Virtually nothing is known about the life of Lucretius. He was probably a member of the aristocratic gens Lucretia, and his work shows an intimate knowledge of the luxurious lifestyle in Rome. Lucretius' love of the countryside invites speculation that he inhabited family-owned rural estates, as did many wealthy Roman families, and he certainly was expensively educated with a mastery of Latin, Greek, literature, and philosophy. Jerome tells how he was driven mad by a love potion and wrote his poetry between fits of insanity, eventually committing suicide in middle age; but modern scholarship suggests this account was probably an invention.
In a letter by Cicero to his brother Quintus in February 54 BC, Cicero said : "The poems of Lucretius are as you write: they exhibit many flashes of genius, and yet show great mastership." By this time, both Cicero and his brother had read De rerum natura, and so might have many other Romans. A literary evaluation of Lucretius's work, however, reveals some repetition and a sudden end to Book 6 during a description of the plague at Athens. The poem appears to have been published without a final revision, possibly due to its author's death. If this is true, Lucretius must have been dead by 54 BC.
In the work of another author in late Republican Rome, Virgil writes in the second book of his Georgics, apparently referring to Lucretius, "Happy is he who has discovered the causes of things and has cast beneath his feet all fears, unavoidable fate, and the din of the devouring Underworld."
A brief biographical note is found in Aelius Donatus's Life of Virgil, which seems to be derived from an earlier work by Suetonius. The note reads: "The first years of his life Virgil spent in Cremona until the assumption of his toga virilis on his 17th birthday (when the same two men held the consulate as when he was born), and it so happened that on the very same day Lucretius the poet passed away." However, although Lucretius certainly lived and died around the time that Virgil and Cicero flourished, the information in this particular testimony is internally inconsistent: If Virgil was born in 70 BC, his 17th birthday would be in 53. The two consuls of 70 BC, Pompey and Crassus, stood together as consuls again in 55, not 53.
There is insufficient basis for a confident assertion of the date of Lucretius's birth or death in other sources. Another yet briefer note is found in the Chronicon of Donatus's pupil, Jerome. Writing four centuries after Lucretius's death, he enters under the 171st Olympiad the following line: "Titus Lucretius the poet is born. Later he was driven mad by a love potion, and when, during the intervals of his insanity, he had written a number of books, which were later emended by Cicero, he killed himself by his own hand in the 44th year of his life." The claim that he was driven mad by a love potion, although defended by such scholars as Reale and Catan, often is dismissed as the result of historical confusion, or anti-Epicurean slander. In some accounts the administration of the toxic aphrodisiac is attributed to his wife Lucilia.
Jerome's image of Lucretius as a lovesick, mad poet continued to have significant influence on modern scholarship until quite recently, although it now is accepted that such a report is inaccurate. Similarly, the statement that Cicero emended (Latin: emendavit) the work prior to publication is doubtful. The exact date of his birth varies by manuscript; in most it is recorded under 94 BC, but in others under 93 or 96. Lucretius (a materialist writer) and Jerome (a Christian priest) wrote for opposing purposes, and whether or not Jerome attempted to disparage Lucretius's work as the work of a madman is an open question.
It is impossible to estimate the credibility of the accounts of Donatus and Jerome since they wrote long after the poet's death, moreover the latter author belonged to a theological tradition explicitly hostile to Epicureanism, and the sources of their comments are unknown. If 55 BC is Lucretius's most likely year of death, however, and if Jerome is accurate about Lucretius's age (43) when he died, it can then be concluded he was born in 99 or 98 BC. Less specific estimates place the birth of Lucretius in the 90s BC and death in the 50s BC, in agreement with the poem's many allusions to the tumultuous state of political affairs in Rome and its civil strife.
His poem De rerum natura (usually translated as "On the Nature of Things" or "On the Nature of the Universe") transmits the ideas of Epicureanism, which includes Atomism and psychology. Lucretius was the first writer to introduce Roman readers to Epicurean philosophy. The poem, written in some 7,400 dactylic hexameters, is divided into six untitled books, and explores Epicurean physics through richly poetic language and metaphors. Lucretius presents the principles of atomism; the nature of the mind and soul; explanations of sensation and thought; the development of the world and its phenomena; and explains a variety of celestial and terrestrial phenomena. The universe described in the poem operates according to these physical principles, guided by fortuna, "chance", and not the divine intervention of the traditional Roman deities.
Within this work, Lucretius makes reference to the cultural and technological development of man in his use of available materials, tools and weapons through prehistory to Lucretius' own time. He specifies the earliest weapons as hands, nails and teeth. These were followed by stones, branches and, once man could kindle and control it, fire. He then refers to "tough iron" and copper in that order but goes on to say that copper (sic) was the primary means of tilling the soil and the basis of weaponry until, "by slow degrees", the iron sword became predominant (it still was in his day) and "the bronze sickle fell into disrepute" as iron ploughs were introduced. He had earlier envisaged a pre-technological, pre-literary kind of man whose life was lived "in the fashion of wild beasts roaming at large". From this beginning, he theorised, there followed the development in turn of crude huts, use and kindling of fire, clothing, language, family and city-states. He believed that smelting of metal, and perhaps too the firing of pottery, was discovered by accident: for example, the result of a forest fire. He does specify, however, that the use of copper (sic) followed the use of stones and branches and preceded the use of iron.
Lucretius seems to equate copper with bronze, an alloy of copper and tin that has much greater resilience than copper; both copper and bronze were superseded by iron during his millennium (1000BC to 1BC). He may have considered bronze to be a stronger variety of copper and not necessarily a wholly individual material. Lucretius is believed to be the first to put forward a theory of the successive usages of first wood and stone, then copper and bronze, and finally iron. Although his theory lay dormant for many centuries, it was revived in the nineteenth century and he has been credited with originating the concept of the three-age system which was formalised from 1834 by C. J. Thomsen.