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.

Monday, 9 May 2016

Martial Tweets

Audrey Michels is one of the international students who took my friend Jula Wildberger's class in Paris last semester, read and reacted to my Martial, and is now graduating (congratulations!). She's started tweeting him - go read her, she's delicious:


Thursday, 28 April 2016

Martial for Manchildren

It's an unanticipated oddity (though really any translator ought to see it coming) that once 'your' version of such-and-such a text is out there in the world, readers will put it to work for whatever ends they already have in view. Classical texts are particularly worth appropriating, because of the cultural capital they embody - 'the glory that was Greece' and 'the grandeur that was Rome' are the ultimate Top Trumps cards in a long-running game of cultural one-upmanship, in which we're told the world should work a particular way "Because Daddy says so".

One such appropriation comes in a long-running blog I recently found while Googling myself, which is an ingrained vice of mine. I try to make it an occasional habit only, but having an (as far as I know) unique name makes it all too easy. I don't propose to link to the blog in question because I find misogyny icky, but if you're that bothered, you could find it the same way I did.

The blog's author really doesn't like women much, unless they're adoringly subservient to male requirements (and ladies, he's single!). His heart bleeds for absentee fathers who don't pay child support - they're victims of the system:

"Patriarchy has long imposed grotesquely unjust paternity laws on men and treated men as disposable persons."

And you thought patriarchy was all about male privilege? Silly you! "Women have dominated social life (gynocentrism) for as long as humanity has existed": patriarchy is just us men being bullied into working extra-hard for them! Feminists are the shock-troopers of the occupation - you have to sign the SCUM Manifesto before they let you in their treehouse. But the whole history of civilisation, since we came down from the trees and probably before, is a female plot to grab our stuff!

(I am not kidding; he says all these things.)

What's Martial doing there? What am I doing there? It's Martial 12.20, or Octavian's alleged epigram within that epigram:

Because Antony fucks Glaphyra, Fulvia has passed sentence of punishment
on me: I in turn have to fuck her.
Me, fuck Fulvia? What if Manius begged me
to bugger him? Would I? I don’t think so, not in my right mind.
“Fuck me, or it’s war between us,” she says. But how could life itself
be dearer to me than than my cock? Let the trumpets sound!

The blogger has tweaked it a little, with an eye on the Latin original (which he includes), but I'm there in the credits as his source. Eek. What's his point? That Fulvia was a "female tyrant" who,

"if Octavian, the future Caesar Augustus, hadn’t rejected her sexual tyranny, may well have become effectively the supreme ruler of the Roman Empire."

History must thank Octavian for keeping it in his tunic, and the good men of Rome for "rally[ing] to Octavian’s courageous sexual rejection" of her sexual reign of terror. Bros before hoes! Fulvia treated her husbands awfully - we can only guess just how awfully:

"While married to Fulvia, Antony had a variety of mistresses. Men suffering from dominant and abusive wives commonly seek warm, receptive, loving embraces in bed with mistresses.

"Fulvia was cruel, greedy, and bloodthirsty. The historical record doesn’t specifically mention Fulvia engaging in domestic violence against Antony. Women’s domestic violence against men is also scarcely acknowledge [sic] today." 

There's all the proof you need - women are bitches, always have been, and men must unite to save the world from them. The price of masculine freedom is eternal vigilance - the Republic had only been granted a temporary reprieve:

"Fulvia hadn’t become supreme tyrant of the Roman Empire. But the Roman culture that accepted the demands of the Sabine women [he's blogged about that] and believed unquestioningly Lucretia’s claim of rape [that too - women lie about it all the time] permitted Fulvia’s rise to power. That same culture implied the death of the Roman Republic."
 O tempora, o mores - my Martial and I feel quite sullied.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Guest Post: Alex Humm, Martial: the Movie

From the mighty hand of Alex Humm, a first-year student in my Martial seminar, and written for the creative-writing exercise that brought you Gotham's Martial:

Martial’s Rome: The Movie Documentary Drama Opera

(Fade into a panning shot across the Roman Forum from the Palatine Hill. The forum appears to be full of people. A heavy bass drum beat can be heard. It sounds slow and ominous)
You Romans. You believe you live in a civilised age. The most civilised age to date. Your men, strong. Your women, pure.
(The panning shot ends facing our Hero atop the Palatine Hill, Martial. He is blonde, obviously very muscled underneath his toga. He has a sly smile on)
Oh my sweet children, could you be anymore wrong.
(A bright flash transitions to Martial, walking through the forum towards the camera which keeps a consistent metre away from him. He parts the crowd as he walks. Uptown Funk by Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars plays)
(To camera) My name is Marcus Valerius Martialis, but you can call me Martial for short. I’m not rich, I’m not posh, if I had to call myself anything, it’d be modest. Originally from Hispania, but a Roman through and through. I like long walks to the temple of Venus, and most of all, gossip. Forget the Spectacles, this is my new Magnum Opus.
(Jump cut to Martial laying in front of the temple of Saturn)
I’m here to tell you everything, absolutely everything that goes on behind closed doors in our great capital of Roma. And if you think that’ll offend you, don’t watch it. And if you still watch it, don’t complain about it.
(Text appears on a black background)
From the critically acclaimed book series ‘Epigrams’
(Cut to Martial in the slums of Rome)
From the smelly, dirty poor people. I mean, Plebs
(Cut to Martial, once again on the Palatine Hill, in front of an ornate door with a laurel tree either side of him)
To the positively stinking rich and powerful elite
(On a black background)
Written, Directed and Produced by Rome’s most eminent writer ever, Martial.
(Cut to a close up of Martial)
Did you hear about that lady down the road?
(The camera spins 180 degrees to an unidentified Roman)
Which lady?
(Back to Martial)
The one with the black hair
(Back to Roman)
Oh yeah, what about her?
(Back to Martial)
Totally dyes it
(Back to Roman)
I knew it! No-one can have hair that Raven black at her age!
(Cut to Martial, being fed grapes by a servant)
See all the lesbian antics, adultery, lying, stealing and cheating. And if you’re lucky, I’ll even put in proper sex scenes.
(Cut to a wide shot of Martial in a bar, surrounded by people chattering and gossiping)
Someone says: Hey, did you hear about Domitian? Apparently he was seen in the Argiletum!
(Camera zooms in on Martial’s horrified face)
That must all be lies, he is the emperor and is above all reproach.
(Martial turns his head to a camera next to him)
Even I know where to draw the line, I ain’t getting exiled! The country is boring as shit!
(On a black background)
Coming AD 105, Martial’s Rome: The Movie Documentary Drama Opera. All characters appearing in this work could, maybe be fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. Probably.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Gotham's Martial

