Translated by Ian Johnston
Vancouver Island University
Nanaimo, British Columbia

Minor Revisions 2017

For Table of Contents and information about this translation, including copyright, please use this link: Contents.



[Invocation to his own poetry; images of things exist, sent out from objects with a form just like the object; material of the image very small; images can shatter or be reflected; images move extremely quickly; sounds, smells, and taste are also particles sent out from things; images enable us to see how far away things are; images in a mirror; seeing things from light and darkness; shadows; senses do not deceive us; optical illusions; error of scepticism; how senses work; different sounds; penetration of sound and vision and smell; different tastes; different animals require different food; variety in odours; images affecting the mind; senses not made to serve living; explanation of physical motion; what happens in sleeping; nature of dreams; origin of human sexuality; nature of sexual activity; pleasures and problems of sex; transmission of hereditary features; causes of infertility; familiarity can lead to love.]


I am wandering through trackless regions                            THE PURPOSE OF THIS POETRY
of the Pierides, where no man’s foot
has ever gone before.(1) It gives me joy
to approach those fountains never tasted
by anyone and to drink from them.
I love to pick fresh flowers and obtain
a splendid garland for my head in places
from where Muses have never crowned the brows
of any man before. First, because I teach
important things and seek to free the mind                           10
from constricting fetters of religion.
And then because the verses I compose
about dark matters are so luminous,
investing all things with poetic grace.
And that, too, does not seem unreasonable.                                        [10]
For just as healers, when they try to give
young children foul-tasting wormwood, first spread
sweet golden liquid honey round the cup,
so at this age the unsuspecting child,
with honey on his lips, may be deceived                              20
and in the meantime swallow down the drink
of bitter gall—he may have been misled,
but he is not hurt—with such deception
he may be restored instead, grow stronger.
In the same way now, since this reasoning
seems generally too bitter for those men
who have not tried it and the common crowd                                      [20]
shrinks back in fear, I wanted to explain
what I have to say to you in verses,
sweet-spoken Pierian song, as if I were                              30
sprinkling it with poetry’s sweet honey,
if, with such a method, I could perhaps
get your attention on my verse, until
you see the entire nature of things
and recognize how useful that can be.

But since I have explained those particles
from which all substances originate,
what they are like and how, all on their own,
they move around, in various different shapes,
driven on by everlasting motion,                                          40
and how all things can be produced from them,
since I have shown what our mind’s nature is,
the substances of which it is composed,
as it grows and thrives along with body,
and then how, when separated from it,
mind goes back to its primary elements,
now I will begin to set out for you
something extremely pertinent to this.

There are what we call images of things                              IMAGES OF THINGS
stripped off the surface layers of substances,                       50             [40]
like membranes—these fly to and fro in air.(2)
These same images, when they contact us,
make our minds fearful while we are awake
and in sleep, as well, when we often see
strange shapes and images of dead people
deprived of light. Frequently they rouse us
from our sleep, as we lie there slumbering,
and terrify us. We must not assume,
by some mistake, that souls from Acheron
have got away, or that their shadows flit                              60
here among the living, or that some part
could still remain from us once we are dead,
when our body and the substance of our mind
have been destroyed together and reduced
to their own various primary particles.                                                 [50]
So, then, I say thin shapes and likenesses
of objects are sent out by those objects                              SURFACES OF OBJECTS SEND OUT MEMBRANES
from their top surfaces. These we can call,
as it were, membranes or bark, for each one
possesses an appearance and a form                                  70
that resemble whatever the object is
from which we say it was shed and wanders.
This we may understand from what follows,
no matter how obtuse our minds may be.

First, many things we see all around us
send out particles, sometimes thinly scattered,
as when wood produces smoke and fires heat,
and sometimes more compact and more condensed,
as cicadas now and then in summer
discard their smooth outer layer, young calves,                    80
after they are born, shake off the membrane
from the outer surface of their bodies,
and, in the same way, the slippery snake                                             [60]
strips off its outer skin among the thorns,
for frequently we see bramble bushes
full of fluttering hides from those animals.
Since this takes place, things also must emit
from their surface layer a thin image,
for why those substances should fall away
from things and leave rather than thin membranes                90
no one is able to enlighten us,
above all since on their outer surface
objects have many minute particles
which can be thrown off in the same order
in which they were arranged and thus preserve
the outline of their form. They can do this
much more quickly, for there are few of them                                     [70]
and, being placed on the outer surface,
they are less hemmed in.(3) For we truly see
many things detach and cast off matter,                               100
not only, as we previously mentioned,
from deep inside, but frequently as well
from their surfaces, including colour.
And this commonly occurs with awnings—
yellow and red and dark blue coverings—
which, when stretched out across large theatres
and spread everywhere on poles and timbers,
flutter and flap around, for their tint affects
the audience below them on the benches,
the whole appearance of the scenery                                  110
and men and women below, forcing them                                           [80]
to quiver in their colours.(4) And the more
they are enclosed all round by theatre walls,
the more all these things inside, when daylight
catches them, are filled with colour and smile.
Since from its outermost layer the cloth
sends out these tones, all other substances
must also send out subtle likenesses—
in both examples something is cast off
from the outer surface. It then follows                                 120
there are certain outlines of shapes, endowed
with subtle textures, which fly all around,
but which cannot be perceived on their own
as individual objects. Moreover,
all odour, smoke, heat, and other things                                              [90]
like these flow off objects and get dispersed,
since, while they are rising from deep within
and moving out through twisting passages,
they are torn up—the path they move along
lacks direct openings where they could try                          130
to make their way out in a single mass.
But, by contrast, when the slender membrane
of colour is cast off from the surface,
there is nothing which can mutilate it,
since its location on the very top
leaves it ready to fall off. Finally,
whenever images appear to us
in mirrors, water, all bright surfaces,
they must consist of images sent out,
because on the exterior they possess                                  140
an appearance resembling the objects.                                                [100]
Therefore, there are slim shapes and likenesses
similar to objects—although no one
can see them individually, they still
are thrown back in constant, successive waves,
while being reflected from flat surfaces
of mirrors and then give the image back.(5)
It seems there is no other way that shapes
can be preserved, so that for everything
reflected forms are very accurate.                                       150

Come now and learn how thin the substance is                                   [110]
which makes up an image. And first of all,                          IMAGES ARE THIN
since primary elements are far below
what we can sense and so much tinier
than those things which our eyesight first begins
to be incapable of noticing,
you must grasp in a few words how minute
the particles are of all elements
from which all things begin, so that I now
may confirm this point, as well. To start with,                      160
some living creatures are so very small
one cannot, by any means at all, see
a third of them. How must we imagine
the nature of their internal organs?
What of the round ball of their hearts or eyes?
What about their limbs? Or parts of their frame?
How minute are they? And then, what about                                       [120]
all the primary particles which must form
their souls and the material of their minds?
Surely you perceive how small and slender                         170
they must be? Moreover, all those objects
whose bodies give off a powerful smell—
nasty wormwood, pungent abrotanum,
bitter centaury, and panacea—
if you happen [to press] any of these
gently with two [fingers, the smell will stay
for some time, although you will not see
anything at all.(6) Thus, you may realize
how minute the primary particles are
which create the smell and then] understand                        180
more readily that many images
of objects float around in many ways
without any force and without being seen.

But in case you may perhaps imagine
those images of things which roam about
are, in fact, only those which are detached                                          [130]
from things, there are also images produced
spontaneously—they generate themselves                          SPONTANEOUSLY PRODUCED IMAGES
in this vault of heaven we call the air.
They are formed in many ways and carried                         190
in the air. Being fluid, they do not stop
changing their appearance, converting it
to all varieties of outlined shapes,
just like the clouds we see from time to time
which have no trouble gathering way up high,
spoiling the calm face of the firmament,
and which, as they move on, caress the air.
Often giants’ faces seem to fly past
and spread shadows far and wide, and sometimes
huge mountains and boulders ripped out from them             200
appear to move above our head and pass
before the sun—then some huge wild beast seems
to drag out and lead on other storm clouds.                                        [140]

Now, [I will explain] how quick and easy
the process is by which these images
are made, how they constantly flow from things,
slip off, and leave.(7) For some of the surface
always streams from things—matter is cast off.
And when this discarded material
meets certain substances, it passes through—                      210
glass is the best example—but when it strikes
rough rocks or wooden things, it shatters there
immediately, so it cannot provide
a single image. However, when objects                                              [150]
which are bright and dense are placed in its way—
the finest illustration is a mirror—
neither of these alternatives occurs,
for the image cannot travel through it,
as it can with glass, nor is it shattered,
since the smooth surface carefully preserves                        220
the image safely. That’s why images
happen to flow back from these surfaces
to us. And any time you set something,
however quickly, against a mirror,
its image will appear, so you may grasp
that thin shapes of things, with fragile textures,
always stream out from an object’s surface.

