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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Principal English Translations
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 MSS (translated by W. M. Lindsay) 1903
Martial: Epigrams (translated by W. C. A. Ker) 2 vols. 1919, 1920; 1925; revised edition 1968
Martial's Epigrams: Translations and Imitations (translated by A. L. Francis and H. F. Tatum) 1924
Martial, the Twelve Books of Epigrams (translated by J. A. Pott and F. A. Wright) 1924
The Pensive and the Antic Muse: Translations from Martial (translated by Ralph Marcellino) 1963
Martial: Selected Epigrams (translated by Ralph Marcellino) 1968
Epigrams from Martial: A Verse Translation (translated by Barriss Mills) 1969
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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, but in return for the little poem which he had written about me. It was the custom of the ancients to distinguish those poets with honours or pecuniary rewards, who had celebrated particular persons or cities in their verses; but this practice, with every other that is fair and noble, is now grown out of fashion; and in consequence of having ceased to act laudably, we consider applause as an impertinent and worthless tribute. You will be desirous, perhaps, to see the verses which merited this acknowledgement from me; and I believe I can, from my memory, partly satisfy your curiosity, without referring you to his works: but if you are pleased with this specimen of them, you must turn to his poems for the rest. He addresses himself to his...
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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 to treat the epigram as a genre in its own right and to devote himself entirely to this genre.
Before him the epigram lay indistinguishable amid the whole throng of short poems, a mass of such infinite variety that no one would have been able or even willing to attempt further classification. Titles were given to all short poems indiscriminately: epigrammata, idyllia, eclogae were entirely synonymous designations, indeed Pliny the Younger still left it to the reader to choose from these a name for his poetic dabblings, which he himself had simply named after the metre common to all of them [elegidia].
Martial was, as I have said, the first to form for himself a clear, well-grounded...
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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 certainly is a very clever, pleasant writer. Sometimes he runs Catullus himself hard. But, besides his indecency, his servility and his mendicancy disgust me. In his position, for he was a Roman knight, something more like self-respect would have been becoming. I make large allowance for the difference of manners; but it never can have been comme il faut in any age or nation for a man of note—an accomplished man—a man living with the great—to be constantly asking for money, clothes, and dainties, and to pursue with volleys of abuse those who would give him nothing.…
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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, and it denoted the epitaph on a tomb, or the dedication of an altar, as well as some malicious skit scribbled on a wall. With Martial satire predominates in the epigram. It is scarce more in his case than a few lines of verse, sprightly, vivacious and witty, which humorously tells some anecdote, banters an eccentricity, or cracks a joke. As the interest is mainly in the quip with which it concludes, he prepares his reader for it in advance, and, from the start, all leads up to the final sting. This method of proceeding, which is nearly the same in all, risks making them seem in time monotonous, and when a large number are accumulated, one upon another, the monotony grows still more sensible. Martial, as a man of taste, was aware of it, and...
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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 epigrams, written between 95 and 98 A.D., contains a reference (x. 24) to his fifty-seventh birthday, he must have been born between 38 and 41 A.D. His birthday was the 1st of March, a fact to which he owes his name Martialis.2 Of the position of his parents, Valerius Fronto and Flaccilla,3 we have no evidence. That they were not wealthy is clear from the circumstances of their son. But they were able to give him a regular literary education,4 although, unlike his fellow-countrymen whom we have mentioned above, he was educated in his native province. But the life of a provincial did not satisfy him. Conscious, perhaps, of his literary gifts, he went, in 64 A.D.,5 like so many a young provincial, to make...
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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 once, that all Martial's faults are on the surface. Otherwise, many of his critics never would have discerned them at all. The just and sympathetic appreciation of an ancient author demands a much larger background of knowledge and experience than seems to be generally supposed. It is, of course, obvious that, first of all, before attempting to criticize an author one ought to read his entire works with care and understanding. In the case of a man like Martial, one must also be thoroughly acquainted with all of the conditions of his life and times; one must know all about the history of the antique epigram as a department, one must be able to realize the peculiarities of the Latin temperament as such, and make due allowance for them....
