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‘Your fame will be sung all round the world’: Martial on the convenience of libraries

“Your library of a gracious country villa, from where the reader can see the city close by: might you squeeze in my naughty Muse, between your more respectable poems?” Martial’s avid fans will find themselves on familiar ground here, at the suburban ranch of the poet’s aspirational namesake, Julius Martial (4.64). Then as now, the breezy ridge of the Janiculan was one of Rome’s most desirable locations, handy for town but serenely above its crowds, businesses, and industries: only the super-rich get a full night’s sleep (cf. 12.57), while Martial tosses and turns in the incessant noise pollution of the city below (9.68), only to have to get up at the crack of dawn every morning so he can pay his respects to powerful patrons (e.g. 5.22).

Such villas often had private libraries; you can find out more about them from Lionel Casson’s Libraries in the Ancient World (2001). Some were serious research tools: the most famous example is the Villa of the Pisos at Herculaneum, the so-called ‘Villa of the Papyri’, which has yielded charred fragments of many previously unknown ancient texts on philosophy and literary criticism (and is the model for the Getty Villa in Malibu).

Libraries were sometimes decorated with portraits of authors whose works they housed; the younger Pliny (Letters 4.28) is keen to source some as a favour for his friend Herennius Severus, ‘that great intellectual’. At 7.84, Martial brags that a fan has commissioned just such a portrait of him, painted on a wooden board (as was common in antiquity; the famous Fayum mummy portraits are examples), and this must have been for a private library – compare the preface to book 9. Julius Martial’s library is bound to have included a portrait of his friend. At 5.20 (about which I’ve blogged), when Martial pictures their ideal day together, it includes relaxing over ‘some little books’ – perhaps in a public library, or at their favourite baths, but why not here?

“Your fame will be sung all round the world…”

Ruins of the Villa of the Papyri at the archeological site of Herculaneum, photographed in May, 2000. Image Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Ruins of the Villa of the Papyri at the archeological site of Herculaneum, photographed in May, 2000. Image Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Libraries are a safe haven for Martial’s work; he can’t stop imagining the grisly fates that can befall an unwary book adrift in the big city (e.g. 2.1, 3.2, 3.5, 4.10). In return, he safeguards their future for all eternity – by writing about them, in the books they shelter. The ultimate private library was of course the emperor’s. Martial likes to imagine that Domitian is a fan (1.4, 2.91-2, 4.8, 5.2), and tries to haggle with the court librarian over exactly where he should come in the catalogue, “Please find room for my little books on whatever shelf Pedo, Marsus, and Catullus share” (5.5).

These are the bygone poets whom he keeps trying to claim as illustrious forebears (e.g. book 1 preface); Martial is always keen to assert his place in a literary pecking order (7.68), though as in 7.17, he’ll take whatever shelf-space he can get.

Late in life, when he retires back to his peaceful little Spanish hometown, libraries (whether public or private) are one of the Roman amenities Martial misses most. They were an integral part of the social scene in which he people-watched and sharpened his wit, “the libraries, the theatres; and those parties…” (book 12 preface).

The younger, citified Martial’s own vision of the good life had been decidedly rustic, and included “just a few books – provided I get to pick them” (2.48). Early in book 12 we find a honeymoon period of gloating (12.18, 12.31) that he has finally escaped the urban rat-race. By the time he writes the book’s preface three years later, though, he is pining for the capital’s libraries – perhaps not so much as centres of learning (Bilbilis must have had its own) but for the wonderful conversations and chance encounters he had enjoyed there.

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