Martial c. 38-41 - c. 104
(Full name Marcus Valerius Martialis.) Roman poet.
Martial is universally acclaimed as the greatest writer of epigrams in literary history. Though earlier Greek and Latin poets had used this verse form, Martial perfected it, giving it the wit and pointedness that remain its chief characteristics to this day. He depicted the world around him with such realistic detail that his poems are frequently praised as much for their historical value as their literary merit. Martial's forte was the satiric epigram, and the objects of his satire run the gamut of human faults and vices. His best poems are marked by concrete imagery, memorable phrases, masterful use of rhetorical devices, and originality of expression. Over the centuries, Martial's reputation has ebbed and flowed according to the tastes of particular ages. For some commentators, his prodigious aesthetic skills are insufficient compensation for two recurring features of his epigrams: excessive flattery of his patrons and undisguised obscenity.
Virtually everything that is known about Martial's life has been deduced from information that he gives about himself in his epigrams. He was born around 38-41 in Bilbilis, a small city in the region of northeastern Spain now known as Aragón, and he celebrated his birthday on the first of March, but scholars are unsure whether that was his actual birth date. Though he was a Roman citizen, his ancestry was a mix of Celtic and Iberian strains, and he frequently expressed great pride in this heritage. Martial's parents, whom he refers to in one poem (5.34) as Fronto and Flaccila, furnished him with a good education, principally in literary subjects. In 64 he left Spain to seek fame and fortune in Rome. He hoped that his celebrated Spanish compatriots, Lucian and the younger Seneca, would help advance his career, but within a year of his arrival they were implicated in a conspiracy against the emperor Nero and were executed. Henceforth Martial became a client of a variety of patrons, eking out a meager living from allowances and gifts. In exchange for financial support, clients such as Martial were obliged personally to attend their patrons almost on a daily basis. This left little time for writing poetry, as Martial frequently complained, but during this period he regularly prepared verses for his patrons' recitations and dinner parties, and undertook commissions to write commemorative lines for special occasions. As a young man he lived in a third-floor apartment on the Quirinal, but in later years he was able to exchange this for a small townhouse in the same area. He also acquired—perhaps as a gift—a small farm near Nomentum, about thirteen miles from Rome, to which he regularly repaired to escape the clamor of the city and the demands of his patrons. In his middle years, he was awarded several important honors, including the ius trium liberorum ("right of three children"), which, though ostensibly reserved to fathers of three, was often conferred on childless or unmarried men and made them eligible for significant financial benefits. Martial was also named an honorary military tribune, giving him the status of equestrian, or knight. The publication in 86 of the first two books of his epigrams established him as an important literary figure, and over the next ten years his fame increased steadily. During this decade, however, he also became closely identified with the emperor Domitian, and after 96—when Domitian was assassinated—the poet was unable to secure the favor of Nerva, the next emperor, or Trajan, Nerva's designated heir. Around 99 or 100, Martial left Rome and returned to Bilbilis, where a generous patroness named Marcella had given him a villa and a small estate outside the town. Throughout his years in Rome, he had often expressed nostalgia for the Spanish countryside, but he was soon bored by solitude and small-town life. He particularly missed the liveliness of the imperial city, the critical judgment of his audience there, and the companionship of his lifelong friends. Martial died in Spain, sometime around 104. His death was lamented that year by Pliny the Younger, a friend and patron, who attested to Martial's ready wit and good nature but expressed reservations about whether the poet's fame would live on after him.
Selections of Martial's early work were probably in circulation before 80, but that year saw the publication of his first collection, the Book of Spectacles. Scholars believe that the thirty-three surviving pieces represent about half of the original anthology, which was written to commemorate the emperor Titus's opening of the Flavian Amphitheater, now known as the Colosseum. These verses shed light on the lavish shows and bloody contests, lasting for one hundred days, that inaugurated the arena. About five years later, Martial published two collections of mottoes that could be used to accompany gifts: Xenia and Apophoreta; in modern editions, these are generally represented as Books 13 and 14 of Martial's epigrams. Xenia comprises 127 pieces—all except three in the form of couplets—appropriate for gifts of food and wine. The Apophoreta includes 223 verses, also in distichs; these would serve for a wide array of both cheap and expensive "gifts to take home" after Saturnalia celebrations—including housewares, toiletries, objects d'art, and pets.