Therefore, many images are produced                                IMAGES ARE PRODUCED SWIFTLY
in a short space of time, and one may say,
with justice, that their origin is swift.                                    230            [160]
Just as the sun must send out numerous rays
in a brief moment, so that all places
may always be full of light, so from objects
many images of things must be carried,
in many ways, out to all locations
everywhere, in an instant, given that,
no matter where we direct the mirror
towards the surfaces of some objects,
the mirror will reflect those objects back
with the same shape and colour. Moreover,                        240
when the weather in the sky has just been
extremely clear, it can very quickly
become such a nasty storm, you could think
all darkness had everywhere left Acheron                                           [170]
and filled up the mighty vaults of heaven.
That’s how much the outlines of black terror
rise up in the ghastly night of storm clouds
and hang high above us. And yet how small
a part of these their image is no one
could explain or put in words.(8)

                                          Come, now,                             250
how quickly images are carried off
and what mobility they are given,
as they swim through air, so that they travel
huge distances in a brief length of time
to whatever place each one is aiming for
from the specific impulse it receives—
all this I will set down: the lines I write
will not be many, but they will sound sweet,                                        [180]
just as a swan’s brief song is preferable
to the scream of cranes scattering through clouds                260
high in the southern air. First, we can see
that light things made of tiny particles
are very often fast. This group includes
the sun’s light and heat, for they are composed
of minute primary elements which are,
so to speak, knocked out and have no trouble
moving through the intervening gap of air,
driven by a blow from those which follow,
for light is immediately replaced with light,
and brightness is goaded on by brightness,                           270            [190]
as if in strict succession.(9) And therefore,
images must, in a similar way,
be capable of rushing in an instant
across spaces we cannot imagine,
firstly, because there is a minute cause
some distance behind, which pushes them on
and propels them forward, then secondly,
because they are carried on so swiftly
thanks to their light weight, and finally,
because they are sent out with a texture                              280
so fine that they can easily pass through
any substances you like and, as it were,
break their way through the intervening air.(10)

Then, too, if tiny particles of things
which are dispatched outside from deep within,                                   [200]
like the sun’s light and heat, are seen to spread
across the entire extent of heaven
in one brief instant—they fly over sea
and land and flood the sky—what then happens
with those particles which now stand ready                         290
on the surface, when they are ejected
and nothing hinders them from being discharged?
Do you not see they must move more quickly
and go further, racing through many times
the extent of space in the same length of time
the sunlight takes to fill the sky?(11) This, too,
seems a true and excellent example
of how swift the motion is which carries                                              [210]
images of things along: as soon as
a bright water surface is first set out                                    300
in the open air under starry skies,
the world’s calm and radiant constellations
respond at once, appearing in the water.
Do you not now see in how short a time
the image falls from regions of the sky
to places here on earth? For this reason,
to repeat myself, you must concede the fact
that bodies are sent out which strike our eyes,
then stimulate our vision, and [these move
all the time with amazing rapidity].(12)                                 310

And smells constantly flow from certain things,
just as cold from rivers, heat from the sun,
and spray from sea waves, which consumes the walls                         [220]
around the shoreline. And different noises
keep flying through the air incessantly.
Then, too, when we are strolling near the sea,
often a salty tasting moisture comes
into our mouths; by contrast, when we watch
wormwood being diluted in a mixture,
something bitter makes contact with our mouths.                 320
That shows how much all that material
is carried away from every object,
dispersed in all directions everywhere.
And in this flow there is no slowing down,
no respite, for we feel it all the time—
we can always see and smell all objects
and hear their sounds.

                                           In addition to this,                                   [230]
because we know a shape we feel by hand
in the darkness is the same one we see
in clear and brilliant light, then touch and sight                      330
must be kindled by similar causes.
If, then, we now handle a square object
in the dark and it stimulates our sense,
then in daylight what square thing can contact
our sense of sight other than its image?
Thus, it is clear that the cause of seeing
is in images and that without them
we would not be able to see a thing.

Now, these images of things I talk of
are carried everywhere—they are cast off                           340            [240]
and dispersed on every side; however,
since we can see only with our eyesight,
it therefore happens that no matter where
we turn our sight, all objects on that side
strike it with their shape and colour. What’s more,              DISTANCE OF OBJECTS
the image enables us to see how far
each thing is away from us and makes sure
we can distinguish that. For the image,
when it is sent, immediately disturbs
and pushes forward whatever air stands                              350
between it and the eyes, and all this air
thus glides through our eyeballs and, as it were,
brushes the pupils and so keeps moving.
And thus it comes about that we perceive                                           [250]
how far distant each object is: the more air
pushed before the image and the longer
its breeze moves past our eyes, the further off
each thing is seen to be. You can be sure
these motions are produced by some process
which is extremely fast, so that we see                                360
what something is and, in the same instant,
how far away it is.

                                    In these matters,
we should not think it at all wonderful
that, while those images which strike the eye
one by one cannot be perceived, we do see
things themselves, for when the wind, too, strikes us
with successive gusts and when bitter cold
flows over us, normally we do not sense                                             [260]
each separate particle of wind and cold,
but rather all of them collectively,                                        370
and we then feel just as if our body
were being subjected to some injury,
as if some object were striking at us
and making us aware that it is there,
outside of us. And then, when our fingers
strike a stone, we make contact with the rock
on its extreme outside and the colour
on the surface, but we do not perceive
the colour with our touch, but rather feel
the very hardness deep inside the stone.                              380

Come now, and learn why we see an image                        MIRROR IMAGES
beyond the mirror, because the truth is                                               [270]
the image seems displaced deep within it.
It is like those things we really do observe
outside, when a door gives us a clear view
through it and from within the house lets us
look at many things outside. For this view
is produced by two twin waves of air, as well.
In this case, we first sense the wave of air
on our side of the door posts, then follow                           390
panels of the doors themselves, left and right,
then the outside light brushes through our eyes
and the second wave of air, and those things
we really see outside. In the same way,
when the image of the mirror first moves
out towards us, while it is still coming                                                  [280]
to our eyeballs, it strikes and pushes on
all the air located between itself
and our eyes, and does so in such a way
that we are able to feel all this air                                        400
before we sense the mirror.(13) However,
when we also see the mirror itself,
the image which is carried out from us
reaches the mirror instantaneously
and, once reflected, comes back to our eyes—
pushing and rolling on in front of it
another wave of air—and it does this
so that we sense the air before we see
the image. That’s why it seems so distant
from the mirror. Hence—to repeat myself—                       410
it is not right to be at all surprised
[that how we sense things happens in this way
both for the things we truly see outside
and also] for those which give back an image                                     [290]
from the level surface of a mirror,
since in both cases the effect occurs
by the two waves of air.(14)

                                                  Now, in mirrors
those parts of our limbs which are on the right
are so arranged we see them on the left,
because when the image comes up and strikes                    420
against the flat surface of the mirror,
it is not reflected without being changed—
instead it bounces back in a straight line,
just as with a plaster mask if someone
pressed it against a pillar or a beam
when it was not yet dry and, at that moment,
it still retained its proper shape in front,
and the mould then turned itself inside out,
that will cause what was the right eye before
to be now on the left and, in the same way,                         430            [300]
the left eye will now become the right.(15)

It so happens as well that an image
may be passed on from mirror to mirror,
so that five and even six images
are commonly produced. For when objects
are hidden back in an interior room,
no matter how remote and deep within
and how tortuous the path, one can still,
using several mirrors, lead them all out
through twisting passageways and then observe                  440
that they are in the house. That shows how well
the image is passed on from one mirror
to another, and when what is on the left
is sent on, it then changes to the right,
and from there it then changes back again,
shifting to the same place it was before.                                              [310]

In addition, all mirrors with bent sides,
which have a shape curved like our own torso,
for that very reason send back to us
an image with our right side on the right,                              450
either because the image is transferred
from one part of the mirror to another
and then, after being reflected twice,
flies back to us, or because the image,
as it gets to the mirror, is reversed—
the curving shape of the surface leads it
to spin about towards us.(16)

you should know our images move forward
step by step, setting their feet as we do,
mimicking our actions. If you walk away                             460           [320]
from any section of the mirror
then at that instant images cannot
be reflected back from there, for nature
requires all objects to be carried back
and to rebound from things in such a way
they are sent back at an equal angle.(17)

Moreover, the eyes avoid bright objects
and refuse to look at them. The sun, too,
is blinding, if you strive to keep your gaze
directly on it, since its force is great                                     470
and its images are carried from high up
through clear air—they strike the eye, disrupting
its connections. Then, too, any object
dazzlingly bright frequently burns our eyes
because it contains many seeds of fire,                                               [330]
which move into the eye and make it hurt.
What’s more, all things those with jaundice look at
become ghastly yellow, for many seeds
of yellow flow from their bodies to meet
the images of things, and many seeds                                   480
are also mixed inside their eyes, and these,
thanks to their contagion, paint everything
with their own pallor.

                                            Now, from darkness
we see things in the light, since, once black air
of darkness, which is closer, enters first
and takes possession of our open eyes,
bright, clear air immediately follows                                                    [340]
and, as it were, cleanses them, scattering
black shadows of that former air, because
that bright air is many times more agile,                               490
many times smaller and more powerful.
As soon as it fills pathways of the eyes
with light and opens those which the dark air
earlier had blocked, images of things
located in the light arrive at once
and stimulate our eyes, so that we see.
But, by contrast, we cannot do the same
looking from the light into the darkness,
because the air which comes to us later
from the darkness is more dense—it fills up                        500
all the openings in the eyes, obstructing                                               [350]
its passageways, so that no images
of any objects can strike or stir them.

When we look at a city’s square towers                             OBJECTS SEEN FROM A DISTANCE
from a long way out, it often happens
that they look round, because every angle,
when seen from a distance, appears blunted,
or rather is not even seen at all,
and its impact dies away: the impulse
does not glide through our eyes, for its image,                     510
while carried through large quantities of air,
is forced, by frequent impacts with that air,
to flatten out. Hence, when every angle                                               [360]
escapes our senses simultaneously,
that causes us to see these stone structures
as if they had been rounded on a lathe.
But they are not like things that, seen up close,
are truly round. However, they do seem
somewhat the same—their outline, so to speak.
Similarly our shadow seems to us                                        520
to move in sunshine: it follows our steps                              SHADOWS
and imitates our gestures, if, in fact,
you believe that air deprived of light
can walk ahead, copying how men walk
and bear themselves, for what we usually call
shadows cannot be anything but air
which has no light, and it is obvious                                                     [370]
that in particular places the ground
is successively deprived of sunlight,
wherever we, in wandering around,                                     530
obstruct it, and similarly the part
we moved from is filled in with light again.
That, then, is the reason it so happens
that what was the shadow of our body
always seems to stay the same and follow
directly across from us. For new rays
of light pour out all the time—the first ones
die away, like spun wool pulled into fire.
In this way the ground is easily robbed
of light and then easily filled again                                        540
and washes away its own black shadows.

