The Power of Three: Some Martial “Triptychs”

By Art Beck

Martial Epigrams Book VI, 60
Laudat, amat, cantat nostros mea Roma libellos,
meque sinus omnes, me manus omnis habet.
ecce rubet quidam, pallet, stupet, oscitat, odit.
hoc volo; nunc nobis carmina nostra placent.

My Rome applauds, loves, recites our little books.
I get to sit on every lap, be held in every hand.
Watch them blush, pale, gasp, yawn, gag, Just
what I wanted: Now, our poetry makes us smile.

The 1st Century Roman epigrammatist Martial left us some 1500 extant poems. Classical scholars will sometimes produce monographs on the complementary makeup of one or another of his volumes, but “poetic” translators generally make their selection across Martial’s entire works, often based on a particular translator’s sense of compatibility with various individual poems.

So, unlike, say, an edition of Horace’s Odes or a complete Catullus, we tend to get as much of the translator’s priorities as Martial’s. This is not to say that un-sequenced individual poems don’t hold up well, but a “selected” Martial can lose a sense, not only of context, but of the multi-faceted aesthetic Martial presents.

Martial also seems to have a habit of revisiting a subject, looking at it from another aspect, like a painter experimenting with perspective. Sometimes rewriting a poem from what can seem another aesthetic, almost as if he were another poet.

This can take place within a book, or in some cases, over time in widely separated books. It’s as if he expects the reader to be aware of the totality of his work and his previous takes on the subject. Often, these re-looks, come in threes. As a short cut alternative to reading each book in sequence, a reader might also get a sense the dynamics and scope of Martial’s aesthetic(s) by considering some of these “three-looks” as if they were their own sequence of poems.

I. Chione can bite…

Martial makes a point of telling us that – apart from favorable references to his patrons, and the Emperor—the names of the “characters” in his epigrams are mostly made up. Given the predominant scoptic thrust of the “numbered books,” anything else might well be libelous, maybe even physically dangerous. The name “Chione” appears early on, in Book I, in a passing reference to a discreet prostitute. And, elsewhere as an expensive girlfriend. The name evokes the prestige wine region of Chios. And, at least for Martial’s Loeb translator, David Shackelton-Bailey, a Greek word for snow. A, haveable for a price, ice-princess? A virginal slut? In Book III, “Chione” appears in five poems, but it’s only in the last three that she transitions into an actual character rather than a caricature.

In Book III, 83, Martial invokes Chione when he tells a lit-critic what he can do with his criticism:

Ut faciem brevione mones epigrammata, Corde.
  ‘fac mihi quod Chione’ : non putui brevius.

My epigrams just aren’t quick enough? Well, Cordus you can
  just “Do me like Chione does!” I can’t go any faster than that.

In III, 87, we get a better idea of what it is “Chione does.” And even a sense that Chione the character (as opposed to “the name”) might be a somewhat younger, less sure of herself, creature, just beginning to explore.

Narrat te rumor, Chione, numquam esse futtutam
  atque nihil cunno purius esse tuo.
tacta tamen non hac, qua debes, parte lavaris:
  si pudor est, transfer subligar in faciem.

Chione, as rumor has it, you’ve never been fucked,
  and nothing is purer than your cunt. You even wade
into the baths covered up: but not the right part.
  Shame on you, pull that underwear up over your face.

In III, 89, she gets a little respect and finally seems to come into her own.

Ne legat hunc Chione, mando tibi Rufe, libellum.
  carmine laesa meo est: laedere et illa potest.

I’m telling you Rufus, we can’t let Chione read this book.
  My poems take real bites out of her. She could bite right back.

This sequence seems not so much the development of a theme, but three improvisations on a single leitmotif. It’s not especially Chione we learn more about, but Martial’s poetic dexterity. Some of the other re-looks we’ll look at will reflect somewhat deeper revisions of Martial’s worldview as well as his poetics.

II. A slight digression

But first, it may be helpful to step back and talk a bit about Martial’s poetics and how he’s often translated. There’s been a trend, recently, for translators to focus on glib ripostes like the Chione poems. The essayist and sometimes classicist, Garry Wills published a well received and entertaining, 2008 Martial selection, in which he characterizes the 1st century poet as “Rome’s gossip columnist.” Drawing parallels with the biting epigrams of Pope and Addison, Wills appropriates Martial’s only occasionally rhymed meters into freely translated, witty, rhymed couplets. More recently, a 2014 University of Wisconsin Studies in Classics selection translated by Susan McLean, also seems to opt for jaunty end-line rhyme wherever she can manage it. These are legitimate approaches. Translators have been “Englishing” Latin poetry since Elizabethan times and the results should be judged primarily on the enjoyment they bring to the reader. And Wills’ and McLean’s couplets are an enjoyable read.