Martial's literary reputation generally rests on his mature work, the epigrams in Books 1-12. These were published almost yearly beginning in 86; he completed the final volume while he was in retirement in Spain. The vast majority of these verses are written in elegiac meter, but 238 are in hendecasyllabic meter and 77 in choliambic, also known as scazon. The epigrams are of varying length, from one line to as many as fifty-one, though approximately half are couplets and more than thirty contain between twenty and thirty lines. An important characteristic of his epigrams is what is known as "the sting in the tail": a word or phrase at the close that takes the reader by surprise—although in the best examples of Martial's verses, the poet subtly prepares the way for the final ingenious turn of thought. As might be expected with such a large collection, the quality of the epigrams is uneven. Nevertheless, Martial's writing is consistently polished, showing the effect of a literary craftsman who took his efforts seriously, even though he often alluded to his verses as jokes or nuggets and, with mock-modesty, made light of their merit. The chief features of his epigrammatic style are compression, candor, wit, and irony. His explicit treatment of sexual topics has earned him the censure of many commentators over the ages; however, some late twentieth-century critics have suggested that only a comparatively small proportion of Martial's epigrams are truly obscene. In the preface to Book 1, anticipating the charge of lewdness, he notes that he writes in the tradition of Latin epigrammatists who preceded him—including Catullus, Marsus, Pedo, and Gaetulicus—who also wrote candidly about sexual matters. Elsewhere, like other writers of obscenity before and since, he avers that, though his verses may be salacious, his personal life is above reproach.
Martial wrote in a variety of tones and for a variety of purposes. The majority of the epigrams in Books I through 12 are satiric, and the objects of his derision are manifold. Martial's principal targets are hypocrisy and pretentiousness, though he also makes sport of the patronage system, physical afflictions, sexual deviation, drunkenness, and bad manners. Furthermore, he parodies foreigners, freedmen, and vain or assertive women, though—as with all his satires—he either portrays them as character types or assigns them fictitious names. Many of Martial's non-satiric poems are addressed to or mention various patrons or benefactors—complimenting them, pleading for their support, or thanking them for favors granted. His extravagant praise of the emperor Domitian in scores of epigrams strikes most modern readers as arrant flattery, and critics have noted that Martial's panegyrics to his imperial patron—concentrated in Books 4 through 9—are among the least successful of his verses, because of their artificial expression as well as their fawning tone.
Martial also wrote many poems about the nature of poetry and its practice; formal addresses of congratulation or farewell; affectionate tributes to his friends; testimonials to virtuous men and women; homages to the dead; and reflections on what is meaningful in life. He repeatedly mocked the pretentiousness of mythological epics, dramas, and elegies, and vigorously defended his short, realistic verses. His obituary epigrams include three on the death of Erotion, a slave child who died just days before her sixth birthday; of these, 5.34 is particularly celebrated for its beauty and poignancy. He addressed more than a dozen poems to his closest friend, Julius Martialis, including two of the most frequently translated ones: 5.20, which expresses profound regret that they are both living their lives for others—men of power and influence—rather than for themselves; and 10.47, the most famous of Martial's epigrams, which describes, with simplicity and sincerity, the elements of a happy life.
