Marcus Valerius Martialis (known in English as Martial
/ˈmɑːrʃəl/) (March, between 38 and 41 AD – between 102 and 104
AD) was a Roman poet from
Hispania (modern Spain) best known for his
twelve books of Epigrams, published in
Rome between AD 86 and 103,
during the reigns of the emperors Domitian,
Nerva and Trajan. In these
short, witty poems he cheerfully satirises city life and the
scandalous activities of his acquaintances, and romanticises his
provincial upbringing. He wrote a total of 1,561 epigrams, of which
1,235 are in elegiac couplets.
Martial has been called the greatest
Latin epigrammatist, and is
considered the creator of the modern epigram.
1 Early life
2 Life in Rome
Martial and his patrons
4 Martial's character
5 Martial's Epigrams
9 External links
9.2 Other links
Knowledge of his origins and early life are derived almost entirely
from his works, which can be more or less dated according to the
well-known events to which they refer. In Book X of his Epigrams,
composed between 95 and 98, he mentions celebrating his fifty-seventh
birthday; hence he was born during March 38, 39, 40 or 41 AD (x. 24,
Caligula or Claudius. His place of birth was Augusta
Bilbilis (now Calatayud) in
Hispania Tarraconensis. His parents,
Fronto and Flaccilla, appear to have died in his youth.
His name seems to imply that he was born a Roman citizen, but he
speaks of himself as "sprung from the
Celts and Iberians, and a
countryman of the Tagus"; and, in contrasting his own masculine
appearance with that of an effeminate Greek, he draws particular
attention to "his stiff Hispanian hair" (x. 65, 7).
His home was evidently one of rude comfort and plenty, sufficiently in
the country to afford him the amusements of hunting and fishing, which
he often recalls with keen pleasure, and sufficiently near the town to
afford him the companionship of many comrades, the few survivors of
whom he looks forward to meeting again after his thirty-four years'
absence (x. 104). The memories of this old home, and of other spots,
the rough names and local associations which he delights to introduce
into his verse, attest to the simple pleasures of his early life and
were among the influences which kept his spirit alive in the
stultifying routines of upper-crust social life in Rome.
He was educated in Hispania, a part of the
Roman Empire which in the
1st century produced several notable
Latin writers, including Seneca
the Elder and Seneca the Younger,
Lucan and Quintilian, and Martial's
contemporaries Licinianus of Bilbilis,
Decianus of Emerita and Canius
of Gades; in the later part of Martial's life,
Spain also produced the
first non-Italian Roman Emperor, Trajan.
Martial professes to be of
the school of Catullus, Pedo, and Marsus. The epigram bears to this
day the form impressed upon it by his unrivalled skill in
Life in Rome
The success of his countrymen may have been what motivated
move to Rome, from Hispania, once he had completed his education. This
move occurred in AD 64, in which
Seneca the Younger
Seneca the Younger and
Lucan may have
served as his first patrons, though pertinent details have been lost
to the mists of time.
Not much is known of the details of his life for the first twenty
years or so after he came to Rome. He published some juvenile poems of
which he thought very little in his later years, and he chuckles at a
foolish bookseller who would not allow them to die a natural death (I.
Martial had neither youthful passion nor youthful enthusiasm to
precociously mold him a poet. His faculty ripened through the seasons
with careworn experience and with the time earned knowledge of that
social life which was both his theme and his inspiration; many of his
best epigrams are among those written in the twilight of his last
years. From many answers which he makes to the remonstrances of
friends—among others to those of Quintilian—it may be inferred
that he was urged to practice at the bar, but that he preferred his
own lazy, some would say Bohemian kind of life. He made many
influential friends and patrons and secured the favor of both Titus
and Domitian. From them he obtained various privileges, among others
the semestris tribunatus, which conferred on him equestrian rank.
Martial failed, however, in his application to
Domitian for more
substantial advantages, although he commemorates the glory of having
been invited to dinner by him, and also the fact that he procured the
privilege of citizenship for many persons on whose behalf he appealed
The earliest of his extant works, known as Liber spectaculorum, was
first published at the opening of the
Colosseum in the reign of Titus.