Taking a more contemporary approach, William Matthews, in his 1995 Martial selection, The Mortal City, says he “enthusiastically opted for anachronisms” changing the name of a “greedy Roman mogul” to “Donald Trump,” and shortening “Theodorus to Ted.” Matthews translations are skillfully crafted and enjoyable. And he, like Wills, tends to focus on the jocular poems.

But one by-product of these approaches is that Martial acquires an 18th or 19th or 20th century voice that can drown out the fragile harmonic undercurrent of 1st century Roman culture. While that 2000-year-old whisper may be faint, its context is often cynically brutal. Seven of the eleven emperors in Martial’s 65 year lifetime were violently usurped and the annals left by contemporary historians more resemble Game of Thrones than Enlightenment, Victorian or modern times. Translating poetry is an illusionist’s imaginative art. As is historical fiction. And, I’d offer that there can be as much enjoyment in an approach that lets us pretend we’re speaking Martial’s language, as in resurrecting him in ours.

Martial is witty, of course, and profoundly urbane, but an epigram like Book II, 82 doesn’t lend itself to bon mot treatment:

Abscisa servum quid figis, Pontice lingua?
  necsis tu populum, quod tacet ille, loqui?

Ponticus, so you cut your slave’s tongue out and crucified him.
Can’t you hear the whole city now, whispering what he can’t tell.

Shackleton-Bailey points out this is almost certainly a gloss on Cicero’s Cluentius oration. But it reflects a world where, even a hundred years later in Martial’s time, an owner retained the legal right to punish his slaves as he saw fit. Garry Wills’ treatment, while nicely crafted, doesn’t really evoke that sinister world.

To hide your heinous crime
Your slave’s tongue you cut out.
Therefore that act of thine
The whole world now will shout.

Martial’s frequent obscenities also seem ill-suited to overly patterned English verse. Martial has been criticized, not so much for vulgarities as obscene in Latin as they are in English. But for his repetitive use of the same half dozen bad words with none of the creativity, say, of the effusive scatology of Rabelais. This misses the point. Martial, very selectively, utilizes the language of the Roman streets. A patois, like coarse English, well salted with fucking. But it’s a poetic sensibility that tends to turn English heroic couplets into limerick. Especially when Martial’s crudity joins hands with the violence of the Roman street. Here’s Wills’ version of II, 83.

The man gave you the cuckold’s horn?
His ears and nose your knife has shorn.
Have you deprived him of a screw?
Just ask his mouth what it can do.

For me, the following seems more compatible with Martial’s Roman streets.

Foedaste miserum, marite, moechum,
et se, qui fuerant prius, requirunt
trunci naribus auribusque vultus.
credis te satis esse vindicatum?
erras: iste potest et irrumari.

You really mangled your wife’s
whimpering lover. Let him go chase his
lost looks—and his missing ears and nose.
Retribution. But satisfaction? Not
until you make him suck you off.

(For Latinists familiar with this often variously interpreted, poem, I should note my translation follows, UCLA classicist, Amy Richlin’s reading and her emendment of irrumare to irrumari. q.v.“The Meaning of Irrumare in Catullus and Martial,” Classical Philology Vol. 76:1 , Jan. ‘81)

But enough: This digression was meant, less to compare translations, than to give a flavor of the mea Roma Martial’s epigrams emanate from. And thus lay some groundwork for the “triptychs” to follow.

III. The Kingdom of the Wicked

Book II, 48

Coponem laniumque balneumque
tonsorem tabulamque caculosque
et paucos, sed ut eligam, libellos:
unum non nimium rudem sodalem
et grandem puerum diuque levem
et caram puero meo puellam:
haec praesta mihi, Rufe, vel Butuntis,
et thermae tibi habe Neronianas.

A bartender and a butcher, a bath and
a barber. A game board with pieces,
and my own small selection of books.
One—not too boorish—friend. A big strong
boy still years from his beard, and a girl
to my boy’s liking. Give me these, Rufus,
even in some nowhere town, and you can
keep Nero’s grand, steaming pools.

