‘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’. Let’s play along and pretend he’s a wealthy friend and patron (and for all we know, he really was). His resources don’t make the daily rituals of the capital – social calls, legal advocacy – any less wearisome than they are for his favourite client; if only they could live a life of proper leisure, and spend every day “going out for a drive, some plays, some little books, the Campus, the portico, a bit of shade, the Virgo, the baths.”
This catalogue of refreshing amenities presents the imperial capital at its most charming. The Aqua Virgo, built by Augustus’ right-hand man Agrippa, brought water in from ten miles or so to the north; it snaked into town by way of the Gardens of Lucullus on the Pincian and ran overground on arches into the Campus Martius (‘the Campus’). The Campus was outside the city proper and a traditional venue for sport and leisure. Martial’s ‘portico’ is likely the one, begun by Agrippa’s sister Vipsania, where a child was killed by a falling icicle at 4.18; it was near the Virgo, and its stone was ‘slippery-wet from the constant runoff’ where it leaked. By Martial’s time the Virgo mostly served private households, who paid for the privilege (Martial tries to finagle free access to the Marcia at 9.18).
Shade and running water were as crucial to a tolerable life in the Roman summer as they are today, and naturally our poet reckons ‘some little books’ every bit as indispensable (cf. 2.48’s ‘just a few books – provided I get to pick them’); the Latin word, libellus, is what Martial calls his own books, just as Catullus had his.
Romans enjoyed a carriage-ride, ideally out to their little or not-so-little places in the country (8.62, 12.57; and cf. the loaded SUV of 3.47, faking the good life by stocking up on farm produce at the supermarket on the way). Which of ‘the baths’ one patronised was a matter of individual preference and whim (3.20) – emperors kept building more (Book of Shows 2, 2.48), and there was more to them than simply keeping clean. From the baths one might segue naturally into dinner, perhaps playing it by ear depending on present company (6.53), though tiresome individuals might try to blag invitations from the unwary (11.77, Vacerra in the public toilets).
Martial’s wish that they could step back from the rat-race – ‘What kind of person knows how to live, but keeps putting it off?’ – is echoed later in the book (5.58): “‘Tomorrow I’ll start living’, you say, Postumus: ‘always tomorrow…'”
Postumus is a frequent target of horrible accusations (follow him through the index) but this poem’s conclusion, ‘Anyone with sense started living yesterday’, throws the reader back to 5.20 and Team Martial’s failure to get its own priorities straight.
Image Credit: Roman Bath by crjsmit. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.