However, in this we do not admit                                       OUR EYES DO NOT DECEIVE
that the eyes are in any way deceived.
For their purpose is to see all places                                                   [380]
where there is light and shade, but whether
it is the same light or not, or whether
it is the same shadow which was here
that now wanders over there, or whether
what takes place is rather what I mentioned
a short while ago above, these matters                                550
the reasoning of the mind, all on its own,
must sort out. The eyes cannot understand
the nature of things. And therefore, do not
falsely attribute to the eyes this failing
in the mind.(18) When we travel aboard ship,
it is carried forward, although it seems
to be standing still, while another boat
which remains tied up is, so we believe,
moving past us. When we drive our ship on                                        [390]
and fly under full sail, then hills and fields                             560
appear to run off to the stern. All stars
in the celestial vault seem fixed in place,
quite motionless, yet every one of them
is always moving, since they rise, and then,
when their bright bodies have crossed the heavens,
they return back to their distant settings.
So, too, the sun and moon in the same way
seem to remain in place, but facts themselves
indicate that they are carried forward.
And from far away mountains jutting up                              570
in the middle of the sea where there is
between them a large, free strait for shipping
standing open, nevertheless still seem
a single island, a union of the two.
It also happens that when young children
have stopped twirling themselves in circles,
rooms seem to spin and pillars run around,                                         [400]
so much so they can hardly now believe
the whole roof is not threatening to fall
right down on them. Moreover, when nature                       580
starts to lift on high the rays of the sun,
ruddy with twinkling fires, raising them high
above the mountains, those peaks over which
it seems to you the sun is standing then
so close, with his blazing fire touching them,
are hardly far away from us—a distance
of two thousand arrow flights, and often
scarcely five hundred javelin throws—and yet
between those mountains and the sun there lie                                    [410]
immense expanses of the sea, stretched out                         590
beneath vast regions of the heavenly sky,
many thousands of lands are there, as well,
inhabited by various human types
and races of wild animals. And then,
a pool of water with a depth no greater
than one finger width, which has collected
on a paved road among the stones, gives us
a view down underneath the earth as great
as the high mouth of heaven opens up
above the earth, so that you seem to see                             600
clouds and heaven and celestial bodies
hidden underground in an amazing sky.
Then, when we are on a spirited horse                                               [420]
stuck fast in the middle of some river
and we look down at the rushing waters
of the stream, some force appears to carry
the horse’s body, which is not moving,
sideways to the current, to be driving it
rapidly upstream. And no matter where
we turn our eyes, all objects seem to us                              610
to be carried and to flow in the same way.(19)
And though dimensions of a colonnade
are the same throughout, and it is standing
supported from one end to the other
by equal columns, yet when we look down
at its entire length from the top portion,
it gradually shrinks down to the tip
of a tapering cone, joining roof and floor                                            [430]
and all things on the right and on the left,
until it brings everything together                                         620
at the apex of the cone and disappears.
Then, it happens for sailors out at sea
that the sun seems to rise out of the waves
and sink down into the waves, burying
its light, because, given their location,
they see nothing except sky and water,
and so you must not casually suppose
their senses have completely gone astray.
But to those who know nothing of the sea,
ships in port, as they work against the waves,                      630
appear handicapped by broken fittings,
for every section of those oars lifted
above the salt foam of the sea is straight,
and the rudder above the waterline
is also straight, but everything submerged                                           [440]
below the water appears all fractured—
turned around, twisted and sloping upwards,
bent back, almost floating to the surface
of the sea. And when winds carry thin clouds
across the sky at night, then brilliant stars                            640
seem to glide in the opposite direction
against the clouds, moving high above them
on a path very different from the one
they really travel. And it so happens
that if, by chance, we position our hand
underneath one eye and then press it down,
by some kind of sensation everything
we observe seems to be duplicated
as we look—two lights blossoming with flames                                   [450]
in lanterns, twin pieces of furniture                                       650
doubled all through the house, and people
with duplicate faces, double bodies.
And then, when sleep has overcome our limbs
with sweet repose and our whole body lies
completely quiet, yet at that moment
to ourselves we appear to be awake,
to move our limbs, and we believe we see,
even in blinding darkness of the night,
the sun and light of day, and from the space
in which we are enclosed, we seem to change                     660
to sky, sea, rivers, mountains, and to move
on foot across the fields, to hear noises,                                              [460]
although the solemn quiet of the night
remains intact everywhere around us,
and to utter words, though we do not speak.

We witness many other things like this,
to our astonishment, and all of them
seek, as it were, to violate our faith
in sense perception, but do not succeed.
Most of them deceive thanks to opinions                             670
of the mind which we bring to bear on them,
so that we think we have perceived some things
which our senses have not seen. For nothing
is more difficult than to distinguish
what we clearly see from what is doubtful,
things which the mind, by acting on its own,
immediately adds on.

                                    And furthermore,                           SCEPTICISM AND SENSE EXPERIENCE
if anyone thinks that nothing is known,
he also does not know this can be known,                                          [470]
since he claims he does not know anything.                         680
So I will decline to debate this issue
with a man who is standing upside down,
his head located where his feet should be.(20)
But if I, too, agreed he does know this,
I would direct this one question at him:
since he has seen no truth in things before,
where did he find out what it means to know
or, then again, what not to know might mean?
What condition has created knowledge
of truth and falsity? What circumstance                               690
demonstrates that what is doubtful differs
from what is certain? You will discover
the idea of truth is first created
from our senses, that sense experience
cannot be disproved. We would have to find
something more trustworthy that, on its own,
could overpower falsehood with the truth.
What, then, must we hold as more credible                                        [480]
than our senses? Will reason which arises                          WHAT IS MORE TRUSTWORTHY THAN SENSE?
from false sense experience be strong enough                     700
to speak against the senses, when reason
emerges entirely from sensations?(21)
If those are not true, then all reasoning
is false, as well. Or will our ears be able
to refute our eyes? Or touch rebut our ears?
Or, then again, will our mouth’s sense of taste
contradict this touch? Or will our nostrils
show touch is false, or our eyes disprove it?
In my view, things are not like that. Each sense
has it own separate power, its own force.                           710            [490]
Thus, we must perceive what is soft or cold
or hot in one way and various colours
of objects in another, along with
all those things we must include with colour.(22)
In the same manner, our mouth’s sense of taste
has its own separate force; smells are produced
in their own way, and sounds are separate, too.
And thus it must the case that senses
cannot disprove each other. Moreover,
they will not be able, all on their own,                                 720
to refute themselves, since we must always
place equal trust in them.(23) Hence, anything
which they have, at any moment, perceived,
is true. If reasoning is unable                                                               [500]
to analyze the causes why those things
which, when we are close beside them, are square,
and round when we observe them far away,
still it is better to use faulty reasons
and make mistakes in explaining causes
for both shapes, than in any way to let                                730
slip from our hands what we have clearly seen,
to undermine the grounds for our belief,
and to rip up the entire foundation
on which life and our well-being depend.(24)
For not only would all reasoning fall down,
life would itself collapse at once, as well,
if you did not choose to trust the senses
and to stay away from perilous cliffs
and other things like that one should avoid,                                         [510]
and to go after very different things.                                    740
Thus, you should realize that all those words
drawn up in fine array against the senses
are a hollow army. And finally,
as with a building, if some measuring rod
is inaccurate at first, if the square
is false and deviates from the right line,
and if the level anywhere is off
the slightest bit, all the structure must be
warped and faulty—irregular, sloping,
leaning to the front or back, the whole thing                         750
out of alignment, so that some portions
appear to want to fall, or some do fall,
all betrayed by the first wrong measurements.
Therefore, in your reasoning about things                                            [520]
whatever comes from false sense experience,
must, in the same way, be false and crooked.

Now, what remains is an explanation
how other senses each perceives its object,
an argument by no means hard to make.                             SOUND, VOICES, ECHOES
First of all, every voice and sound is heard                          760
when it has come into the ears and struck
that sense with its own material substance.
For you have to concede that voice and sound
are physical matter, too, since they can
impinge upon the senses. Moreover,
the voice often scrapes against the pharynx
and, as it emerges, its loud sound makes
the windpipe rougher for this reason:
when primordial elements of voices,                                                   [530]
rise up in a larger throng together                                        770
through a narrow passageway and begin
to move outside, then, with their channels crammed,
the entrance obviously is scraped, as well.
Hence, there is no doubt that words and voices
consist of primary particles and thus
can cause us pain. Nor are you unaware
how much is taken, in the same process,
from the body, from men’s very sinews
and strength, by continued public speaking,
lasting from rising splendours of the dawn                           780
to shadows of black night, especially
if it comes pouring forth in a loud shout.
And so the voice must consist of matter,                                             [540]
since the man who speaks a great deal loses
part of his bodily stuff. What is more,
roughness in the voice is created from
roughness in its primordial elements,
and smoothness is similarly produced
from smoothness in the voice’s particles.
Primary matter does not penetrate                                      790
the ears in the same form when the trumpet
booms out its heavy muffled tone, stirring
and sending back raucous barbarian sounds,
as when from rushing waters of Helicon
swans raise clear tones of sorrowful lament.(25)
And therefore, when we force up these voices
from deep inside our bodies and send them                                        [550]
straight out from our mouths, then our nimble tongues,
skilled at making words, articulate them,
and the shape the lips take on, for its part,                           800
forms them. Thus, when there is no great distance
between where every voice originates
and where it reaches us, the words themselves
must also be heard clearly, distinguished
sound by sound, for sounds maintain their pattern
and keep their form. But if between the two
the intervening distance is too great,
words moving through great quantities of air
must be shaken up, and a voice flying
through the breezes must become distorted.                        810
And thus, it comes about that you can hear                                         [560]
the sound and not understand the meaning
of the words—that’s how confused and scrambled
the voice is when it reaches you. Then, too,
a single word sent from a herald’s mouth
often excites the ears of everyone
in an assembled crowd. Therefore, one voice
can quickly spread out into many voices,
since it splits itself into each man’s ear,
stamping on its words a clear sound and shape.                  820
But portions of those voices which do not fall
into the ears themselves are carried past
and perish, vainly scattered in the air.
Some voices strike firm places, are sent back,                                    [570]
and return the sound, at times playing tricks
with a word which echoes. When you grasp this,
you can then provide an explanation
to yourself and others about the way
rocks in solitary places echo back
the same forms of words in proper order.                           830
When we are searching for lost companions shout
wandering among the shadowy mountains
and we call out to our scattered comrades
with a noisy yell, I have observed places
returning six or even seven shouts,
when you sent out just one—that demonstrates
how hills themselves bounced words back to the hills
and kept repeating words which had been trained
to come back once again. And those people
who dwell around such places imagine                                840
nymphs live there and goat-footed satyrs, too.                                    [580]
They claim also there are fauns whose noises
and sporting play, which wander through the night,
shatter the tranquil silence—most of them
affirm the truth of this—and there are sounds
of chords, and sweet melodious notes ring out
from flutes, whose stops musicians’ fingers press,
and far and wide the tribe of country folk
listen, while Pan, shaking the pine garland
on his half-savage head, often races                                    850
over open reeds and from his curving mouth
pipes never cease to pour forth woodland song.(26)
They speak of other miracles like this,                                                [590]
other portents, perhaps in case men think
they live in remote and lonely places,
regions abandoned even by the gods.
So when they talk to people they throw in
amazing things. Or some other reason
guides them, as it does the whole human race
in its excessive greed for ears which listen.(27)                    860
As for the rest, it need not surprise us
how voices come and stimulate our ears
in places where our eyes cannot see things
standing in plain view. Often, too, we notice
a conversation going on through closed doors.
There is nothing strange in this, for the voice
can pass intact through winding passageways
in things, but images refuse to do so,                                                   [600]
since they are broken up, unless they pass
through direct openings, like those in glass,                          870
which every image can fly through. Moreover,
voices are divided up in all directions,
since some of them are produced from others,
where one voice comes forth once and then splits up
into many voices, just as a spark of fire
has a frequent habit of spreading itself
in many separate fires.(28) Thus, places
kept concealed from view are full of voices—
things reverberate on every side and move
with sound, but all images keep going,                                 880
moving in a straight line, once they are sent out.(29)
That’s why no one can see beyond a wall,                                          [610]
but can hear voices on the other side.
But still, while going through a building’s walls,
the voice itself is also weakened and comes
distorted to our ears—instead of words
we seem to hear the sound.