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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 on Martial, "He gives us practically no literary criticism." But Martial, at first sight not a bookish poet, has a surprising amount of informal literary comment and reflection. Along certain lines he imitated largely, and imitation is at least the softer side of criticism. His imitations, collected in special studies and swallowed, if not bolted, in Friedlander's commentary, are a field in themselves. In specific references to Greek and Latin writers as well as to theories of composition Martial also richly repays sifting. On contemporaries he is as uncritical as Pliny; both, for slightly different reasons, must be subject to heavy discount. But on the elder writers, and on writing in general, Martial's views have interest and value,...
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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 holds true of the form in which he casts his epigrams; it is the natural result of the rhetorical training of the time.
In the first place, his subject-matter is limited only by Rome as Martial knew the city, under Nero and Domitian. He has left us a remarkably detailed picture of his surroundings. He occupied a most advantageous position from which to view the life of the imperial capital. He himself was evidently poor and lived in bohemian fashion on his doles as client and the gifts he could obtain with his verses. However lacking in dignity and manliness this manner of life may have been, it at least brought him into contact with all sorts and classes of people. As a client and as a distinguished poet, he had the...
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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, only the daily bread earned."1 No doubt this reflection is largely true of the poet Martial, as of others; but in his case it deserves some qualification. For he did not view the lower ranks of society from the fixed standpoint of a die-hard aristocrat, nor did he reserve his abundant flow of derision to be expended on them only. His reach was far greater. He evinces a decided interest in the lower orders—usually not a sympathetic interest, to be sure, but the curiosity of one whose penchant it is to study life and to see it whole. In fact, he was interested in life at all levels. He took it as he found it, and wherever he sensed matter fit for quip or jest or stinging satire, he made use of it, generally regardless of whom...
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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 live in the present1 and at the same time he had been endowed by nature with a keen sense of vision and an agile mind, which he used with unsurpassed success in describing what he saw and experienced. The simplicity and sparkling vividness of his little poems make them immediately appealing and expressive. His vignettes of Roman life are based upon a familiar background into which they naturally merge; but oftener than not this is true because of the very wealth of detail which he himself has supplied. Both by virtue of necessity and by deliberate intent the epigrammatist knew life at close range and from that knowledge derived both entertainment and a livelihood. No one knew the contemporary scene better than he; no one observed it...
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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. His failure was as marked as his persistence, for he was nearly always begging and nearly always on the verge of poverty. Martial found the thirty-four years of his life at Rome disappointing but out of them he wove a vivid pattern of the seamy side of life in the Rome of his time. Especially is this true of his experiences as a client.
Martial felt deeply about the trials of a client, for he knew from experience the inconveniences, hardships, and insults that a client had to undergo. He detested the salutatio. He must break off his sleep and, clad in his toga, the official dress, plow through the muddy streets in order to present himself at daybreak at the house of his patron. He must salute his patron as the latter...
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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. This clever Spaniard of the first century A.D. had only to use his well-nigh unsurpassed faculty of keen observation in the cosmopolitan Rome where he spent thirty-four years of his life to find infinite material for the epigrams, largely but by no means entirely satiric, in which he proved his mastery. It is the range of human character portrayed in his poems that first and most obviously impresses a reader; for there is little in the Rome of his day that is not set in clear outline before the mind's eye.
Yet to concentrate on this aspect alone would give an imperfect view of his manysidedness. Some years ago in a paper1 I isolated the tender sentiment which makes so lovable a strain in his nature: and more...
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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 writer to realize his literary ambitions in the city which was the cultural, as well as the political, center of the empire. It appears that soon after his arrival he not only gained the patronage of his eminent and well-to-do fellow countrymen, Seneca the Philosopher, the latter's brothers, Gallio and Mela, and the poet Lucan, Mela's son, but also that through them he came to the favorable notice of Calpurnius Piso, a prominent representative of one of the oldest and most distinguished Roman gentes. Certainly he was justified in believing that under these auspicious beginnings he could embark in his career amply provided with the sort of social entrée and freedom from pecuniary cares that Vergil, Horace, and Propertius had enjoyed...
