastures where shepherds spent their empty days.
These things they would find soothing and delightful
when full of food: for then all things are pleasant.
Often they lay stretched out on the soft grass
beside a stream and under the shade of a tree.
They took their pleasures at very little costs,
especially when the weather was good and the season
provided them with a suitable carpet of flowers
There were games then and talk and friendly laughter;
It was then that the country muse was at her best.
Head and shoulders were decorated with garlands
of flowers and leaves, which prompted various amusements
including some clumsy dancing out of time
and heavy feet stamping rather hard on the earth,
the occasion of smiles and a great deal of laughter
ófor everything was new, and that is exhilarating.
There was consolation for the absence of sleep
in the miscellaneous voices getting the song wrong
as someone ran his crooked lip over the pipes.
We have these amusements ourselves still in the evenings
but have learned to keep better time though that does not make us
listen to what we hear with any more pleasure
than those country people got from their entertainments.
For whatever we have, if we havenít known anything pleasanter,
will seem to us absolutely the best there is;
Yet generally, with the discovery of something better,
it loses its value and our feelings about it change.
So acorns came to be scorned; and nobody wanted a bed
of grass and leaves such as was once thought comfortable.
Garments made of skins were sneered at in time
although I think the invention of them was envied
and probably cost the original wearer his life;
Though, torn to pieces and covered with blood by the murderers,
the garment they stole probably wasnít much use to them.
Then it was skins, now it is gold and purple
people think so much of that they will go to war for it:
In my opinion the current error is worse.
Cold was torture to naked men and a sheepskin
did something for them: but there is no disadvantage
in managing without purple or gold or patterns
since ordinary clothes give all the cover we need.
It seems the human race likes to labor for nothing
and always to spend its time in empty cares.
Why? Because people donít understand that possession is limited
and that there is pleasure in it only up to a point.
It is this which has carried people drifting along
until they have stirred up all the storms of war.
But those vigilant watchers of the turning sky,
the sun and the moon, filling all with their light,
taught men the seasons came around always in order
and that everything happens in accordance with a pattern.
People had long learned to build themselves strong places
and long divided up and tilled the land;
They and made the sea blossom with ships under sail
and found out all about allies and making treaties
óall this before the poets began
to hand things down, writing had only must been invented:
That is why we cannot look back very far
except so far as reasoning allows us inferences.
Navigation, the cultivation of fields,
defenses, laws, arms, roads, clothes, all the rest,
even to all the elegances of life,
poems, pictures, marvelous statues, all are the outcome
of practice and indefatigable minds
for all have been achieved little by little.
So it is time produces different discoveries
and reason gradually brings them into the daylight.
So step by step the mind of man grew clearer
until the arts reached their perfection.