                                              As for the palate                  TASTE
and the tongue, by which we distinguish taste,
these do not require much further effort
or a longer explanation. First of all,                                     890
we perceive taste in the mouth: we press it out
by chewing food, just as, for example,
someone begins to press and dry by hand
a saturated sponge. What we press out
is then all distributed through openings                                                [620]
within the palate and through winding paths
inside the porous tongue. In this manner,
when the particles of flowing liquid
are smooth, their touch is pleasant, and contact
brings delight to all the open places,                                    900
around the tongue moistened with saliva.
But, by contrast, the more the particles
become completely rough, the more they prick
and lacerate the sense, as they emerge.
Then, too, pleasure from taste is limited
to the palate. In fact, once the juices
pass down through the throat, there is no pleasure
while all of them are being distributed
into the limbs. Nor does it matter at all                                               [630]
what meal feeds the body, provided only                            910
that you are able to digest it, break down
what you consume and then distribute it
into all the limbs, while holding steady
the levels of moisture in the stomach.

Now I will set down an explanation,                                  DIFFERENT ANIMALS HAVE DIFFERENT FOODS
so we may appreciate the reasons
why different animals have different foods,
why what is nasty and bitter to some
can still seem delectable to others.
Here the various differences are so great                             920
that what some animals consider food
is for others toxic poison. There is,
for instance, a snake which dies on contact
with human spit—it commits suicide
by eating its own body.(30) And hellebore,
which is severely venomous to us,                                                      [640]
makes goats and quails put on more fat.(31)

                                                     And now,
so you can understand how this takes place,
first, it is appropriate to remember
what we discussed before: in substances                             930
there are primordial elements combined
in many different ways. And furthermore,
just as all living things which take in food
have outer differences and are limited
by the contours of their exterior limbs,
each according to its kind, so they also
consist of particles of different shapes.
Moreover, since these seeds are not the same,
in every limb spaces and passageways,                                               [650]
which we call openings, must be different,                           940
as well as in the mouth and palate, too.
Some openings must be smaller, some larger,
in some beings they must be triangular,
in others square, with several round ones,
some with many angles in many shapes.
For according to what is demanded
by the relationship of shapes and motions,
so the forms of openings must be different,
and the passageways must therefore vary
as does the texture which encloses them.                             950
Because of this, when matter which is sweet
to some is bitter to others, for those
who find it sweet, the smoothest particles
must enter the pathways of the palate                                                 [660]
with a pleasing touch; on the other hand,
with those who find the same stuff sour inside,
the particles going in their passageways
are clearly rough and hooked.(32)

                               Given these details,
it is now easy to analyze each case.
For when a fever develops in someone                               960
from an excess of bile—or something else
causes the force of a disease to rise—
then his entire body is soon disturbed,
and so the primary particles all change
arrangements. And therefore it comes about
that substances which pleased his sense before
do not please it now and that some others
fit better and can make their way inside
and produce disagreeable sensations.                                                 [670]
For both elements mingle in the taste                                   970
of honey, as I have already shown
and demonstrated to you many times.

Come now, I will consider how odours                              ODOURS
contact the nostrils. Firstly, there must be
many substances from which various streams
of scent flow off and fly away. We must grant
that smells are sent out, move off, and scatter
all around. But some are better suited
to certain living beings than others,
given their different shapes. And therefore bees                  980
are led through the air from long distances
by the smell of honey, and carrion birds                                              [680]
by corpses. A powerful sense of smell
sent out in advance leads on hunting dogs
wherever a wild creature’s cloven hoof
has left his track, and from a distant place
the white goose, who rescued the citadel
of Romulus’ sons, senses the smell
of human beings.(33) In this way, different smells
lead different creatures, each to its own food,                      990
and make them recoil from harmful poison.
This process protects races of wild beasts.
This very odour, then, which stirs the nostrils,
can, in some instances, be given off
for greater distances than in others,
but still, none of them can be transported
as far as sound or voice, not to mention                                              [690]
those things which strike the pupil in our eye
and stir our sense of vision. For odour
wanders about, moves slowly, and, spreading                     1000
easily through airy breezes, soon dies
little by little, because, first of all,
since it comes from deep within an object
an effort is required to send it out,
for we know that odours flow off and leave
from well inside an object, since all things
seem to have a stronger smell when fractured,
pulverized, or broken down in fire.(34) Then, too,
you can see that odour is created
from larger particles than vocal sounds                                1010
because it does not penetrate stone walls,
which sounds and voices usually pass through.                                    [700]
For this reason you will also notice
it is not so easy to investigate
the location of something from its smell,
because in moving slowly through the air
the impact cools—what carries a report
about the object does not rush in heat
towards the senses. That is the reason dogs
are often wrong and have to search for tracks.                    1020

But this does not occur only with smells
and assorted tastes, for colours and shapes
of things, in a similar way, are not all
well fitted to the sense in everything,
so that some of them, in certain creatures,
are harsher on the sight than other ones.(35)
For instance, fierce lions cannot stand up to                                        [710]
and gaze upon a rooster, whose flapping wings
drive out the night and who, with his shrill voice,
habitually calls up the dawn, for lions                                   1030
immediately think of scampering off.(36)
This is not strange, for in a rooster’s body
are certain particles which, once sent out
to lions’ eyes, bore into the pupils
and cause sharp pain, so that even wild beasts,
though fierce, cannot bear to stand against them,
although these seeds cannot in any way
cause damage to our eyes, either because
they do not penetrate or else because,
once they do get in, they are provided                                1040
a free outlet from the eye and therefore                                               [720]
cannot injure any portion of it
by remaining there.

                                Come now and find out
what substances affect the mind, and learn,                         IMAGES FABRICATED IN THE AIR
in a few words, where those objects come from
which move into our mind. First, I say this:
many images of things wander round
in all sorts of ways in all directions
everywhere. These delicate images
easily join together in the air                                               1050
if they should meet, like cobwebs or gold leaf,
for these images possess a texture
much thinner than the ones which strike our eyes
and stir our vision, since they penetrate                                               [730]
porous openings in the body, provoke
the delicate substance of the mind inside,
and rouse the senses. Hence we see centaurs,
Scylla’s limbs, dog faces of Cerberus,
and images of people who have died,
whose bones the earth contains.(37) For images                  1060
of every kind are carried everywhere—
some of them are spontaneously produced
in air itself, some always fly off things
of various kinds, and some are created
by shapes created out of both of these.
For, of course, the image of a centaur
is not produced from any living thing,
since the nature of such an animal
has never lived, but when, by chance, images                                     [740]
of a horse and man have come together,                             1070
they easily cohere immediately,
as we said before, because their nature
is subtle and their texture delicate.
All other images like this are made
in the same way. They are carried quickly,
because they are extremely light, something
I demonstrated earlier, and thus
with a single impact one thin image
of any of them quickly stirs our mind,
because the mind itself is sensitive                                       1080
and set in motion with astounding speed.

That these things happen as I have described
is easily seen from the following point:
since what we view with our minds resembles                                    [750]
what we see with our eyes, they must be made
in the same way. So now that I have shown
I see lions, for instance, through images
which always stir my vision, we can know
how the mind is moved in a similar way—
it sees a lion and all other things                                          1090
by means of images, no more or less
than do our eyes, except that it perceives
more tenuous images. When sleep flows
through our limbs, understanding in the mind
is wide awake for no other reason
than that the same images stir our minds
as when we are not sleeping, so much so,
that we seem clearly to observe a man                                               [760]
who has left this life and now been taken
by death and earth. And nature forces this                           1100
to happen, since all our body senses
are obstructed in our limbs and resting—
they cannot argue against what is false
with genuine evidence. Moreover,
in sleep the memory is inactive
and indolent—it does not disagree
and say that the man our mind now believes
it sees alive was seized by death and fate
a long time past.

                            As for other matters,
it is not strange that images can move                                  1110
and wave their arms and other limbs around
in rhythm, for in sleep it does happen                                                  [770]
that an image is seen to act like this,
since after the first one has died away
and another in a different posture
has later been produced, the first image
seems to have changed the way it holds itself.
We must, no doubt, assume a quick process
brings this about—the motion is so fast,
the supply of things so large, and so great,                          1120
in any single moment of perception,
the profusion of minute particles
from which they can be readily supplied.

