Assuming that animals in Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura carry a comment about human action, one can undertake a symbolic reading of the passages in which they appear; in this way the interpretation of the poem can either be done literally or metaphorically.
Therefore the “improbable wars” passage (V 1308-1348) could be construed both in a literal sense as an historical fact or metaphorically as an analogy of human intellect considered both in its positive and negative aspects. As I shall demonstrate, it is to the latter interpretation that is the real sense of the passage.
Literally the poet presents a situation in which warriors train wild animals such as wild boars and lions to kill their enemies. But since this description of warfare is beyond the satisfactory explanation from available historical evidence some commentators have unjustly supposed Lucretius to be mentally ill.
However, some other commentators have suggested going a step further and investigate the metaphorical purpose of the ‘description’s extravagances’ in order to understand the rich analogical meaning. Accordingly horses symbolize the human mind ‘tamed’ by Epicurean philosophy, which teaches Man the true nature of things and makes him understand death as a part of life and drives him to respect other men and animals.
At the same time wild beasts epitomize firstly the ‘untamed’ mind of that Man who lives in the shadow of ignorance and is subjugated by fear of death, and secondly, the ambitions of wealth and power in which this Man seeks a remedy to his fate. But inevitably, as wild beasts revolt against their masters, so ambitions come to fuel man’s anxieties and drive him to war.
Continuing with the metaphor of the battle is an analogy of life and of how warriors personify single men. Notwithstanding that men are naturally destined to be defeated by what they fear most – that is by death – they try, unsuccessfully, to dominate it thanks to their ambitions. Similarly, a warrior, aware that he is losing the fight, is willing to do anything, even to involve wild beasts in the battle. Both warriors and men are so fearful of what the future has in store that fear distorts their nature: they become savage.
From the above it follows that over time the dichotomy between tamed and untamed animals recalls the contrast between wise and foolish people and that Lucretius links this correlation on the knowledge of Epicurean philosophy. Since in the human realm bellicosity depends upon the wild part of Man’s mind which means that wars could be avoided only if Man should find relief in the study of Nature which in turn will lead him to a purer and more well-founded source of inward peace.
In conclusion, considering that similar metaphorical meanings are present in other passages of the poem, we can say De rerum natura appears as an apologia for the domestic animal lifestyle: only by means of the understanding of the nature of things is Man able to definitively overcome the more instinctive part of his character and reach the same condition of calm typical of tamed animals. Alma Massaro, Genoa University