I set a creative-writing exercise for my first-year Martial seminar today, but then ended up thinking it'd only be fair if I made myself have a go at it as well. The following came to me on the walk into work, and was a welcome distraction from proper work I should have been doing this afternoon instead. It mashes up Martial with a modern pop-cultural icon, and the students laughed in all the right places:

Gotham’s Martial

The night brings a cool breeze to the terrace of the Villa Martialis, perched high above the City on the Janiculan ridge.[1] The slaves are sweeping up the remains of this evening’s dinner – just a few close friends for once. It would not do for Julius Martialis, playboy billionaire, to dine alone or in anything less than excellent style. Little feathers of figpeckers cooked in pepper jostle with crumbs of couscous, Picene olives, and a stray slice of Lucanian sausage, sticky with porridge.[2] The dogs will eat well tonight. My own hunger is not so easily sated. I descend the hidden stair. Only Alfenus knows of it; my faithful butler. He guards my secret. I emerge into the cave, kick off the red slippers, shed the fistful of rings and purple-edged toga – the costume of the carefree young aristocrat. Julius Martialis is a name honoured in the rolls of our patrician order, but the public man is the disguise; he is a hollow shell that I wear. Naked, I see myself in the copper mirror only for a moment. Then I don my other mask. It is time.
As Marcus Valerius, I descend into the City. A city slowly dying, choking on the cruelty and hypocrisy of its masters. I have studied its crimes and now I turn them against their perpetrators. A dark alley; callous laughter and the smell of urine. I reach beneath my threadbare toga to the utility belt. The little scroll of papyrus is swiftly posted up –  

Tongilianus, mightn’t people think you’ve torched your own house? [3] 

and I slip back into the shadows, taking a circuitous route by the Tiburtine Column as I make for my dead-letter drop on the Esquiline. The cobbles of the steep climb from the Subura are filthy and run with moisture but my feet are sure.[4] I lift the loose paver and it’s there – Rufus has come through for me again. Fresh dirt on the man at the top, the kingpin. Domitian squats atop his empire of crime, perched obscenely like some ungainly bird from farthest Arctic poles. He owns this City; its police and army are in his pocket. His word is law. Gordonius is a good urban prefect, he shares my anger but can do nothing; the law confines him. I do what he can’t.

Another alley, another poster – Apicius, rumour has it you’re bad-mouthing.[5]

Nothing on Domitian; not yet. I must play the long game. ‘Martial’ the cute satirist butters him up: Lord and God; Censor-in-Chief; Rome has you to thank because her morals are clean.[6] When I do come for him, I will come with every weapon of satire at my disposal. Rufus – the first Rufus – will be avenged. Puer Mirabilis, I called him: my Boy Wonder… until Cappadocia.[7] A sudden illness, they said, these things happen; but I knew. Another bears the name now. He is a good soldier. He honours me. I will not fail him again. And if I fall, another will take my place. There are rumours of a new crimefighter from Aquinum: Juvenal, they are calling him. Like me, he works alone.
Fifteen years now since I began my war. The shock news from Spain: my parents dead; and then Erotion. So young; so brilliant. Her eyes missed nothing. This girl, father Fronto and mother Flacilla, I commit to your care…[8] Five years old and the message could not have been plainer. A man in your position has so much to lose. Think of your family, your clan. You have  people who care about you. We can get to them any time. And it was then I knew I had to assume the mask – the mask of satire. My persona protects those close to me. As ‘Martial’, I can do what Julius Martialis never could. I slip invisibly into the great houses of my enemies, men who would bow to me at the emperor’s court but who cannot see past the thin, worn toga of a sleep-deprived client. And everywhere I gather my evidence: Galla put seven husbands in the ground, and then she married you, Picentinus; I guess she wants to follow them.[9]
Fifteen years since I found the cave beneath the library of the villa, and realised what I had to become:

My parents are dead; Erotion is dead; Julius is dead. I must disguise my terror. Criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot. My disguise must strike terror. I shall become a creature. I shall become a satirist.

I move silently into the Forum of Caesar, reach for another little scroll:

You send presents to old folks and widows, Gargilianus, and for that you want me to call you a big benefactor?[10]

Something tells me to stop with the first couplet. I don’t listen to it. And then I am away into the shadows. The torchlight is gone and the dark night returns.

[1] 4.64.
[2] 2.37; Xenia 5, 35-6.
[3] 3.52.
[4] 5.22.
[5] 3.80.
[6] 6.4.
[7] 6.85.
[8] 5.34.
[9] 9.78.
[10] 4.56