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Three Millennia of Greek Literature
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Please note that Mommsen uses the AUC chronology (Ab Urbe Condita), i.e. from the founding of the City of Rome. You can use this reference table to have the B.C. dates


V. The Establishment of the Military Monarchy

From: The History of Rome, by Theodor Mommsen
Translated with the sanction of the author by William Purdie Dickson

The History of Old Rome

Chapter XII - Religion, Culture, Literature, and Art


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Page 48

It was composed in that hopeless time when the rule of the oligarchy had been overthrown and that of Caesar had not yet been established, in the sultry years during which the outbreak of the civil war was awaited with long and painful suspense. If we seem to perceive in its unequal and restless utterance that the poet daily expected to see the wild tumult of revolution break forth over himself and his work, we must not with reference to his view of men and things forget amidst what men, and in prospect of what things, that view had its origin. In the Greece of the epoch before Alexander it was a current saying, and one profoundly felt by all the best men, that the best thing of all was not to be born, and the next best to die.

Of all views of the world possible to a tender and poetically organized mind in the kindred Caesarian age this was the noblest and the most ennobling, that it is a benefit for man to be released from a belief in the immortality of the soul and thereby from the evil dread of death and of the gods which malignantly steals over men like terror creeping over children in a dark room; that, as the sleep of the night is more refreshing than the trouble of the day, so death, eternal repose from all hope and fear, is better than life, as indeed the gods of the poet themselves are nothing, and have nothing, but an eternal blessed rest; that the pains of hell torment man, not after life, but during its course, in the wild and unruly passions of his throbbing heart; that the task of man is to attune his soul to equanimity, to esteem the purple no higher than the warm dress worn at home, rather to remain in the ranks of those that obey than to press into the confused crowd of candidates for the office of ruler, rather to lie on the grass beside the brook than to take part under the golden ceiling of the rich in emptying his countless dishes.

This philosophico-practical tendency is the true ideal essence of the Lucretian poem and is only overlaid, not choked, by all the dreariness of its physical demonstrations. Essentially on this rests its comparative wisdom and truth. The man who with a reverence for his great predecessors and a vehement zeal, to which this century elsewhere knew no parallel, preached such doctrine and embellished it with the charm of art, may be termed at once a good citizen and a great poet. The didactic poem concerning the Nature of Things, however much in it may challenge censure, has remained one of the most brilliant stars in the poorly illuminated expanse of Roman literature; and with reason the greatest of German philologues chose the task of making the Lucretian poem once more readable as his last and most masterly work.

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