In these matters there are several questions
to be asked, and we need to clarify
many things, if we want a plain account.
First of all, we ask why, when we desire                            MIND AND PERCEPTION
to think of anything at all, the mind
thinks of that very thing immediately.                                                   [780]
Do images watch our will? If we want                                 1130
to think of sea, land, or sky, do images
arise in us as soon as we desire?
Assemblies of men, parades, banquets, fights—
does nature make and hold all things ready
for a word from us, especially when
all minds in the same place and region
are thinking of completely different things?
And then what about when we are sleeping
and we perceive images coming forward
in rhythmic motion, moving graceful limbs,                           1140
and with rapid, alternating gestures                                                     [790]
stretching their supple arms, and for our eyes
repeat foot motions made in harmony?
Do images really have artistic skill
and with this education wander round,
so that in the night they can go dancing?
Or will it be closer to the truth to say
that in the one moment we perceive it—
that is, the time it takes to say one word—
lie hidden many moments, which reason                              1150
ascertains are there, and thus it happens
that at any instant there are images
present and prepared in all locations,
so great is the supply and speed of things?
And thus, when the first image dies away                                            [800]
and another is created later
in a different pose, what was there before
seems to have changed its posture. Moreover,
since images are tenuous, the mind
cannot see them distinctly, other than                                  1160
the ones it makes an effort to perceive,
and thus, except for these, they all perish,
apart from those for which the mind itself
has been organized by its own efforts.
The mind, then, makes itself ready, hoping
things will take place so that it can perceive
what follows on from each particular thing.(38)
So that is what takes place. And furthermore,
have you not seen how eyes, when they begin
to look at some delicate object, strain                                 1170
and prepare themselves, and how, without that,
it would be quite impossible for us                                                      [810]
to see things clearly?(39) Even with objects
openly in view, you can still notice
that if you do not turn your mind to them,
then it is as if things were not near you
all the time, but remote and far away.
Therefore, why is it so strange if the mind
overlooks all other things, apart from
those where it has focused its attention?                              1180
Then, too, from tiny signs we draw conclusions
which are very sweeping and lead ourselves
to snares of self-deception. Sometimes, too,
it happens that an image is supplied
which is not of the same kind as the first—
what was a woman previously appears
to have been altered by our own powers,                                           [820]
so that a man seems present, or faces
and ages follow one after another.
But then sleep and oblivion guarantee                                 1190
we do not find this strange.

                                       In these matters                          NO DESIGN IN NATURAL CHARACTERISTS
you must desire with all your eagerness
to shun this mistake and with keen foresight
to avoid this blunder: do not assume
that bright light was created in the eyes
so we might be capable of vision,
or that the top parts of our thighs and shins
above our feet can bend, so we could take
long strides, or, yet again, that our forearms
are joined to our strong upper arms and hands                    1200
and provided on both sides to help us,                                                [830]
so we could do what we would need to live.
All other ideas like this which men declare,
on the basis of preposterous reasoning,
transform effects to causes, since nothing
in the body was made with a purpose,
so that we could use it. No. What was born
created its own use. There was no seeing
before light in the eyes was born, no words
to speak before the tongue was made. Instead,                   1210
the tongue originated long before
any spoken words, ears were created
a long time before any sound was heard.
In short, all the limbs, in my opinion,                                                   [840]
existed well before they had a use.
And therefore, they could not have developed
in order to be used.(40) But, by contrast,
to join in fighting battles with one’s hands,
to tear limbs apart and stain the body
with streams of blood existed long before                            1220
bright spears flew. Nature forced men to avoid
being hurt before the left arm ever learned
the skill of holding a protective shield.
And we know for certain that setting down
our tired body to rest is far older
than soft bed cushions, and quenching one’s thirst
was born before the cup. Therefore, these things,                               [850]
which were devised to serve the needs of life,
we can well imagine being invented
in order to be used. Nevertheless,                                      1230
those other things are separate from them:
they were first born themselves, and afterwards
gave us some ideas about their uses.
First in this group, we see limbs and senses.
That is why, to repeat myself once more,
it is impossible for you to think
they were produced for their utility,
because they had a function.

                                           Similarly,                                HUNGER AND THIRST
it is not strange that the very nature
of body in all living beings seeks food.                                1240
For I have shown that many elements                                                 [860]
flow off from things in many ways and leave,
but most must go from living animals,
since particles are disturbed by motion,
in sweating many are squeezed and carried
from deep inside, and many are exhaled
through the mouth when exhausted creatures pant.
In these ways, then, body is diminished,
its entire nature undermined, a state
which brings on pain. That is why the body                         1250
takes in food—to sustain limbs, to renew
strength once food moves inside, and to allay
in limbs and veins the gaping wish to eat.
Liquid also moves down to every part                                                [870]
requiring fluid—the moisture scatters
the many piled up particles of heat,
which produce a burning in our stomach,
moving in and extinguishing them, like fire,
so arid heat is no longer capable
of burning up our frame. In this way, therefore,                    1260
panting thirst is washed out of the body
and our hungry longing is satisfied.

Now I will explain how it comes about                               HOW HUMAN BEINGS MOVE
that we can propel our footsteps forward
when we wish, how we have been provided
the means to move our limbs in various ways,
and what it is that habitually shifts
this heavy weight of our body forward.                                              [880]
Listen to what I have to say. I claim
that, first of all, images of moving                                        1270
fall into our mind and keep pushing it,
as we said before. From that arises will,
for no one starts to do anything at all
before his mind decides what it desires,
something the mind determines in advance,
so that there is an image of that thing.
And therefore, when the mind has thus been roused
so that it wants to move, to stride forward,
it strikes the power of soul immediately
in the whole body, spread through limbs and frame.            1280
This is easily done, since soul and mind
are held in combination.(41) After that,
soul goes on to strike the body. And so,                                             [890]
little by little, the whole mass is pushed
and moves ahead. Moreover, the body
then becomes more porous, as well, and air
comes through the open spaces—as, in fact,
it must do, given how it is always
so quick to move—and large amounts of air
penetrate the passageways and scatter                                1290
to all minute portions of the body.
Thus, in this way body is made to move
by two separate causes, just like a ship
with sails and wind.(42)

                          We should not be surprised
in these matters, however, that particles
so tiny can swing around a body
of such size and redirect our whole mass.                                           [900]
For although the wind is, in fact, composed
of delicate and subtle substances,
it drives and pushes forward a huge ship,                            1300
which takes great effort, and a single hand
guides the ship, no matter how rapidly
it may be moving, and turns one rudder
in whatever direction it desires.
With wheels and pulleys a machine can move
many very heavy things, lifting them
with little effort.

                            The ways that sleep floods rest              SLEEP
throughout the limbs and lets cares of the mind
escape the chest I will now clarify
in my verses—these will not be numerous                           1310
but will instead sound sweet, just as brief songs                                  [910]
from swans are better than the screech of cranes
spreading through southern clouds, high in the sky.
Give me your subtle ear and eager mind,
so you do not deny that what I say
is possible and leave me, with your heart
rejecting my true words, when you yourself
are in the wrong and cannot understand.
First, sleep occurs when power in the soul
is spread out through the limbs and part of it                        1320
has left the body, after being sent out,
and another part is pushed further in
and has withdrawn deep inside the body,
since at that very point the limbs unwind
and grow relaxed. For there can be no doubt                                     [920]
that we have this capacity for sense
thanks to the soul. When sleep obstructs our sense,
we must assume our soul has been disturbed
and sent outside. But not the entire soul,
for then the body would lie there immersed                         1330
in the eternal iciness of death.
Since no part of soul would remain concealed
within the limbs, the way fire lies concealed
under piles of ash, how could sensation
be suddenly rekindled in the limbs,
like flames that rise up from a hidden fire?(43)
However, I will explain how this new state
is produced in matter, and how the soul
can be disturbed, the body grow relaxed.                                           [930]
Take care I am not scattering my words                             1340
into the winds. First of all, the body,
given its close contact with the airy breeze,
must be beaten on its outer surface
and struck by frequent impacts with the air.
That is the reason almost everything
is covered with hide, shell, hard skin, or bark.
The air also beats against that region
inside the body, when during breathing,
it is drawn in and then blown out. And thus,
since the body is lashed in these two ways                          1350
and the blows enter through tiny openings                                           [940]
in our bodies to reach the basic parts
and primordial elements, what takes place
is, so to speak, a gradual dissolution
in our limbs. The alignments of the soul
and primary particles are shaken up.
After that, part of the soul is drawn away,
part retreats inside and conceals itself,
and part is also ripped up into pieces
throughout the body and cannot maintain                            1360
its mutual combinations or go through
the motions it reciprocates, for nature
interferes with passages and movements.
Hence, once impulses are changed, sensation
moves away, deep inside. And since there is
nothing which, as it were, props up all the limbs,                                 [950]
the body becomes weak, and every part
grows slack—arms and eyelids droop, and knees
give way, letting their energies relax,
often while someone is still reclining.                                   1370
Then, sleep follows after meals, because food,
while being distributed to all the veins,
has the same effect as air. And that sleep
which you take when you are full or weary
is the heaviest by far, for at those times
most of the particles are disordered,
crushed by great exertion. In the same way,
part of the soul is driven deeper down,
a larger part of it is thrust outside,                                                       [960]
and in itself it grows more divided,                                      1380
more torn apart within.

                              And for the most part,
whatever actions each man carries out
and clings to, or whatever activities
we have spent much time on previously
where the mind has been more keenly active,
in general, we seem, when we are sleeping,
to go over matters which are much the same—
lawyers seem to plead causes, challenge laws,
generals seem to fight, march into battle,
sailors to wage collective war with winds,                           1390
and I constantly to pursue this work
and seek out the nature of things, and then,
once that is discovered, to set it down
in my own native tongue. And thus, in sleep,                                       [970]
all other arts and studies mostly seem
to control and mock our minds. And if
men ever pay unwavering attention
for several days without interruption
to public shows, we generally see
that even when they cease to grasp these things                   1400
with their senses, in their minds still remain
open pathways through which can penetrate
the same images of things, and therefore,
for many days they see those same objects
pass before their eyes, so that they appear,
even while awake, to see the dancers                                                 [980]
moving graceful limbs; their ears seem to hear
the cithara’s speaking strings, its liquid song;(44)
they appear to see the same crowd gathered
and, at the same time, shining splendidly,                             1410
the various decorations of the scene,
so great is the influence of effort
and preferences and those occupations
men do habitually.