At cursory glance, a familiar Roman theme: The simple life, epicurean moderation, etc. But there are other interesting things, going on in II, 48. Jumping to the last line, one might wonder why—out of all the City’s landmarks—Martial picks Nero’s thermae as something to escape from. My cautious, honest answer is “I don’t know.” But my speculative side remembers the story that when 20-something Martial arrived in Rome around 64 AD, he was sponsored by his fellow Spanish literati, Seneca and Lucan.

Not long after, both these notables were implicated in a failed conspiracy against Nero and ordered to commit suicide. The favored method – as was also the case with Petronius—was to open a vein or two in a hot bath. Petronius, the reputed author of the Satyricon, did this elegantly, alternately opening, then tourniqueting his razored wrists, in order to sip wine and philosophize while he faded. Seneca’s death was messier. His blood pressure seemed to be too low to bleed out, or even activate the hemlock he tried next. Finally, carried to a new hot bath, the asthmatic Seneca is said to have choked to death in the steam.

Martial’s epigrams, as noted above, speak the language of the streets. Could Thermae Neroniae, “Nero’s hot baths,” have doubled as cynical slang for the suicides of so many who ran afoul of Nero? Perhaps the way tunica molesta, “the irksome shirt,” became a soubriquet for another of Nero’s execution methods. (More about the tunica molesta, later.) As I said, I don’t know.

And why does Martial want et grandem puerum diuque levem? In Shackleton-Bailey’s translation “ a large boy smooth cheeked for a long time to come.” Well, that’s easy to answer. Puer, here as in much of Martial, refers to a slave boy. And since “boy,” as in the ante-bellum South, could be used to refer to a male slave of any age, Martial is specifying a slave of a certain age. To modify a coined word from Humbert Humbert, a nymphus.

The socio-sexology was complex and likely owes much to the Roman fascination with all things culturally Greek. But for the purposes of this essay it suffices to quote Garry Wills’ brief summation:

“The Classical view of pederasty was the opposite of ours. We accept gay sex between consenting adults, but consider sex with minors to be child abuse. The latter was the ideal for Martial.”

Or, as sometimes characterized: It was queer and abusive to screw a boy, after he became old enough to shave. The practitioners didn’t seem to think of the practice in homosexual terms. The young boys were expected to mature into lovers of girls. And both Martial and Catullus caustically mocked men who were lovers of men as cinaedi. Neither poet “identified” as bisexual.

Oddly, there doesn’t appear to have been any equivalent cult of nymphet love. Maybe, because 12-year-old girls were legally marriageable adults. Or because the perceived androgynous qualities of pubescent boys was preferred. Pimps notoriously touted phony “virgins.” But Martial seems only interested in women with a certain level of experience, even when he calls them girls.

What should be kept in mind, is that the sexual use of slave boys seems to have been respectable at the highest social levels. Both Martial and the court poet Statius addressed poems to the Emperor Domitian’s “Ganymede”, Earinus, celebrating his haircutting ceremony and manumission. But even at the Imperial level, respectability depended on the youth being a slave, or at least underclass or foreign, One of Suetonius’ serious complaints about Nero is that he abused freeborn Roman youths.

How did the slaves feel about all this? That, too, may not be so simple. Earinus apparently did quite well for himself after “graduating”—despite having been castrated as a child. And Trimalchio, the outrageously wealthy freedman in the Satyricon, reminisces fondly on his days as his master’s pet, while ogling his own pretty slave boy under his wife’s jealous glare. Conversely, many early Christians were slaves, and some scholars opine that one possible root of Christian sex aversion may have been a resentment of sexploitation. Martial was, in fact, a contemporary of Saint Paul in the Rome that Anthony Burgess characterized, in his 1985 period novel, as The Kingdom of the Wicked.

Where Martial differs from, say, Horace and Catullus, is that he almost never ignores the slavery aspects. Why does the puer in II, 48 have to be grandem—a big boy? Maybe M. just means old enough to be sexually active? But double-meaning is the soul of epigram and the poem invokes a frugal little household. Martial can’t afford to indulge himself with some willowy catamite. Beyond his sexual uses, the kid probably has work to do, and has to be strong enough to do it.

But, II, 48 still leaves us wondering—why is it so important that his slave girl be to his boy’s liking? Is it just that M. wants peace in the home? If we look some years ahead, he seems to answer that question in Book IX, 32.

