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Distinctive dress: Martial’s index to life in a crammed metropolis

His books are famous around the world, but their author struggles to get by – two themes that quickly become familiar to any reader. Martial has an eye for fabric. He habitually ranks himself and judges others by the price and quality of their clothing and accessories (e.g. 2.29, 2.57), a quick index in the face-to-face street life of the crammed metropolis. Compare 2.58, targeting an ex-slave who has risen in the world but incurred too many debts along the way:

Dressed in fine new wool, Zoilus, you poke fun at my worn old clothes. They may be worn, Zoilus, but at least I own them.

Zoilus’ name pegs him as a Greek intellectual hanger-on; the historic Zoilus was a proverbially severe critic of Homer. Martial’s shabby clothing declares his stubborn pride in his citizenship and rank: he may be poor compared to these parvenus but ‘I’m not a nobody. I’m a knight, of no mean reputation; indeed, I’m widely read around the world’ (5.13). His declared status as an eques (knight) places him in a small social and economic elite, as by implication does his expensive education. Protestations of poverty were a poetic cliché, and distinctions in clothing, as in food, were shorthand for a too-haughty patron: ‘you expect me to be your “best mate” when you’re in purple and I’m in an itchy blanket?’ (6.11)

Martial’s coats here are lacernae, a thick, military-style woollen cloak often worn with a hood against bad weather, such as the rainstorm of 3.100; originally a foreign import, they were a poor choice for formal occasions. In the country Romans can wear any old thing, comfortably and cheaply (4.66, 10.96, 12.18), but the duties of urban amicitia (friendship and the patron-client relationship) demand the heavy and high-maintenance toga – ‘Is this what I deserve, Fabianus, with my worn old toga that I’ve paid for myself?’ (3.36), ‘You extort from me no end of toga-work’ (3.46, cf. 2.53, 5.22).

Statue of a man in a toga. Photo by Carole Raddato, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Martial’s obliging friend Rufus appears often in his books – the index points to some examples. The poet is comically cheeky in continually asking for generous favours: at 7.36 he asks another benefactor, Stella, for a raincoat to follow up a gift of roof-tiles for his new country place (cf. 6.5) – ‘Stella, you clothe my farm, but not its farmer’.

How does the stranger recognise Martial? Probably word of mouth – he’s ‘that Martial’, ille Martialis, wording that recalls 1.1 (cf. 10.9), and any civilised person knows his text (Batavians were a Germanic tribe in what’s now the Netherlands and presumably proverbial for dull-wittedness; the Humanist Erasmus, himself a Batavian keen to shake off his roots and a keen reader of Martial, had this poem in mind when he dismissed his fellow-countrymen as clods). But it’s conceivable, in the Martialverse if not perhaps in real life, that he has seen a portrait of the poet: two of his Avid Fans had such a portrait painted (7.84, 9 preface), and prestige editions of literary classics could be prefaced with a portrait of their author (Doggy-Bags 186, perhaps drawn from a bust of Virgil).


Image Credit: Roman Temple, Creative Commons Licence via Pixabay

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