                                     And not just men,                          SLEEPING ANIMALS
but indeed all animals, for you will see
brawny horses stretch out their limbs in sleep,
and yet they continually sweat and pant,
as though exerting all their energy
to win the prize or [striving to race ahead],
as though the gates had opened.(45) Hunting dogs,              1420
while gently resting, often twitch their legs                                           [990]
unexpectedly and suddenly send out
their baying call—their nostrils sniff the air
repeatedly, as if they had just found
and were pursuing some wild creatures’ tracks.
And often, after they are woken up,
they chase imaginary images
of deer, as if they were seeing them turn
to run away, until the deception
is shattered and they recover themselves.                            1430
And the fawning breeds of young puppy dogs
used to staying at home start to rouse themselves
and lift their bodies from the ground, just as if
they were seeing strange shapes and faces.(46)
The more ferocious any breed may be,
the more it must display its rage in sleep.
And various birds fly off and suddenly,
during the night, disturb sacred thickets,
if, in their tranquil sleep, they notice hawks
on the wing, chasing and offering battle.                              1440           [1010]

Then, too, human minds which, with great effort,
achieve important things often, in sleep,
carry on performing the same actions—
kings launch attacks, are captured, join battle,
raise a shout, as if, that very moment,
their throats were being slit. Many fight hard,
groan aloud in pain, and with their huge cries
completely fill all the space around them,
as if they were being chewed by leopards
or savage lions. In sleep, many men                                    1450
talk of serious things and have often made
confessions about something they have done.
Many meet death. Many are terrified,                                                [1020]
as if their whole body were being hurled
from high mountains down to the earth below,
and have trouble, as though their minds were gone,
recovering from sleep, as they tremble
from the agitation in their bodies.
In the same way, a thirsty man sits down
beside a river or a pleasant spring                                       1460
and almost drains the whole stream down his throat.
Often, clean, decent people, bound by sleep,
if they think they are beside a toilet
or a chamber pot, lift up their clothing,
and their whole body pours out filtered liquid,
saturating the splendid magnificence
of coverlets from Babylon. And then,                                  HUMAN SEMEN
for those in whose vital raging waters                                                  [1030]
for the first time semen begins to flow,
when maturity of age creates it                                            1470
throughout their limbs, external images
from anybody gather, bringing reports
of a superb face and lovely colouring.
These stimulate and rouse swollen places
with lots of seed, so that, as if doing
the whole act, often it comes bursting out,
in great waves of semen, and stains the clothes.
That seed which we just spoke about above
is stirred in us when adult maturity
for the first time makes our limbs much more robust.           1480
Now, some things are roused and stimulated
by one thing, and different things by others.
Human force alone draws human sperm from man.(47)                        [1040]
Once it is forced out from those locations
where it sits, it moves off, shifting away
from all places in the body through limbs
and frame. It gathers in appropriate spots
in the tissues and instantly excites
the body’s sexual parts themselves, and these
once roused to action, swell up with semen,                        1490
creating the desire to eject the seed
in the place ill-fated lust strains to reach,
and the body searches out the object
which stabbed the mind with love.(48) For normally,
all men collapse towards a wound, the blood
spurts out towards that place where we received                                [1050]
the blow, and if our enemy is close by
the crimson liquid spatters him. Therefore,
when a man is hit by bolts from Venus—
whether a boy with girlish limbs strikes him                         1500
or some woman exudes sensual passion
from her whole body—he then moves towards
the place from which he has received the blow
and is keen to copulate, to discharge
from his body the liquid gathered there,
inside the body, for passion, though mute,
still speaks of pleasures yet to come.

                                                 This pleasure                    EROTIC IMAGES
we call Venus. From it Love gets his name.
And from it, too, has dripped into our heart
the first drops of that seductive allure                                  1510
of Venus and then chilling anxiety                                                       [1060]
has later followed. For if the one you love
is absent, those images are still present,
and that sweet name still hovers at your ears.
However, you must flee such images,
scare away what nourishes your passion,
turn your mind to something else, and discharge
your collected fluid into bodies
anywhere—you must not hang onto it,
once you have changed to loving only one,                          1520
and thus reserving trouble for yourself
and certain pain.(49) For the festering sore
comes alive and settles in with feeding.
Day by day delirium increases,                                           SEXUAL ACTIVITY IN HUMAN BEINGS
hardship weighs you down, unless you confuse
those wounds you sustained at first with new blows                            [1070]
and heal them while still fresh, by wandering
with a Venus who wanders everywhere,
or can shift your mind to other matters.
A man who avoids love is not without                                 1530
delights of Venus, but rather chooses
those whose benefits bring no punishment.
For there is no doubt that for healthy men
sexual pleasure is purer than for those
sick with love. In fact, in the very moment
of possession lovers’ passion fluctuates,
it wavers, strays here and there, undecided
where eyes and hands should first reap their delight.
What lovers desire, they crush hard, causing
physical pain, frequently sinking teeth                                  1540           [1080]
in little lips, pressing mouths together,
because their pleasure is not pure—there are
hidden goads driving them to inflict pain
even on the thing, whatever it is,
which first aroused those seeds of frenzy.
But with a light hand Venus mitigates
these penalties of passion, by mixing in
seductive joys which curb their biting teeth.
For there is hope in this—that at the source
of passion fires can be put out, as well,                               1550
by the same body.(50) But nature protests
that what happens is completely different.
This is the one thing where the more we have,
the more ill-fated lust burns in our hearts.                                            [1090]
For food and drink are taken in our limbs,
since these can settle in certain places
and one can quite easily satisfy
desire for bread and wine. But from humans
the face and lovely colouring transfer
nothing to the body to be enjoyed                                      1560
except frail images, and frequently
these woeful hopes are snatched off by the wind.
Just as a thirsty man, when he’s asleep,
desires a drink and receives no liquid
that could quench the burning in his body,
but keeps seeking images of water,
struggling in vain, still thirsty, as he drinks
in the middle of a boiling river—                                                        [1100]
that’s how, in matters of love, Venus mocks
lovers with images, and they cannot                                    1570
satisfy their bodies by gazing at them
face to face, nor can their hands, which wander
randomly all over the whole body,
scrape anything away from tender limbs.(51)
And when at last their bodies intertwine
and they take pleasure in their bloom of youth,
while flesh is now sensing more delights to come
and Venus has prepared herself to sow
the ploughed field in the female, the lovers
fixate on the body greedily, their mouths                             1580
linking their spit, and breathing heavily,
with teeth pressing against each other’s lips.
But there’s no point. For they cannot scrape off                                 [1110]
anything from there or penetrate inside
and with their entire body move into
the other body, for sometimes they seem
to want that and struggle to achieve it.
That is how passionately they stay there
locked in Venus’ embrace, while their limbs,
loosened by the power of pleasure, melt.                            1590
At last, when desire, pent-up in the penis,
is released, there is, for a brief period,
a short let up in their violent passion.
Then the same madness returns, that frenzy
comes back once more, when they strive to attain
what they themselves desire, and they cannot
discover what technique may overcome
what’s wrong—that shows how much they waste away,
in great uncertainty, from hidden wounds.                                           [1120]
And besides all this, they exhaust their strength,                   1600
worn down by their exertions and then add
that they spend their life at the beck and call
of someone else. They neglect their duties,
and their tottering reputation sickens.
Meanwhile, their possessions slip away,
converted into scents from Babylon,
while lovely slippers from Sicyon laugh
on the lady’s feet, and, you may be sure,
enormous emeralds, all sparkling green,
are set in gold, and her purple garment                                1610
is constantly being ripped and roughly used,
as it soaks up the sweat of sexual passion.(52)
The father’s well-earned wealth is then transformed
to ribbons and scarves and sometimes is changed                               [1130]
to robes and goods from Chios and Elis.
Banquets are prepared with gorgeous carpets
and fine food, games, repeated drinking bouts,
perfumes, wreaths, and garlands. All for nothing.
For in the midst of this fountain of delights,
a certain choking bitterness wells up,                                  1620
even among the flowers, when mind itself,
sensing guilt, feels the strong bite of remorse
for living such a slothful life, wasted
in debauchery, or when she throws out
a word and leaves the sense ambiguous
and, fixed in a passionate heart, it grows
like fire, or when he thinks she casts her eyes
and glances at another man too much,
or sees a trace of mockery in her face.                                               [1140]
And these problems are those one finds in love                   1630
which is lasting and fully prosperous.
But when love is desperate and destitute,
with your eyes shut you can grasp the troubles—
they are innumerable. So it is better
to be cautious in advance, as I have shown,
and to be careful you are not seduced.
For to avoid being drawn into love’s nets
is not as hard as to escape the mesh
and break through those mighty knots of Venus,
once you have been ensnared. But nonetheless,                  1640
although you get entangled and caught up,
you can still evade the danger, unless                                                  [1150]
you stand in your own way and overlook,
right at the start, all the imperfections
of mind and body in the one you want,
the woman you are chasing, because men,
for the most part, proceed from blind desire
and give women delightful attributes
which are not really theirs. And so we see
those who are in many ways misshapen                              1650
and repulsive are dearly loved and thrive
in utmost favour. And some people laugh
at others and urge them, since they are trapped
in foul sexual passion, to placate Venus,
and yet often those people, the poor fools,
do not think of their own tribulations,
which are excessive. A dark woman is                                               [1160]
“honey coloured,” a filthy one who stinks
is “unpretentious,” one who has gray eyes
is “small Athena,” a sinewy one                                          1660
who looks like wooden sticks is “a gazelle,”
a squat, dwarfish girl “one of the Graces,”
“all genuine charm,” a large and lumpy one
“impressively imposing,” “dignified.”
If she has a stammer and cannot talk
she “has a lisp,” if mute, she is “modest,”
if a fiery, hateful gossip, she becomes
“a flaming torch.” If she is so skinny
she can hardly stay alive, she becomes
“a slender darling,” if about to die                                       1670
from coughing fits, then she is “delicate.”
A fat bosomy one is “Ceres herself
after giving birth to Iacchus,”
a snub-nosed girl “a female Silenus
or a satyr woman.” One with thick lips
becomes “a living kiss.”(53)

