Note: This is the final repost from Thermidor, originally published June 5, 2018. As with all of these, this is presented with only minimal editing.
Last time we talked about Roman poetry, it was on Catullus’ “stately bawdiness.” Today, we’ll move forward roughly a century to Martial, who was born in what’s now Spain in A.D. 40. He moved to Rome at twenty-four years old to pursue a literary career, with some success, but eventually grew tired of life in the capital and so moved back to Spain in 100. We don’t know the exact date of his death, but it was no later than 104.
As for his work, well, it can be rather divisive. On the one hand, Pliny the Younger called him “a man of an acute and lively genius, and his writings abound in both wit and satire, combined with equal candour,” though he added that he did not expect his poetry to be “immortal.” On the other hand, Lord Macauley wrote in a letter that “I wish he were less nauseous. […] Besides his indecency, his servility and his mendicancy disgust me.”
Of course, much the same could be said of Catullus, in whose tradition Martial followed. Like his predecessor, Martial is known for his short, often comical poems skewering fair-weather friends, the shallow rich, and promiscuous men and women, among other (mostly) deserving targets. However, he doesn’t work in obscenity and abuse quite as often as Catullus. Make no mistake, there is plenty of both in Martial’s Epigrams, but he was also more dependent on his patrons that Catullus was, and those patrons included the emperor Domitian. This is the “servility” that Lord Macauley referred to, and between the poems abusing Rome’s narcissists and cheapskates one finds others praising his rich patrons, and given the tone of the rest of the Epigrams one can’t help but question his sincerity in these.
Before going farther let’s take a look at one of his poems about his “friends,” translated by James Michie. This is from Book X, Epigram 15:
Crispus, you’re always saying you’re the friend
Who loves me best. But your behaviour offers
No evidence for it. When I asked, “Please lend
Five thousand,” you refused me though your coffers
Are crammed to bursting. And though fellaheen
Sweat on your profitable Nile estate
Have I had one ear of spelt from you, one bean?
Have you ever given me in the chilly season
A short-cut toga? Or sent silver-plate,
Even half a pound of it? I see no reason
Why I should count you as a friend – apart
From the informality with which you fart.
It makes one feel good about the brotherhood of Man to know that, in all times and all places, we can all agree that fart jokes are universally funny. You won’t find those in Virgil, by the way.…