Hanc volo quae facilis, quae palliolata vagatur.
  hanc volo quae puer iam dedit ante meo.
hanc volo quam redimit totam denarius alter,
  hanc volo quae pariter sufficit una tribus.
poscentem nummos et grandia verba sonantem
  possideat crassae mentula Burdigalae.

I want a girl who’s easy, who walks around in a shortie.
One who’ll have my boy while I do. Who laughs
and says sure to everything for a few denarii.
A girl who kind of likes a three way. Those hustlers
with price lists they tout in tempting detail;
save them for some provincial’s unimaginative prick.

The second line in this poem is interesting, specifically the word ante. Susan McLean renders the line as “who puts out for my slave ahead of me.” Shackleton-Bailey, similarly, reads it as “one who has already obliged my slave.” Martial is a generous enough master to treat his big “boy” to a whorehouse visit. But, it’s really a reach to think that he’s looking for a buttered bun in slave semen. He’s kinky, but the socio-queer implications of that seem totally out of character. Still, I can imagine the Roman reader also scratching his or her head and wondering what this poet’s up to.

The Latin reader’s solution comes, I think, with line four which McLean prosaically translates as “who simultaneously can service three.” Quintillian, the foremost rhetorician of Martial’s day, talked of the need (especially when reading an inflected language like Latin) to read both forward and backward, and constantly reassess as meanings become clear.

In Latin as in English, ante (before) can mean both prior in time or in front of. In this epigram, I think, puer… ante meo simply means “who’ll have (give it to) my boy in front.” But in Latin that meaning doesn’t really become clear until the “aha” three-some moment of line four. This kind of thing is— epigrammatic and “very Martial.”

Finally, in Book IX, 67, Martial seems to sublimate his three-some itch into the kind of two-way sexual dialogue in which three would be a crowd.

Lascivam tota possidi nocte puellam,
  cuius nequitas vincere nemo potest.
fessus mille modis illud puerile poposci:
  ante preces totum primaque verba dedit.
improbius quiddam ridensque rubensque rogavi:
  pollicita est nulla luxuriosa mora.
sed mihi pura fuit; tibi non erist, Aeschyle, si vis
  accipere hoc munus condicione mala.

I spent the whole night with a lascivious girl whose itch had
no limits. We did it a thousand ways, and when I needed
something to refresh me, I wondered if she’d play the boy.
Before I could even say it, she turned over. Laughing
and blushing, I asked what other shameless pleasures she knew.
Then she took me places I’d never imagined. To me, she
was pure innocence. But she wouldn’t be for you Aeschylus.
Because you only know how to play by your own sick rules.

IV. The three bears

A century before Martial, Horace famously observed Graecia capta ferum cepit…
“captive Greece captivated her fierce conqueror….” While this was true for so many aspects of what we’ve come to call Greco-Roman culture, the opposite appears to have been the case with what might loosely be called spectator sports. The “games” of the Roman arena had no counterpart in Greek culture. Armed gladiatorial combat was a uniquely Roman innovation. And trained gladiators, the most skilled of whom, in Martial’s words, knew “ how to win without killing,” were only one arena attraction among many. Naumachiae, mock naval battles, were fought by war prisoners and criminals who were expected to kill each other off with only nominal survivors. There were similar butcheries of unskilled combatants forced to fight against gladiators or ferocious wild animals. In an often cited observation of the disapproving Seneca:

I happened to go to one of these shows at the time of the lunch-hour interlude, expecting … some light and witty entertainment, some respite for the purpose of affording people’s eyes a rest from human blood. Far from it. All the earlier contests were charity in comparison. The nonsense is dispensed with now … murder pure and simple. The combatants have nothing to protect them; their whole bodies are exposed to the blows; every thrust … gets home. A great many spectators prefer this to the ordinary matches and even to the special, popular demand ones…. In the morning men are thrown to the lions and the bears: but it is the spectators they are thrown to in the lunch hour.

But even in the arena, Greek myth and the Greco-Roman gods and demi-gods can be found. Toward the last half of the first century, a.d., probably beginning with Nero, the Romans began to develop a cruel innovation—public execution entertainments in the form of mythological reenactments.

These may have been only abstractly symbolic at first—as when Nero had a miscreant burned to death with the tunica molesta, (“irksome shirt”)—a pitch soaked tunic that turned the victim into a human torch—and dubbed him “Hercules” in memory of the fatal, poisonous “shirt of Nessus.”