It relates to the theatrical performances given by him, but the book
as it now stands was presented to the world in or about the first year
of Domitian, i.e. about the year 81, by him. The favour of the emperor
procured him the countenance of some of the worst creatures at the
imperial court—among them of the notorious Crispinus, and probably
(certainly it is thrilling to consider) of Paris, the supposed author
of Juvenal's exile, for whose monument
Martial afterwards wrote a
eulogistic epitaph. The two books, numbered by editors xiii. and xiv.,
and known by the names of Xenia and Apophoreta—inscriptions in two
lines each for presents—were published at the
Saturnalia of 84. In
86 he bore for the world the first two of the twelve books on which
his pendulous and sterling reputation rests.
From that time till his return to
Hispania in 98 he published a volume
almost every year. The first nine books and the first edition of Book
X. appeared in the reign of Domitian; Book XI. appeared at the end of
96, shortly after the accession of Nerva. A revised edition of book
X., that which we now possess extant, appeared in 98, about the time
of Trajan's entrance into Rome. The last book was written after three
years' absence in Hispania, shortly before his lamentable death, which
happened about the year 102 or 103.
These twelve books bring Martial's ordinary mode of life between the
age of forty-five and sixty very fully before us for leisurely
consideration of a Sunday afternoon. His regular home for thirty-five
years was the bustle of metropolitan Rome. He lived at first up three
flights of stairs, and his "garret" overlooked the laurels in front of
the portico of Agrippa. He had a small villa and unproductive farm
near Nomentum, in the
Sabine territory, to which he occasionally
retired from the pestilence, boors and noises of the city (ii. 38,
xii. 57). In his later years he had also a small house on the
Quirinal, near the temple of Quirinus.
At the time when his third book was brought out he had retired for a
short time to Cisalpine Gaul, in weariness, as he tells us, of his
unprofitable attendance to the bigwigs of Rome. For a time he seems to
have felt the charm of the new scenes which he visited, and in a later
book (iv. 25) he contemplates the prospect of retiring to the
Aquileia and the Timavus. But the spell exercised
over him by
Rome and Roman society was too great; even the epigrams
sent from Forum Corneli and the
Aemilian Way ring much more of the
Roman forum, and of the streets, baths, porticos, brothels, market
stalls, public houses, and clubs of Rome, than of the places from
which they are dated.
His final departure from
Rome was motivated by a solemn weariness of
the burdens imposed on him by his social position, and apparently the
difficulties of meeting the ordinary expenses of living in the
bustling metropolis (x. 96); and he looks smilingly ever forward to a
return to the rosy scenes familiar to his youth, apparently. The
well-known epigram addressed to
Juvenal (xii. I 8) shows that for a
time his ideal was happily realized; but the more trustworthy evidence
of the dry prose epistle prefixed to Book XII. proves and that he
could not live happily away from the literary and social pleasures of
Rome for long. The one consolation of his exile was a lady, Marcella,
of whom he writes rather platonically as if she were his
patroness—and it seems to have been a necessity of his being to have
always a patron or patroness—than his wife or mistress or harlot or
muse or shrewish burden.
During his life at Rome, although he never rose to a position of real
independence, and had always a hard and close struggle with
poverty,[dubious – discuss] he seems to have known everybody,
especially every one of any eminence at the bar or in literature
(friend to all). In addition to
Lucan and Quintilian, he numbered
among his manifold friends or more intimate acquaintances Silius
Italicus, Juvenal, the younger Pliny; and there were many others of
high position whose society and patronage he relished. The silence
which he and Statius, although authors writing at the same time,
having common friends and treating often of the same subjects,
maintain in regard to one another may (nay must certainly) be
explained by mutual dislike or want of sympathy or healthy rivalry or
Martial in many places shows an undisguised contempt
for the artificial kind of epic on which Statius's reputation chiefly
rests; and it seems quite natural in the mind of an eminent
litteraturist that the respectable author of the Thebaid and the
Silvae should feel little admiration, nay perhaps even outright
contempt, for either the life or the works of the populist and
unsophisticated bohemian epigrammatist.
