What’s Lucretius’s backstory?
Lucretius was born about 99 BC, in the later Roman Republic. Nobody knows anything about Lucretius’ life. But he must have been an educated Roman from a very rich family. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have been able to do the work he did.
He becomes an Epicurean
At some point in his life Lucretius got interested in Epicurean philosophy. Like other Epicureans, Lucretius believed that even if gods created the world, the normal workings of the world – day and night, weather, eclipses, births – happened naturally. He thought the gods had nothing to do with it. Death, in Lucretius’ view, was just the end of awareness. He didn’t think there was any afterlife at all. You should compare how you would feel after you died with how you felt before you were born.
The afterlife was an important question for Lucretius because it was a big deal during his lifetime. A lot of people in West Asia and the Mediterranean were just beginning to believe in an afterlife with Heaven and Hell. Not just Epicureans, but also Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Christians, Platonic philosophers, and Gnostics were all very much concerned with the afterlife around this time.
Did he discover atoms?
Lucretius also believed, like other Epicureans, that everything was made of tiny particles they called atoms. These atoms combined in different ways to make different things. This turned out to be right. But Lucretius didn’t have an electron microscope, so he didn’t know it for sure. He only knew about atoms as a theory.
On the Nature of Things
Lucretius’ main achievement was that he wrote a long poem, On the Nature of Things, about Epicurean philosophy in Latin. Before there were only Greek books about Epicureanism. Thanks to him, Western philosophers who didn’t know Greek still understood the principles of Epicurean thought.
When did Lucretius die?
Lucretius probably died about 54 BC, when Julius Caesar was beginning his career. He died young, when he was only about 43 years old. He probably died without finishing his great work, because even though it was published parts of it seem to be unfinished. Cicero and Virgil, among others, read and appreciated Lucretius’ long poem after he died.
But soon afterward, as more and more people began to have faith in an afterlife, people forgot about him. Christian philosophers rejected his ideas. So he was mostly forgotten in the Middle Ages, until people rediscovered his poem in the Renaissance, 1500 years later.