A Spectacle of Disgust: An Ekphrastic Reading of De Rerum Natura 6.1138-1286

Daniel Hunter (Rutgers University – New Brunswick)

Lucretius’ description of the Athenian plague of 430 BCE is both highly vivid whilst also being profoundly disturbing due to Lucretius’ intent for the reader to become a spectator of the event. In this paper, I conduct a close reading of De Rerum Natura 6.1138-1286 and examine how Lucretius employs language within the passage to create an image of the plague within the mind of the reader and transform them into a viewing spectator. I then compare Lucretius’ description of the plague and the literary techniques employed with both the loose definitions of ekphrasis laid out in the progymnasmata and modern arguments surrounding ancient ekphrasis to subsequently argue that Lucretius’ account of the Athenian plague should be understood within the ancient definitions of ekphrasis (Webb). I argue further that the ekphrasis of the plague which Lucretius produces is designed specifically to arouse feelings of disgust within the reader turned spectator, feelings which produce a certain aesthetic pleasure within the reader which is centred on sensory arousal and which we can term the ‘sublate’ (Korsmeyer, Moorman).  In contrast to my ekphrastic interpretation, which is predicated on the reader engaging closely with the material being described, modern scholarship has historically tended to view Lucretius’ account of the Athenian plague as a form of Epicurean ‘test’ for the reader reliant upon the reader distancing themselves from what is described (Clay, Morrison). I argue that such an interpretation does not take into account the imagistic nature of Lucretius’ account of the plague as well as Lucretius’ use of the second person singular posses and variants of the verb video within the passage which serve as inducements by the poet for the reader to ‘see’ what is described. Reading the passage as an ekphrasis instead allows us to better examine Lucretius’ poetics as well as broaden scholarly horizons surrounding ancient ekphrasis.

Bibliography Clay, D. (1983) Lucretius and Epicurus. Cornell University Press. Korsmeyer, C. (2011) Savoring Disgust: The Foul and the Fair in Aesthetics. Oxford University Press.  Moorman, R. (2022) ‘The Aesthetics of Disgust in Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura’, Classical Philology 117(4), pp. 662-681.   Morrison, A. D. (2013) ‘Nil igitur mors est ad nos ? Iphianassa, the Athenian Plague, and Epicurean Views of Death’, Lucretius: Poetry, Philosophy, Science. Lehoux, D., Morrison, A. D., and Sharrock A. eds. Oxford University Press, pp. 211-232.  Webb, R. (2009) Ekphrasis, Imagination and Persuasion in Ancient Rhetorical Theory and Practice. Ashgate.