Martial and his patrons
Martial was dependent on his wealthy friends and patrons for gifts of
money, for his dinner, and even for his dress, but the relation of
client to patron had been recognized as an honourable one by the best
Roman traditions. No blame had attached to
Horace on account
of the favours which they received from
Augustus and Maecenas, or of
the return which they made for these favours in their verse. That old
honourable relationship, however, greatly changed between
Domitian. Men of good birth and education, and sometimes even of high
official position (Juv. i. 117), accepted the dole (sportula). Martial
was merely following a general fashion in paying his court to "a
lord," and he made the best of the custom. In his earlier career he
used to accompany his patrons to their villas at
Baiae or Tibur, and
to attend their morning levees. Later on, he went to his own small
country house, near Nomentum, and sent a poem, or a small volume of
his poems, as his representative at the early visit.
Pliny the Younger, in the short tribute which he pays to him on
hearing of his death, wrote, "He had as much good-nature as wit and
pungency in his writings".
Martial professes to avoid personalities
in his satire, and honour and sincerity (fides and simplicitas) seem
to have been the qualities which he most admires in his friends. Some
have found distasteful his apparent servile flattery to the worst of
the many bad emperors of
Rome in the 1st century. These were emperors
Martial would later censure immediately after their death (xii. 6).
However, he seems to have disliked hypocrisy in its many forms, and
seems to be free from cant, pedantry, or affectation of any kind.
Though many of his epigrams indicate a cynical disbelief in the
character of women, yet others prove that he could respect and almost
revere a refined and courteous lady. His own life in
Rome afforded him
no experience of domestic virtue; but his epigrams show that, even in
the age which is known to modern readers chiefly from the Satires of
Juvenal, virtue was recognized as the purest source of happiness. The
tenderest element in Martial's nature seems, however, to have been his
affection for children and for his dependents.
Martial's keen curiosity and power of observation are manifested in
his epigrams. The enduring literary interest of Martial's epigrams
arises as much from their literary quality as from the colorful
references to human life that they contain. Martial's epigrams bring
to life the spectacle and brutality of daily life in imperial Rome,
with which he was intimately connected.
From Martial, for example, we have a glimpse of living conditions in
the city of Rome:
"I live in a little cell, with a window that won't even close,
In which Boreas himself would not want to live."
Book VIII, No. 14. 5–6.
As Jo-Ann Shelton has written, "fire was a constant threat in ancient
cities because wood was a common building material and people often
used open fires and oil lamps. However, some people may have
deliberately set fire to their property in order to collect insurance
Martial makes this accusation in one of his epigrams:
"Tongilianus, you paid two hundred for your house;
An accident too common in this city destroyed it.
You collected ten times more. Doesn't it seem, I pray,
That you set fire to your own house, Tongilianus?"
Book III, No. 52
Martial also pours scorn on the doctors of his day:
"I felt a little ill and called Dr. Symmachus.
Well, you came, Symmachus, but you brought 100 medical students with
One hundred ice-cold hands poked and jabbed me.
I didn't have a fever, Symmachus, when I called you –but now I do.
Book V, No. 9
Martial's epigrams also refer to the extreme cruelty shown to slaves
in Roman society. Below, he chides a man named Rufus for flogging his
cook for a minor mistake:
"You say that the hare isn't cooked, and ask for the whip;
Rufus, you prefer to carve up your cook than your hare."
Book III, No. 94
Martial's epigrams are also characterized by their biting and often
scathing sense of wit as well as for their lewdness; this has earned
him a place in literary history as the original insult comic. Below is
a sample of his more insulting work:
"You feign youth, Laetinus, with your dyed hair
So suddenly you are a raven, but just now you were a swan.
You do not deceive everyone.
Proserpina knows you are grey-haired;
She will remove the mask from your head."
Book III, No. 43
"Rumor tells, Chiona, that you are a virgin,
and that nothing is purer than your fleshy delights.
Nevertheless, you do not bathe with the correct part covered:
if you have the decency, move your panties onto your face."
Book III, No. 87
"'You are a frank man', you are always telling me, Cerylus.
Anyone who speaks against you, Cerylus, is a frank man."
Book I, No. 67
"Eat lettuce and soft apples eat:
For you, Phoebus, have the harsh face of a defecating man."
