If you have ever tried to learn another language you already know that, even for beginners, translation is never simply a matter of looking the “foreign” words up in a dictionary and writing them down. The result is gibberish, because no two languages work in exactly the same way at the level of grammar (what the rules are) and syntax (how the sentence puts them to work).
“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).
“If you have no better offer, do come,” 11.52 helps put flesh on the bones of Martial’s Rome (‘you know Stephanus’ baths are right next door…’) and presents the city poet in a neighbourly light. It’s also a favourite of modern foodies in search of an unpretentious sample menu from ancient daily life.
I begin with one of Martial’s more troublesome twentieth-century Avid Fans: the poet, editor, translator, and Fascist propagandist, Ezra Pound.
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).
‘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’.
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.
An epigram is a short poem, most often of two or four lines. Its typical metre is the elegiac couplet, which is also the metre of Roman love poetry (elegy) and the hallmark of Ovid. In antiquity it was a distinctively Greek literary form: Roman writers were never comfortable in it as they were in other imported genres, such as epic and elegy. When they dabbled in epigram they often used Greek to do so. Martial’s decision to write books of Latin epigrams, and nothing else, is thus a very significant departure.
The poet we call Martial, Marcus Valerius Martialis, lived by his wits in first-century Rome. Pounding the mean streets of the Empire’s capital, he takes apart the pretensions, addictions, and cruelties of its inhabitants with perfect comic timing and killer punchlines.