Brooke Clark on Rome’s snarkiest satirist
MARCUS VALERIUS MARTIALIS, generally known as Martial, was born around 40 and died in the years just after 100 AD/CE. He spent most of his adult life in Rome, in the century immediately after Augustan poets like Virgil and Horace had brought Latin poetry to an artistic pinnacle. Martial worked in the “lesser” genre of satirical epigram, but through twelve books he perfected that form and his work still largely defines what we mean when we use the word “epigrammatic.” With two new translations of Martial’s Epigrams recently published, here are ten reasons to give the great Roman satirist a try.
1. You want to love poetry, but you’re finding it difficult
Contemporary poetry sometimes seems to be actively collaborating in its own transformation into one of the decorative arts. Many poems read as if they were composed to “seem poetic,” with their intricately worked surfaces of densely allusive language and in-your-face metaphors. At its best, this approach can be powerful and effective; too often, though, intentional obscurity can take the place of genuine complexity, and poetry becomes impasto with words.
Oh, and the idea that “obscure” poetry was by definition “serious” poetry existed in Martial’s time just as much as it does in ours:
Sextus, why relish writing what Claranus
and skilled Modestus barely comprehend?
Your books need not a reader, but Apollo.
Cinna outrivaled Vergil, you contend.
Let your verse earn such praise; let my creations
please scholars without needing explications. (Epigrams 10.21, trans. Susan McLean)
It’s hard to say too much about Cinna’s epic Smyrna, which is now lost except for a few scattered lines quoted in other works. Clearly, though, Martial was aware of the option of writing for a narrow, specialized audience, but chose a different path.
A poet almost comically out of step with the poetic trends of the moment, Martial can be read as a corrective to some of the worst tendencies of current poetry, and his epigrams—social, satirical, lewd, abrasive, disgusting, and occasionally even tender—aren’t just fun to read, but also broaden our idea of what poetry can be.
2. He wants your attention
Martial’s goal is to communicate clearly and directly to his readers, and he doesn’t have any qualms about being “accessible” (gasp!) or seeking a popular audience for his work. In fact, he pretty much pioneered the sub-genre of “poems bragging about my own popularity”—the first poem in the first book of his Epigrams is a perfect example:
Here is the one you read and ask for:
Martial, known the world around
for witty books of epigrams,
whom you, devoted reader, crowned
with fame—while he has life and breath—
such as few poets get in death. (1.1, trans. McLean)
The tone he strikes is more Kanye West than small-press poet. Martial saw popularity as a sign of greatness, not superficiality. By his eleventh book, he’s bragging that he’s being read in the farthest reaches of the empire:
My recondite Muse does not beguile just Rome’s spare time, nor do these poems reach only the ears of the leisured; no, my book is reread by the tough centurion beside the battle-standard amid Getic frosts. Even Britain is said to have our poems by heart. (11.3 ll. 1-5, trans. Gideon Nisbet)
3. He’s funny
Humorous poetry doesn’t get much respect anymore, but it was once permissible—and even, in some circles, desirable—for poetry to be funny. And Martial, at his best, can be wickedly funny. Some of his humour hasn’t aged well, and jokes based on Roman customs or ideas sometimes require notes to be understood. But a lot of his poems still hit with sharpness and immediacy, partly because his acidic tone is timeless, and partly because so many of his jokes are about human nature, which hasn’t changed much in the last 2,000 years and probably won’t change much in the next 2,000:
Africanus has a hundred million, and still he’s hunting legacies. Fortune gives too much to many, “enough” to none. (12.10 trans. Nisbet)
You’re an informer and a lying witness, a defrauder and a middle-man, a cocksucker and a provocateur. Vacerra, I can’t understand why you’re not rich. (11.66, trans. Nisbet)
4. But he isn’t just funny
Humour can be fun, but if Martial’s Epigrams were nothing but one versified joke after another, they would quickly become a drag. In fact, one of Martial’s greatest virtues is his skill in what the scholars call variatio: the interweaving of epigrams on different subjects, and in different tones and metres, to form a book. (This is also one of his advances over the Greek Anthology, where poems on the same subject are all lumped together.) Amid the jokes, Martial is capable of a striking, and almost offhand, beauty:
Why send me pristine wreaths? I’d rather wear
the rumpled roses, Polla, from your hair. (11.89, trans. McLean)
He is a moving poet of grief:
Here rests Erotion, too soon a shade, murdered by Fate: her sixth winter ended her. Whoever you may be, you who are lord and master of my little farm once I am gone, please make offerings each year to her tiny ghost; and if you do, may your home endure and your household be safe. May this stone be the only place on your land where tears are shed. (10.61, trans. Nisbet)
He can also be quite tender on the joys of friendship—and he can cut the tenderness with a little Stoic philosophy:
The summers, Julius, that we’ve shared,
if I recall, were thirty-four.
