Martial was the foremost satirical poet of his day in Rome; he also remains one of the greatest satirists in the history of literature. He was born in modestly comfortable circumstances in the province of Spain, possibly on a farm near Tarraco, and also received his education there. He moved to Rome around 64 c.e. and, most likely, was sponsored by his countrymen, including Seneca the Younger and Lucan. Martial then spent most of his writing career under the patronage of other writers, patrician sponsors, and eventually emperors such as Titus, Domitian, Nerva, and Trajan. A friend of major Roman authors, including Quintilian, Martial was elevated to the equestrian order by Emperor Domitian, although he was not reluctant to satirize even some of his own imperial patrons after their deaths.

Widely considered the master of the short epigram as a literary form, he wrote approximately fifteen books and about fifteen hundred epigrams that were published in annual volumes beginning in 86 c.e. More than twelve hundred of his epigrams were written as couplets, the other three hundred extending to twice as many or more lines. His lively wit and flair for irony are noted in acerbic cheerful observations that marked him as obviously gifted for satire, making him popular in his day and into modern times for lampooning individuals and highlighting notable scandals in Rome in his biting commentary. Martial valued virtue above other human characteristics, where his mocking tone and often humorously salacious descriptions render a naughty side to his wit. Martial is still often perceived as hitting below the belt or even as raunchy as he probes the social life of urban Rome at the end of the first century c.e.

Although Martial sometimes took absences from Rome for a few years, he still composed epigrams and could never stay away from the city too long because Rome itself was his inspiration, supplying him with endless subjects of folly. His epigrams, whether long or short, are almost always set up for a matching final punch line.

Martial’s first book of epigrams was written to commemorate the opening of Rome’s Flavian Amphitheater, now called the Colosseum, in 80 c.e., although his state praise is anything but slavish. His subjects range across every type of social compass Rome contained. For example, the opening epigram from book 1, on public entertainment and the reactions of critics, states “The play you knew was of a risqué type/ nothing that a prude or saint could hype,/ so why come at all, your ringside seat receive/ if this quickly you would frown and leave?” Here, Martial suggests that if a critic could attend as a hypocrite and vent displeasure by abandoning the performance midway, it only made the critic look worse than the play he deliberately came to snub.

Another favorite topic of Martial’s sniping was the bungling professional who only made things worse, some of whom were charlatans or cheats, others merely incompetent. In the following epigram, also from book 1, he says “There was a doctor who also as mortician troubled,/ sending his patients to the underworld, fee doubled.”

As a farmer in Spain and having rural property in Italy,...

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Further Reading

Fitzgerald, William. Martial: The World of the Epigram. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. Argues that Martial is a major author who deserves attention from today’s readers and critics. Provides an insightful tour of Martial’s works. Includes a helpful bibliography.

Hunt, Patrick, ed. and trans. Selected Martial Epigrams. San Francisco: Peirene Press, 2010. This collection of selected Martial epigrams consists of loose verse translations. Includes editor commentary.

Shackleton Bailey, D. R., ed. and trans. Martial: Epigrams. Loeb Classical Library 480. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993. This translation is intended primarily for academic readers. While its accuracy is impeccable and magisterial, it can lack immediacy and pungency of wit at times.

Spisak, Art L. Martial: A Social Guide. London: Gerald Duckworth, 2007. In this brief work, Spisak argues that Martial, “through his poetry, played a serious and vital role in his community as a social guide or conscience.”

Wills, Garry, ed. and trans. Martial’s “Epigrams”: A Selection. New York: Viking/Penguin, 2008. Although only a selection of Martial, this collection is rendered in verse like its original and is framed in language both accessible and picaresque with racy word choices.