Martial has had a significant impact on European literature, and he has been widely read: between 1471 and 1993 there were at least twenty complete editions of his work—and numerous collections of his selected verse—in many languages. The earliest writer on whom he had a major influence was Juvenal (c. 55-60 - c. 130), whose indebtedness to Martial with respect to both subject and style is extensive. Moreover, Spanish historians and critics regard Martial as one of the founders, together with Seneca and Lucian, of their literary tradition. The first of Martial's many English imitators was the neo-Latin poet Godfrey of Winchester (c. 1050 - 1107). Beginning in the thirteenth century, Italian humanists rediscovered the beauty of form in Martial's verses, and subsequently neo-Latin writers throughout Europe found in his epigrams a model for their own poetry. In the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries, Martial was read, translated, and imitated by such authors as Petrarch and Poggio in Italy, the Pleiades in France, and Desiderius Erasmus and Sir Thomas More in England. From the beginnings of the English Renaissance and throughout the Elizabethan, Jacobean, and Restoration periods, Martial's influence was at its peak in that country. His translators and emulators included Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, Sir John Harington, Ben Jonson, Robert Herrick, and Abraham Cowley. Among his less famous imitators was the seventeenth-century satirist Thomas Brown, who, as an Oxford undergraduate, reworked Martial 1.32—a distich about a physician named Sabidius—into the well-known rhyme "I do not like you, Dr. Fell.… "4 Though Martial profoundly affected the practice and style of Augustan poetry, his reputation began to decline in the eighteenth century. It plummeted during the Victorian period, when he received little praise for form or style and much opprobrium for flattery of patrons and obscene jokes. In the twentieth century, Martial's literary stature has improved. Poets and scholars in England, Italy, Spain, and central Europe are once more translating his work, and philologists in Germany have carried out important textual studies. However, controversy continues as to whether Martial is one of the preeminent classical writers and whether a brief epigram can ever be considered a great poem.
Liber de Spectaculis (also Liber Spectaculorum) [Book of Spectacles] (epigrams) 80
Apophoreta (Book 14 in modern editions) [Gifts for Saturnalia] (mottoes) 84-5
Xenia (Book 13 in modern editions) [Guest-gifts] (mottoes) 84-5
Epigrammaton libri (Books 1-12) (epigrams) 86 to 101
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Selected Epigrams of Martial Englished (translated by Thomas May) 1629
Select Epigrams of Martial (translated by William Hay, Abraham Cowley, and others) 1755
The Epigrams of Martial, Translated into English Prose, Each Accompanied by One or More Verse Translations from the Works of English Poets, and Various Other Sources (edited by Henry George Bohn) 1860
Select Epigrams from Martial (translated by F. A. Paley and W. H. Stone) 1868
One Hundred and Twenty Epigrams of Martial (translated by J. H. Westcott) 1894
The Ancient Editions of Martial, with Collations of the Berlin and Edinburgh...
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SOURCE: "To Cornelius Priscus" in Pliny Letters, William Heinemann, 1915, pp, 267, 269.
[In this letter to his friend Cornelius Priscus, written around 104, Pliny eulogizes Martial, commending the poet's wit, incisiveness, and good nature. He also describes their patron-client relationship and raises doubts about the endurance of Martial's epigrams.]
I have just heard of the death of poor Martial, which much concerns me. He was a man of an acute and lively genius, and his writings abound in both wit and satire, combined with equal candour. When he left Rome I complimented him by a present to defray the charges of his journey, not only as a testimony of my friendship,...
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SOURCE: "The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Reception" in The Classical Heritage, edited by J. P. Sullivan, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1993, pp. 124-27.
[In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in 1771, Lessing salutes Martial as the first and best of the epigrammatists. In his discussion of the lewdness of some of Martial's verses, Lessing cautions against the assumption that the views expressed by the first-person narrator necessarily represent Martial's own opinions.]
There were countless poets before Martial, Greek as well as Roman, who wrote epigrams, but there had never been an epigrammatist before him. By this I mean that he was the first...
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SOURCE: "Martial" in The Works of Lord Byron, edited by Ernest Hartley Coleridge, John Murray, 1821, p. 74.
[The poem below, believed to have been written in 1821, is Byron's famous imitation of Martial 1.1, on the poet's fame.]
He, unto whom thou art so partial,
Oh, reader! is the well-known Martial,
The Epigrammatist: while living,
Give him the fame thou would'st be giving;
So shall he hear, and feel, and know it—
Post-obits rarely reach a poet.
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SOURCE: "Chapter XIV" in The Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay, Harper & Brothers, 1877, p. 378.
[In the following excerpt, dated 1857, from Macaulay's journal, the distinguished British statesman and historian records his generally disparaging appraisal of Martial. Though Macaulay remarks on the poet's lively imagery, he is deeply offended by Martial's obscenity and mendicancy.]
… I have now gone through the first seven books of Martial, and have learned about three hundred and sixty of the best lines. His merit seems to me to lie, not in wit, but in the rapid succession of vivid images. I wish he were less nauseous. He is as great a beast as Aristophanes. He...
