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‘I get more of a kick out of your bad temper than your good looks’: Martial’s guide to getting boys

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). A tactical show of resistance is perhaps part of the erotic script, but certainly all these boys can afford – they are owned, as the continuation of 5.46 immediately makes clear, “I want to beg you often, Diadumenus, so I beat you often. Result: you’re not afraid of me or in love with me.”

Diadumenus’ very name advertises his un-free status – the Diadumenos (a lithe young athlete putting on his victory wreath) was one of the masterpieces of the famed Greek sculptor, Polyclitus of Sicyon (the other was the Doryphoros, a mature male carrying a spear). Polyclitus’ fifth-century bronze original is long lost (bronze is so easily turned into coins to pay troops), but the statue-type was much reproduced for the Roman market; collectors and connoisseurs such as Pliny the Elder and Cicero rated its artist highly. Martial’s Diadumenus is thus a beautiful youth named for the canonical Greek image of beautiful youth (and Kanōn is itself a word we owe to Polyclitus – its first attestation is as the title of his famous lost treatise on statuesque beauty through mathematical proportion, summetria, our ‘symmetry’).

Diadumenos, National Archaeological Museum of Athens. Creative Commons License via Wikimedia Commons.
“Diadumenos, National Archaeological Museum of Athens” by Ricardo Andre Frantz CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I included several Diadumenus poems in my Oxford World’s Classics edition of the epigrams to help show how Martial breathes unity into his dodecalogy’s miscellany through the use of ‘cycles’ (recurring themes, motifs, and characters). Hyllus is another of the Martialverse’s recurring names and likewise points towards a Greek prototype, in his case a mythical son of Hercules, but his characterisation seems much less consistent than Diadumenus’. At 2.51 he is a formerly wealthy householder impoverished by an addiction to cock; at 2.60, a teenager committing risky adultery with a tribune’s wife (I’ll be posting a translation of 2.60 on my blog). In our poem, 4.7, he is probably a pretty slave with favoured ‘pet’ status – he expects that his passage into manhood will be formally celebrated, and that Martial will no longer pursue him romantically thereafter.

4.7 is good to blog about because it’s one of the few poems where my excellent copyeditor, Jeff New, called me on a choice I made translating it. The Latin of line 4 runs, “o nox quam longa es, quae facis una senem!” Literally, “O night, how long you are, you who by yourself make an old man!” But who is the old man – Martial, or (as Jeff suggested) Hyllus? It was a good question, because either way, we needed to read something into the text that wasn’t there – viz, a personal pronoun.

In the end I stuck with my first impulse: “all by itself, it has turned me into an old man.” Why? The name ‘Hyllus’ evokes a Greek frame of reference, as does the soft-focus eroticism; one could compare any number of epigrams on boy-love from book 12 of the Greek Anthology. The classic Greek template for homosexual love is an asymmetric binary of tops and bottoms. There is the receptive beloved, the erōmenos –young, but not too young, and with an abrupt expiry date when the beard comes; and there is the actively pursuing lover, the erastēs – a fully adult, older citizen male, but not too old. Greek lyric poets are painfully clear on what comes after, and Mimnermus, celebrated founder of love elegy, is pessimistic to the point of fatalism. I quote the splendid version of fr.1 by the late and much missed Martin West, translator for the World’s Classics of Greek Lyric Poetry:

I hope I die when I no longer care

for secret closeness, tender raptures, bed,

which are the rapturous flowers that grace youth’s prime

for men and women. But when painful age

comes on, that makes a man loathsome and vile,

malignant troubles ever vex his heart;

seeing the sunlight gives him joy no more.

He is abhorred by boys, by women scorned…

…Just as Hyllus scorns Martial now. Free or slave, the evidence of his body is incontrovertible: all of a sudden he has outgrown the role of beloved, of the softly yielding erōmenos; and by withholding his no-longer-boyish favours, he edges Martial out of the role of the kiss-hunting lover in his adult prime. At least within so Greek a genre as epigram.

(Did Martial want only kisses from these boys? Far from it; but that is a story for another blog, and one decidedly NSFW, in the epigrammatic parlance of the modern Martialic microblogger.)

Featured image: “Nude Wrestling” by Alex Proimos, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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