Book Review: Epigrams

Epigrams, by Martial

As someone who has been known to make more than my fair share of witty dinner conversation [1], and someone who has a taste for reading classic literature, I suppose it was only a matter of time before I would read a book from someone who in many ways is very much like me. Martial was a prolific writer, who wrote fourteen volumes of epigrams collected here (individually they are small epigrams, and even the books were fairly short, published for low prices, and released in a hurry to help the impecunious author pay his debts and maintain his status as a Roman equestrian). One of the books, the thirteenth one, is a particularly short collection of epigrams that has a concept–epigrams as cover letters of a sort for various gifts. Although the collection as a whole is very lengthy, none of the individual volumes and certainly none of the epigrams (which are all at around 250 words or fewer, some as little as a sentence or two) are very forboding.

It is hard to fairly judge a man like Martial, who was (like all writers) a man of his own place and time who sought to earn free dinners and a living from his witty pen, which is a perilous task in any generation. In many ways, Martial is quite a hypocrite. He scorns parasites but himself earns suppers and favors from Roman emperors for his wit. He makes fun of catamites and perverts but praises the favorites of Domition and his own effeminate minions. He writes moving praises to married couples but writes obscene taunts to his wife that are often left untranslated because they are so foul. He is a snob about his preference for good food and his dislike of getting a pittance to pay court to patrons but yet writes extremely touching eulogies to dead young slaves, showing both a savage wit as well as a tender heart at times. He continually rails about those who plagiarize his work and protests his integrity while writing fawning odes to a truly odious emperor in Diocletion, and then pulled the tenth volume of epigrams and edited them after Diocletian’s downfall to appeal to the more severe and stern Trajan.

It is hard to know what to make of a book like this. On the one hand, as a witty person not too unlike the author in terms of being a witty conversationalist familiar with being cash poor, there is much I can identify with in the author’s prickly wit. The author shows himself to be a gracious if sometimes biting friend to some of the most famous people of his time, including emperors and other notable writers (like Juvenal), but also pays attention to freemen and courtesans and even the occasional cobbler and poisoner (!). Some of the witty barbs are contradictory, some are repetitive (which is inevitable, I suppose, when you combine the body of work of someone whose thoughts revolve around a certain consistent set of interests like food and animals and togas and politics and sex and scatological humor involving diarrhea and figs). Some of the epigrams are so touching that they can stir the heart even now [2], and some are so obscene that even now they would be too racy for many readers. Martial was a man at home in the corrupt world of imperial Rome, but he was also a man who praised efforts at the reformation of character. He was a complicated man, and so it would make sense that this most notable work of his should be complicated even if it is made up of very small and seemingly simple elements, many of them references to current people famous in Rome, or historical incidents (he is particularly harsh on Nero), a few anti-Semitic insults, and quite a few references to Greek mythology and his own provincial upbringing in Spain. Whether the good outweighs the bad in this uneven collection of works is something every reader has to judge for himself or herself. Most readers will probably find much to amuse, much to inspire, much to inform, and much to censure and criticize. One suspects Martial would have wanted it that way.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example, a paraphrase of the end of one epigram, dedicated to a dead slave girl:

Now let her frisk and play among old friends
Now let her chatter, and so lisp my name.
And let the soft turf cover her brittle bones:
Earth, lie lightly on her: she lay lightly on you.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, History, Love & Marriage and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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