In the week I first read the Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things — the long lost poem of Percy Bysshe Shelley — the tune on loop in my head was that of a less distant protest song, Masters of War. In 1963, unable to bear the escalating loss of American youth in Vietnam, the 22-year-old Bob Dylan sang out against those faceless profiteers of war.
“Your library of a gracious country villa, from where the reader can see the city close by: might you squeeze in my naughty Muse, between your more respectable poems?” Martial’s avid fans will find themselves on familiar ground here, at the suburban ranch of the poet’s aspirational namesake, Julius Martial (4.64).
“If you have no better offer, do come,” 11.52 helps put flesh on the bones of Martial’s Rome (‘you know Stephanus’ baths are right next door…’) and presents the city poet in a neighbourly light. It’s also a favourite of modern foodies in search of an unpretentious sample menu from ancient daily life.
I begin with one of Martial’s more troublesome twentieth-century Avid Fans: the poet, editor, translator, and Fascist propagandist, Ezra Pound.
In July 1867 the British historian Edward Augustus Freeman was in the thick of writing his epic History of the Norman Conquest. Ever a stickler for detail, he wrote to the geologist William Boyd Dawkins asking for help establishing where exactly in Pevensey soon-to-be King Harold disembarked in 1052.
Martial adores sexy boys. He craves their kisses, all the more so if they play hard to get, “… buffed amber, a fire yellow-green with Eastern incense… That, Diadumenus, is how your kisses smell, you cruel boy. What if you gave me all of them, without holding back?” (3.65) and “I only want struggling kisses – kisses I’ve seized; I get more of a kick out of your bad temper than your good looks…” (5.46).
‘Dear Martial’ – what a strange coincidence that Martial’s soul-mate, who leads the life he himself dreams of living, is called ‘Julius Martial’. In our selection we meet him first at 1.107, playfully teasing the poet that he ought to write “something big; you’re such a slacker”; at the start of book 3, JMa’s is ‘a name that’s constantly on my lips’ (3.5), and the welcome at his lovely suburban villa on the Janiculan Hill 4.64 is so warm, ‘you will think the place is yours’.
It is a well-known fact of British prehistory that burial monuments, sometimes on a monumental scale, are well-documented in the Neolithic and Bronze Age, but largely absent in the Iron Age, outside certain distinctive regional groups at particular periods.
The traditional view of Shakespeare is that he was a natural genius who had no need of art or reading. That tradition grew from origins which should make us suspect it. Shakespeare’s contemporary Ben Jonson famously declared that Shakespeare had ‘small Latin and less Greek’.
His books are famous around the world, but their author struggles to get by – two themes that quickly become familiar to any reader. Martial has an eye for fabric. He habitually ranks himself and judges others by the price and quality of their clothing and accessories (e.g. 2.29, 2.57), a quick index in the face-to-face street life of the crammed metropolis.
What have the Romans ever done for us? Ancient Rome is well known for its contribution to the modern world in areas such as sanitation, aqueducts, and roads, but the extent to which it has shaped modern thinking about sexual identity is not nearly so widely recognized.
The symposium is a familiar feature of academic life today: a scholarly gathering where work on a given topic or theme is presented and discussed. While the event may be followed by a dinner and drinks, the consumption of alcohol is in no way essential to the business of the gathering.
An epigram is a short poem, most often of two or four lines. Its typical metre is the elegiac couplet, which is also the metre of Roman love poetry (elegy) and the hallmark of Ovid. In antiquity it was a distinctively Greek literary form: Roman writers were never comfortable in it as they were in other imported genres, such as epic and elegy. When they dabbled in epigram they often used Greek to do so. Martial’s decision to write books of Latin epigrams, and nothing else, is thus a very significant departure.
The history of Eurasia is vast, much like the land it covered millions of years ago. Over time the development, not only of European, Near Eastern, and Chinese civilizations, but also food production, the first use of gunpowder, and the cavalry took place.
Who is ‘Martial’? “Up to this point, Madam, this little book has been written for you. You want to know for whom the bits further in are written? For me.” (3.68) Marcus Valerius Martialis was born some time around AD 40 (we know his birthday, 1st March, but not the year) at Bilbilis in Hispania Tarraconensis, a province of oil- and wine-rich Roman Spain.
The poet we call Martial, Marcus Valerius Martialis, lived by his wits in first-century Rome. Pounding the mean streets of the Empire’s capital, he takes apart the pretensions, addictions, and cruelties of its inhabitants with perfect comic timing and killer punchlines.