Epigrams by Martial (trans. James Michie)

(Originally read and wrote this post March 11, 2010)

“All Rome is mad about my book:
It’s praised, they hum the lines, shops stock it,
It peeps from every hand and pocket.
There’s a man reading it! Just look–
He blushes, turns pale, reels, yawns, curses.
That’s what I’m after. Bravo, verses!”

An epigram is a terse poem that usually ends with a witty rejoinder towards a person or some aspect of life in general. Back in his day, Martial was considered a master of this poetic form, read across the Roman Empire from the Spanish provinces to the Near East. Martial’s epigrams tend to be witty and clever rather than profound. Those expecting “deep” poetry exploring the nature of the universe and death will be sorely disappointed.

Even when Martial does tackle these themes (for example, the untimely death of a little girl) it lacks deeper metaphysical exploration, everything is superficial.

To you, my parents, I send on
This little girl Erotion,
The slave I loved, that by your side
Her ghost need not be terrified
Of the pitch darkness underground
Or the great jaws of Hades’ hound.
This winter she would have completed
Her sixth year had she not been cheated
By just six days. Lisping my name,
May she continue the sweet game
Of childhood happily down there
In two such good, old spirits’ care.
Lie lightly on her, turf and dew:
She put so little weight on you.

Martial does a wonderful job at capturing the sadness of the event. However, the ending although powerful, seems constructed more for its clever line about the shortness of her life than forcing us to contemplate the deeper meaning of death. A good way of illustrating this point might be to compare Emily Dickinson’s take on death in her poem “I Felt a Funeral in my Brain” with its many layers of meanings, ambiguous imagery, and multiple interpretations to Martial’s poem. Dickinson’s poetry requires intellectual contemplation and interpretation to make sense of her imagery, while Martial’s words never wander beyond the obvious surface meaning, requiring little analysis to understand. As my introduction points out, it’s precisely this accessible simplicity that made his epigrams so popular in his day.

While stylistically easier than other Roman poets such as Catullus and Horace, Martial finds inspiration from them, especially in selecting topics for his poems. Like Catullus and Horace he writes about his sexual encounters and desires for women. In the poem below, he criticizes Lesbia for her exhibitionism.

“Lesbia, why are your amours
Always conducted behind open, unguarded doors?
Why do you get more excitement out of a voyeur than a lover?
Why is pleasure no pleasure when it’s under cover?
Whores use a curtain, a bolt or a porter
To bar the public–you won’t find many chinks in the red-light
Ask Chione or Ias how to behave:
Even the cheapest tart conceals her business inside a monumental
If I seem too hard on you, remember my objection
Is not to fornication but detection.”

Martial gives us a broader understanding of the sexual practices of the Roman World in that he doesn’t only describe himself engaging in heterosexual relationships, but homosexual ones as well. Warning: the poem below below is a little blunt in the beginning, but again ends with that witty cleverness.

“When you say, ‘Quick, I’m going to come,’
Hedylus, I go limp and numb.
But ask me to hold back my fire,
And the brake accelerates desire.
Dear boy, if you’re in such a hurry,
Tell me to slow up, not to worry.”

The average reader remotely aware of the ancient world probably has some knowledge of Ancient Greece’s acceptance and normalization of same-sex relationships. What many of these readers don’t know is that in Rome the acceptance of these behaviors was much more complicated and while accepted as an act certain men did, it was still frowned upon. The biographer Suetonius castigates Julius Caesar for a supposed sexual liaison with a man; he reports, too, that Caesar’s own soldiers mocked him for it. In other poems, Martial has no problem poking fun at homosexual intercourse, following the more general Roman view that it’s less manly, despite suggesting in the lines above that he sometimes participates in it himself. Martial is the South Park of his day, mocking everything and everybody.

Consider how he mocks this man trying to prevent his wife from committing adultery. This is a theme that many other Roman writers explore, such as Ovid and Juvenal.

