Monday, 30 January 2017

'My' Martial on OSEO

My translation from Martial is now lowering the tone of Oxford Scholarly Editions Online!

There's a brief news item about it, and I've written them a blog post which should be up soon. :-)

EDITED: blog is now up!

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Guest post: Emily Wigston

This guest post was written for a creative-writing exercise by one of my first-year students, the redoubtable Emily Wigston, who has kindly granted me permission to reproduce it. Emily fearlessly tears down the bad-boy ego of the predatory male poet (and his translators)...

A young girl catches my eye over the convivium, she wasn’t too bad looking. Although not quite as beautiful as my young Diadumenus… Now that could be a mix worth drinking this overly watered wine for.

At this point Martial burped, and thought of a joke about Caecilianus.       

I smile at this thought, tasting my own stale and slightly bitter breath, and I reach for the angry little scroll that will transform into my next naughty little book. Whilst doing this, I winked over to her. She winked and giggled back. Saucy fuck, how repellent, I bet she gives it up to everyone. Perhaps she is one of those professional cock-sucking bitches?I caught my reflection in a polished pewter cup of my host. How poor – not even silver – how insulting. I thought of a new little poem. I admired my hanging jawline in the distorted reflection. What a slut to find me so attractive, that little Lesbia has no idea what my cock even looks like. But should she? There are a few positions that don’t require her to see anything. My mind wandered and I drank more winey-water. So does my target across the room. I watched as she leant over and whispered into a serving girl’s ear next to her, before planting kisses all over the slave’s neck, spilling her wine as she does so. I like her even more, drunk girls are more willing to do things that they will pretend to be too chaste for when sober. There are no Pallases here. I see the slut stand up, robes bunching in distracting places. Come here to me, my Venus, I thought. The embarrassing woman stands up and starts walking towards me, and her slave girl follows. Suddenly realising the implications of two figures walking towards me, I get all excited – both of me does. I rearrange myself and my tunic, checking my underarms for smell. It was no Baiae, but Diadumenus didn’t seem to mind earlier. They come closer, and I pose in a way that makes me look good. We make eye contact as she gets closer, and closer, and admittedly more attractive as more and more is revealed through her pathetic fabric. She approaches and I smell her perfume, and then, she walks past!
I turn around on my couch and see those two pretty bottoms barely outlined by fabric move away from me. Ah HA! Clever, I thought, they are teasing. Yes this is good! This means they are likely to do the things people pay double for, and then double again to cover up… I follow them out of the Saturnalia feast, it was boring anyway. The male attendants weren’t half as good looking as I would like and expect, and the cloths were far too big…

Whilst thinking about this, I lost sight of them down the corridor. However, the sound of a door shutting didn't escape my clever little ears, so I walked slightly faster than I necessarily would have otherwise but there was no one else here to notice and write something cruel.

I came to the door, cleared my throat and readjusted my ageing robes, (saying a silent curse to my stingy patron as I did so) and went to push the door open. It did not. I heard those saucy minxes giggling together inside. Those sluts had drawn the bolt on me. If they thought this would deter me, they were wrong! I know these games. I know this house, I had performed and fucked here many times. Going back through the atrium, I go around to a barred window that looks into this naughty room.

More giggling, yet with greater intervals now. They must be getting really desperate for me. I call out, and they barely notice me. Lesbias love their audiences. I called again. Let me in! You need not wait any longer, my penis is here! I answered to myself. 

Finally, they look up to me. And laughed. And turned back to each other.

I do not understand what is happening. How could they spend their time on their own? What on earth could they do together? I crane around the bars I was sure neither of them were hiding a cock around their middles. Although it felt like they had stolen mine.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Two short translations (as so often, NSFW)


You never put out, Galla; but when I ask, you always say you will. If you’re going to keep lying, Galla, I’ll start asking you to say ‘no’.
Another poem in the Galla cycle; another of Martial's poems fixating on negare, to say 'no' and turn someone down.


You're licking my girl, not fucking her, and you make out like you're some fucking player. If I catch hold of you, Gargilius — I'll stop your mouth.
 Martial's usual distaste for men who service others orally (cunnilingus equals penetration by the female). His threat of sexual punishment is Catullan.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

A short, jealous one: Martial 3.92

Mind if I take a lover, my wife asks -- just the one?
And shan't I tear his eyes out, Gallus -- just the two?