By the time of the Flavian Colosseum and Martial’s Book of the Spectacles, these gruesome pantomimes took on aspects of sophisticated theater. Martial describes an elaborate theatrical scene attended by the emperor:

Spectacles XXIV.

Quidquid in Orpheo Rhodope spectasse theatro
  dicitur, exhibuit, Caesar, harena tibi.
Repserunt scopuli mirandaque silva curcurrit
  quale fuisse nemus creditur Hesperium
adfuit inmixtum pecori genus omne ferarum,
  et supra vatem multa pependit avis,
ipse sed ingrato iacuit laceratus ab urso.
  haec tantum res est facta ita pictoria.

Everything the stage can depict about Orpheus on the slopes
of Rhodope—Caesar—the arena sands outdo for you.
Rocky cliffs slowly appear, then an ancient forest springs
miraculously alive, a veritable garden of Hesperides.
All the wild animals and cattle mingle together, and fluttering
over the poet’s head, a multitude of singing birds.
But then the ingrate bear rips him to shreds.
Just that one, small deviation from the script.

As if by way of afterthought, he follows with a variation:

Spectacles XXV.

Orphea quod subito tellus emisit hiatu
  ursam invasuram, venit ab Eurydice.

The earth suddenly opened and a bear emerged
to work over Orpheus. Eurydice sent her.

The Roman Colosseum—much as our current day arenas—was a venue for gala presentations as well as sports. And here, sophisticated, mechanized scenery, trained animals and an appropriately costumed “Orpheus” were used to portray the legend of the mythic prototype poet and patron priest of the Orphic Mysteries. The same, semi-divine Orpheus who enchanted not only the animals, but ongoing Classical culture and—two millennia later—Rilke and Jean Cocteau, as well. But, what Martial is describing is, at heart, a savage execution. The venerable, once sacred, imagery invoked as a backdrop for a sadistic practical joke. In the much later language of the U.S. Constitution, a “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Was that same bear present in what seems a, less elaborate, preliminary, “warm up” enactment in which another Greek-myth figure seems to have been dropped from above?

Spectacles X.

Daedale, Lucano cum sic lacereris ab urso,
  quam cuperes pinnas nunc habuisse tuas!

Oh, “Daedalus”, how you yearn for wings now –
  while the Lucanian bear tears into you.

Maybe there were several bears, or maybe the sequence isn’t strictly chronological. In any case the bear in Spectacles XIII blurs in my mind with the other two.

Praeceps sanguinea dum se rotat ursus harena,
  implicitam visco perdidit ille fugam,
splendida iam tecto cessent venabula ferre,
  nec volet excussa lancea torta manu;
deprendat vacuo venator in aëre praedam,
  si captare feras aucupis arte placet.

While the bear was rolling, head over heels, he got
mired – no more able to escape the blood soaked sand
than a pigeon stuck in birdlime. Sheathe your shining spears,
don’t let the spinning lance fly from your hand.
Save them for hunting in the air; let the birdcatcher’s
wiles – if you will – snare the wild animals


Is it just the bear, or also the enraptured eyes of the crowd that can’t escape the blood soaked arena sands?

V. Mucius Scaevola, waiting for Lefty to sort himself out…

The three bears come to us in an often nasty sequence devoted to the Arena. If Martial’s epigrams were problematic for our Victorian ancestors because of their blatant sexual content and obscene verbiage, the Spectacles poems present culture clash difficulties for our generation because of their graphic depiction of sardonic brutality. In contrast to Martial’s omnipresent persona in the largely chatty epigrammatic books, the Spectacles are presented as almost pure reportage. Any value judgments on the part of the poet are subtle and reticent.

The sequence derives its power, not from the intrusion of wit and Martial’s personality, but from an illusion of immediacy: The reader as spectator. A modern comparison might be the short, newspaper type, squibs that separate the stories in Hemingway’s In Our Time. Similar to Martial’s short Spectacles poems, Hemingway’s squibs “report” deadly combat, executions and the violence of the bullring.

But Martial has another, very different, Arena related “triptych” that seems to have slowly evolved over a decade in three different books. Unlike the re-enactments of what were once sacred myths, these three poems are related to one of Rome’s most venerated secular myths. And unlike his Spectacle poems, Martial does insert himself in these.