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SOURCE: "The Poet Martial" in Tacitus and Other Roman Studies, translated by W. G. Hutchison, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1906, pp. 248-54.
[In the following excerpt from an essay first published in 1900, Boissier focuses on Martial's incisive portraits of character types in the fashionable society of his day and on the poet's attitude toward women.]
… We possess nothing of Martial's save epigrams, and probably he did not write anything else: he seems to have made a speciality of this form of verse. We know that the word epigram had among the ancients a much wider significance than it has to-day. It was, properly speaking, a short inscription of a few lines,...
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SOURCE: "Martial" in Post-Augustan Poetry, from Seneca to Juvenal, Clarendon Press, 1909, pp. 251-86.
[In the essay below, Butler offers a variety of judgments regarding Martial's life and work. He complains that Martial lacks seriousness and is guilty of lewdness, yet he credits the poet with an elegant style and a realistic view of his own abilities.]
Marcus Valerius Martialis, like Quintilian, Seneca, and Lucan, was a Spaniard by birth, and, unlike those writers, never became thoroughly reconciled to life at Rome. He was born at Bilbilis,1 a small town of Hispania Tarraconensis. The exact year of his birth is uncertain; but as the tenth book of his...
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SOURCE: "Martial, the Epigrammatist" in Martial, the Epigrammatist and Other Essays, The John Hopkins Press, 1918, pp. 13-36.
[In the following excerpt, Smith offers a vigorous response to Martial's detractors, particularly those who have charged him with obsequiousness toward patrons. Smith stresses the tradition of the patron-client relationship—before as well as after Martial—and praises the poet's keen powers of observation, his candor, and his sense of proportion.]
… I know of no ancient writer whose personal character has been more bitterly assailed by modern critics of a certain class. I know of few who have deserved it so little. We may say, at...
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SOURCE: "Martial and Formal Literary Criticism," Classical Philology, Vol. XV, No. 4, October, 1920, pp. 340-52.
[In this essay, Preston assesses Martial's opinions—as expressed in the epigrams—of his artistic predecessors, and compares them to the more formal literary commentary offered by some of Martial's contemporaries.]
What constitutes real literary criticism is always debatable, in the case of Martial as much perhaps as anywhere. Martial does not give us the masses of criticism that we find in Horace, nor are his critical ideas systematized as Horace's are. No doubt this is what is meant by Mr. H. E. Butler1 when he says in his essay...
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SOURCE: "Martial" in Martial and the English Epigram from Sir Thomas Wyatt to Ben Jonson, The University of California Press, 1925, pp. 285-99.
[In the following excerpt, Whipple discusses Martial's principal themes and classifies the epigrams by their content. He also provides a detailed analysis of their structure, emphasizing the poet's masterful use of rhetorical figures to enhance the essence and effect of his verses.]
No author was ever more completely the product of his environment than Martial. Both in the material which he treats and in his attitude toward it, he is representative of Rome in the latter half of the first century after Christ. The same statement...
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SOURCE: "Martial Looks at His World," The Classical Journal, Vol. XXIV, No. 5, February, 1929, pp. 361-73.
[In the essay below, originally delivered as a lecture in 1928, Spaeth evaluates Martial's opinion of four categories of first-century Roman professionals: physicians, teachers, lawyers, and poets.]
It has been observed by an eminent writer on Roman life and manners that our extant Latin literature is descended wholly from a sphere of society "which had more contempt than interest for the lower orders, the men who, day by day, tucked in their tunics behind the counter, or stood in apron and cap by their bench in the workshop, where nothing noble could be made,...
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SOURCE: "Martial and the Roman Crowd," The Classical Journal, Vol. XXVII, No. 4, January, 1932, pp. 244-54.
[In the essay below, Spaeth surveys Martial's depiction of men whose occupations he either scorned as contemptible or envied because they were lucrative—cobblers and booksellers, moneylenders and pawnbrokers, merchants and undertakers, and charioteers and musicians, among others.]
The epigrams of Martial have long served as a rich source of supply for those who would seek a more intimate knowledge of life as it was lived at Rome in the first century of the Empire. This is quite as it should be, for Martial was one who freely obeyed his own command to...
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SOURCE: "Martial the Client," The Classical Journal, Vol. XXX, No. 6, 1935, pp. 355-61.
