This editor introduction to the epigram genre is taken from the Oxford World’s Classics editions of Martials’ Epigrams, which is the focus of our new season of #OWCReads. You can follow along, and join in the conversation by following us on Twitter and Facebook, and by using the #OWCreads hashtag.
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.
Epigram had emerged as a literary force to be reckoned with in the Hellenistic age, in the centuries after the death of Alexander the Great (323 BC). Its roots were inscriptional – ever since the archaic period, epitaphs and such had occasionally been composed in verse – but it took a library-based culture of scholarship to collate these older texts and turn them into models for literary imitation. Epigram quickly found a home in the Greek symposium, the traditional after-dinner drinking party at which guests (‘symposiasts’) were expected to contribute a party turn to the evening’s entertainment. It soon diversified: poetic epitaphs and praises of athletes (imitating the inscriptions found on the bases of statues of victors at games such as the Olympics) were joined by love-poems, descriptions of works of art (‘ekphrases’), mock dedications, and poems about the symposium itself. Epigram bred epigram: from the beginning the genre encouraged proliferation, with ‘families’ of poems ringing the changes on favourite themes. This is a feature that carries through into epigram as practised by Martial: the reader will see that there are certain topics he keeps coming back to, each time with a slightly different spin.
When Rome subsumed the Hellenistic kingdoms into its growing empire, the literary culture that it encountered – and that so astounded and intimidated it – was one in which epigram was just hitting its peak. Philodemus of Gadara (first century BC), the Epicurean friend of Piso whose literary criticism inspired Horace’s Art of Poetry, was a witty poet of love epigrams, many of which survive. Around the same time, Philodemus’ fellow Gadarene Meleager was composing his own love-poems to boys and girls and assembling the ancient world’s first significant anthology of verse: the Garland. This inaugurated a tradition that was to culminate in the Anthologia Palatina, the Byzantine-era ‘Greek Anthology’ that is our main source of ancient literary epigram.
Even before Meleager, Romans had begun paying attention to Hellenistic epigram and making home-grown versions. The early epicist Ennius (239-169 BC) is known to have composed several, and the late second and early first centuries saw a noted trio of epigrammatists: Valerius Aedituus, Porcius Licinus, and Lutatius Catalus (with one ‘L’). They composed in elegiac couplets, the traditional Greek metre for epigram, and adapted Hellenistic models. Several of their poems have come down to us, the major source being Auluus Gellius’ collection of supposed after-dinner conversations, Attic Nights (19.9.10).
The most important Latin epigrammatist before Martial, though, is Catallus (with two ‘L’s). Martial refers back to his major model and as a justification for his choices – for instance, the use of strong language, pre-emptively excused in the preface to Book I: ‘. . . but that’s how Catallus writes, and Marsus, and Pedo, and Gaetulicus, and everyone who gets read all the way through’.
Martial mentions one or other of the Augustan poets M. Domitius Marsus and Albinovanus Pedo a dozen times in his oeuvre (e.g.2.77); they are pretexts rather than influences for his own style of epigram. The more frequently cited of the pair, Marsus, composed his epigrams in Greek, as did the slightly later Gaetulicus (adduced only here by Martial but known through the Greek anthology). Catullus though, is a much more lively presence in Martial. For modern readers of the classics he is one of Ancient Rome’s most important poets, second perhaps only to Virgil; he was probably read less widely in the first century AD than he is today (he had died nearly a hundred years before Martial was born), but his name still had power, and Martial wields it in almost every book:
If ever I read out a few of my own couplets, you immediately recite some Marsus or Catullus. (2.71)
Just so, perhaps, did tender Catullus dare send his Sparrow to great Maro. (4.14)
Please find room for my little books on whatever shelf Pedo, Marsus, and Catullus share. (5.5)
The names of the poet and his notorious mistress, Lesbia, appear often in Martial, although they cannot always point to that Catullus and that Lesbia, or not straightforwardly (see pp. xiii-xiv on the Lesbia cycle).
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