Everything known about Martial (MAHR-shuhl) comes from his poems and from one letter of Pliny the Younger, written at the time of the poet’s death. Martial alludes to his Spanish origins in an early poem, but by the age of fifty-seven he had already spent thirty-four years in Rome. His parents, of whom nothing more than their names is known, provided him with the standard rhetorical education designed to equip him to be a lawyer. In one of his poems, Martial depicts them as already in the underworld. Martial seems to have been in Rome by 64 c.e., perhaps under the patronage of the powerful Seneca family, also natives of Spain.
At some point he received the status of knight and an honorary military tribunate, but he does not mention which emperor bestowed on him those privileges. By contrast, it is clear that Titus gave Martial the privileges of a father of three children and that Domitian renewed the grant. His silence about the emperor who had provided the two earlier honors leads scholars to suspect that it was Nero, who fell into disgrace on his death in 68. It was important to Martial to have his honors known but impolitic to boast about who had given them to him.
Martial probably practiced law during Vespasian’s reign (69-79), though it does not seem to have suited him. His comments about the profession are unkind, yet fairly late in his life he gibed someone who had failed to pay him for pleading his case in court.
Exactly when or why Martial turned to poetry cannot be determined. His first published effort was Epigrammaton liber (80 c.e.; On the Spectacles, 1980), a collection of short poems in honor of the dedication of the Flavian Amphitheater (the Colosseum) in 80. Between 86 and 98 he published his epigrams at the rate of roughly a volume a year. Publication order is not necessarily the order of writing. Epigrams 2.59 and 5.26, for example, refer to the same incident but were published several years apart. The twelfth and final volume appeared in 101, after he had returned to Spain. There are also two volumes of incidental poems that were meant to accompany gifts given at banquets. Probably written between 80 and 85, these are sometimes numbered books 13 and 14 of his collected works, but this classification does not seem to have been Martial’s intention.
One of the great puzzles about Martial’s early life is how he supported himself. Many of his poems complain about his poverty and the necessity of flattering the rich in the hope of a handout or a dinner invitation. He mentions his wretched third-floor apartment, and his ragged toga is a frequent subject of lament.
In other poems, however, Martial refers to his “Nomentan farm,” a suburban villa not far from Rome, and to his private home in the city. He invites guests to dine with him and boasts about his kitchen and his cook, luxuries beyond the means of the urban poor who inhabited Rome’s apartment houses. He asks permission from the emperor to tap into the city water supply and pipe the water directly into his house, a privilege reserved for the ruler’s wealthy friends. The image that he tries to project of a poor poet scrounging handouts from stingy patrons may be nothing more than a literary pose.
This problem of the poetic persona complicates enormously the study of Martial’s life and work. His poems are the only source of information about his life, but there is doubt that what he says about himself is to be taken seriously. For example, in one poem he complains about his wife having a lover, while in another he objects that she is too moralistic to engage in the deviant sexual behavior that he enjoys. Can these poems be talking about the same woman? As a result, some modern scholars contend that Martial was never married and that any reference to a wife is merely a literary convention. Another possibility is that he was married several times, something that was not at all uncommon in Rome in the late first century c.e.
If one cannot be certain whether, or how many times, Martial was married, it is difficult to ascertain anything else about his life. In one poem, he refers to a daughter but only once in passing. In another, he mourns deeply the death of the slave child Erotion, tending her grave for years and requiring the next owner of the property to observe the same rituals. It is conjectured that this was his daughter by a slave woman on his farm.
It is virtually impossible to know Martial from his poems, as the contradictions in his work are numerous. In some of the poems he pictures himself engaging in homosexual relations; in others he ridicules men who do the same. He praises the joys of simple country life, but he lived in Rome for thirty-five years. He claims that, although many of his poems are bawdy, his life is decent.
Every writer must please his readers, and Martial seems to have been slanting his material to the tastes of his audience. In...