[In the essay below, Jones describes the patron-client system, emphasizing both the humiliation Martial endured under various patrons and the poet's frequent evasion of the responsibilities he was supposed to fulfill as a client.]
In the Rome of the first century of our era there were many who preferred to be client to one or more patrons rather than to earn a precarious living by hard work. One of these was Martial. Coming to Rome from Spain, probably in the year 64 A.D., he successively flattered the emperor and paid court to wealthy patrons in the hope of gaining a livelihood....
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SOURCE: "Varied Strains in Martial" in Classical and Medieval Studies in Honor of Edward Kennard Rand, edited by Leslie Webber Jones, Books for Libraries Press, 1938, pp. 87-99.
[In this essay, Duff stresses—and commends—Martial's realism, which he regards as the primary impulse behind the poet's variety of tone, perspective, and subject matter. Duff sees further evidence of Martial's realistic viewpoint in the poet's acknowledgment of his artistic limitations.]
In an author like Martial who makes the true assertion that his writing smacks of mankind (hominem pagina nostra sapit), there must inevitably be a wide variety of persons and themes....
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SOURCE: "The Motive of Martial's Satire," Classical Weekly, Vol. 38, No. 3, October 16, 1944, pp. 18-20.
[In the essay below, Krauss maintains that Martial's early and continuing failure to find a generous, sympathetic patron led to deep personal resentment and a proclivity for satire. The critic also speculates about why Martial's acerbic verses were so popular with his contemporary audience.]
Marcus Valerius Martialis, the son of Celtic parents, migrated to Rome from Bilbilis, his birthplace, in Hispania Tarraconensis in A.D. 64, when he was already in or approaching his middle twenties. The incentive, doubtless, was the quite natural desire of an aspiring provincial...
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SOURCE: "The Obituary Epigrams of Martial," The Classical Journal, Vol. 49, No. 6, March, 1954, pp. 265-72.
[In this essay, originally delivered as a lecture in 1952, Johnson examines Martial's epigrams on death and dying. He calls attention to the poet's use of conventional tropes—especially from mythology—but he also remarks on the originality and genuine emotion in several of these obituaty epigrams.]
There are some twenty-five obituary epigrams1 in Martial's corpus of 1561 poems.2 If one includes all the pieces pertaining to death the total is considerably increased. To these Pliny's3 familiar appraisal of Martial...
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SOURCE: "The Poet Martial," Bulletin of the John Rylandds Library, Vol. 42, No. 2, March, 1960, pp. 432-52.
[In this essay, Semple touches on a wide range of topics associated with Martial's life and work. He gives an extended treatment of the patron-client system as the writer's only means of financial support; the accuracy and sincerity of the epigrams praising Domitian; and Martial's poetic style and tone.]
As I thought about a scheme for this lecture, my main difficulty was this. Here were 1,200 short poems, on many different topics and themes, but with no single co-ordinating plan. There is no unity in their variety: they preach no doctrine: they advance no...
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SOURCE: "Martial: Knight, Publisher, and Poet," The Classical Journal, Vol. 65, No. 8, May, 1970, pp. 345-57.
[In the following essay, Allen and a group of his students challenge the image of Martial as a desperately poor poet who regarded his verses as ephemeral or insignificant. Citing a variety of evidence to support their claim that Martial was financially secure and enjoyed a respectable social position, they argue that he was deeply involved in the publication of his books and believed strongly in the merit of his epigrams.]
Martial, like Tibullus and Ovid before him,1 was a Roman knight. That simple fact colors our acceptance of what the poet says...
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SOURCE: "Lascivia vs. Ira: Martial and Juvenal" in Essays on Roman Satire, Princeton University Press, 1982, pp. 362-95.
[In the essay below, Anderson contrasts the function of wit in Martial and Juvenal by an extended comparison of their poetry, particularly Martial's epigram 3.52 and Juvenal's third satire. He calls attention to significant differences in tone and purpose—even when the basic material is the same—and distinguishes between Martial's primary interest in humor and Juvenal's subordination of wit to serious thematic issues.]
Sandwiched between two lighthearted epigrams on the dubious physical attractions of a Galla and a Chloe, there...