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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 par excellence applies. Though wit is less appropriate in them than pathos4 it is present here, but, as one would expect, well within bounds. A sufficiency of fel is assuredly to be found in his satirical epigrams on the blame-worthy dead. However, in the majority of his obituary pieces Martial qualifies for Pliny's candor. The term may mean 'sincerity', 'purity', 'kindness of heart', or 'good nature',5 and any one of these meanings is easily evidenced in Martial. The vein of sentiment discernible in him is particularly noticeable in his attitude to the dead, his genius for friendship, and his love of nature.6 Quite a few of Martial's obituary pieces combine the first two...
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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 cause: they are not related to any one end. The individual poems are separate entities; and, though massed together in books, they stand there as isolated units, without cohesion of subject or purpose. I am reminded of what the Emperor Gaius said of Seneca's writings: "harena sine calce" ("sand without lime"): there is no lime, no mortar, in Martial to bind the individual pieces into a cohesive whole; and this caused my difficulty in preparing to write about them. But, as I considered, there emerged three possible groupings of the poems which would supply some interesting material for my talk—first, some glimpses of how a poor man, a poet, lived at Rome in the first century A.D.; then, the surprising portrait of the Emperor Domitian that...
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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 about himself and his patrons. While a literal interpretation of Martial's conventional epigrammatic treatment of literary patronage could produce a picture of Martial as the shabby, starving poet of the third-floor garret, our author has deliberately included in his epigrams autobiographical material that he must have intended as a correction to such a false impression. Martial desired patronage and tangible rewards, of course, but it is the view of the modern reader, and not the view of Martial, that such gifts are demeaning for the poet who requests and accepts them. He is careful to inform his contemporary reader that such patronage was not required as a means of rescuing him from the ranks of the proletariat.
We refer in...
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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 appear in Martial's Third Book the following four elegiac lines:
empta domus fuerat tibi, Tongiliane, ducentis:
abstulit hanc nimium casus in urbe frequens.
conlatum est deciens. rogo, non potes ipse
incendisse tuam, Tongiliane, domum?
Martial has so contrived his development that each line begins with a crucial verb, each marking an important stage in the total situation, and the final one driving home the witty point. The first couplet establishes the situation in general terms: the cost of the house, then its total destruction (cause unspecified). To correct the impression of disaster,...
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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."
Women naturally were part of Martial's material. His subject matter was scandals, humors, fashions, follies, hypocrisies, Flavian types and eccentrics. He attained vividness by realistic detail. As Moses Hadas asserts, "… his total picture adds up to an indictment of social sham in all its manifestations." For such a type of writing, the epigram was a perfect vehicle and women the perfect foil. However, the Martial of the cutting epigram can love, with the simplest, most unsophisticated love, an innocent slave-child, Erotion, whom he immortalized in three poems (5.34; 37; 10.61). Erotion was a child beside whom "squirrels seemed clumsy." Simcox says of this aspect of Martial, one tenth of whose work may be called, even in...
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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?
B. Numquam voluisset id quidem, sed si voluisset, paruissem.
L. [Would you] actually [have done it], if he [Tiberius Gracchus] had wanted you to set fire to the Capitol?
B. He never would have wanted that, but if he had, I would have done it.
Laelius dismisses the reply as shocking (nefaria) without remarking on its most interesting aspect: Blossius' "yes" reflects the private code of friendship that was so powerful a factor in ancient ethics, but at the same time it is set against another, public code (Tiberius' "no"). The result is a statement with a slightly odd (as well as nefarious) sound to it. We await the answer with considerable interest, and when we...
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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 Carolingian and other scholars, and, though some of their knowledge of him stems from the grammarians, Isidore and each other, some is independent of these sources; we find citations in Alcuin's pupils Hrabanus Maurus (776-856) and Theodulf (d. 821), and in Maurus' pupil Walahfrid Strabo (c. 809-49).35 In the early Middle Ages Martial enjoyed popularity in England: the epigrammatist Godfrey of Winchester (c. 1050-1107)36 produced good enough imitations to be confused with him in succeeding centuries; Henry of Huntingdon (d. 1154?)37 used deliberate echoes of him in his small output; and John of Salisbury (c. 1115-80)38 knew him better than anyone since Antiquity (his quotations include 11.56.15f. and...