Their sweets were mixed with bitters, yet
still the delightful times were more.
If pebbles marking good and bad
were piled in two heaps, here and there,
the white ones would surpass the black.
To shield your heart from biting care
and shun some kinds of bitterness,
don’t grow too close to any friend:
your joy and grief will both be less. (12.34, trans. McLean)
That poem, incidentally, is immediately followed by this one:
You often tell me you’ve been sodomized,
Callistratus, as if you know me well.
You’re not so candid as you wish to seem.
Who tells such things has more he doesn’t tell. (12.35, trans. McLean)
Now that’s variatio.
5. He is a true classic
If the definition of a classic is that it has enduring interest, then Martial is indisputably a classic. When Martial died, Pliny (the Younger) predicted that his work would not endure—“at non erunt aeterna, quae scripsit,” (Letters 3.21)—but that judgment has been proved wrong.
In fact, Martial has never really gone out of style. Looking only at the English tradition, his work has been translated more or less continuously since Surrey in the mid-1500s, with well-known writers like Herrick, Dryden, Pope, Byron, and even Ezra Pound having a crack at an epigram or two or, in some cases, more. That interest has continued, with James Michie, Tony Harrison, and Peter Porter among the prominent poets to translate him in the second half of the twentieth century.
He remains, admittedly, a bit of an outsider, particularly in our hypersensitive times. If classic literature were a garden party, he would be the drunk, unwashed uncle who shows up uninvited and shocks everyone by telling dirty jokes:
Want to know how skinny your arse is, Sabellus? It’s so skinny you can fuck people in the arse with it. (3.98, trans. Nisbet)
But he is a classic nonetheless.
6. He’s an author whose time has come—back
Martial may be out of step with the contemporary poetry world, but his gossipy, macro-aggressive style puts him weirdly in synch with the tone of our culture at large, and particularly online culture—one could almost call him the grandfather of snark. His briefer epigrams fit perfectly on Twitter, and the subject matter of a lot of his poems resembles the sort of salacious gossip you might find on Page Six:
Aulus loves Thestylus but is every bit as hot for Alexis, and now I think he’s fallen for my own Hyacinthus. Go ahead and doubt that he cares for actual poets, when my Aulus is so keen on the poets’ younger boyfriends. (8.63, trans. Nisbet)
Or consider this one, which could have been written yesterday:
You’d arranged to buy a house, Tongilianus, for two-hundred thousand; but an accident, all too common in the city, robbed you of it. The payout’s a million. I ask you, Tongilianus, mightn’t people think you’ve torched your own house? (3.52, trans. Nisbet)
7. He has a dirty mind—just like you
Studies of how often people think about sex have reached different conclusions, but all have settled somewhere on the continuum between “frequently” and “almost constantly.” I’m not going to attempt the math myself, but I’d be curious to see a statistical analysis of how closely the frequency of obscene poems in Martial’s epigrams tracks the tendency of the human mind to turn to sex (paging some eager Ph.D. candidate). Whenever I feel a little bored with Martial’s poems about bad dinners, or men who wear too many rings, or Domitian being a god, something lewd comes along to jolt me awake—something like this:
One brother licks a dick; his twin, a twat.
So are the twins identical or not? (3.88, trans. McLean)
Galla can be fucked for two gold pieces. More than fucked, if you add the same again. So, Aeschylus, why have you paid her ten? She doesn’t charge that much to use her mouth. What’s it for, then? To keep her mouth shut. (9.4, trans. Nisbet)
Current poems sometimes read like approval-seeking performances of what Flaubert called “idées reçues”. Martial’s epigrams, needless to say, are not safe spaces.
8. He’s a social poet
The word “poetry” has become almost synonymous with “personal lyric poetry,” and in that sense contemporary poetry’s mainstream remains the run-off of Romanticism: poetry as a vehicle for self-expression, with first-person speakers writing about their own perceptions, experiences, and emotions. Of course, lyric poetry is part of a tradition that stretches back to Sappho and Alcaeus at least, and it has produced indisputable masterpieces; but the sad truth is that most of us, despite being special snowflakes, just aren’t interesting or insightful enough to make our personal ruminations worth reading.
