Martial Essay - Critical Essays


Like many writers across the ages, before Martial made his mark on literature, he learned to compose by following the examples of earlier authors. Martial was an outspoken admirer of Catullus, a Roman poet of the previous century, and used his mentor’s techniques to carve his own literary niche.

Throughout an effectiveif not especially lucrativeworking career spanning several decades in the heart of bustling, scandalous, fascinating first century Rome, Martial built a loyal following for well-crafted, sharp-pointed, often eyebrow-raising verse. Borrowing freely from the stylistic toolbox employed by Catullus and other epigrammatists, Martial made deft use of elegiac couplets (dactylic hexameter/dactylic pentameter, expressing a complete thought in as few as two lines), with occasional hendecasyllables (eleven-syllable lines) and choliambics (also known as scazons, which reverse the iambic meter in the last foot of a line) for rhythmic variety. Like Catullus, Martial achieved broad readership dealing with small, everyday, easily understood subjects and real contemporary figures, rather than mammoth epics of gods and heroes past. His direct, epigrammatic poetry drilled through the tumult of events, hammered home truths, and skewered individual behavior. His craftsmanship in constructing memorable two-liners (a set-up followed by a meaningful punch line) is still evident and still inspires to this day.

Although he may have attempted other types of writing, every extant work of Martial is in verse. Virtually all are of epigrammatic nature, most commonly of two to twelve lines, and seldom more than twenty lines long.

From the beginning of his career, Martial demonstrated both an eye for telling detail and a talent for marketing. His first known work, On the Spectaclesan eyewitness account of the first games held in the newly completed Colosseumcolorfully describes gladiatorial contests and battles among various species of animals. On the Spectacles opened with a poem boasting of the new facility’s splendor, comparing it favorably to the pyramids of Egypt, the hanging gardens of Babylon, and other world wonders. This was followed by a dedication to the emperor before Martial launched into a series of brief, exciting glimpses of the action from the games.

Xenia and Apophoreta were likewise produced in timely fashion to capitalize on the celebration of Saturnalia (in 84 or 85 c.e.), a major weeklong celebration...

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