May 19, 2002
Martial Arts

A few years ago I read that V. S. Naipaul was reading Martial and the Old Testament -- an odd combination. It is hard to think of any two literary works more unlike.

The Roman poet Martial (Marcus Valerius Martialis) was born in Bilbilis, now Calatayud, in northeastern Spain, around 40 A.D. He moved to Rome to seek his fortune around 64, late in the reign of Nero, and published most of his books in the reign of the vicious emperor Domitian (81-96). He died some time between 101 and 104.

Martial wrote nothing but epigrams, short witty poems on miscellaneous subjects. Over 1600 of them survive, in twelve numbered books of Collected Works, plus three more on particular topics. Many are obscene, and some are astonishingly filthy: there is no sexual practice known to modern man that is not mentioned somewhere in Martial. Since some of my students have found my web-site (previous comments on fudge were from them), I won't be quoting any of those.

Here are better-than-average translations of two epigrams on critics and criticism, one from each side of the aisle:

Martial 9.81, translated by A. L. Francis and H. F. Tatum:

Reader and hearer, Aulus, love my stuff;
A certain poet say's itís rather rough.
Well, I don't care. For dinners or for books
The guest's opinion matters, not the cook's.

Martial 8.76, translated by Dorothea Wender:

"Please, Marcus, tell the truth", you say,
    "That's all I want to hear!"
If you read a poem or plead a case
    You din it in my ear:
"The truth, the honest truth!" you beg,
    It's damned hard to deny
Such a request. So here's the truth:
    You'd rather have me lie.

One of the pleasures of reading Martial is the information on everyday ancient life. Who would have thought that the author of 'Here I sit, broken hearted' had ancient forebears? The evidence:

Martial 12.61, translated by Peter Whigham:

Ligurra's fearful I'll contrive
Some pungent piece, some sprightly ditty
And longs to be considered worth it.
Longings baseless! Baseless fears!
The Libyan lion paws the Libyan bull
But does not bat the butterfly.
What people write of you you'll find
In dismal dives where sodden poets
Scrawl their rhymes on toilet walls.
Your forehead shan't disgrace my brand.

Finally, one more, defending the scabrousness (scabrosity?) of his verse:

Martial 1.67, translated by J. A. Potts:

You often say my work is coarse. It's true;
But then it must be so ó it deals with you.

Martial was probably the most important influence on his younger friend Juvenal, of whom I have written before. Latinists will find the complete Latin text here and 72 of the shorter and easier epigrams, with vocabulary and notes, here. The revised Loeb facing text by D. R. Shackleton Bailey (3 volumes, Harvard, 1993) provides excellent Latin text and (prose) English translation, and is unexpurgated and uneuphemistic. (The previous two-volume Loeb translated all the dirty poems, but into Italian.) Amazon even provides sample pages, though they seem to list only two of the three volumes.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at May 19, 2002 11:25 AM