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.