For my March 2014 diary, go here.

Diary - April 2014

The poet Martial was a kid when Caligula was emperor of Rome. Later he got support from the emperor Domitian. So Martial was an expert on decadence and depravity — and his work shows it.

He's famous for short, snappy, perfectly structured poems with surprise endings. People called them 'epigrams'.

But he's also infamous - because many of those epigrams are rude or even obscene. The Loeb Classical Library edition of his work says:

No account of the work of Martial would be complete without two features being touched upon which have darkened his fame, namely his indecency, and his adulation of Domitian. With regard to the first, however, of the 1171 epigrams in the first twelve books, those open to objection do not exceed a fourth, and if the 350 epigrams in Books XIII and XIV be included, the proportion is still smaller. On the other hand, of the objectionable epigrams the greater part are indescribably foul.
Here's one that's not indescribably foul:

Praedia solus habes et solus, Candide, nummos,
    aurea solus habes, murrina solus habes,
Massica solus habes et Opimi Caecuba solus,
    et cor solus habes, solus et ingenium
omnia solus habes — hoc me puta velle negare! —
    uxorem sed habes, Candide, cum populo.

You don't need to know Latin — I sure don't — to appreciate the tight structure. Almost every line has "solus habes" as its 2nd and 3rd words! This means "only you have" — and the poems is about possessiveness, and arrogance.

Here's a decent translation by A. S. Kline:

Only you have land, then, Candidus,
Gold plate, cash, and porcelain, only you,
Massic or Caecuban wine of famous vintage,
only you — judgement and wit, only you.
You have it all — well say I don't deny it —
But everyone has your wife, along with you.
A put-down, with a zinger at the end — typical Martial.

Here's another, also translated by Kline:

Chloe, I could live without your face,
without your neck, and hands, and legs
without your breasts, and ass, and hips,
and Chloe, not to labour over details,
I could live without the whole of you.

But now maybe you want to read an "indescribably foul" one, to see how bad they get! Well, you're not getting it here. Try this:

This is how to get people to read poetry.

Personally I find many of Martial's poems annoying... but it's very interesting to see that art designed to shock is not new to the 20th century. Are we, like the Roman Empire of Martial's day (roughly 40-100 AD), a civilization that's become decadent?

On a brighter note, Martial was a jolly fellow, good to his friends, and he spent a lot of time living out in the countryside. This gives the flavor of it:

These, my dearest Martialis, are
the things that bring a happy life:
wealth left to you, not laboured for;
rich land, an ever-glowing hearth;
no law, light business, and a quiet mind;
a healthy body, gentlemanly powers;
a wise simplicity, friends not unlike;
good company, a table without art;
nights carefree, yet no drunkenness;
a bed that's modest, true, and yet not cold;
sleep that makes the hours of darkness brief:
the need to be yourself, and nothing more;
not fearing your last day, not wishing it.

Only the remark that inherited wealth makes for true happiness makes this outdated. Roman society, unlike ours, was openly aristocratic, with social equality not even a goal.

The photo above was taken by someone named Victor Manuel, who put it on WikiCommons. It shows a bronze bust of Martial created by the Spanish artist Juan Cruz Melero (1910-1986).

Over on Google+, Annarita Ruberto clarifies:

The novelty of Marco Valerio Marziale consists in the elimination of mythology, considered false and far-fetched. The aim of his poem is to totally take inspiration from reality.

(I studied Latin and Greek for five years before graduating in Physics;)).

and then:
With Marziale we have the affirmation of the epigram as a literary device: before him, the epigram, dating back to arcaic Greek age, was essentially a commemorative function and was used to positively remember a thing or a person (and in fact the word "epigram" comes from the greek and means "inscription" from epigraphein "to write on &mdas; inscribe"); but thanks to his work it, while retaining its brevity, deals with new issues such as parody, satire, politics and eroticism.

From the stylistic point of view, Marziale opposes the mobility of the epigram both to the epic genre and to Greek tragedy, which through their famous and "heavy" themes kept away from everyday reality. Constant is in fact, in his verses, the literary controversy, often used to defend against those who considered poorly valid (from the artistic point of view) the epigrammatic kind, but also against those who accused him of being aggressive or obscene.

The language he uses is colloquial and everyday. His constant realism, however, allows him to develop a rich language by introducing in literature many terms and phrases that had never before found a place. He is able, finally, to demonstrate great flexibility in alternating elegant and sophisticated phrases with indecent and often vernacular sentences..

For my May 2014 diary, go here.

© 2014 John Baez