I saw this quote in someone's forum sig file (signature): "Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum." - Lucretius

Curious, I consulted Google Translate, which my professional translator brother cautions against. I think he knows of what he speaks, as Google Translate renders the quote as:

religion in persuading bad

This result even has their "Translation verified by Translation Community" icon! I was not convinced.

I therefore searched about and discovered several (similar, but not identical) translations.

An article on NewEpicurean.com translates the Latin as:

So much does religion have the power to persuade to evil deeds.

Wiktionary offers three translations.

Under Etymology:

Literally "To such heights of evil has religion been able to drive men." From Lucretius' De Rerum Natura, Book I, 101.

Under Proverb:

The practice of religion leads people to practise evil.

And under quotations:

c. 99 BCE – 55 BCE, Lucretius, De rerum natura 1.101:

Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum.

So potent was religion in persuading to evil deeds.

Monica Gale translates the Latin as:

how powerfully religion directs towards evil

Monica Gale, "Lucretius and Previous Poetic Traditions", in The Cambridge Companion to Lucretius, eds. Stuart Gillespie and Philip Hardie (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 67.

Reid Barbour translates it as:

such evils could religion incite

Reid Barbour, "Moral and Political Philosophy: Readings of Lucretius from Virgil to Voltaire", in The Cambridge Companion to Lucretius, eds. Stuart Gillespie and Philip Hardie (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 155.

R. Allen Shoaf translates the saying as:

so great are the evils religion can make men commit

Richard Allen Shoaf, Lucretius and Shakespeare on the Nature of Things (Newcastle upon Tyne, England, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014), 25.

My Question: Would it be accurate to conclude that there is not a "perfect" translation, and that the above Latin-to-English translations (other than Google Translate's) are reasonably correct?

  • 4
    Comforting that Lucretius said a couple of pages later, " I know how hard it is in Latian verse To tell the dark discoveries of the Greeks, Chiefly because our pauper-speech must find Strange terms to fit the strangeness of the thing;"
    – Hugh
    Jun 20, 2019 at 10:18

2 Answers 2


It is great that you looked up so many proposed translations! The many routes taken reflect the difficulty of translating well and the necessity to choose goals for the translation. Google Translate is unreliable with Latin; for detailed analysis and mockery, see the linked question.

The original quote is a line from a poem written in dactylic hexameter. Some translators chose to go with a poetic form as well, and the rhythmic constraints impose limitations on the message delivered. For example, the Perseus library has both the Latin original and a translation by William Ellery Leonard. He renders it in a iambic meter as:

Such are the crimes to which Religion leads.

A choice close to using a poetic form is to aim for something grandiose in style. These are good options if you want something artistically similar to the original, but you will probably lose in accuracy. It should be remembered that metric constraints restricted Lucretius as well; he may not have had access to the perfect words to put his thought because of that.

I will offer a technical translation that aims to describe the meaning of the Latin sentence accurately. It may fail at several artistic levels, but one cannot achieve everything. There is no perfect translation, and what is best depends on your goal.

It is also good to look at the context. Lucretius describes a scenario before the onset of the Trojan war: The Greeks are ready to go, but the wrath of Artemis keeps them from sailing. To calm the goddess, king Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia. This is the crime caused by religion that Lucretius condemns.

Let us go word by word:

  • Tantum is "so much" or "so many". It comes with malorum, which appears to be a partitive genitive "of bad [things]". Tantum malorum is "so many bad things".

    The adjective malus has quite a number of possible translations. The most basic one would be "bad", but the linked entry lists also: evil, wicked, injurious, destructive, mischievous, hurtful, ill-looking, ugly, deformed, unlucky, and more. Perhaps "evil" or "wicked" is most appropriate in the context of the story.

    Using a neuter plural mala (of which the genitive is eventually taken) is idiomatic in Latin. While it can be translated as "wicked things", I feel that the same message is conveyed more clearly with "wickedness".

    Therefore, these two words could be taken as "so much wickedness" or "so much evil" or more literally "so many bad things".

  • The word religio is not far from the English "religion". It means many kinds of piety, religious thought and observance, relation to gods, holiness, and similar.

    In this context, it could well be translated simply as "religion". Perhaps also "religious scrupulousness" would do, as the point is to say that observing religion has gone too far in this instance.

  • Potuit is straightforward, "was able to".

  • The remaining word is suadere, meaning things like "advice", "recommend", "persuade". As it is about religion pushing things too far, perhaps "persuade" is most accurate.

  • There are words that could be supplied (for idiomatic English phrasing or otherwise) but were not mentioned explicitly. In the context, the ones being persuaded are the Greeks or perhaps Agamemnon or Calchas. No pronoun is used in Latin, but supplying one is reasonable. The point is to understand the thought from the Latin and re-express it in English, not to translate word by word.

So, in conclusion, one possible translation is:

Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum.
Religious scrupulousness was able to persuade them into so much wickedness.

I think this conveys the message with good accuracy in the context of the story Lucretius is telling.

If you want to turn this from a sentence in context into a slogan, things change. Lucretius made a moral statement about specific events and their causes. Turning this into a blanket statement like "The practice of religion leads people to practise evil" is taking him out of context and seriously misquoting. It might be a thought based on what Lucretius wrote, but it is not what he wrote.

Most of the translation suggestions you provide land somewhere between an exaggerated generalization and a precise translation fitting the context. It is up to you to decide which translation is best.

I hope I was able to give you an idea of what the sentence means. To me that is primary; phrasing that into a coherent English sentence is secondary. I think many of the translations you posted come close my suggestion in meaning, although the wording is clearly different.


Tantum, as a correlative to quantum, can mean "at such a degree, so much", but, used alone, without a correlative, it may also and even more probably mean, by the usage most natural to classical Latin, "alone", "only", "but". Tantum, like the superlatives in -issim(-us, -a, -um) can have a relative superlative meaning ("the most evil of all, the only as evil as...") as well as absolute ("most evil, at such degree of evil").

Ex : "Tantum ergo sacramentum veneremur cernui" : "That symbol only we (now) revere bent over". "Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum" thus clearly means : Only religion, (throughout human experience) has proven powerful enough to convince (ordinary, not so bad people) to commit evil deeds of such magnitude.

  • This doesn't work, because if you take tantum to mean "only," it would have to be mala instead of malorum. Also, where do you take "of such magnitude" from then? Aug 8, 2022 at 7:59

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