Lucretius on how women can overcome men’s protective stone walls

Ancient Roman men, with good reason, were reluctant to marry. With boldness and freedom of expression inconceivable today under totalitarian gynocentrism, the ancient Roman poet Juvenal described in detail how women annoy, oppress, and destroy men. Many men for self-protection metaphorically construct stone walls separating themselves from women, including their own wives. Recognizing the proverbial strife that women cause men, the learned Epicurean poet Lucretius described how a woman could peacefully unite with a man.
old stone wall

Lucretius as an Epicurean regarded traditional Greco-Roman religion as foolish superstition, but he seems to have appreciated wisdom and literary sublimity in the Hebrew Bible. Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible would have been readily available to Lucretius. In the Bible’s Proverbs Lucretius could have read:

It is better to live on a corner of the roof than in a house shared with a contentious wife.

It is better to live in a desert than with a contentious and vexing woman.

A continual dripping on a rainy day is like a quarrelsome wife. To restrain her is to restrain the wind or to grasp oil in one’s right hand.

the contentions of a wife are a constant dripping

{ טוב לשבת על־פנת־גג מאשת מדינים ובית חבר

טוב שבת בארץ־מדבר מאשת מדונים וכעס

דלף טורד ביום סגריר ואשת מדונים נשתוה׃
צפניה צפן־רוח ושמן ימינו יקרא

ודלף טרד מדיני אשה

} [1]

Proverbial invocation of dripping water goes back at least to the fifth-century BGC epic poet Choerilus of Samos. A surviving fragment of Choerilus’s poetry:

with persistence a drop of water hollows out the stone

{ πέτρην κοιλαίνει ῥανὶς ὕδατος ἐνδελεχείῃ } [2]

The Hebrew Bible took the common image of dripping water and perceptively drew an analogy to a contentious wife. Most men, even if they just have a long-term girlfriend or two, instantly recognize the uncanny aptness of that literary figure. A first-century Greek work on literary style Περί ύψους {On the sublime} referred to Moses as a sublime author. The author of Proverbs belongs in that same category.

Lucretius seems to have responded with a pleasant alternative to these proverbs from the Hebrew Bible. Lucretius wrote:

Nor is it by hand of god and shafts of Venus
that a little woman of uglier shape may yet find love.
For sometimes by her works and ways,
by obliging manners, cleanliness, and proper dress,
a woman may win you to share a life with her.
What matters most is habit, the builder of affection.
for things though lightly but constantly struck,
in the end are overcome and must give way.
Do you see how even drops of water, falling
on stone, in course of time bore through the stone?

{ Nec divinitus interdum Venerisque sagittis
deteriore fit ut forma muliercula ametur.
nam facit ipsa suis interdum femina factis
morigerisque modis et munde corpore culto,
ut facile insuescat <te> secum degere vitam.
quod superest, consuetudo concinnat amorem;
nam leviter quamvis quod crebro tunditur ictu,
vincitur in longo spatio tamen atque labascit.
nonne vides etiam guttas in saxa cadentis
umoris longo in spatio pertundere saxa? } [3]

Men are strongly attracted to young, beautiful women like Helen of Troy (she probably also wasn’t fat). Yet if a woman wants to get close to a man in a long-term relationship, she, like any friend, should strive to be pleasant and obliging and not to have a repulsive smell or repugnant dress. Only badly educated women believe that men other than masochistic boot-lickers are willing to live with women who are contemptuous of men in general.

Drops of water dissolving stone figure Epicurean eternal intimacy. In Epicurean understanding, all material bodies are constructed of atoms. Women with kindness and generosity of body and spirit can be drops of water for thirsty men. Women can thus penetrate the stone walls that men erect to protect themselves from contentious women.[4] As stone dissolved in drops of water, a man and woman can overcome separating walls and become commingling atoms in the eternal universe of atoms.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Proverbs 21:9 (see also 25:24), 21:19, 27:15-6, 19:13.