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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 powers granted him as censor, issued an edict which revived the lex Roscia theatralis (Dom. 8.3).1 The law, which had been proposed by L. Roscius Otho in 67 B.C., reserved the first fourteen rows behind the orchestra in the theater for members of the equestrian order. The effect of Domitian's strict enforcement of this law provided Martial with the stimulus for the creation of a cycle of eight epigrams, the lex Roscia cycle of the fifth book: 8, 14, 23, 25, 27, 35, 38, and 41. Juvenal does not allow this topic of Martial's to remain unmentioned in his satires: he devotes several lines in the third satire to it. This gives us an excellent opportunity to compare and contrast the way the two poets handle the theme and to...
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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 acclaimed or neglected and patronised in different periods. The wild fluctuations of his reputation over the centuries will come as no surprise to those familiar with the dynamics of reader response to literature. Then again, he offers an easy target for feminist and cultural criticism in his misogyny and obscenity, and also, in his seemingly passive acceptance of Roman ideology, of autocracy, imperialism and social brutality, he is fair game for Bakhtinist critiques.
For all that he is an important poet, and a salutary preliminary to any evaluation would be to consider briefly what earlier critics have regarded as his main poetic achievements or virtues. The epigrammatist has been admired for his tenderness, his...
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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, 'one of the most extraordinary galleries of literary pictures, vignettes, miniatures, portraits, caricatures, sometimes almost thumbnail sketches' of the Classical Age.1 Yet the books are by no means merely random or haphazard assortments. Like other Roman poets, Martial was attentive to the need to impose a sense of order and continuity on his published material.2 Naturally the very number of poems, as well as their varied inspiration and often impromptu composition, would militate against any overall thematic coherence.3 Moreover, Martial was also keen to exploit the inherent variety of the epigrammatic genre; thus, in the preface to Book 8, he says that he has interspersed more trivial and jocular...
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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; 1.109.1; 4.14.13; 11.6.16); and twice it is with Verona (10.103.5; 14.195.1). Three times Martial links Catullus with the epithet doctus (7.99.7; 14.100.1, 152.1), three times with Marsus (pref. 1; 2.71.3; 5.5.6), and once Martial simply compares himself to Catullus (10.78.16).6 In these passages Martial consistently treats Catullus as a Roman poet, some of whose works were more well known than others, but a poet who, as Martial indicates, wrote epigrams just as he is doing. There is no indication that Martial considered Catullus as an extraordinary poet of love. He had loved a certain Lesbia to be sure in his poems, but other poets had loved in their poems as well, a fact which Martial does not hesitate to mention (Mart....
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Bellringer, A. R. "Martial, the Suburbanite." Classical Journal XXIII, No. 6 (March 1928): 425-35.
Claims that Martial was happiest at his small farm near Nomentum because it reminded him of his homeland.
Bramble, J. C. "Martial and Juvenal." In The Cambridge History of Classical Literature, Vol. 2, Latin Literature, edited by E. J. Kenney, pp. 597-623. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
Compares Juvenal with Martial, emphasizing the differences between them. In Bramble's judgment, although Juvenal recreates the Rome of Martial in his early satires, he attacks it with bitterness and hyperbole, challenging the traditional values that Martial treats with caution and respect.
Burriss, Eli Edward. "Martial and the Religion of His Day." Classical Journal XXI, No. 9 (June 1926): 679-80.
Looks briefly at references to religious beliefs and practices in Martial's epigrams.
Carrington, A. G. "Martial." In Neronians and Flavians: Silver Latin I, edited by D. R. Dudley, pp. 236-70. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972.
Calls attention to the skillful conjunction of style, content, and occasion in the best of Martial's verses. Carrington also stresses Martial's influence on writers as diverse as John Milton, Matthew Prior, George Orwell, and Ogden Nash.
Church, J. E., Jr.,...
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