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Two short, dirty ones

Both from post-watershed Book 3, so no surprises there. I'm seriously contemplating writing a commentary on it.


Sertorius never finishes what he starts. I bet he doesn't come when he fucks.


They're brothers — twins! — but he sucks cock while he licks cunt. You tell me, are they more alike or not?

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Two new translations, plus some ways to lie about dick jokes

New translations! Nothing big or clever, just two versions I worked up this morning at the Honda dealer while they coded me some new keys for the bike. Short ones, then, and on the naughty side:


No way I'll marry Telesina - she's a slut. Then again - Telesina does boys. Okay, I'm in.


Your boy's dick is sore, Naevolus; and so's your arse. I'm no detective, but I know your game.

While I waited, I also flicked through a 1985 selection from Martial in translation by Peter Whigham. Some classicists may know him as the translator of Catullus for the Penguin Classics back in 1966, a version praised by some critics at the time, but on the whole regretted by readers familiar with Catullus on account of an impressionistically loose relation to the text and a slipshod disregard for ancient-world realities such as proper names.

Whigham's archaism-laced Martial (titled Letter to Juvenal) ploughs a roughly similar furrow, except there's no ploughing of furrows... so to speak. No taboo sex, no dirty words, no boy-stuff if it can be helped:

 'To read The Index [Expurgatorius, i.e., the small number of poems excluded from the otherwise complete Bohn translation of the 19th century] is admittedly to flirt with nausea, but the obscenity remains that of the toilet wall. At best, witty; often boring (too often boring in an obcure way); at worst repellent - prurient fixations... Leave [the obscene poems] one one side and his poetic ipmulse seems unaffected.'
 Sexy is boring! Pornographically precise is incomprehensibly vague! We best respect the spirit of the poet by ignoring his actual work! These are old pretexts for expurgation; it's mildly entertaining to see them being trotted out as late as the 1980s, and I might come back to Whigham's version of them another time.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Guest post: Leona Dobrescu

This is a guest post by a student I'm lucky enough to have taught this year - Leona Dobrescu. Leona is from Bucharest, in Romania, and I do not know what they teach them in schools there, but it is clearly working. This is an abbreviated version of the essay she wrote for my Martial class. I've never read anything better on Martial by an undergraduate student, or by many postgrads either. Actually, if I'd written this myself, I'd be pretty happy.

SHE IS A FIRST-YEAR STUDENT. Clearly great things can be expected of Leona Dobrescu.

Why do Martial’s books talk about Martial’s books so much?