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SOURCE: "Women, according to Martial," The Classical Bulletin, Vol. 48, No. 2, December, 1971, pp. 21-5.
[In this essay, Chaney briefly surveys Martial's depiction of women—both those he admires and those whose features, vanity, or lack of virtue he disparages.]
Martial frequently writes of women as types but his poems also deal with at least sixty-five women who are named and rather clearly described. Life itself is the theme of Martial, the life of the decadent Empire, and though he often writes in jest, he makes it quite clear in his preface that he respects all persons, even the lowest in status and character. "My page," says he, "smacks of humanity."...
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SOURCE: "An Aspect of Epigrammatic Wit in Martial and Tacitus," Arethusa, Vol. 18, No. 2, Fall, 1985, pp. 187-210.
[In the following excerpt, Plass evaluates Martial's obscene epigrams in terms of Freud's commentary on the function and effectiveness of wit. Plass calls attention to the way Martial manipulates syntax and word play to subvert codes of propriety, confound logic, and amuse his audience.]
In De Amicitia (37) Cicero mentions the following exchange between Laelius and Blossius on political loyalty:
L. Etiamne, si te in Capitolium faces ferre vellet?
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SOURCE: An introduction to Martial, Book XI, Duckworth, 1985, pp. 14-18.
[In the following excerpt, Kay provides a concise overview of Martial's literary legacy in Italy, England, France, and Spain.]
… Martial was well known in late Antiquity: authors like Ausonius,30 Sidonius Apollinaris,31 and Luxorius32quoted from him and imitated him; the grammarians used him for illustrations;33 and in the seventh century Isidore of Seville cites him some fourteen times, though twelve of these instances are from the Xenia and Apophoreta.34 During the following years Martial continued to be known to...
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SOURCE: "Juvenal and Martial on Social Mobility," The Classical Journal, Vol. 83, No. 2, Dec. / Jan., 1988, pp. 133-41.
[In the essay below, Malnati remarks on the different attitudes toward social mobility expressed by Martial (in eight epigrams from Book 5) and by Juvenal (in a passage from the third satire). He contends that although both poets are dealing here with the same issue—the law reserving the best seats in a theater for men of equestrian status—Juvenal's treatment reveals an aristocratic bias against upstarts in general, while the principal target of Martial's satire is social pretentiousness.]
Suetonius notes that Domitian, with the...
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SOURCE: "Humanity and Humour; Imagery and Wit" in Martial: An Unexpected Classic, Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 211-51.
[In the following excerpt, Sullivan focuses on the poet's structural and technical artistry. Sullivan analyzes Martial's arrangement of epigrams within individual volumes, the variety of endings and metrical forms in his epigrams, his innovations in poetic diction and imagery, and the different kinds of humor Martial employs in his verses.]
1. Evaluating Martial
It would be a bold critic who attempted to define authoritatively the nature of Martial's best poetry and explain precisely why he has been popular and...
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SOURCE: "The Panegyrics of Domitan in Martial, Book 9," Ramus, Vol. 22, No. 1, 1993, pp. 78-102.
[In the essay that follows, Garthwaite focuses on Book 9, discerning a subtle thematic relationship between the epigrams praising the emperor Domitian, the verses dedicated to the young slave Earinus, and the poems dealing with patronage. Garthwaite concludes that the Earinus cycle represents an ironic commentary on Domitian's moral hypocrisy, and that the patronage epigrams suggest that imperial panegyrics are really nothing more than the poet's fulfillment of his part of the client-patron bargain.]
The rich diversity of Martial's Epigrams makes up, in Duff's words,...
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SOURCE: "Martial's Catullus" in Martial's Catullus, Heorg Olms Verlag, 1994, pp. 33-46.
[In the following excerpt, Swann calls attention to Martial's numerous references to Catullus, especially those allusions in which the younger poet names Catullus as his chief literary model.]
… Martial names a 'Catullus' at least twenty-five times and, though there is doubt in five cases as to which 'Catullus' Martial meant, in twenty of the cases it is clear.5 Six times the association is with Lesbia (6.34.7; 7.14.3; 8.73.8; 12.44.5, 59.3; 14.77.1); five times it is with the word passer (twice at 1.7.3-4;...
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