The story of Mucius “Scaevola” (“Lefthand”) seems as primal to Roman foundation lore as Lucretia’s suicide and the oath of the first Brutus. In the days of the founding of the Republic, the nascent city-state was besieged by an Etruscan king, Lars Porsena. A young Roman, Gaius Mucius went into the enemy camp with the intent of assassinating him. Mucius mistook a royal attendant for the king, killed him, and was instantly seized and brought before Porsena.

As the story goes, Porsena threatens to have Mucius roasted alive if he doesn’t reveal the details of the plot. Mucius, scornfully tells the king that he’s only the first of three hundred Roman youths sworn to the task who will follow, one at a time, until the mission is inevitably accomplished. To demonstrate just how much this cadre scorns anything the king can do to them, Mucius extends his unflinching right hand into a sacramental lamp that slowly burns it to a crisp.

Mucius’ audacity shook the Etruscan king who sent the, now one-handed, hero back to the Roman lines with an offer of favorable truce. The still fledgling Roman Republic had defeated a monarch and won its right to exist.

Martial relates the story conventionally in Book I, 21:

Cum peteret regem, decepta satellite dextra
  ingessit sacris se peritura focis.
sed tam saeva pius miracula non tulit hostis
  et raptum flammis iussit abire virum:
urere quam potuit contempto Mucius igne.
  hanc spectare manum Porsena non potuit.
major deceptae fama est et gloria dextrae:
  et non errasset fecerat illa minus.

The sword hand that meant to kill the king, was fooled
by his regal attendant. So—held steady in the sacred flame –
it calmly endured its own ruin. But the courtly enemy was horrified
by the savage display. He pulled the hero from the fire, and sent him
on his way. The Roman hand that Mucius, so contemptuously,
burned, Porsena couldn’t bear to contemplate. The hand whose
blunder won more glory than Mucius ever envisioned.
If it hadn’t gone astray, it would have achieved much less.

In book VIII, 30, Martial returns to the theme, but this time “Mucius” is a spectacle in the Arena, a criminal condemned to act out the role for the entertainment of the crowd. Here we see Martial again as spectator, but this time with his own opinions.

Qui nunc Caesare lusus spectatur harenae,
  temporibus Bruti gloria summa fuit.
aspicis ut teneat flammas poenaque fruatur
  fortis et attonito regnet in igne manus!
ipse sui spectator adest et nobile dextrae
  funus amat: totis pascitur illa sacris.
quod nisi rapta foret nolenti poena, parabat
  saevior in lassos ira sinestra focos.
scire piget post tale decus quid fecerit ante:
  quam vidi satis hanc est mihi nosse manum.

Now, it’s only an idle diversion in Caesar’s Arena,
but this was the pinnacle of glory in old Brutus’ day:
Look, how his hand caresses the flame and regally
revels in its, almost fascinating, punishment. He’s
his own spectator now, in love with the nobility
of his right hand’s ritual death. His hand feasts
on its funeral pyre. If they hadn’t yanked him
away, he was ready to even shove his left hand
into the dying brazier. After such a splendid show,
I don’t care to know what crime deserved this.
It’s enough to remember that hand as I watched it.

An uplifting experience? Well, Martial certainly treated it as such. But he also recognizes that the point of the spectacle was the punishment; the crime was irrelevant to the show. And, his first two lines are telling. The intent, for all its patriotic trappings, is a show staged to provide sadistic pleasure. Giving a half-deranged miscreant his five minutes of defiant glory doesn’t change that.

And he recognizes that this “diversion” is an appropriation of one of the mythic icons of Roman glory. Even 2000 years later, that appropriation seems uniquely weird, a kind of cultural cannibalism. Akin, say, to a 19th century American public hanging with the condemned dressed in Colonial clothes and made to play the part of Nathan Hale. And unlike Hale, who regretted he had only life to lose for his country, one “Mucius” or another could sacrifice innumerable hands to entertain Imperial Rome. So it seems Martial might be questioning his own receptivity when he returns to a similar show in book X, 25:

In matutina nuper spectatus harena
  Mucius, inposuit qui sua, membra focis,
si patiens durusque tibi fortisque videtur,
  Adberitanae pectora plebis habes.
nam cum dicatur tunica praesente molesta
  “Ure manum,” plus est dicere “Non facio.”

If you thought that “Mucius” you watched
  the other morning in the arena, holding
his hand in the flames, was a picture of endurance,
  courage and strength, you’re a rube from the sticks.
When they show you the tunica molesta, then say
  “Burn your hand,” it’s really tough to say “I won’t.”