Book III, No. 89
Or the following two examples (in translations by Mark Ynys-Mon):
Fabullus' wife Bassa frequently totes
A friend's baby, on which she loudly dotes.
Why does she take on this childcare duty?
It explains farts that are somewhat fruity.
Book IV, No. 87
With your giant nose and cock
I bet you can with ease
When you get excited
check the end for cheese.
Book VI, No. 36
The works of
Martial became highly valued on their discovery by the
Renaissance, whose writers often saw them as sharing an eye for the
urban vices of their own times. The poet's influence is seen in
Juvenal, late classical literature, the Carolingian revival, the
Renaissance in France and Italy, the Siglo de Oro, and early modern
English and German poetry, until with the growth of the Romantic
movement he became unfashionable.
The 21st century has seen a resurgence of scholarly attention to
^ Czigány, Lóránt. "Janus Pannonius". Library of Hungarian Studies.
Retrieved January 19, 2017.
^ Johnston, Patricia A. "Epigrams and
Latin Poetry". Oxford
University Press. Retrieved January 19, 2017.
^ Not necessarily March 1, on account of the habit of celebrating
one's birthday on that day if one had been born during that month: D.
R. Shackleton Bailey, Martial. Epigrams. Edited and translated by D.
R. S. B. (Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press, 1993), vol. I,
p. 1 n. 1.
^ Pliny the Younger, Letters, 3.21
^ Jo-Ann Shelton, As the Romans Did: A Sourcebook in Roman Social
History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 65.
^ Lucci, Joseph M. (2015). "Hidden in Plain Sight:
Martial and the
Greek Epigrammatic Tradition". University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved
January 19, 2017.
Coleman, Kathleen M. (2006). "The Identity of Caesar." In M. Valerii
Martialis Liber Spectaculorum. Edited by Kathleen Coleman, xlv–lxiv.
New York: Oxford Univ. Press.
Fagan, Garrett G. (1999). "A Visit to the Baths with Martial" In
Bathing in Public in the Roman World. Ann Arbor: University of
Fitzgerald, William. (2007). Martial: The World of the Epigram.
Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.
Howell, Peter. (2009). Martial. Ancients in Action. London: Bristol
Leary, Timothy John. (2012). "Modifying
Martial in Nineteenth-Century
Britain." In Expurgating the Classics: Editing Out in Greek and Latin.
Edited by Stephen Harrison and Christopher Stray. London: Bristol
Nisbet, Gideon. (2003). Greek
Epigram in the Roman Empire: Martial’s
Forgotten Rivals. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.
Rimell, Victoria. (2008). Martial’s Rome: Empire and the Ideology of
Epigram. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.
Stanley, Farland. (2014). "Observations on Martial's Imagery of
Provincial Spain." Glotta, 90, 192-215.
Sullivan, John P. (2004). Martial: The Unexpected Classic: A Literary
and Historical Study. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.
Sullivan, John P. (1989). "Martial’s “Witty Conceits”: Some
Technical Observations." Illinois Classical Studies 14.1/2: 185–199.
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Marcus Valerius Martialis
Martial at Perseus Digital Library
Epigrammaton libri (in Latin) at The
Complete Epigrams (in English, 1897 edition) at The Tertullian
Project—actually incomplete: scatological and sexually explicit
material is left untranslated.
Martial Blog—translations from much of the first three books of
Selected Epigrams translated by A. S. Kline
Selected Epigrams translated by Elizabeth Duke
Selected Epigrams in translation at Theatre of Pompey: 2:14; 6:9;
10:51; 11:1; 11:47; 14:29; 14:166
Some of Martial's more risqué Epigrams translated by Joseph S Salemi
Martial by Franklin P Adams
Martial at PoemHunter.com
Martial Quotations at The Quotations Page
Martial I.96, V.41, and X.30; read by Wakefield Foster
Life and Times at eduke.org
Court Poet & Pornographer
Glen Bowersock on
Martial from The New
York Review of Books
* This article incorporates text from a publication now in
the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Martial".
Encyclopædia Britannica. 17 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
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Conflict of the Orders
Pliny the Elder
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Quintus Curtius Rufus
Seneca the Elder
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Dionysius of Halicarnassus
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