Thursday, 21 December 2017

Saturnalia — it's all about the kids

With Martial, let us once again experience the magic of this winter wonderland through the wide eyes of a child:
Where the gate drips with rain next to Agrippa's portico and the stone is slippery-wet from the constant runoff, a water-flow heavy with winter ice fell upon the neck of a boy who was passing under the dripping roofs; and when it had performed its brutal execution on the poor child, the fragile dagger melted away in the still-warm wound. Does Fortune place no limit on her own cruelty? What place is safe from Death, when waters turn cutthroat? (4.18)
This touching scene from ancient Rome's Gashlycrumb Tinies is rich in geolocationali cues: the icicle forms under the leaking Aqua Virgo,  built to feed the Baths and Stagnum of Agrippa (a shallow artificial lake used for mock sea-battles and such) on the Campus Martius. Rising in marshland to the east and running below ground till it curved into the city from the north, it still flows (following papal restoration in the 1450s) and feeds some of Rome's greatest tourist attractions — the Trevi Fountain and the Bernini waterworks of Piazza Navona. The arched urban section has been buried by centuries of sediment: part can be seen in Via del Nazzareno, and more is now brilliantly showcased in the basement of Rome's new La Rinascente department store, a great coffee stop.

Martial's boy child is impaled at a spot where the Virgo crossed the Via Lata — the final, urban stretch of the Via Flaminia, Rome's great north road. Today it is the main shopping street, Via del Corso, running straight as a die from Piazza Venezia to Piazza del Popolo. The arch on which the Virgo crossed Via Lata had been remodelled by the Emperor Claudius as a monument to his victory in Britain in AD 43; the new arch seems to be trailed on coins issued AD 46-7 but was only dedicated in 51/2, perhaps (Anthony Barrett's suggestion) as the culmination of a wider Claudian overhaul of the Virgo. All trace of it had vanished by the Middle Ages but bits and pieces were found (and in the usual way, mostly promptly lost) during demolitions and excavations in 1562, 1641, and possibly 1869. We can thus say with certainty that it crossed the modern-day Corso at the southern end of Piazza de Sciarra, where Via del Caravita comes in from the Pantheon side. There's a kiosk there now.

As Sven Lorenz noted (2004) in one of the most important articles published on Martial, 'Waterscape with Black and White' (AJP 125: 255-78), there is a lot of water in Martial, Book 4 — water, and black and white things (the white including snow). Water imagery already had strong metapoetic connotations (Callimachus), and Lorenz pushes (boldly at the time) for a reading of Book 4 as complexly intratextual — a work that takes itself seriously as literature and invites its readers to enjoy it as more than the sum of its 98 small parts.

One internal echo I'm not the first to note (observed in passing by Rosario Moreno Soldevila in her voluminous Brill commentary) is similarity of description between 4.18 and 4.3, part of an opening sequence praising Domitian as a ruler who combines enlightened patronage of culture with tough military leadership (the emperor had assumed the title 'Germanicus' a few years previously for his victories over the Chatti). His campaigns in the grim north have made him impervious to cold — "He laughs off waters set hard by grasping frost". This cumbersome four-word periphrase for 'ice' (concretas pigro frigore...aquas  is very like 4.18's (hiberno praegravis unda gelu). Both poems are eight lines long (no big deal) and line 7 of each is a rhetorical question (perhaps more significant).

But what do we DO with that? Domitian's so tough and manly, such a good soldier for Rome, he shrugs off bad weather that can literally kill the weak and unwary? Or, Domitian laughs at (ridet) what kills small kids? Back in the day, John Garthwaite had argued for finding anti-Domitianic political subtext in Martial's intratextual connections; Lorenz though he was whistling in the dark; here the ambiguity may tempt you, if you're that kind of reader. A mediocre princeps' self-glorification, for conquests in the frozen north, rains icy death on unwitting posterity: in talking to and across each other, are 4.3 and 4.18 (and why stop there?) telling us something about the staying power of Domitian's own achievements? Echoes, juxtapositions, potential cross-connections — these characteristic features of Martial's bookmaking technique proliferate possibilities for meaning, even as they veil their egocentricity coy author in ambiguity.