                          It would be tedious
to try listing all other things like this.                                                    [1170]
But let her face even be as lovely
as you wish, and let the power of Venus
radiate from every limb, nonetheless                                    1680
there are surely other women, as well,
surely we lived without this one before;
surely she carries out all the same things
ugly women do—and we know she does.
The woman drenches her miserable self
with disgusting odours. Her slaves run off
some distance and laugh at her in secret.
But the tearful lover who is shut out
buries the threshold with frequent flowers
and garlands, and with scent of marjoram                            1690
anoints her haughty doorposts, plants kisses
on the doors, the miserable fool, and yet
if once he were let in and just one whiff                                              [1180]
hit him as he entered, he would seek out
decent reasons to be gone.(54) The sad song
drawn from deep within and reflected on
so long would disappear, and then and there
he would curse his foolishness. He would see
he had bestowed on her more than is right
to give any human being. Our Venuses                                1700
are not unaware of this, and so they use
their utmost efforts all the more to hide
all that goes on behind the scenes of life
from those they wish to keep bound up in love.
All in vain. For in your mind you can drag
everything into the light, search all smiles,
and if her mind is good and free from spite,                                         [1190]
then, for your part, let her go, and pardon
those features which make her a human being.
And when a woman heaves a sigh of love,                          1710
she is not always faking. While embracing,
she joins her lover’s body to her own
and holds it. As they suck lips, she keeps his moist
with kisses. Often she acts from the heart,
and, seeking mutual delight, stirs him
to complete love’s race. For there is no way
that in birds, cattle, horses, savage beasts,
and sheep, females could crouch under the males,
if their natures did not bring them in heat,
burn to overflowing, respond with joy,                                1720
as the penis mounts them. Do you not see                                           [1200]
how those whom mutual pleasure often links
are also tortured in the chains they share—
how often dogs at crossroads really strive
with all their eager strength to separate,
to go their different ways, while all the time
they are stuck together in the strong chains
of sexual lust? This they would never do,
unless they experienced those shared joys
which can throw them into a delusion                                  1730
and hold them bound. So, to repeat myself,
I say pleasure comes to men and women.
And when, during the mingling of the seed,
the female happens to overcome male force
with sudden power and has seized control,                                         [1210]
then children are born from the mother’s seed,
looking like the mother, just as children
from the father’s seed look like the father.(55)
But those you see who look like both of them,
with mixed parental features side by side,                            1740
grow from father’s body and mother’s blood,
when sexual seeds, once roused through the limbs
by the pricks of Venus, flow together,
unite in harmonious, mutual passion,
and neither one of them is dominant,
and neither one submissive.(56) Sometimes, too,
children can be created who look like
their grandparents and frequently bring back
the features of their grandparents’ parents,
because many primordial elements                                      1750           [1220]
mixed in many ways are often hidden
in the bodies of their parents, and these,
from the first beginnings of the family,
fathers pass on to fathers, and from them
Venus, by drawing different lots, creates
their shapes and brings back facial expressions,
vocal sounds, and hair of their ancestors.
And the race of females may well spring up
from the father’s seed, and men may be born
shaped by their mother’s body, since, in fact,                      1760
these are no more made by one parent’s seed
than are our faces and our trunk and limbs.(57)
For birth always consists of double seeds,
and whatever is born which resembles                                                [1230]
one of the two parents more possesses
a more than equal portion of that parent.
And whether the offspring is from the male
or has its origin in the female—
that is a feature you can distinguish.
And the powers of gods do not withhold                            1770
from any man the planting of his seed,                                FERTILITY AND INFERTILITY IN HUMAN BEINGS
so that sweet children may never call him
father and he may live out all his days
in a barren marriage. But usually
men believe they do, and in their sadness,
spray altars with streams of blood and cover
high places with their gifts, hoping they may,
with prodigious quantities of their seed,
impregnate wives. In vain they wear away
the majesty of gods and sacred lots.(58)                              1780
For some men who are sterile have semen                                          [1240]
which is too thick; in others, by contrast,
it is thin, more watery than it should be.
Thin seed cannot firmly fix itself in place—
it leaves immediately, sinks back, withdraws,
its attempt aborted. And then again,
seed which is too thick because it spurts out
in a denser form than is appropriate
either does not get discharged with a thrust
that goes far enough, or is less able                                     1790
to work its way into the right places,
or, having penetrated these, mixes
poorly with the female seed. For we see
many differences in those sexual acts
which work out well—some men can impregnate
some women more easily than others,
while other women more readily take on
the load from different men and grow heavy.                                       [1250]
And many women have been infertile
in several previous marriages and yet                                  1800
afterwards have discovered men from whom
they could bear children and enrich themselves
with tender children. And for those men, too,
whose wives at home, though fertile, had often
been unable to give birth previously,
an appropriate partner has been found,
so they could fortify their older years
with offspring. That shows how crucial it is
that seeds suitable for reproduction
are mixed, that thick seeds bond with liquid ones,                1810
and liquid seeds with thick. And on this point,
the food we eat, by which life is maintained,                                       [1260]
is truly relevant. Some substances
condense the seed inside the limbs; others,
in turn, make it thinner and destroy it.

And the ways in which the charming pleasure                     SEXUAL POSITIONS
is carried on also really matter.
For people generally believe that wives
conceive more easily if they have sex
like wild animals, following the style                                    1820
of quadrupeds, for that way, with chests down
and sex organs raised, appropriate parts
can take in seed. And wives do not require
the slightest sensual motions. A woman
stops herself conceiving and resists it,
if for pleasure’s sake she herself draws back
from her husband’s penis with her buttocks                                        [1270]
and then, with her whole body limp, begins
to move in rhythm, for she throws the furrow
from the pathway and the straight alignment                         1830
of the ploughshare, altering the impact
of the seeds away from the right places.(59)
Prostitutes will often move this way,
for their own reasons, to stop conceiving
too many times, lying around inactive
in pregnancy, while simultaneously
to make sex for men itself more pleasing.
Our wives, it seems clear, have no need of this.(60)
And sometimes, by no action of the gods
or arrows from Venus, it does happen                                1840
that some mediocre little female
with a less favourable shape is loved,
for a woman, thanks to the way she acts                                            [1280]
and to her accommodating manner
and well-tended body can now and then
make you become easily accustomed
to spending life with her. As for the rest,
familiarity gives rise to love,
for whatever is struck repeatedly
by any blow, however slight, will at last,                              1850
with a long lapse of time, be overcome
and concede. Do you not observe also
how, after a long period of time,
falling drops of water bore holes in rocks?




(1) The opening twenty-five lines in the Latin are an almost exact repetition of the lines in Book 1 (1.925 ff in the Latin). The Pierides is another name for the Muses, derived from the place near Mount Olympus where they were alleged to have been born. [Back to Text]

(2) Lucretius’ theory of perception relies upon this concept of images (in his Latin text the word is simulacra). These images are material stuff (i.e., made up of the same elements that make up the objects of the world). They are not, in any sense, illusions or insubstantial pictures. There is in the Latin text some confusion in lines 30-39, with repetitions and some lines clearly in the wrong place. Hence, there is no line number [30] to the right of the text above. [Back to Text]

(3) As Lucretius has explained earlier, all particles in an object are in constant motion and therefore can, under some circumstances, leave the object or be detached from it by impact. Those on the surface are obviously much more likely to do this than particles on the inside, which are more tightly enclosed by other particles. [Back to Text]

(4) Part of this sentence is apparently illegible in the Latin. I have translated it as “men and women underneath” to retain the sense of the sentence. In Rome popular theatres were temporary structures made from poles, beams, and awnings. The light from the sky shining through the coloured awnings changes the colours in the audience below. [Back to Text]

(5) Following other translators, I have omitted lines 102 and 103 in the Latin. They are identical to lines 65-66 of the Latin (lines 89-91 in the English).

(6) Wormwood is a wild plant used for making medicines, tea, and wine; abrotanum (Southernwood) is a wild plant used as an antiseptic; centaury (named after the centaur Chiron) is a wild herb used in medicines; panacea is a fabulous plant reputed to cure all diseases. There appears to be a gap in the manuscript after line 126 in the Latin. In order to complete the sense, I have used (and reworked slightly) the substitute passage supplied by Bailey (who states that the gap may amount to about 50 lines). That insertion is in square brackets. Copley suggests that the missing passage included more proofs of how invisible particles affect the senses, part of Lucretius’ argument about the minute size of the particles which make up the images. [Back to Text]

(7) There is evidently a gap in the manuscript of at least one line in the middle of this sentence (at line 144 in the Latin). I have added the phrase in square brackets to complete the sense. [Back to Text]

(8) The point of this rather awkward example is presumably to stress that very grand events, like the clouding of the entire sky, can happen very quickly. Hence, the development of an image of the event, which must be inexpressibly smaller than the event itself, can also be very rapid. [Back to Text]

(9) Lucretius’ understanding of sunlight, which he explains in more detail later, is an interesting concept of pulses or waves sent out in a continuous series, so that the particles are always being pushed by those behind them. [Back to Text]

(10) The “minute cause” which propels the image from behind is the initial blow which detaches the image from the surface of the object, a force which comes from the always moving particles inside the object. Lucretius has already discussed in Book 2 how very small particles can move extremely quickly through air, because they are not impeded as much by internal movements of their parts (as compared with larger and more complex compounds). [Back to Text]

(11) Particles which move from the inside of an object to the surface before being expelled (like the particles of heat and light from the sun) have to, as it were, fight their way to the surface of the object and therefore lose some of their motion before they leave. Particles on the surface do not have to do this; they “stand ready” to leave. Hence, Lucretius argues, their speed will be greater. Since these are the particles which make up the images, then images will move faster than sunlight. [Back to Text]

(12) The addition in square brackets is prompted by a comment from Munro about some words missing at this point in the manuscript. [Back to Text]

(13) This first image we get is of the mirror itself. That pushes a wave of air against our eyeballs. Our image is reflected from the mirror, pushing on a second wave of air. [Back to Text]

(14) A line appears to have been lost here. I adopt Bailey’s suggestion for the missing Latin. In this explanation I have at times inserted the phrase “waves of” in front of the word “air” in order to make clearer sense of the explanation. Lucretius simply uses the word “air.” [Back to Text]

(15) When we look in a mirror, our right eye is on the left side of the face which looks back at us. [Back to Text]

(16) Lucretius is here talking of a mirror with a laterally concave surface facing us, one which therefore curves outwards away from us, “like our torso.” Such a mirror will produce an image in which the parts are on the correct side of the face (looking outward from the mirror), an effect opposite to the orientation on a flat mirror but the same as a double reflection from two flat mirrors. [Back to Text]