[2] Choerilus of Samos, Fragment 10, Greek text from Kinkel (1878) vol 1, p. 271, English translation from Speake (2015) p. 59. The bucolic poet Bion of Smyrna about 100 BGC wrote:

It is said that a continual dripping will even wear a hollow in a stone

{ . . . ἐκ θαμινᾶς ῥαθάμιγγος, ὅπως λόγος, αἰὲς ἰοίσας
χἀ λίθος ἐς ῥωχμὸν κοιλαίνεται. . . . }

Bion of Smyrna, Fragment 15, Greek text and English translation (modernized) from Edmonds (1912) pp. 414-5. A similar expression exists in Chinese:

Constant dripping of water wears away the stone

{ 水滴石穿 }

Via Steven Wrigley, Global Outreach Alliance, blog post, Oct. 30, 2009. A medieval gloss explained that drips of water on a stone work “not by force, but by continually dripping {non vi, sed saepe cadendo}.”

[3] Lucretius, De Rerum Natura {On the Nature of Things} 4.1278-87, Latin text from Brown (1987) p. 162 (nearly identical that that from the Latin Library). Copley translated this passage as:

Nor is it by hand of god and shafts of Venus
that a girl ill favored of form may yet find love.
For sometimes by her works and ways,
by kindness, patience, neatness, and good taste,
woman may win you to share a life with her.
An anyway, habit’s the builder of affection.
for things though lightly struck, yet constantly,
in the end are overcome and must give way.
You see how even drops of water, falling
on stone, in course of time bore through the stone.

Copley (1977) p. 112. Above I’ve adapted Copley’s translation to follow the Latin more closely and be more easily readable. Esolen’s translation is more poetic but looser:

It’s not an act of god or the arrows of Venus
That makes a homely little woman loved.
She brings it about herself by what she does.
By her yielding temper and her clean appearance;
You’ll easily learn to spend your life with her.
For habit is the recipe for love.
A thing struck over and over, no matter how lightly,
Will give in at long last and totter and fall.
Notice how water dripping upon a stone
Bores a hole through that stone eventually?

Esolen (1995) pp. 157-8.

[4] With his characteristic allusiveness, Ovid declared: “Water droplets hollow a stone; a ring is worn through by use {gutta cavat lapidem, consumitur anulus usu}.” Ovid, Letters from the Black Sea region {Epistulae ex Ponto} 4.10.5, Latin text via the Latin Library, my English translation.

Ovid seems to have twisted Lucretius’s love metaphor to suggest weariness in marriage. The Romans used wedding rings. Ovid himself associated a ring with love. Moreover, Ovid surely knew of Lucretius’s metaphor of affection developing like the action of dripping water. With crushing disappointment and failing imagination, love can also dissipate through time.

Ovid’s phrase was uncritically carried forward as a medieval proverb. See, e.g. Egbert of Liège’s early eleventh-century schoolbook, The Well-Laden Ship {Fecunda ratis} 1.181, quoting “gutta cavat lapidem, consumitur anulus usu” as a one-line proverb. For an edition with English translation, Babcock (2013).

[image] Medieval city wall in Worms, Germany. Photo thanks to Mike Chapman. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Babcock, Robert Gary, ed. and trans. 2013. Egbert of Liège. The Well-Laden Ship {Fecunda ratis}. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 25. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Brown, Robert D. 1987. Lucretius on love and sex: a commentary on De rerum natura IV, 1030-1287, with prolegomena, text, and translation. Leiden: E. J. Brill.

Copley, Frank O., trans. 1977. The nature of things. New York: Norton.

Edmonds, J. M., ed. and trans. 1912. The Greek Bucolic Poets. Loeb Classical Library 28. London: William Heinemann.

Esolen, Anthony M., trans. 1995. Lucretius. On the nature of things: De rerum natura. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Kinkel, Godofredus, ed. 1878. Epicorum Graecorum Fragmenta. Leipzig: Teubner. (vol. 1, vol. 2)

Speake, Jennifer. 2015. Oxford dictionary of proverbs. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Current month ye@r day *