Atomism in the Aeneid: Physics, Politics, and Cosmological Disorder
Gorey, Matthew Mead
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This dissertation examines the role of philosophical allegory in the Aeneid, focusing on tendentious allusions to Epicurean atomism as it is presented in Lucretius. I argue that Virgil, drawing upon a popular strain of anti-materialist and anti-Epicurean arguments in Greek philosophy, deploys atomic imagery as a symbol of cosmic and political disorder. The first chapter of this study investigates the development of metaphors and analogies in philosophical texts ranging from Plato to Cicero that equate atomism with cosmological caprice. The remaining three chapters track how Virgil applies this interpretation of Epicurean physics to the Aeneid, wherein chaotic atomism serves as a challenge to the dominant narrative of divine order and Roman power in the Aeneid. For Aeneas, the specter of atomic disorder arises at moments of distress and hesitation, while the association of various non-Trojan characters with atomism characterizes them as forces of disorder to be contained or vanquished. Instead of subordinating philosophical concerns to literary agendas, or vice versa, I show how Virgilian allusion to Lucretius conflates poetic, political, and cosmological narratives and blurs the boundaries between their respective modes of discourse.