From Book III of De Rerum Natura of Titus Lucretius Carus
translated by David R. Slavitt
And those other fabulous monsters? Cerberus? The Furies?
Tartarus belching fire? We know that they do not exist,
and yet they speak to us, for which of us is not troubled
by guilt and the fear that somehow punishment must follow
at least as bad as the crime? And what we see in the world 890
that happens out in public—being cast down to death
from the Tarpeian Rock, for instance—must be exceeded in Hades.
Hot pitch, executioners, torture, and all those ghastly diversions
the judges impose on felons scare us and let us imagine
an eternity of whips, firebrands, and scourges,
the effect of which is to make life on this earth a hell
for those fools who cannot distinguish dreams from the truth.
What you must tell yourself would have to include the thought
that even good Ancus, the fourth king of Rome, at last had to close
his eyes on the light, “a far better man than you,” as Homer 900
says of Patroclus’s death. And other kings and great men
who ruled over powerful nations have died, every single one.
Xerxes, who paved the ocean for his men to cross and scorned
the sea’s power, is dead and his spirit has fled his body.
Scipio Africanus, who won at Zama, lost
his bones at last to the earth as if he had been some slave.
Add to them the men of science and engineering,
and the painters and poets, the Muses’ companions and devotés,
even Homer himself . . . all laid to their last rest
in the same sleep with the others. Democritus as well, 910
when he realized that his mind was beginning to fail him, chose
to starve himself to death, offering freely a life
he no longer found pleasing. And Epicurus, this poem’s
hero, whose intellect surpassed all mankind’s, who shone
with a light brighter than any star and as bright as the sun
in the daytime sky, died when his life had run its circuit.
Then ask yourself why you should be better or different from these
great men, or indignant that death should be waiting for you, too?
Who are you? And why should you be somehow excused?
You are more dead than alive, sleep through great swaths of time, 920
and snore even when you’re awake. You can hardly distinguish between
phantoms and real dangers: your thoughts are plagued with terrors
as empty as children’s nursery fears. You are often depressed
for no particular reason. You drink too much to dull
your cares, but you obliterate your intellect as you drift
aimlessly through your life from one idle whim to the next.
Consider how most men live, with that terrible weight on their minds
that wearies them with its unremitting burden of woe.
Why do they live as they do, ignorant of their own
desires and seeking always to change places with others 930
whom they suppose to be happy? That man who is bored to death
in his great townhouse goes forth to find some better amusement,
but then he returns home, no better off than before.
Or he hitches his Gallic horses and gallops off to his country
villa so swiftly you’d think it must have caught fire, but, no,
he has hardly crossed the threshold when he yawns and falls asleep,
or perhaps gets drunk, or else make plans to return to the city.
What he is trying in vain to escape is, of course, himself,
and no matter how fast he runs, he is just as desperate and bored,
an ailing man who cannot even describe his disease. 940
Note to our readers: This translation will soon be published by the University of California. The numbers in it represent the numbers corresponding to the translation, not the original Latin.
Also, you may notice subtle differences within the text with regard to spacing and alignment. This text does not offer an exact replica of the print, due to issues related to relative screen pixels. We hope that you appreciate the translation and our attempt to preserve the text in electronic form.*
* The Romans were not adept with digital pixels.
Per Contra Poetry - Fall 2006