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  • Transcending Lucretius:Vitruvius, Atomism, and the Rhetoric of Monumental Permanence
  • Jesse Weiner (bio)

I. Introduction

Vitruvius's discourse on monuments contains a contradiction between the necessity of repair and the rhetoric of immortality. Even while openly acknowledging the renewal, refashioning, rededication, reinterpretation, and destruction of old monuments, Vitruvius's rhetoric of monuments makes proclamations of anticipated immortality. Somehow, manifestly material monuments are expected to be impervious to nature and to resist the ineluctable forces of change and decay. As Gretchen Meyers (2012, 8) concludes, "One might suggest that for Vitruvius 'monumentality' is the opposite of 'ephemerality'; it encompasses something sturdy, long lasting, and durable."1 This is rendered surprising by Vitruvius's active engagement with and enthusiasm for Lucretius, who stands out as an iconoclastic critic of such grandiose and ambitious monumental pretentions, since the atomistic physics and linguistics of De rerum natura emphatically limit the possibility that any monument might be everlasting, be it made of marble, bronze, or words.

I examine here Vitruvius's views on monumental permanence in conjunction with his interest in and engagement with Lucretius. I argue that Vitruvius, as a selective reader of Lucretius, provides windows both into Augustan political thought and into Roman Epicureanism at work in the Augustan Age. Vitruvius strips Epicureanism down, making use of its atomism while rejecting or ignoring its political components. Vitruvius accepts Epicurean concepts such as atomic structures, vacuum, pleasure, and natural wonder. He also signals Lucretius as an authority on language and poetics. However, Vitruvius rejects the notion of a world in decline, the Epicurean doctrine of eternal change, and Lucretius's warnings against political ambition in favor of the Augustan rhetoric of Rome as the urbs aeterna.

Augustan Rome was a city actively engaged in the production and contemplation of monuments. The first princeps famously initiated a [End Page 133] program to transform his capital into a city of marble, the 'eternal city' that would stand as testament to his power and beneficence.2 Vitruvius remarks early in De architectura that the emperor cared deeply about "the provision of public buildings, so that … the majesty of empire might have outstanding prestige through public buildings."3 Vitruvius signals publica aedificia as inspiration for his treatise, and De architectura's literary structure underscores Vitruvius's preoccupation with monuments. After the initial books on architectural principles and building materials (with an emphasis on physical longevity), Vitruvius next dedicates books in succession to Ionic temples, Doric and Corinthian temples, publica aedificia (theatres, baths, harbors), and houses and their decoration. His Roman audience would understand all of these structures to be monumental.4

Given the vigor with which Augustan artists working in various media strove for everlasting afterlives,5 it is not surprising that Vitruvius should contemplate material permanence. After all, who better than one of the emperor's architects to weigh in on the relative merits of stone, wood, and brick, as well as strategies builders might use to safeguard their accomplishments and render their works impervious to the elements? Certainly, structural integrity, physical hardiness, and material endurance are of paramount concern to any builder of grand-scale architecture. Vitruvius has much and more to say about these qualities, which the architect does not take for granted.

As an architect concerned with firmitas, Vitruvius shows interest in Lucretius, whose influence on Vitruvius is well attested;6 however, De rerum natura makes an odd bedfellow for an architect working and writing in the Augustan Age. According to Lucretius, even the most intransigent and lasting substances change and decay with time. Monuments, which by definition are material artifacts, are only as permanent as their constitutive materials, and are thus not very permanent at all. While this conclusion is easily inferred from the broader logic of the poem, De rerum natura meditates upon the instability of monuments at length atx 5.306–17:

denique non lapides quoque vinci cernis ab aevo,non altas turris ruere et putrescere saxa,non delubra deum simulacraque fessa fatiscinec sanctum numen fati protollere finisposse neque adversus naturae foedera niti?denique non monumenta virum dilapsa videmus, [End Page 134] quaerere proporro sibi sene senescere credas,non ruere avulsos silices a montibus altisnec validas aevi viris...


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pp. 133-161
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