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‘A girl who made the peacock look ugly, the squirrel unloveable’: Martial mourns a lost love

I begin with one of Martial’s more troublesome twentieth-century Avid Fans: the poet, editor, translator, and Fascist propagandist, Ezra Pound:

For the gossip of Naples’ trouble drifts to North,

Fracastor (lightning was midwife) Cotta, and Ser D’Alviano,

Al poco giorno ed al gran cerchio d’ombra,

Talk the talks out with Navighero,

Burner of yearly Martials,

(The slavelet is mourned in vain)

The Fifth Canto: 110-16

‘Navighero, ǀ Burner of yearly Martials’ is Pound flaunting his alpha-nerd credentials in European literary-historical trivia: Andrea Navagero was a Venetian poet who, when fellow poets approvingly ranked his poems with Martial’s for wit, indignantly burned them (according to some sources making an annual ritual of doing so).

Navagero took offence at the comparison because of Martial’s reputation for immorality, but Pound’s bracketed aside – “The slavelet is mourned in vain” – points to a dissonant reception strand. Martial’s three epigrams on the dead slave-girl Erotion, of which 5.37 is the longest (the others are 5.34 and 10.61), have always attracted readers, and counterpoint the prevailing perception of Martial as a mercenary wit and socio-sexual opportunist. Common and scholarly readers alike find in them the key to ‘the true man’ beneath the commercially necessary mask of irreverence and filth; by sharing in his grief for Erotion we come into imaginative sympathy with ‘one of the most human and companionable of Latin authors’ (L. J. Lloyd, Greece and Rome 22 (1953)), 39-41, although he considers this particular poem a mere set-piece).

A girl more sweetly voiced than ageing swans…

This lament for his beloved pet begins like a love poem, with praise so immoderate (not to say clichéd) that some critics have thought it must be wittily ironic. I am happy for these critics if they have never experienced overwhelming loss; like falling in love, bereavement is often hard to put into words, and cliché renews itself as the primal speech of shared extremes. Think of any Valentine’s or “With Deepest Sympathy” card: what else is one supposed to say? Is bereavement a time to be clever? Then again, maybe Martial is artfully simulating; if so, he is an acute observer of the psychology of grief.

Mourning statues at the Staglieno Cemetery in Genoa. Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.
Mourning statues at the Staglieno Cemetery in Genoa. Creative Commons license via Pixabay.

The multisensory images piled up in the opening lines are certainly heady. Warmed in the hand, amber gives off a pine scent; at 3.65, Diadumenus’ kisses smell as sensuously exotic as “buffed amber,” and it is still used in aromatherapy. The Getty Museum supplies a useful list of ancient uses. Swans were famed for the brilliant purity of their plumage, and pallor made a woman a catch (tanned skin connoted manual labour); at 1.115 Martial is being courted by a girl “whiter than a bathed swan.” But swans also only sing just before they die (Party Favours 77) – hence our ‘swansong’ – and white connoted purity, emphasised by comparing Erotion to the virgin snow and ‘untouched lily’, both images of transient fragility as well as innocence. In an article in Classical Quarterly (42: 253-68 (1992)) Patricia Watson argued that Erotion was not just Martial’s pet but his sex-toy; but the poem’s insistence that she is ‘untouched’ seems to me to count strongly against it.

The roses of Paestum, a Greek colony, were proverbially fine; compare 12.31, “rose-beds that concede nothing to Paestum’s twice-yearly flowering.” Paestum supplied Rome’s perfume trade as well as its garland-makers. Martial’s wording alludes closely to Virgil, whose Georgics wish for space to celebrate ‘the roses of twice-flowering Paestum’ (biferique rosaria Paesti, 4.119); Ovid and Propertius glorify them too, though in terms too general to pin down the varietal, which of course could well be extinct by now. Tantalisingly, in Travels in the Two Sicilies 1777-1780 (1783-5) the travel writer Henry Swinburne attested that in his day a fragrant wild rose still bloomed among the ruins; “As a farmer assured me on the spot, it blooms both in spring and autumn.”

A girl who made the peacock look ugly, the squirrel unloveable…

When in The Praise of Folly (1509) Erasmus insists on the compatibility of flattery with genuine goodwill – ‘Is any creature more obsequious than a squirrel? But is any more friendly to man?’ – he perhaps has Martial’s poem in mind, as the modern commentators note (Erasmus, too, was an Avid Fan). According to the greatest expert on classical fauna I know, Sian Lewis, squirrels are hardly mentioned at all in surviving classical texts. To the standard wish-list of lost classical texts we’d like back – the second book of Aristotle’s Poetics (the McGuffin of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose), Cato’s Origins, the memoirs of Agrippina, and so on – perhaps we should add some hitherto-unknown volumes of ancient squirrel-lore.

And Paetus tells me I’m not allowed to grieve. He beats his breast and tears his hair…

The last seven lines of the poem are typically seen as an abrupt change of subject and tone, from decorous to humorously satirical, and for this reason critics often dismiss 5.37 as a mere rhetorical exercise and a tasteless one at that. Certainly Paetus (a fit name for a stodgy hypocrite if there ever was one) plays to type as the aristocratic abacus-rattler who only married for money; we can compare his showy and empty gestures of mourning to the Saleianus of 2.65, shedding crocodile tears as he counts his inheritance. But I can’t help but read these particular lines as furious. No-one ever knows quite what to say to the heartbroken (though the Romans tried to make a science of it) but there is nothing more calculated to incense the victim of loss than “You’ve no business being so upset, because…”

Anyone who’s lost a beloved pet – and Erotion is no more and no less than that to Martial – will know how he feels.

Featured image: Mourning Angel by Oliver Schmid. Public Domain via Pixabay.

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