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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Caskie Harrison (1848–1902)

By Martial (c. 40–c. 104 A.D.)

MARTIAL (Marcus Valerius Martialis), the world’s epigrammatist, was, like Seneca and Quintilian, a Spanish Latin. Born at Bilbilis about A.D. 40, he probably came to Rome in 63; but we first individualize him about 79. He lived in Rome for nearly thirty-five years, publishing epigrams, book after book and edition after edition, doing hack-work in his own line for those who had the money to buy but not the wit to produce, and plagiarized by those who lacked both the wit and the money; reading his last good thing to his own circle, from which he could not always exclude poachers on his preserves, and lending a courteous or a politic patience to the long-winded recitations of new aspirants; patronized in various more or less substantial ways by the Emperor and sundry men of wealth, influence, and position, on whom he pulled all the strings of fulsome flattery and importunate appeal; adjusting himself to the privileges and expectancies of Rome’s miscellaneous “upper ten” in private and public resorts: solacing his better nature with the contact and esteem of the best authors of the day. Bored with the “fuss and feathers” of town life, and yearning for the lost or imagined happiness of his native place, he would from time to time fly to his Nomentane cottage or make trips into the provinces, only to be disenchanted by rustic monotony and depressed by the lack of urban occupations and diversions. His works, and his life as there sketched, expose the times and their representative men at their best and at their worst. This delineation gives to his writings an importance even greater than that due to his general pre-eminence as the one poet of his age, or to the special supremacy of his epigrams as such. His rating as a poet has indeed been questioned, and his restriction of the epigram deplored; but no one can question his portraiture of the Roman Empire at the turn of its troubled tide.

Returning to Spain early in Trajan’s reign, he died; and his death is noted with sincere feeling by the younger Pliny, whose recognition must to a certain degree offset our repugnance to some of Martial’s acknowledged characteristics. Martial was a man of many personal attractions: he was essentially sympathetic and true, loving nature and children; his manners were genial, and his education was finished; his acute observation was matched by his versatile wit; in an age of artifice, his style was as natural as his disposition was fair and generous. All these qualities are detected in his works, although his time demanded the general repression or the prudent display of such qualities by one whose livelihood must depend on patronage,—an inevitable professionalism that perhaps fully explains, not only his obsequiousness, but also his obscenity. Martial was a predestined gentleman and scholar, forced by his profession into a trimmer and a dependent: a man of stronger character might have refused to live such a life even at the cost of his vocation and its aptitudes; but Martial was a man of his own world.

Whether Martial was married, and how many times, it is hard to determine: he is his only witness, and his testimony is too indirect to be unquestionable; at any rate, he seems to have had no children. His pecuniary condition is equally doubtful: he credits himself with possessions adequate to comfort only as a basis for protestations of discomfort; but we know how time and circumstances alter one’s standards of worldly contentment. Even when Martial speaks in the first person, we cannot be sure it is not the “professional,” instead of the individual, first person,—the vicarious and anonymous first person of the myriad public whose hints he worked up into effective mottoes, valentines, and lampoons, and for whose holiday gifts he devised appropriate companion pieces of verse.

Martial’s poems—fifteen books, containing about sixteen hundred numbers in several measures—are epigrams of different kinds. The ‘Liber Spectaculorum’ (The Show Book) merely depicts the marvels of the “greatest shows on earth,” while eulogizing the generosity of the emperors who provided them. The ‘Xenia’ (“friendly gifts”) and ‘Apophoreta’ (“things to take away with you”) are couplets to label or convoy presents, whose enumeration includes an inventory of Flavian dietetics, costume, furniture, and bric-à-brac. The other twelve books are epigrams of the standard type; a kind illustrated indeed by the Greeks, but developed and fixed by the Romans from Catullus down, Martial being the perpetual exemplar of its possibilities.

Besides some lapses of taste, whereby the fatal facility of oversmartness sometimes leads to contaminating tender or lofty sentiments by untimely pleasantry, Martial is justly condemned by the modern world for the two blemishes which have been already specified. How far he really felt his obsequiousness and his obscenity to be compromises of his dignity, and how far his life was cleaner than his page, we cannot tell: he was a client of Domitian’s day, but he had enjoyed the countenance of Pliny. In justice to Martial’s memory, it must be said that only about one-fifth of his epigrams are really offensive.

The reign of Domitian was a reaction within a reaction, characterized by the power and the impotence of wealth and its cheap imitations. It was an age of fads and nostrums: sincere, as the galvanizing of dead philosophies; affected, as the vicarious intellectualism or the vicarious athleticism of hired thinkers and hired gladiators. It was an age of forgotten fundamentals, with no enthusiasm except for practical advantage, with public spirit aped only in mutual admiration. Its art and literature had no creativeness and no responsibility; form and copy being ideals, and point demanding the highest season for its pungency, while the stage and the arena were scenes of filth or brutality. Its religion was either agnostic paganism or various novel sentimentalities. Its social functions were chiefly heterogeneous gatherings of a flotsam and jetsam assemblage of parvenus, where acquaintance was accidental and multitudinous isolation was the rule. The incongruities of the day afforded matchless targets for our poet’s wit, many of them unfortunately not suited to modern light. Yet other ages of the world have indisputably exhibited in their own forms one or another of the features familiarized to us by Martial.

Martial divides with Juvenal the right to represent this period; but the division is not equal. The serious purpose of the satirist, even more than the purely impersonal attitude of the historian, leads him to emphasize unduly circumstances of perhaps great momentary importance, but of no ultimate or typical pertinence. On the other hand, the satirist and the historian are apt to neglect or overlook many aspects of contemporary life because these seem insignificant as regards any particular aim or tendency; whereas trifles are often the best exhibits of the actual offhand life, as distinguished from the professed principles and practice of the time. Hence Martial’s epigrams have been well called by Merivale “the quintessence of the Flavian epoch.” The epigrammatist has no mission to fulfill; and the form as well as the volume of his works enables him to touch every aspect of life into the boldest relief. Especially interesting is the modernness of these touches; and it would startle a stranger to see how slight an adaptation or perversion of an epigram or a line or a word produces anticipatory echoes of present-day experiences, in their extremest or most peculiar features.

Generally speaking, the Romans were humorous after the dry kind, while the Greeks were witty; but Greek comedy and epigram are as humorous as those of any nation, and Martial vindicates the Roman capacity for triumphant wit—a wit that shows all the colors of all the nationalities. The wit of America, of France, of Ireland, cross and blend with each other in Martial’s epigrams; and even travesties like the American mockery of Hebrew or negro idiosyncrasies find illustration. Puns, parodies, paradoxes, refrains, antitheses, alliterations, echoes and surprises of all sorts are there, with some curious antetypes of modern slang, of present provincial or proverbial usages, and even of some points of recent comic songs. In the versions here appended, literalness has been sacrificed to spirit; the characteristic features of the original have been preserved in a modern countenance and expression. In the small space at command, preference has been given to our poet’s wit rather than his other qualities, as being the special characteristic of himself and of the epigram; though the omission of other specimens is a sacrifice of his dues.

The only notable edition of Martial is Friedländer’s with German notes, the school manuals being inadequate and unsympathetic. There is no great translation, the French renderings in prose and verse being the best complete reproduction; there are admirable versions of individual epigrams in all the modern languages. Sellar’s monographs in the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica’ and his ‘Selections from Martial’ give perhaps the best brief estimate of the poet in our tongue.