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Introducing Martial: Epigrams

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. Spanish fans of ancient literature still tout him as a local boy made good, like his approximate contemporaries Seneca (tragedy) and Lucan (epic). He moved to Rome, where the action was, and spent almost all his adult life there, living off wealthy friends and writing a dozen and more books of witty, satiric epigrams. He died some time in the early years of the second century, around the time his young friend Juvenal was starting to write his famous Satires — poems set in a Rome that’s recognisably straight out of Martial, and that still informs our modern sense of “what it was really like” in the mean streets of the imperial capital.

 Why read Martial?

The man you read, the man you want — here he is: Martial, famous all round the world for his gossipy little books of epigrams… (1.1)

Martial is “modern” — everyone says so, whatever here and now they actually inhabit. He’s the poet of the big city, but also an enthusiast for the simple pleasures of country living (provided someone else is paying) — pick and choose from his thousands of epigrams and you can have whatever version of the poet you want. Indeed, early in his Vergil-scaled magnum opus Martial himself ironically concedes that only the hardcore will read him all the way through. The rewards for such an avid fan, though, are great: Martial reboots epigram as a Roman poetic form on a scale never previously attempted and introduces techniques of structure and internal allusion within and across books — “intratextuality” — that it had never before seen. His poems are often brilliantly satirical (and occasionally, terribly sad) when taken individually, but his twelve-book masterpiece is even more than the sum of those thousand-plus parts.

The Roman Forum, where the scandal and gossip which characterizes Martial would have been rife. Image Creative Commons via Pixabay.
The Roman Forum, where the scandal and corruption described by Martial would have been rife. Image Creative Commons via Pixabay.

Why this selection?

Sure, you could have borne three hundred epigrams, but then who would bear you, book-roll, and read you from start to finish? (2.1)

For the longest time, Martial was not read as a literary author. As a scabrous, fly-on-the-wall exposé of loose pagan morals — yes. As a school text for the generations of Latin learners who parsed and imitated him in classroom exercises — extensively. As a generic model for the Humanist scholars of the Renaissance and Baroque — ubiquitously. As a repository of archaeological data on lost monuments — frequently and perhaps incautiously. But as the witty presence who animates a complex and ambitious mega-text? That is something relatively new. For a long time academic study of Martial lagged behind that of Roman satire, which lagged behind that of other poetic genres; no-one was in a rush to recuperate a disreputable author with a dirty mouth and a reputation for sycophancy and insincerity (all those epigrams sucking up to Domitian, and then maligning him while he was still warm in his grave). Martial was classical by period, but his perceived bad character kept him marginal to the canon of bona fide Classics, which after all still carried the aura of intellectual and maybe even spiritual uplift; it wouldn’t do to appreciate him as Art: good commentaries, for instance, were a long time coming. Since the late 1990s, though, a new generation of scholarship has begun to recuperate Martial as a serious literary artist who pushed his genre hard and created unique effects, particularly in intratextual connectivity (“cycles” is a key term — recurring characters and motifs that knit the books together, collectively as well as individually) and complex self-presentation.

Translating him when I did, I could take advantage of these insights and aim at a selection that showed off (what many of us now think is) Martial’s bold and innovative agenda for epigram. I couldn’t translate the whole thing — a complete Martial would overflow the bounds of a single-volume paperback — but I could try to make my selections convey a sense of his epigrams as the building-blocks of polyphonous serial fiction on a grand scale. I also aimed at giving an impression of the thematic and tonal range of his material: Martial is the undisputed master of satirical epigram but can also write warmly, gently, and movingly. I was able to translate frankly, a liberty not open to all translators in the past, although since the 1970s we have been able to get away with much more. And I cut myself the slack of not attempting verse. Translators of Martial mostly make him rhyme, and while this preserves the sense of Martial’s epigrams as poetry it tends either to lose nuance (the devil of his satire is in the detail) or pad him out, and often both at once. Martial is not a terribly poetic poet and I don’t think he’d mind.

What’s next?

You are my expert listener… (6.1, to Julius Martial)

Over the next couple of months I’ll be posting my thoughts about particular poems by Martial and doing my best to answer your questions about the poems, their frame of reference, and how I went about translating them. I hope to give you a couple of new translations as well as discussing epigrams from the book. I’m grateful for the opportunity to engage with our (Martial’s and my) readers and I look forward to arguing the toss over this magnificent bastard of a classical author. Let’s keep in touch.

Featured Image: Flavian Amphitheatre, CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay

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