Domitian's boy is dead, too — but as the son of a God, he gets to play snowballs in heaven (4.3.7-8). Peace and goodwill, all.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

A question to Martial's readers: how much of it is true?

Serious question - I would like to know what people think.

As an academic as well as a translator, I'm reasonably well up on bits and pieces of the scholarship on Martial and on ancient Latin satire generally. Scholars long ago took on board the idea that satire is a kind of performance (perhaps of masculinity), and that the speaking "I" presented by satirical texts is a character, a mask, or, to give 'mask' its Latin name, a persona. I am personally comfortable with, and in, this idea.

From the 1990s onward, in the wake of important work by (in particular) Susanna Braund pushed this idea forward and explored new implications. Looking at Juvenal, Braund observed that the "I"s presented in the various Satires are not just mutually inconsistent but self-undermining. The satirical persona, in other words, was among other things a focus of humour -- a running joke that the satirist's more clued-up readers were in on.

This is an idea that seems to work for Martial wonderfully well, in all sorts of ways. Older scholarship got hung up on questions like, Is Martial married? to which the answer now would probably be, If it works for the joke in that poem; but also perhaps, Yes and no, and his inability to pin himself to a position is part of what makes him deliberately unreliable and thus good comic value (perpetually, piquantly, pleasantly surprising). In his statements of personal taste and principle, Martial is consistent only insofar as he consistently undermines what he has said or will say somewhere else...

But is that all there is to him? What do you find in Martial (whether you take 'Martial' to mean the text or the person) that strikes you as real, not just some witty literary game of masks? Is his 'Rome' a mere La-La Land or  LA Story, or is it the real deal (to the extent that we can speak of such a storied place being real)? His anecdotes, his friendships -- how really real do you take it all to be?

I'd gratefully welcome comments and promise to reply to them.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Martial's Aventine (with pictures)

Martial is not a big fan of hills. Being on top of them, yes; climbing them, no. At 7.73 he complains about a wealthy patron — a really big name (Maximus) — who has houses on the Aventine and the Esquiline (plus a place on Senate Street, the Vicus Patricius) but can never be found at any of them. Earlier at 5.22 we find him toiling up the Esquiline to pay his respects to Paulus:

The cobbles are dirty, the steps are never dry; it's next to impossible to cut past the long mule-trains, and the marble blocks you see being dragged with lots of ropes.

Clearly lots of construction going on in this high-end neighbourhood; Rome's wealthy and well-connected (like Martial's best buddy Julius M.) always favoured the hills. Up in the breeze, above the stink and the mosquitoes, the historic hilltops also connected their occupants to the city's oldest history. And no, Paulus wasn't in:

And I'm exhausted! This is what I get for my wasted effort and my drenched toga. It'd hardly have been worth all that if I had caught you in.
At 12.18, freshly retired to his native Bilbilis in Spain (where as the reader already knows, he'll soon find himself bored to tears), Martial gleefully imagines his satirical successor Juvenal sweltering as he takes over his friend's old city beat:
I guess right now, Juvenal, you're wandering restless through the yelling Subura, or trudging up the hill of our lady Diana; your sweaty toga flaps as you haunt the thresholds of the mighty, and the Greater and Lesser Caelian wear you out.
(If the Caelian has more than one 'bit', so too does the Aventine; a spur of it is now the tranquil neighbourhood of San Saba and would these days be regarded as a separate hill. Everyone always agreed Rome had seven hills; seven is a good number: they just couldn't agree on which seven they were).

The Aventine was (mytho-)historically where the plebs seceded to, in that early bit of Livy when it still lay outside the city limits set by Romulus; thereafter it gentrified hand over fist. It is Diana's hill because she had a temple there, perhaps (why not?) round about the modern Piazza di Diana.

Martial is probably imagining sweaty Juvenal coming at the hill from the historic centre — the obvious route from the Forum would take you through or past the Forum Boarium, between the river and the starting-gate end of the Circus Maximus, then perhaps up the Clivus Publicius. The modern road that climbs past the municipal rose garden takes the Clivus' name and may well share its route; follow it up to the Giardino degli Aranci (famous for its view across the city) and you could easily be walking in Martial's and Juvenal's footsteps.