If on a winter’s night a traveller, a seasoned reader of Borges and Eco, happens upon one of Martial’s little books of epigrams, the greatest surprise awaiting them there is not the smutty language, but the self-referentiality. There is certainly enough material in his fifteen books for an anthologist to devote two solely to poems on poetry, poets, the art of writing epigrams and, most prominently, on Martial himself. This opens some fascinating avenues of interpretation for the postmodern reader, and the key to some interesting recent scholarship on Martial; whether or not such readings are true to the author’s intentions is impossible to say, but also irrelevant.[1] It is the act of reading that ascribes intentionality to a work of literature, and the reader’s choice that decides what the meaning is.[2] We cannot say why ‘Martial’ (either the man, the author, or any of a multitude of first-person voices in his books) chose to write so much on this topic, but we can choose to analyse the effects of this constant metatextual barrage in particular, individual, ways. One reading, which this essay will explore and hopefully prove valid, is that the self-referential epigrams define (and often subvert) the limits of a ‘new’ genre, while also creating an image of an ideal reader and of an always elusive author.
Martial, of course, did not invent the epigram. His audience would have been familiar with Greek predecessors, such as Callimachus and, more recently, Loukillios and Nikarkhos, whose style is much closer to Martial’s own than that of their lofty predecessor. They would be even more likely to associate epigram with Roman authors, and in particular Catullus and the group of Neoteric poets. This last connection is the one Martial himself draws attention to the most, through his repeated claims to be, or to aspire to be, a second Catullus.[3] However, no previous author seems to have dedicated their entire career to this smallest of genres, nor, interestingly, does any book of epigrams survive with the same structural variety (even the Milan papyrus is arranged thematically, like the anthologies).[4] Martial’s books, on the other hand, allow new meanings to emerge through the juxtaposition of themes and characters; the reader is invited to create associations between consecutive epigrams, and to interpret, for instance, the invective against the censorious Cornelius at 1.35 as a counterpart to the moralising voice of the previous poem, condemning Lesbia for her openly whorish behaviour.[5] This interpretation is not, however, obligatory, and it is in this polyphony of meanings that Martial’s originality lies, and therefore this strategy of variatio, across large books made up of small poems, that the self-referential poems are first and foremost attempting to define – and defend – as art.
This can be seen throughout the twelve numbered books, in a series of epigrams either explicitly or allegorically discussing the heterogeneous design of Martial’s books. Several epigrams comment on the inevitability of quality variation in a lengthy book.[6] These have been associated with the poems about mixing wine, and in particular 1.18, where the admonition against defiling Falernian with Vatican (with poisonous results) appears so soon after the sententious couplet declaring that a book necessarily blends the good, the mediocre and the bad in 1.16.[7] However, Martial adamantly refuses to provide consistent answers to any question: drinking straight wine is also bad, as is mixing it with water.[8] The books are sometimes presented as a feast, and, once again, too fine a gourmand is no better than an excessively frugal diner. Even though the distinction here is between a reader unwilling to appreciate lengthy epigrams and one too keen on biting satire – evidently incommensurable categories – they are still contrasted as opposites through the culinary allegory.[9] Where moderation is recommended, however, there is plenty of room to suspect insincerity: 1.57 declares a preference for women who are not too coy, nor too easy. Interestingly, Martial also calls himself out when he fails to follow his own rule and delivers too many epigrams on one theme, through the voice of Stella; the childish reply (‘Well, if this seems too much to you, Stella, why not on your side give me hare twice over for dinner?’) only brings Stella’s objection into sharper relief.[10]
The effect of all of these contradictory voices is much the same as that of the structural principle they are discussing: they draw the reader into a chaotic environment of epigram, into the tumultuous ‘Rome’ that emerges from these books, while also forcing him to reflect on what he is reading, and on the act of reading itself. He is at the same time frequently told to read the whole book and encouraged to mix and match,[11] or even, if he so chooses, to make a ‘Book I’ of a ‘Book II’ by erasing an iota.[12] The book of epigrams itself is defined as quintessentially eclectic; its variations in quality, length and metre transcend the classical aesthetic principle of unity and harmony, rather than, as it would appear at first sight, simply infringing upon it. ‘The man who tries to vary a single subject in monstrous fashion, is like a painter adding a dolphin to the woods, a boar to the waves,’ says Horace, and Martial presents himself as just such a painter.[13]
The self-referential epigrams, then, are an integral part of Martial’s poetic universe. They structure it and define it; they contradict each other and thereby draw attention to the playful inconsistency of their world. They call into question its reality by forcing the reader to acknowledge the part he plays in this literary spectacle, and the choices he makes as part of the process. Finally, they set up the shadowy figure of ‘Martial’ – ostensibly the eminently accessible author, made famous all over the world by his loving fans, but whose actual voice is lost in the cacophony of competing voices declaiming his poems.                                                                                                                                                

[1] For instance, Fowler 1995 and Holzberg 2004 discuss the entire corpus of Martial’s poetry as a planned whole.
[2] Fowler 2000: 11.
[3] Swann 1998: 48-49.
[4] Fitzgerald 2007: 26.
[5] Rimell 2008: 25-26.
[6] Martial 1.16, 7.81, 7.90.
[7] Fitzgerald 2007: 90; Rimell 2008: 32-34.
[8] For instance, Martial 1.11 and 1.106, respectively.
[9] Martial 10.59, 10.45.
[10] Martial 1.44.
[11] Martial 11.107 and 10.1, 11.16 etc., respectively.
[12] Martial 2.93.
[13] Horace Ars poetica 29-31. Trans. R. Fairclough 1929.