What makes Martial return to the Mucius theme? The first poem seems to look backwards to the Augustan era when Livy recounted the fable as history. It says nothing Horace or Virgil might not say. It may be still valid for Martial’s time, but only as a historical set piece. The second and third Mucius poems mine new ground. They don’t retell the tale, but rather show the tale retelling itself (to borrow Hemingway’s phrase) “in our time.” And Martial’s aesthetic mutates to focus on a Rome he seems no longer able to honestly present in terms of its classical mythos, but only its quizzical present.

VI. Erotion

Martial can be one of those crusty, hard-asses who laughs a lot, but rarely either sheds a tear or smiles. So when he lets you see his softer side, it’s like the proverbial sun-sighting on a cloudy day. Perhaps his most famous soft-side poem is his epitaph for the little slave girl, Erotion (Book V, 34).

Hanc tibi, Fronto, pater, genetrix Flaccilla, puellam
  oscula commendo deliciasque meas,
parvula ne nigras horrescat Erotion umbras
  oraque Tartarei prodigiosa canis.
impletura fuit sextae modo frigora brumae`,
  vixisset totidem ni minus illa dies.
inter iam veteres ludat lasciva patronos
  et nomen blaeso garriat ore meum.
mollia non rigidus caespes tegat ossa, nec illi,
  terra, gravis fueris: non fuit illa tibi.

Father Fronto, mother Flaccilla, protect this child
who was my lips’ delight. Don’t let the darkness
and the snapping mouths of Tartarus’ monstrous
hound panic Erotion’s shivering little shade.
She almost survived her sixth chilly winter.
She lived just that many days too few.
Let her play and work her mischief on you, old
guardians, and chatter away and garble my name.
Soft grass gently cover these gentle bones. Please
earth, rest as lightly on her as she scampered over you.

To get a sense of how deeply this poem lives in the Western canon, it’s worth noting that it seemed a particular favorite of Ben Jonson. So much so that, as Charles Tomlinson tells us in a 1994 New Criterion article (“Inspired by Martial”), Jonson adapted parts of it into poems lamenting the untimely deaths of two of his own children.

But three poems later in Book V, 37, Martial returns to the theme in a poem that could be V, 34’s aesthetic polar opposite. Where V, 34 is all about Erotion, V, 37, with its barely in-control imagery and almost howling grief, takes us somewhere emotionally unexpected.

Puella senibus voce dulcior cycnis,
agna Gakaesi mollior Phalantini,
concha Lucrini delicatior stagni,
cui nec lapillos praeferas Erythraeos
nec modo politum pecudis Indicae dentem
nivesque primas liliumque non tactum;
quae crine vicit Baetici gregis vellus
Rhenique nodos aureamque nitelam;
fragravit ore quod rosarium Paesti,
quod Atticarum prima mella cerarum,
quod sucinorum rapta de manu gleba;
cui comparatus indecens erat pavo,
inamabilis sciurus et frequens phoenix:
adhuc recenti tepet Erotion busto,
quam pessimorum lex amara fatorum
sexta peregit hieme, nec tamen tota,
nostros amores gaudiumque lususque.
et esse tristem me meus vetat Paetus,
pectusque pulsans pariter et comam vellens:
“deflere non te vernulae pudet mortem?
ego coniungen” inquit “extuli et tamen vivo,
notam, superbam, nobilem, locupietem.”
quid esse nostro fortius potest Paeto?
ducentiens accepit et tamen vivit.

A girl with a voice as sweet as the fabled swan’s,
gentler than a Galician lamb, delicate as a Lake Lucrine
oyster shell. Who you wouldn’t trade for Red Sea pearls
or polished Indian ivory. A lily shimmering in new snow.
Her hair glowed like golden Baetic fleece, like German
curls, like a hazel dormouse. A girl whose soft breath
was as fragrant as damask roses, or Attic honey
fresh from the comb, or amber warmed in the hand.
Next to her, peacocks were crude, tiny squirrels
unlovable and the Phoenix nothing much.

Now Erotion lies still warm in the grave. The bitter
edict of brutal fate took her before even completing her
sixth winter. Our love and delight, my merry playmate.
And Paetus, my friend, forbids me to weep, beats his
own breast and tousles his hair: “Aren’t you ashamed
to lose it over the death of a little house slave” he says.
“I buried my wife – but I got on with my life. And she
was a socialite from the old nobility, proud and wealthy
in her own right.” Who can set a braver example than our
Paetus? He collects twenty million and gets on with his life.