From this Garden of the Orange-Trees, the classically interested pedestrian can now — for the first time in many years — descend to the Tiber on a switchback path through reopened public space in which traces of the hill's densely stacked ancient occupation are plain to see.

Or ascend that way and head back into town by the Clivus; unlike Martial, you can cut across the Circus Maximus rather than having to go around.

The gates are open till dusk.

Friday, 2 June 2017

By request: Martial 12.61


This one is for Mym (@LiberalDespot):

You’re afraid I might write a poem about you, Ligurra – something sharp and snappy. And you’re keen to have people think you’re worth it. But you’ve no cause to worry (you wish!). Libyan lions roar at bulls – they don’t maul butterflies. My advice? If you’re desperate for a write-up, seek out some wino poet under a  soot-darkened arch, the kind who writes with a lump of charcoal or a clod of chalk, whose poems people read while they’re shitting. Be a marked man, but I’m not marking you.


Brief notes

The 'marked man' bit in the final line:

frons haec stigmate non meo notanda est.

Literally (ish), "This brow shouldn't be /doesn't deserve to be marked by my brand." A runaway slave who was recaptured was branded on the forehead as a permanent and unconcealable mark of recognition. Martial is keeping his irons hot for the serious bad boys and girls; Ligurra's lightweight, 'butterfly' sins aren't nearly as badass as he would like to think.

Libyan lions: There used to be a distinct kind of North African as opposed to Sub-Saharan lion, and these 'Barbary Lions' were the ones Romans typically saw in beast-fights in the arena.

After doing this translation (and yes I should have been marking) I found that Robert Louis Stevenson had done a rather fine version into rhyming couplets:

You fear, Ligurra – above all, you long –
That I should smite you with a stinging song.
This dreadful honour you both fear and hope –
Both all in vain: you fall below my scope.
The Lybian lion tears the roaring bull,
He does not harm the midge along the pool.
Lo! if so close this stands in your regard,
From some blind tap fish forth a drunken bard,
Who shall with charcoal, on the privy wall,
Immortalise your name for once and all.
Found at 

Friday, 26 May 2017

Smoothly does it: Martial 6.56


You've leg-hair like boar bristles; your chest's a rug: but do you think it fools the gossips, Charidemus? Take it from me and lose the body hair -- all of it. Tell everyone you wax your bum. "Whatever for?" You know they're talking -- lots. Make them think you're only taking it up the arse.

-Martial's hierarchy of sexual shame strikes again (see Sapsford)...

Monday, 22 May 2017

Kiss with confidence, bid with none: Martial 6.66


There was this girl the other day -- not so great a reputation, the kind who sit out in the depths of Subura -- and auctioneer Gellius was trying to sell her off. For the longest time the bids were pitiful, so he took it into his head to show everyone she was clean. So he grabbed hold of her (she was having none of it) and kissed her -- twice, three, four times. What to know what good it did him? A guy who was just then bidding six hundred, pulled out.

This poem relies on the motif of the impure mouth, os impurum, with which regular readers will be all too familiar. We don't want to know where that mouth has been.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Pontellianus and Cascellius: the sound of silence


Why don't I send you my little books, Pontilianus? I don't want you sending me yours.


Cascellius can count his sixty years. So he must have a brain; when will he learn to talk?

Friday, 12 May 2017

Shaming a slut, cheating a widow


You don't say no to anyone, Thais; but if that doesn't embarrass you, this at least should: you don't say no to anything.


Crispus didn't leave his wife a penny in his will, Faustinus. 'So who got it all?' He did.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Three from book One

These are three I worked up the other day while I was waiting to pick someone up:



Think it's yesterday's wine Acerra stinks of? You're wrong; he always drinks till dawn.


I don't like you, Sabidius, and I can't say why. All I can say is: I really don't.


Gellia's lost her father. Sheds no tears, when alone; in company, weeps buckets on cue. It's not mourning if you're fishing for compliments, Gellia: real grief happens off-stage.

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.