Martial practices a poetic style that has essentially vanished. He doesn’t direct his gaze inward, on himself, in the manner of Romantic poetry, but rather outward, to the world around him. Don’t get me wrong: there is a central consciousness (and sometimes a first-person voice) that we can associate with the author in the Epigrams if we choose. But more striking is the host of characters who recur in different poems throughout the books. Some seem like little more than conveniences to hang jokes on, but some are quite sharply drawn. One of Martial’s most complete and convincing characters is Zoilus, the prototypical social climber:
Dressed in fine new wool, Zoilus, you poke fun at my worn old clothes. They may be worn, Zoilus, but at least I own them. (2.58, trans. Nisbet)
Whoever calls you “vicious,” Zoilus, lies.
You’re not a vicious person; you’re pure vice. (11.92, trans. McLean)
By combining character portraits with descriptions of social events such as dinner parties and visits to the games and baths, Martial creates a remarkably full and convincing portrait of the Roman society and culture of his time—an accomplishment more along the lines of what we would now associate with the novel.
9. He’s perfect for Internet-era attention spans
Did Reason #8 drag on a bit? If so, you’ll be happy to know that concision is one of Martial’s chief virtues. He sometimes referred to his poems as “nugae,” which could be loosely translated as “little nothings.” He was half right: they’re not nothings, but a lot of them are short—in fact, some of his best poems clock in at a Twitter-friendly two lines:
Why’s Fabullinus easy to deceive?
A good man, Aulus, always is naïve. (12.51, trans. McLean)
You chase me, I run; you run, I chase: that’s how I’m wired. I don’t want you to want me, Dindymus; I want you not to. (5.83, trans. Nisbet)
And he isn’t just concise—he also makes concision one of the recurring subjects of his poems:
“Write shorter epigrams,” is your advice.
Yet you write nothing, Velox. How concise! (1.110, trans. McLean)
This makes his book perfect for dipping and flipping, picking up a poem here and there in between other tasks. As he says himself, “legito pauca”—just read a few (10.1).
10. He’s easily available in English
If any of that has piqued your interest, then the good news is that Oxford World’s Classics has just come out with a new selection of Martial’s Epigrams, edited and translated by Gideon Nisbet. It’s an affordable paperback that includes a thoughtful introduction with enough background on Martial’s life, his style, and the social history of his time to set the stage for a generous selection of epigrams, presented with the original Latin on the left-hand pages and a clear English prose translation on the right (perfect for Latin learners, by the way). The notes are brief, but illuminate the poems in all the places a modern reader might require help.
Nisbet regards Martial as a perfect fit for the contemporary world, and his translation plays that up, tending to the colloquial, and even slangy:
Adept in sexy moves to an Andalusian soundtrack and writhing to Cadiz beats, Telethusa could tease a hard-on from decrepit old Pelias, or from Hecuba’s husband at Hector’s own funeral. Now she inflames and tortures her former master. He sold her as his slave; he’s buying her back as his mistress. (6.71, trans. Nisbet)
Words like “soundtrack” and “beats,” while pretty far from the original Latin, are immediately graspable to a contemporary reader, and that is Nisbet’s great achievement: he brings the sense of the poems across instantly, with the same immediacy they would have had for their original audience.
If there is a shortcoming to prose translations of Martial, it is that what they gain in clarity, they give up in poetry. At the time Martial wrote, the concept of what is now called “formal poetry” didn’t exist, because to write poetry was by definition to write in form. Martial’s poems are brilliant little commentaries on human nature, but they are also exquisitely crafted aesthetic objects that use metre and word placement to sharpen their effects.
Latin and English are so different that no English translation can mimic the form of the original; rhyme and metre, however, can create a facsimile, so to speak, of the formal qualities that Martial used so masterfully to add point to his epigrams. The recent translation by Susan McLean, which I have been quoting from alongside Nisbet, would make an excellent companion to his edition, especially since they contain many of the same poems. Nisbet will give you the plain sense, and McLean’s version will supply the flair:
One doesn’t fathom epigrams, believe me,
Flaccus, who labels them mere jokes and play.
He’s trifling who writes of savage Tereus’ meal
or yours, queasy Thyestes, or the way
Daedalus fit his boy with melting wings
or Polyphemus grazed Sicilian flocks.
My little books shun bombast, and my Muse
won’t rave in puffed-up tragedy’s long frocks.
“Yet all admire, praise, honour those.” Indeed,
they praise those, I confess, but these they read. (4.49, trans. McLean)
This is yet another of Martial’s “advertisements for himself,” but in this case the advertising is not false. His idea of poetry is radically different from the one that prevails today, and that alone makes him worth discovering. It’s good to be shaken out of our complacency now and then.
BROOKE CLARK’s versions of Martial can be read here and here. A Contributing Editor at Partisan and editor of the epigrams website The Asses of Parnassus, his work has appeared in Arion, Literary Imagination, Able Muse, The Rotary Dial, Light and other publications.