(17) That is, the same angle at which they struck the mirror. This requirement is now a general law in physics: a light ray striking a mirror so that it makes an angle with the line perpendicular to the surface must be reflected from the surface at the same angle to the perpendicular, (i.e., the angle of incidence is equal to the angle of reflection). This translation, however, has been disputed, since Lucretius does not use the word for “angle” (angulus) but a word meaning “turning” or “shifting” (flexus). Watson, for example, claims that “Lucretius had no thought of equal angles.” This objection, so far as I can tell, has not persuaded many modern translators. Munro thinks Lucretius is probably referring to this law and points out that it was well known to Greek and Roman mathematicians. [Back to Text]

(18) This is an important caveat. Lucretius has repeatedly emphasized, as a core component of his materialist theory, that sense experience is the only criterion we have for checking our theories about the natural world. Therefore, he needs to reassure us that the senses themselves do not deceive us; our interpretation of our sense experience, however, can be wrong. The list of illusions he now provides is meant to underscore this warning. [Back to Text]

(19) This illusion created here by moving water has been called the “waterfall effect.” After looking at something moving in one direction, a person who then fixes on a stationary object will think it is moving in a direction opposite to the original motion. [Back to Text]

(20) Lucretius is here addressing the scepticism which denies that genuine knowledge is possible, a tradition well established in classical philosophy. [Back to Text]


(21) Reason, for Lucretius, arises from sense experience and is not prior to it. Hence, if sense experience is inherently deceptive, how can we rely upon reasoning? [Back to Text]

(22) These things would include other visual attributes, like shape. [Back to Text]

(23) Since the senses are all equally reliable they cannot refute each other. We cannot use one sense to confirm the truth or falsity of another. [Back to Text]

(24) Lucretius here and elsewhere in the poem repeatedly stresses that particular sense experience of nature is much more important than any theories designed to explain why events happen the way they do. [Back to Text]

(25) There are some problems with the Latin in lines 546-548, and translations of these lines tend to be very different. Helicon is a hill in Boeotia associated with Apollo and the Muses. [Back to Text]

(26) Pan is, in Greek mythology, the god of shepherds, flocks, and woods. He has the legs, horns, and hindquarters of a goat and is associated with, among other things, playing music on shepherd’s pipes made out of hollow reeds. [Back to Text]

(27) Perhaps they make up stories because, like all human beings, they are desperate to have people listen to what they have to say. [Back to Text]

(28) This splitting of a single voice into many is another reference to the fact that one voice can enter many ears at once and to the echo phenomenon which Lucretius has just discussed. [Back to Text]

(29) Because visual images have to move in a direct line, they cannot wriggle through twisting passages within the material of the wall; whereas, sounds can get through these passages. Hence, we can hear sounds from inside the room, but we cannot see anything through the wall. [Back to Text]

(30) This observation, Munro notes, was also later made by Pliny, Natural History, Book VII. [Back to Text]

(31) Hellebore is the name for a species of plant frequently used as a medicine in ancient times, in spite of the fact certain types are poisonous. According to some historical accounts, Alexander the Great died from taking hellebore as a medicine. [Back to Text]

(32) This difference, one assumes, must come about because of the size and structure of the passageways, which determine which particles can enter the palates of the two individuals. [Back to Text]

(33) “Romulus’ sons” are the Roman people. According to an old legend, recorded by the historian Livy, the geese in the temple of Juno saved Rome from the Gauls, around 390 BC, by cackling when they were disturbed by the invaders. [Back to Text]

(34) Lucretius has already argued that primary particles that have to come from deep inside an object before being emitted lose some of their velocity in the struggle to get to the surface of the object and hence move more slowly through the air once they are emitted. [Back to Text]

(35) As Bailey and others point out, this verse paragraph seems out of place. Its logical position in the argument would seem to be one verse paragraph earlier. [Back to Text]

(36) Munro observes that a number of classical writers refer to this curious behaviour of the lion: Pliny (in Natural History, Book VIII), Aelian, Plutarch, and others. [Back to Text]

(37) Centaurs are fabulous creatures with the head and torso of a man and the body of a horse; Scylla is a monster with six heads who lives in the rocks at the strait between Sicily and Italy; Cerberus is a dog with several heads (usually three) who guards the entrance to Hades. Lucretius seems to be claiming that since images like these are not derived from real objects, our “sense” of them comes from combinations of very delicate, tenuous particles which enter our bodies and affect our minds, so that we “perceive” them. This process also (as Lucretius mentions in Book 5) appears to be the way in which we come to have a visual sense of the gods (i.e., thanks to material images which we cannot see with our eyes, but which enter our body and affect our minds)—with this important difference, the gods do exist; whereas, the images of these compound, fabulous creatures are formed in the air from various images combining, not by being stripped away from living animals. [Back to Text]

(38) This awkward sentence is proposing that in a short but perceptible space of time (e.g., the time it takes to utter one word), there are many smaller moments intelligible to reason, and in these very short times images can change, so as to suggest continuous motion. The passage also seems to be suggesting that the mind to some extent shapes what it sees in accordance with what it hopes to see. As Copley notes, the explanation is “not too lucid.” [Back to Text]


(39) Line 808 in the Latin has been omitted. It is the same as line 804 in the Latin (lines 1162-4 in the English).   [Back to Text]

(40) Lucretius is here emphatically rejecting the notion that there is a purposeful design in the creation of the body. We were not given eyes in order to see. We happen to be able to see because we have eyes. The present uses of various organs developed after the organs were created. This, of course, is in line with modern biological thinking, which claims that new organic structures are produced fortuitously and have a better chance of being passed on if they serve a useful purpose in survival or reproduction or both. They were not created with the purpose of assisting survival. [Back to Text]

(41) Lucretius is here reverting to his earlier distinction (in Book 3) between the mind in the chest and the soul distributed throughout the body. [Back to Text]

(42) There are problems with the text here, which may account for the poor analogy to a ship. Gassendi (according to Munro) suggests “with oars and wind” (remis ventoque) because these are, in fact, two separate ways of moving a ship forward, whereas wind and sails are only one way. It is, however, still not entirely clear how the inrush of air would help propel the body forward. [Back to Text]

(43) Smith points out that Lucretius makes no mention of how the soul regains that part of itself which goes outside the body during sleep or makes up for the loss. [Back to Text]

(44) The cithara is a stringed instrument, somewhat like a small harp or a lyre, used by professional musicians. [Back to Text]

(45) I have adopted (more or less) the suggestion of Munro for a textual difficulty here. The image is from the start of a race in which each horse is behind a gate. [Back to Text]

(46) Lines 1000 to 1003 in the Latin have been omitted. They are identical to lines 992-995 (lines 1419-1425 in the English). Hence, there is no line [1000] above. [Back to Text]

(47) These three lines are somewhat elliptical. The point seems to be that in men it is only other people (the implication is both male and female) who stimulate the physical reactions of sex which draw sexual seed distributed through the body to the genitals. [Back to Text]

(48) Line 1047 in the Latin has been omitted. It is the same as line 1034 (lines 1472-3 in the English). [Back to Text]

(49) Promiscuous sex with anyone satisfies the physical desires, while avoiding the emotional complications of romantic love. Hence, for the Epicurean, who is seeking mental tranquillity above all else, the former is to be preferred. [Back to Text]

(50) Brown points out the implied metaphor here of controlling a passionate horse and underlines the distinction between frenzied, painful passion (which inflicts pain) and the gentler sexual pleasures associated with Venus. Hence, sex is a combination of pleasure and pain. The obvious point to this passage about human sexuality is not that sex is bad (its pleasures are to be welcomed), but rather that it can be dangerous and inherently unsatisfying, especially for someone who places a very high value on living without mental anxiety. [Back to Text]

(51) Images cannot satisfy the demand of physical passion for pleasure, nor can looking at the body of one’s lover in the flesh. Unlike food, these actions do not transfer anything material into the body which satisfies the craving. The emphasis on sexual desire as driven by a craving for physical possession or assimilation is remarkable. [Back to Text]

(52) The purple colour is a sign of extravagance, since the dye was very expensive. [Back to Text]

(53) This is obviously a list of poetical clichés and is a satire on conventional love poetry as much as on certain male attitudes in courtship. The Graces, in Greek mythology, are three divine goddesses of charm and gracefulness. Ceres is a Roman goddess of farming and cereal crops. Iacchus is a common name for the Greek god Dionysus or Bacchus, the god of wine. Silenus is a companion of Dionysus. [Back to Text]

(54) Brown notes that there has been much scholarly discussion about the emphasis here on the woman’s smell: suggestions have included perfume, body odour, flatulence, menstruation, vaginal fumigation, and medical treatments for hysteria. Whatever the precise reference, Lucretius’ main point here is that all women, no matter how beautiful or ugly in public, in the privacy of their own rooms smell disgusting. [Back to Text]

(55) This sudden seizing of power refers to the female seed overpowering the male seed when they mix, not to the woman overpowering the man during sex. [Back to Text]

(56) The origin of hereditary traits was much discussed in ancient times, with various debates about the different roles of male and female sexual “seed” and about the precise location of the hereditary material (in the blood or sexual fluid). [Back to Text]

(57) I follow Munro in moving line 1227-8 in the Latin to 1225-6. [Back to Text]

(58) Sacred lots (Brown notes) were pieces of wood on which were written prophetic utterances. The divination proceeded by lottery. [Back to Text]

(59) The anatomical details of this procedure have prompted a certain amount of comment, some people seeing here a reference to anal intercourse, with the wife pulling the man’s penis with her buttocks. That, however, seems unlikely, given the context of the discussion (how to avoid conception during regular heterosexual intercourse). It seems more a matter of the woman’s pulling herself back somewhat from the man’s penis (by moving her buttocks) and then swaying around so as to alter the angle of entry. [Back to Text]

(60) This curious link between a woman’s active participation in sexual motion during copulation and her infertility may, as Brown suggests, be linked to the notion that it was considered improper for a decent wife to get too carried away during sex, in spite of the fact that it makes the act more pleasurable. [Back to Text]



Link to On the Nature of Things, Book Five


Link to On the Nature of Things, Table of Contents