“When you complaisantly allowed
Any man, free of charge, to lay
Hands on your wife, not one would play.
But now you’ve posted a house guard
There’s an enormous randy crowd.
Caecilianus, you’re a card.”

He frequently writes about life from the perspective of a social parasite, struggling to get support from a client. Social parasites were a stock character type found in Roman drama, especially the plays of Plautus, that subsist by flattering, entertaining, and performing favors for rich folk with the hope of being invited to their dinner tables for a free meal. His epigrams seem preoccupied with this figure and the patrons who support them.

“When Selius spreads his nets for an invitation
To dinner, if you’re due to plead a case
In court or give a poetry recitation,
Take him along, he’ll furnish your applause:
‘Well said!’ ‘Hear, hear!’ ‘Bravo!’ ‘Shrewd point!’ ‘That’s good!’,
Till you say, ‘Shut up now, you’ve earned your food.’ “

Here is another poem in this vein:

“Pomponius, when loud applause
Salutes you from your client-guests,
Don’t fool yourself: good food’s the cause
And not your after-dinner jests.”

All of this stylistically makes Martial’s poems bawdy, witty, and playful in nature rather than brooding and profound. Underneath, the mockery of social customs, the rude jests, the barbs at the foibles of Roman citizens, a reader gets the distinct impression of a man with a zest for life in all its ridiculous inanity. These poems belong to the realm of the beer hall and the pub rather than occupying a prominent place on some aristocrat’s library shelf. It’s poetry for the everyman, it’s the poetic equivalent of a high school diss, but better written. Martial concentrates these rambunctious attitudes and immature insults into a witty poetic form that is a type of high art.


5 thoughts on “Epigrams by Martial (trans. James Michie)

    • I’m glad I inspired you. More people should read Martial. He tends to be on the more obscure side, but still a somewhat important Roman Poet. I think of him as a 2nd tier type of figure.

      What Roman Poets have you read before?

      • Not very many, I’m afraid. Virgil’s Aeneid, and I’ve started Ovid’s Metamorphoses and am trying to get the time free to complete it. I have Horace, Catullus, Juvenal and Lucretius on my TBR list; you know, the old favourites. Strangely, even though I expected to like Roman literature over Greek, it’s the Greek that ended up capturing my interest/heart so I’ve mainly concentrated on them. I certainly needed some inspiration to make a foray over to the Roman side of things! Mind you, I am reading Cicero’s Defence Speeches now which are just excellent.

        If you have any recommendations of Roman poets, or any advice, I’d love to hear it.

      • No, I’m definitely with you. I actually prefer Greek literature as well.

        Back in 2008, I originally devised my own reading plan where I hoped to tackle major literary periods in historical order: Greek, Rome, Medieval, Renaissance, etc. and hit all of the major works, including 2nd tier figures, along the way. I got through Ancient Greece (with only a few misses: I read a good chunk of Plato, but skipped a couple of his dialogues that I had originally intended to include, I skipped Thucydides).

        Then I went on to Roman Literature and I started working my way through that list of work. I found that while I liked it, Greek literature was significantly better to me. I also started getting anxious to tackle some of the holes in more “modern” works. At that point I hadn’t read any Tolstoy, Joyce, the big 6 Romantic poets, and so many other wonderful novelists (other than selections). So I stopped after tackling only about half my Roman list and went onto other things in the intervening years. Only recently I decided to return to Rome and complete more of the list.

        Cicero is definitely one I need to add! You might want to add Lucan. I haven’t read him yet, but he is supposed to be good.

  1. I really enjoyed hearing about your reading plan! I have good intentions of reading chronologically but I usually get side-tracked by something. Perhaps when I get through some of the classics I feel that I missed, I can get more focus.

    I haven’t read The History of the Peloponessian War yet but I’m looking forward to it. I can’t figure out why Greek wars interest me so much. Something happened when I first read The Iliad; I think it turned me into a warmonger! 😉

    I will definitely add Lucan!

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