V, 37 seems to draw no better than mixed reviews from current day classicists. Shackleton-Bailey characterizes the ending as “an amusingly astringent turn” but also cites the view of an E.E. Sikes (in Cambridge Ancient History) to the effect that the poem exemplifies “ a glaring want of taste.” Well, taste is personal, and to my taste V, 37 gives us another face of mourning. If V, 35 is a measured dirge with death as tragedy, V, 37 explodes with a sense of injustice at the death of an innocent child.

And in lashing out at Paetus, Martial seems to lash out at all the injustice in Rome. Who are these arrogant, calculating, hypocrites to look down on a little house-born slave, a vernula. There’s no logical connection, but in your heart you know something’s wrong with the universe when they’re so rich and she’s dead. The ending may be “astringent,” but it doesn’t come across to me as “amusing.”

There’s also no shortage of historic and recent speculation as to whether Erotion may have been Martial’s daughter. He commends her to his dead parents and, as we’ll see, erects (at least a mental) gravestone for her. On the other hand Shackleton-Bailey wonders if Erotion is simply a “figment,” invented as an excuse for poems.

The final Erotion poem, Book X, 61, was published when Martial was preparing to leave Rome to retire to his native Spain. In it, Erotion seems no less real, no more a “figment” than the little farm he was about to sell.

Hic festinata requiescit Erotion umbra,
  crimine quam fati sexta peremit hiems.
quisquis eris nostri post me regnator agelli,
  Manibus exiguis annua iusta dato:
sic lare perpetuo, sic turba sospite solus
  flebilis in terra sit lapis iste tua.

Here rests Erotion’s hurried shade, robbed
of life by fate and her sixth winter. Whoever
owns this little plot after me, make an offering
to her small ghost each year. Then, may your
household endure, safe and untroubled.
Let this stone be the only sorrow on your land.

VII. Three for the road

First century Rome no longer exists except in our imaginations, where we continue to fictionalize it. Why not? It’s where our calendar begins. And since the Renaissance literary imagination has been drawn as much, if not more, to Martial’s impious Rome as to the acts of the Apostles.

But it’s still difficult to access Martial, except through the filter of all those intervening centuries. The translations I’ve offered may be somewhat informed, but they’re still an imaginative exercise. Compared to modern English, Latin vocabulary is a compressed “shorthand.” Numerous Latin words allow for shades of meaning that allow multiple English choices. And like the translators I noted above, my choices are driven by my own aesthetic and inescapably, if unintentionally, skew Martial’s.

That said, I hope these triad groupings give a sense, not only of Martial as a poet who’s more complex than often presented. But also of the complexities of a Rome that seemed to perplex as much as inspire him. And it’s only fair, since I’ve found myself focusing on its more uncivilized aspects, that I offer a gentler trio from Martial’s Apophoreta, couplets designed to accompany Saturnalia holiday gifts. As appropriate to that purpose, these are the only Martial poems that have titles.

Lucerna cubicularis

Dulcis conscia lectuli lucerna,
quidquid vis facias licet, tacebo.

Bedroom Lamp

I am an oil lamp, your sweet bed’s accomplice.
You can do whatever you’d like, I won’t talk.

Fascia pectoralis

Fascia, crescentes dominae compesce papillas,
ut sit quod capiat nostra tegatque manus.


Sash, restrain my lady’s swelling nipples,
so they can nestle in our hands.


Reddidit Eurydicen vati: sed perdidit ipse,
dum sibi non credit nec patienter amat.


It returned Eurydice to the great poet: but then he lost her.
Because he loved with neither trust nor patience

Art Beck has published several collections of poetry and poetry translations, most recently Luxorius Opera Omnia, a Duet for Sitar and Trombone (Otis College, Seismicity Editions), which was awarded the 2013 Northern California Book award for poetry in translation. His poetry and essays have appeared in a wide range of literary journals, including Alaska Quarterly, Artful Dodge, OR, Sequoia, Translation Review, and in anthologies such as Heyday Books’s California Poetry from the Gold Rush to the Present and Painted Bride Quarterly’s 20-year retrospective. He was also a regular contributor to Rattle‘s since-discontinued e-issues with a regular series on translating poetry. Read Beck’s Blood on the Jumbotron: Martial’s Arena Poems in the the Critical Flame: A Journal of Literature and Culture.